House of Lords
Thursday, 26 June 2008.
The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.
My Lords, our bluetongue control strategy, which was developed with a core group of industry stakeholders, aims to control and contain the disease spread. In conjunction with movement controls under this strategy, vaccination is the only tool available to protect animals from bluetongue. The UK was the first country affected by the outbreak to order vaccines; we ordered some 22.5 million doses and we have recently ordered 13 million more. So far, more than 11 million doses have been made available to keep us in the protection zone.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Defra and the industry have done well in getting to this stage, but I am sure that he will recognise that there is no accurate audit trail and that we do not know the precise number of animals that have been vaccinated to date. Does he agree that there is a strong case for vaccinating all farm livestock, at a cost of about £30 million? Surely that is a better solution than the original Dutch and Belgian voluntary scheme. Losses in Belgium have been calculated to be about £80 million. There is no proactive surveillance in the UK under the present voluntary scheme. Has the time now come for a 100 per cent vaccination policy to swing into action? We must keep out this disease and avoid massive consequential losses.
My Lords, the noble Lord is overegging the situation. If we had gone, as originally was forecast, for the European compulsory scheme, it would have caused massive bureaucracy for our farmers and massive extra cost to them. Along with the industry, we decided to go for the voluntary scheme. So far, in the relevant zones, some 70 to 83 per cent of animals have been vaccinated. Of course, farmers are doing this in the main, so we do not have a precise count, as the noble Lord said. Our aim is to get 100 per cent vaccination, which is the message that we are giving to farmers.
My Lords, first, with the change in the boundaries that was announced yesterday, will cattle be able to go to the Royal Show? Secondly, how can we get the message over to farmers and to veterinary surgeons that all animals must be given the full dose of vaccine in order for it to be effective? You cannot do just a few animals on a farm or, as I heard yesterday, give llamas half the dose because you think that they are smaller than cattle.
My Lords, as the noble Countess knows, sheep and cattle can be vaccinated by farmers. Other ruminants that are susceptible to bluetongue can be vaccinated, but that should be done by a vet on a prescription. Everyone understands the situation. I repeat that the only defence against this disease is vaccination. There has been a massive take-up by farmers and massive co-operation from the industry. I am very grateful for what the noble Lord said about my department, which is working in conjunction with industry. As the 2008 version of bluetongue is probably just around the corner, it is vital that we do not cut any corners relating to the shows at this time of year. I realise that there is a disturbance, but we will have to live with that this year.
My Lords, I am glad that the Minister recognises that there is a particular problem with the movement of stock now that the agricultural show season is on us. Naturally, the restriction of movement causes a lot of confusion. The organisers of the Royal Show told me only yesterday—of course, the changes took place as of yesterday—that they were told early in June that they would be in a protection zone, so they told the exhibitors that early on. Yesterday, they were told that they were in a restriction zone. That has added a lot of confusion; 500 calls came in yesterday saying, “What do we do now?”. Farmers are told that they can still bring the animals if they are blood-tested. This has caused a lot of problems in cattle classes, many of which have been cancelled. Why does Defra make the situation worse and yet more difficult and confused?
My Lords, I am sorry, but I do not accept that. The Royal Show organiser said on “Farming Today” on 24 June:
“Defra are playing it by the rules and doing it exactly right”.
We are not prepared to cut corners for shows. It is as simple as that. We are not making it worse. We were the first country to order the vaccine, for heaven’s sake. No one else did that. The farmers are using the vaccine on a massive scale—the range of figures is between 70 per cent and 83 per cent. Defra is not making this difficult at all. Yesterday, we announced that from tomorrow, 27 June, the protection zone will be extended to Cornwall, including the Isles of Scilly, and the Welsh Assembly Government will declare the current restricted zone in south-east Wales a protection zone, because they are getting their share of the vaccine. All that is progress and good news. There is a problem with some of the shows. People will have to live with that, as we are not prepared to take the risk of having the disease spread in those animals simply because they are moved out of one zone to another when they should not be.
My Lords, in Devon, I, too, have heard much appreciation for the way in which Her Majesty’s Government have responded to this latest threat to livestock farmers. Vaccine is being distributed across the county to all who have applied for it and there is strong encouragement for 100 per cent take-up, given our large population of wild deer, which are also susceptible to infection. However, is the Minister aware that there are concerns about the consequences of vaccination before insemination? This is an unknown factor, on which further work is urgently needed. Can he please give an assurance that such research will be undertaken and responded to as quickly as possible?
My Lords, deer can be dealt with only by a vet; a farmer cannot do it. It is as simple as that. One has to assume that vets are following the rules and understand them. I will certainly take extra advice on what the right reverend Prelate said. Our advice to the industry is: “Don’t hesitate, vaccinate”. If there is a problem with a species that is not sheep or cattle, the vet must deal with it, and one assumes that the vet will follow the rules.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister and his department on a successful campaign, as there has not been an outbreak recently. The outbreaks occur in June and July. What precautions is the department taking to ensure that there are enough Defra staff to deal with outbreaks that could take place in July and August—which might destroy the Minister’s holiday plans? Last weekend, I was up in Northumberland, where we are having an amazing midge season—you get eaten alive—so it will be a real issue this year.
My Lords, currently we have had breakouts at 136 premises. All those relate to last year’s outbreak. We have not had any evidence of a new outbreak either from midges from across the Channel or from midges that have overwintered. However, we are on the cusp—the end of June and early July—when we will pick it up if it is going to happen. There is extra surveillance. I understand from taking advice this morning that there are far more reported cases going to Defra officials and the vets. That means that farmers are doing exactly what we want them to do: checking their animals.
My Lords, the Food Standards Agency was established in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, there was a 19.2 per cent decrease in confirmed reports of food poisoning cases, as monitored by the FSA. Although there has been a small increase in cases since 2005, the Food Standards Agency continues to undertake work to reduce food poisoning.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In doing so, I declare my interest as a small food producer. Does she agree that the Food Standards Agency and local authority environmental health officers should be very much congratulated on the improvements that they have made to small food-producing businesses? In the old days when you got food poisoning, the local caff had caused it. Does she agree that the problem now is that food poisoning is caused within the home, and that much more stress needs to be put on each of us accepting responsibility for our health and avoiding food poisoning by observing the Food Standards Agency’s current campaign?
My Lords, the noble Countess makes an important point, and I thank her very much for her comments about the Food Standards Agency’s work with businesses and the food industry. She is completely correct that it is everyone’s personal responsibility to ensure good food hygiene. The FSA has had a role in providing high quality evidence of and information about good food hygiene. It has a cooking bus—a mobile classroom—that visits schools and community projects, and it has provided materials and training aids to schools. Indeed, educational material on food competency for food skills is part of the framework that it is encouraging schools to undertake. Parents have a very important role to play in teaching their children good food hygiene and how to cook.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that perhaps the Question should also have referred to water poisoning? Given the serious water pollution in some areas, is she satisfied with the testing that various water boards are doing, and will she comment on the present outbreak?
My Lords, the quality of drinking water supplies in England and Wales is the responsibility of the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The FSA is responsible for the safety of bottled water and water used in the production of food. The Drinking Water Inspectorate has been informed about the current incidents in Northampton and Daventry. So far, it believes that there is no need for any serious worry about the quality of the drinking water, which is fine. However, Anglian Water, the local supplier of water, has issued a precautionary notice.
My Lords, why is it not made mandatory for restaurants to publicise on their premises their scoring under the local authority hygiene standards inspection system? The public could then boycott dirty premises. The restaurants could put up the scoring number, letter or whatever next to the little notices that they have on their doors that say “Visa” or “Mastercard”. Then all the world could see.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a useful point. The Food Standards Agency’s line throughout its existence has been to work with business, with great success, to ensure that its food standards hygiene targets are met and that people can eat out in safety.
My Lords, the campaigns for safe food are very welcome, but will the Minister confirm that somewhere in the school curriculum is teaching about safe food and how to prepare it, as there used to be long ago? Will she also say what steps the Food Standards Agency will take after reports that an animal variant of MRSA has entered the food chain?
My Lords, in answer to the first question, I hinted at the important role that schools have to play, and at the importance of the re-emergence of cookery classes. In answer to the noble Baroness’s second question, I say that putting good food hygiene principles into practice will minimise the risk of all food poisoning bacteria, including those resistant to antibiotics. Two organisms that cause hospital-acquired infections have recently been linked to food and food-producing animals. The potential risk is being considered at the moment by cross-government scientific committees, including the Defra Antimicrobial Resistance Co-ordination Group.
My Lords, I suggest that we might like to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because of his knowledge.
My Lords, far be it from me, as a former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, to comment on the past successes of the agency. However, I ask the Minister for her views on the point that she mentioned about the recent upturn in cases of food poisoning after a five-year sequence of decline. As I understand it, this upturn is largely due to campylobacter, which is common in chickens. A possible explanation for this upturn is the increase in consumption of organic chicken. It is known from a number of surveys that organic chicken is more likely than conventionally produced chicken to be infected with campylobacter. Does the Minister agree that consumers should be advised of the additional risk of consuming organic chicken?
My Lords, that is a very interesting question. The FSA is neither for nor against organic food. Evidence does not support any claim that organic food is either safer or more nutritious than conventional food. As far as concerns microbiological safety, evidence does not show that organic food is safer than conventional food. However, the noble Lord is correct to say that the increase is almost entirely due to an increase in campylobacter, which is probably linked to chicken. We are not yet sure about that; research is going on. The key point is that when you are eating chicken you need to ensure that it is cooked thoroughly.
Economy: OECD Report
My Lords, the Government publish two economic and public finance forecasts a year: one in the Budget and one in the Pre-Budget Report. The Government last published their forecast on 12 March 2008. They will publish updated forecasts in the Pre-Budget Report as usual.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that not only the OECD but also the CBI anticipate that over this year and next, which will see the slowest economic growth for 17 years, unemployment will increase by no less than 200,000 and possibly more? Do the Government have any plans to cushion against this possible calamitous increase in unemployment, or will they, like every other Labour Government since the war, leave office with more people unemployed than when they came in?
My Lords, of course the Government are concerned that the world economic downturn has affected the British economy and will lead to a marginal increase in unemployment. The noble Lord is shocked at an increase in 200,000 unemployed, yet he was in a Government under whom there were 3 million unemployed.
My Lords, Ministers are tightening their belts through a freeze on their pay, as the noble Lord will know. That is one action by the Government. The second and more general action is to have regard to the public finances against a background where we want to sustain the strength of the economy in difficult times. We are aware that there are risks of a reduction in growth and a marginal increase in unemployment. However, the Government will pursue their basic strategy of following their golden rule of making sure that there is sustainable investment and, in these most difficult of times, ensuring that the economy will still grow, although more slowly than in the recent past.
My Lords, the Minister has just mentioned the fiscal rules. Does he agree or disagree with the comment made by the OECD earlier this month that the Government deficit seems likely to be significantly more than 3 per cent of GDP, putting the fiscal rules at risk? Does he further agree with the research produced by my noble friend Lord Oakeshott showing that, as is only just coming to light, there is likely to be a shortfall in stamp duty in this fiscal year of at least £5 billion?
My Lords, when we address ourselves to our next forecast, we will look at the latest figures, as the noble Lord identified. We take seriously the OECD forecasts, but they are forecasts in the same way as the Government’s are. They send warning signals of the pressures that the British economy and public finances are under. However, appropriate adjustments will be made.
My Lords, do the Government have a view on the investment of sovereign funds in the British economy? Today we have seen a big statement about a heavy investment from a sovereign fund in Barclays Bank. Do the Government think that this sort of thing is good or bad for our economy?
My Lords, we live in a global economy and we are concerned to see inward investment. Indeed, the increased level of inward investment is one of the features of which we are proud in our record over the past decade. The noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the fact that certain kinds of investment may raise particular problems, but it is not for the Government to put constraints on them. It is for the Government to adjust their strategy in the light of the likely returns in taxation from such investment; the decisions themselves are matters for the private sector.
My Lords, it is not just the OECD that has been critical of Her Majesty’s Government’s conduct of the economy; almost every respected international and national body that studies such matters has been equally critical, making unfavourable international comparisons. The Government have overshot their borrowing target in almost every year since they came into office. This year looks like being the worst yet, with the highest public sector deficit of any country in the industrialised world. Does the noble Lord not think that it is time for more candour and less complacency from the Government?
My Lords, the noble Lord should have regard to our record on public debt. The simple fact is that, because public debt is now at 5 per cent of GDP, down from 9 per cent when we came to office, we are in a position where we have to repay much less interest on that debt. If the noble Lord is quoting external sources, let me say to him that the International Monetary Fund has also commented on the British economy, stating in its Article IV consultation:
“For over a decade the United Kingdom has sustained low inflation and rapid economic growth—an exceptional achievement”.
And so it is.
My Lords, no hard data on the number of CCTV cameras operating in public places in the United Kingdom are currently held by the Home Office. The National CCTV Strategy recommends the development of a system of registration that assists in the regulation of CCTV systems. We are discussing this recommendation with the Information Commissioner. The Government will have the opportunity to approve the work of the National CCTV Strategy Programme Board later this year.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, albeit that it is somewhat inconclusive in its nature. Avoiding the increasing temptation to make a speech on these occasions, I have two questions for the Minister. First, can he advise the House, even in percentage terms, how many cameras are in the public sector and how many in the private? Secondly, does he agree with the recent estimate by the police authorities that the utility rate of such cameras is under 3 per cent?
My Lords, between 1999 and 2003 the Home Office invested some £170 million of capital funding into local authorities and public bodies for investment in public space CCTV. It is estimated that that delivered some 680 town centre CCTV systems, which is thought to be about 15 per cent of the total number of such systems in the United Kingdom. As for the 3 per cent figure referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, I have no information that that is correct in terms of detection. What we have found is that when CCTV was introduced in places such as Newcastle, for instance, there was a falling off of burglaries in the city centre by some 56 per cent, criminal damage by 34 per cent and theft by 11 per cent. That, and anecdotal evidence, suggests that CCTV systems are extremely good in preventing crime and, more importantly, detecting it.
My Lords, what is the Government’s view on removing lumps in the road and replacing them with cameras? I am told that these lumps cause bad emissions from cars and that they are equally bad for the cars themselves. It would be a great benefit to Prince of Wales Drive in Battersea if only we could have cameras and not lumps.
My Lords, I assume that the noble Baroness means speed humps. I have to confess that I have previously campaigned to have speed humps in my city. They have certainly ensured that traffic slows down, which probably saves both lives and injuries; there is certainly research on that. But I understand her point: the introduction of camera systems can assist in traffic management. They can be of considerable benefit.
My Lords, such studies as there are suggest that there is no displacement effect. However, there is clear evidence that they assist in the detection and prevention of crime. Figures suggest that between 2006-07 and 2007-08, more than 8,000 fewer offences of personal robbery were committed in London and detections increased significantly by 14 to 15 per cent.
My Lords, would the Minister be good enough to reconsider his being wedded to speed humps? They are the most unattractive things and, as my noble friend said, they produce an extra amount of exhaust. They also produce some pretty good expletives from the passengers who get thrown about. Does he also agree with my noble friend that cameras are a good thing? They are very invasive and we have too many of them.
My Lords, I do not know that we have too many CCTV systems in the United Kingdom. Police forces up and down the country say that they do an extremely useful and valuable job in preventing and detecting crime. The case is also clear that road humps along with other methods of traffic management and control contribute significantly to reducing the number of people killed on our roads, especially in residential areas, where there is a particular problem, and the number of injuries that people suffer as a result of motor accidents and speeding.
That is the truth, my Lords; these are matters for speculation. But there is no doubt that CCTV cameras make a significant impact in preventing and detecting crime. I always thought that the party opposite was concerned about those issues. This morning I am beginning to get a rather different view.
My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who chaired the New Deal for Communities programme in Liverpool, where CCTV has been part of the strategy for reducing crime. I would have thought that the Minister might be able to find some statistics from the New Deal programme. Could he make those statistics available to show what the reduction in crime has been in New Deal areas where those CCTV cameras have been put in place?
My Lords, because the Government were committing cash and investment into CCTV systems during the latter part of the 1990s a code of practice was developed which the data commissioner introduced in 1998. So there is already a code of good practice to ensure that information captured by CCTV systems cannot be abused and misused.
My Lords, what kind of accountability to Parliament is there for this monitoring? Is a report produced? Which organisation carries out the monitoring particularly of the private organisations that carry out surveillance on so many of us? It is said that in this city we are photographed 14 times a day. That is a matter of considerable concern.
My Lords, there is accountability in the code of practice, the data commissioner, reporting to Parliament and the fact that Parliament debates these matters from time to time. There is little doubt that CCTV systems have a significant effect in tackling and preventing crime. We have all seen images on our TV screens of the product of CCTV in tackling terrorist offences and tracking down terrorists in this country. We should welcome the use of CCTV in ensuring that we are better protected and that our nation and our people are safer.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, two Statements will be repeated this afternoon after the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Luce. The first Statement, entitled “Equality Bill”, will be repeated by my noble friend Lady Andrews; and the second, entitled “Witness Anonymity” will be repeated immediately afterwards by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I regret that taking two Statements means that we are unlikely to start the Committee stage of the Powers of Entry Bill until around 6.15 pm at the earliest. In order to meet our target rising time of 7 pm, the usual channels have therefore decided not to proceed with the second Private Member’s Bill scheduled for this afternoon, the House of Lords (Members’ Taxation Status) Bill. I take this opportunity to stress that the timings for both timed debates are extremely tight and I urge all noble Lords to keep well within their limits. I will ask my fellow Whips to ensure that the timings are adhered to.
Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.
Business of the House: Debates Today
My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Luce set down for today shall be limited to three hours and that in the name of Lord Ramsbotham to two and a half hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 (Amendment) Regulations 2008
Cancellation of Contracts made in a Consumer’s Home or Place of Work etc. Regulations 2008
Companies (Reduction of Share Capital) Order 2008
Small Limited Liability Partnerships (Accounts) Regulations 2008
Large and Medium-sized Limited Liability Partnerships (Accounts) Regulations 2008
Limited Liability Partnerships (Accounts and Audit) (Application of Companies Act 2006) Regulations 2008
Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2008
London Waste and Recycling Board Order 2008
My Lords, I beg to move the last eight Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft regulations and orders be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
rose to call attention to the future direction of higher education; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a privilege to open this debate. My purpose today is to paint a broader picture of the future direction of higher education as I see it. I am delighted that so many noble Lords, with their vast range of experiences in higher education, wish to participate, and I am grateful to all those individuals and groups who have given me much helpful advice.
I declare an interest having been vice-chancellor of the independent University of Buckingham for five years in the 1990s. Since its foundation over 30 years ago, Buckingham has achieved much, in particular the two-year degree introduced by the first vice-chancellor, the late Lord Beloff. For two consecutive years the university has gained the highest rating for student satisfaction in a national student survey carried out by the Times Higher Education supplement. This reflects both the high motivation for students and the personal attention they receive with a staff-student ratio of 1:9. While I shall draw on my experience there, I must stress that, since Buckingham receives no taxpayers’ support, I am not advocating today that we follow that exact path.
I was lucky enough to have three years at Cambridge and a fourth at Oxford in the late 1950s, when only 4 per cent of my age group were able to be at university. Since then we have seen a welcome revolution in higher education. Today 43 per cent of 18 to 30 year-olds are at university and more than 2.25 million students in total are in higher education, served by nearly 170 institutions. Equally remarkable is the vast diversity in the provision of higher education to meet immense social changes; in particular, the emergence of the knowledge society and the fact that we can expect to change jobs several times in our career and need ever-changing new skills arising from the technological and communication revolution. This has created the concept of lifelong learning. We now have more than 900,000 students in part-time education. We can get on and off the ladder of education and training at any stage in our lives. To help us, we have a wide range of institutions providing infinite types of degree courses of varying lengths, ranging from the more academic to the more vocational, supported by some excellent teaching. Distance learning, as in the highly successful Open University, plays a significant part in this process.
I think these developments are excellent and exciting. I want everyone, from whatever background, who has the capacity to enjoy and value a university education to be able to do so. But inevitably changes of this scale produce new challenges. First, we need to revisit the question of what universities are for. In the 1850s Cardinal Newman in The Idea of a University provided answers which lasted until well into the 20th century—a liberal education, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, training the intellect, seeking truth and the facility of self-education all remain valuable criteria. But today's demands also include the flexibility to handle an ever-changing career and to develop employable skills. This becomes even more important in an increasingly competitive world. I agree with the view of the late Field Marshal Lord Slim who, as chancellor of an Australian university, said:
“A university must do more than teach a man how to earn a living; it should teach him how to live”.
Secondly, as the number of students has increased, so the taxpayers’ support per student has declined. This has challenged the quality of higher education and led us to accept that the taxpayer will never be able to provide enough support for the student. This means that the student is now asked to pay a proportion of the total cost of tuition and maintenance. One of the serious consequences of this trend has been a decline in staff-student ratios to an average today of 1:17 students. This means less personal attention, although modern technology can help to overcome this. I cannot resist keeping a sense of perspective by quoting these words:
“In the old days, when the name of universities was unknown, lectures were more frequent and there was more zeal for study. But now when you are invited into a university, lectures are rare, things are hurried and little is learned, the time taken for lectures being spent in meetings and discussions”.
Those were the words of the chancellor of the University of Paris in 1218.
Thirdly, it is something of a truism that universities still do better for the middle classes than they do for less well-off socio-economic groups. This has led to a somewhat unsatisfactory debate, encapsulated as excellence versus equity. The problem is merely made worse by social engineering, and I have serious doubts about targets for student participation. The key to greater equity, surely, is to remove all the obstacles in the way of those who aspire or have been deterred from aspiring to a university education. I acknowledge that the Government are trying to tackle this through measures to improve educational opportunities for 14 to 19 year-olds, including the introduction of diplomas and the Education and Skills Bill. It is also singularly important to help improve links between universities and schools, a notable example of which has been Liverpool University’s successful talent support initiative to increase the proportion of students from low participation neighbourhoods entering higher education.
This leads me to my fourth point. Non-completion rates have increased in recent years to about 22 per cent. Although not out of line with international levels, this is high for the United Kingdom, but we must acknowledge that rates vary widely between institutions. Targeted help at school should ensure that the student is on the right course at the right place. For others who drop out, the concept of lifelong learning provides a valuable second chance.
My fifth issue concerns teaching and research. Given finite taxpayers’ resources available for research, it is inevitable that in order to retain our international position, we have to focus research selectively on the universities most suitable for this purpose. This means that several universities must either concentrate mainly on teaching or, if they are well established in their region and community, look to local industry and neighbouring universities for joint research projects. This is already happening and should be encouraged.
Sixthly, the funding system for students will of course be reviewed within the next two years, and we need to learn lessons from the student fees cap of £3,145. The most glaring challenge is the probable increase in demand for part-time education and a dip in the number of 18 year-olds in the next 10 years. The system of support for part-timers is not sufficient to encourage this expansion and is made even worse by the Government’s decision to redistribute funds away from those studying for equivalent or lower qualifications, known as ELQ.
Seventhly, we must acknowledge the importance of employers’ influence on the recruitment of graduates. It is perfectly reasonable for them to argue that, in addition to an academic qualification, they need skills such as interpersonal communication, problem-solving and teamwork. I am also struck by the healthy fact that for many employers, the all-round ability of a graduate is important, for we are often too obsessed by academic qualifications at the expense of developing the character. Nevertheless, universities should no more be agents of employers than of Governments, and employers should remember this.
My eighth point is that the integration in the early 1990s of the former polytechnics into universities raises two issues. Universities are now so varied that there cannot be just one benchmark to judge their collective performance. We are entitled to look for excellence in all our universities, not against one standard but against the particular mission and objective of that university. We need universities of international repute to set the pace, but in a system providing a wide diversity of education, each university needs to perform outstandingly. Equally, the combination of well over 100 universities brings into play the contrast between academic and vocational education. In post-war years, we have been adversely affected by prejudice against the latter. Now is a chance to have a bonfire of our prejudices and to acknowledge parity of esteem between vocational and academic courses. As Confucius once said, in education there should be no class distinction.
Lastly, it is worth noting where we stand internationally. We seem to lie somewhere between the European continent, with its centralised, state-oriented universities with high dropout levels, and the United States, with some very high-quality independent universities and many state universities, which are also well endowed with private funds. The educational system and the culture there is of course different, but there are lessons for us to learn.
Noble Lords will no doubt suggest many adjustments to priorities in higher education. I conclude by making only one recommendation about the Government’s strategy. As a former Minister for the Arts, I was convinced that for the arts to flourish organisations needed to be as independent as possible of government. The job of a minister is to set the framework and climate for the arts but to remain at arm’s length from institutions. Exactly the same must apply to universities. Their very nature means that in order for them to flourish they must secure as much autonomy as possible from government. Again it is the Government’s job to provide the overall framework in which universities can succeed but otherwise to keep them at arm’s length.
I want to see from the Government and the opposition parties a commitment to a strategy to secure the greater autonomy of universities. Governments must provide the framework, including acceptable systems of governance and accountability, but we should also recognise that universities have been independent for centuries, though often influenced by the church, state or industrial philanthropists. They are technically independent in that they are charitable bodies, but in practice many describe them as nationalised in that they are dependent on the Government for over 50 per cent of their resources and for direction. It is a matter of fundamental academic freedom to remind ourselves that universities are not, and never should be, agents of the state.
There are two ways in which we could develop that autonomy. First, universities must be given every encouragement to diversify their sources of funding. At present they are dependent on taxpayers’ support, student fees and private donations for scholarships, building and research. The Government’s three-year scheme to provide £200 million for matching funding from private sources, which could yield £600 million, starting this summer is a good beginning. In the long term, however, we need a much more ambitious policy to help universities achieve endowment funds. To give some perspective, only eight British universities have endowments worth £100 million or more compared to 207 United States state and private universities. Stable and consistent taxpayers’ support must of course help to underpin the finances of universities. We have to acknowledge that public expenditure in the United Kingdom on higher education as a percentage of GDP is below the OECD average.
The principle of student fees is now established and the cap will have to be raised to ensure that there are adequate resources to maintain quality. Of course the fact that students will be paying a higher proportion of fees means that they become more effective partners with their universities in working to achieve their ambitions. The loan system must remain progressive to encourage participation by the lower socio-economic groups. We must maintain and enhance the British tradition of an admissions policy based on students’ merit, whatever the parents’ level of income. Many universities here are already pursuing a positive policy on bursaries. We must also remember that 10 per cent of our students are from countries outside the EU. They make an important financial contribution and create good links for Britain. We must continue to compete worldwide by ensuring that we look after them properly and maintain the quality of our universities.
Secondly, autonomy can also be undermined by government regulation and intervention. The performance of universities is undoubtedly affected by their measure of freedom from administrative and funding control. American universities, freer of such control, are generally thought to be of higher quality than those of the European continent, where there is much central direction. We need to review relentlessly the level of regulation for higher education. The original University Grants Committee could be regarded as a model.
There is a growing recognition that more autonomy for universities, in both funding and management, will lead to improved quality of university education. I hope that the Government and all opposition parties will give a firm commitment to this strategy. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I declare an interest as being in employment with the Universities of Sunderland and York, and as a council member at Goldsmith’s College. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for, and congratulate him on, opening this debate. He gave us a broad view of higher education and rightly highlighted a number of issues that we will have to address seriously in the next few years.
First and foremost, universities are places of learning, research and pushing barriers of knowledge. At a time of globalisation and our need for ever higher levels of skills, their role in those areas is crucial. The debate about how we finance research in universities and our international competitiveness will take place during the next few months.
I shall address two other purposes of education, not because they are higher than research and teaching but because they sometimes do not receive the extent of debate that they probably deserve. They are the universities’ responsibilities for, or functions of, civic renewal, and individual opportunity and social change. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that they perform those functions not as agents of the state but as vital institutions in the country in which we live.
I welcome the emphasis which the Government have given to these areas in recent years, in particular the challenge to create new universities in some of our towns and cities in the next five to six years. Any Government who seriously regard regeneration and community cohesion as one of their objectives would let us all down if they did not develop the role of universities in that area of national life. When one thinks that for every 100 university jobs, 89 more are created in the location of the university; that £1.45 billion is spent off campus; and that 42,000 student volunteers work in the voluntary sector, one concludes that one does not know how any town or city can survive in the 21st century without access to a university.
I also welcome the Government’s work in widening participation. It is right that we ask how we get more students, both part- and full-time and of all ages and backgrounds, into university. We are nowhere near that yet, and I know that we need more ideas and greater success. However, I sometimes worry that we devote a lot of time to talking about how to get students there and too little time talking about how to keep them there. As we move to a more diverse higher education sector, we welcome its diversity without thinking through its implications and meaning. In terms of access, it means that as we get people from different backgrounds into universities, universities will have to change the way in which they teach and support them. I know from schools that many students going straight from school to university, and many adults going from no learning to university, get there only because the nature of teaching styles and pedagogy, and the extent of the support that they have received at school, have been transformed during the past 10 to 15 years. Too often, they get to university and find a university system that has not adjusted to those changes in teaching style and support that have taken place at school. As long as that is not end-on and as long as those changes are not made, we will continue to see in some universities a fall-out rate that we should fear and do something about. The kind of support that students now receive in schools to get them to university is matched only in Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which have the money to support students at that level. Universities which often take students from schools with lower grades do not have the resource to offer that support.
In calling for a more diverse system of university and giving more institutions the title of university, we risk not having an infrastructure that recognises that diversity. I have in mind two areas: finance and recognition. I am not arguing that money should be shifted from research to access or civic regeneration—I would not do that—but that, as long as extra government money goes mainly to those universities that are research intensive, some universities will be forced to compete in that game. If they are good at regenerating communities and in civic renewal, and if they are good at widening access, they need a recognition system and accountability mechanism that gives them resources for doing that. We had that when we had the old polytechnics. I sometimes worry that in creating diversity we might not have an infrastructure that would reflect it. However, I very much welcome the Government’s initiatives on the whole, and just ask the Minister to reflect on those comments when she responds.
My Lords, I declare a serial interest as chancellor of two universities; namely, Newcastle and Oxford. I welcome my fellow colonial oppressor in initiating this debate. The number of noble Lords who wish to take part suggests that we should talk about higher education more frequently. The quality of the knowledge and experience of those taking part suggests that the Government should listen hard to this debate.
I follow directly two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, at the outset of this debate. I want to speak about funding and access. We have, by common consent, some of the best universities in the world. The general argument is that we have the second-best higher education system in the world. I worry that those achievements are threatened by what the noble Lord referred to: the proportion of GDP that we spend on higher education in this country, which is below the OECD average. Astonishingly, the American public sector spends a higher proportion of GDP on higher education than we do. We know that higher education is the main source of research in this country. Given that, we recognise that there are only three ways of funding higher education. The taxpayer can do it through public spending; it can be done through benefactions and philanthropy; or it can be done by the student paying more money towards his or her education in tuition fees.
Sad as it may be, I do not believe that higher education will achieve a higher priority in public spending arguments over the next few years. The Government cannot duck the consequences of this fact. I do not see that happening with this Government, and I would be surprised if it happens after the election when, I hope, there will be a Government of a different political party. In those circumstances, we have to look hard at the question of tuition fees. It is not, as the noble Lord said, a question of universities opting for independence; they are already independent. It is a question of facing a financial reality. When we do so, it is important that universities do all they can to increase their endowments, so that they can have more generous bursaries in order to ensure that when there are higher tuition fees—as I think there will be—there is needs-blind admission to our universities.
Secondly, the noble Lord said that when he went to university, 4 per cent of his age group went into higher education. When I went a few years later, the figure was 6 per cent. Since then, as the noble Lord indicated, it has increased just over sevenfold. While that has happened, there is no indication that there has been much of an impact on the universities’ role in social inclusion. Even today, young people from the most advantaged 20 per cent of the country are five or six times more likely to go to university than young people from the 20 per cent of most disadvantaged areas. That should matter to all of us. It matters because of the impact of a university education on a lifetime’s earnings, remuneration, and so on. It also matters because of the widening and deepening of opportunity that a university education should—and, I hope, usually does—ensure.
Universities are well aware of this issue of widening participation. They do not need to be harried by anybody, not least Governments, into facing up to some of these questions. The universities that I know best are very active in this field. Newcastle has a Partners Programme, although, perversely, the fact that it allows slightly lower admission grades for young people who have been through summer schools as part of the Partners Programme, counts against it in league tables for the medical school and elsewhere, which is crazy. Oxford University spends £1.8 million, and rising, on trying to improve access and encouraging people from more disadvantaged backgrounds to opt for it.
The one thing which it seems to me we must not do is dilute the standards that our higher education institutions set. The best answer to broadening access is to do more about the disparity of education or achievement in our secondary schools. Universities can make a contribution to this, but I do not believe that they would do anyone a favour if they decided that they should lower their own standards to help make up for some of the problems in secondary education. I hope that the Government recognise that, while of course insisting that it is important for all of us to try to encourage as broad an access as possible to higher education.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on initiating the debate and I thank him. I should like to see higher education keep up its quality but become more equitable and fully tap into the talents of bright young people from lower income families. It is not only important for them as individuals but for the economy. This requires three things: aspiration; information; and support, mainly but not exclusively, financial, which needs to be focused on young people who are still at school. I shall not say anything about tuition fees as I think that many others will, but as they rise and young people have to borrow money to pay them, which has to be paid back later in their lives, that turns the focus on to maintenance.
Many young people do not want to have to borrow even more money for their maintenance and living expenses during the three or four years that they spend at university. Many of them work while they are studying. The problem with that is that many of them spend far too long working, which affects their studies. For example, music students have to spend many hours practising their instruments and find it difficult to take a job while they are studying, although they may occasionally do the odd gig to help their bank balance.
The Government offer maintenance grants based on family income and the Access to Learning Fund supports students with particular financial needs. The Government have also charged the Office for Fair Access with the task of promoting and safeguarding fair access to higher education for under-represented groups, especially in the light of the introduction of variable tuition fees. OFFA says that by 2009 around £300 million a year will be paid in bursaries for low income students. However, it is widely accepted that the funding distributed by universities and the Government is not enough and that although student loans are available at slightly below commercial rates, many potential students are reluctant to take on a burden of debt that can add up to tens of thousands of pounds by the time they graduate.
I investigated what a student would have to do to get the information he or she needs about the support that is available. It turned out to be a complex job. Looking at the websites of the various universities, I found out what Oxford is doing in this regard, which the noble Lord, Lord Patten, mentioned, and that Cambridge is offering similar bursaries and scholarships. Importantly, both those universities work with teachers as teachers give students the aspiration to attend the best universities. They have open days and invite teachers on to their campuses. We have heard about the Liverpool scheme and Imperial College offers bursaries under the study support bursary. There is a City & Guilds scholarship for engineering students and the R W Barnes Education Fund for engineering, physics and maths.
There are many similar subject-specific grants and bursaries. Many things are being done, but an awful lot of universities are under-spending their access fund money by, on average, about 19 per cent. I should like to know why that is. Are people not applying? I have come to the conclusion that students lack information because it takes so much time to find it out.
The National Audit Office has urged the Government to set up a,
“single source of comprehensive information for all Government grants, loans and bursaries”.
Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to do that? It is no good having all these initiatives if students do not know about them.
Before I finish, I should like to say one further thing about further education. Many further education colleges, apart from providing courses leading to degrees, provide the courses that give the students the qualifications to apply for degrees. Unfortunately there is a gap here, because a lot of those students find it very difficult to cover childcare and other kinds of costs while they are studying. The Helena Kennedy Foundation, of which I am privileged to be a patron, helps to fill this gap by providing smalls bits of funding to adults who are necessarily in low-paid jobs because they do not yet have the qualifications to gain entry to these access courses so that they can then go on to higher education. Many of them have a lot of success, but there is a need for more of that sort of funding.
My Lords, I hope noble Lords do not mind me interrupting momentarily. I should like to inform them that when the number 4 appears on the monitor, you are in your fifth minute; when 5 appears, you need to sit down. We have now lost about two-and-a-half minutes on this debate so I should be very grateful if noble Lords could keep to that. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was almost exactly on time.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on securing this debate and on the quality of his contribution. When looking to the future, it is logical to reflect on the purpose of universities.
The committee I chaired 10 years ago had some thoughts on purposes which have recently been endorsed by the Higher Education Funding Council. I will not weary you with them, since they are obviously immaculate. Among those purposes was responding to the needs of the economy as well as society at national, regional and local level. In those areas, two recent reports are particularly important.
The first is that of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, entitled “The Race to the Top” which examines how higher education can move from its past, when we were brilliant at fundamental research but rotten at translating the benefits of that into products and services. He was able to report that we are now comparable with many American universities and that we have turned the corner. We must continue to encourage and support universities because it is fundamental to our own future that we develop the fruits of knowledge and research. I should like to see in that development increasing partnership between complementary institutions, including FE colleges and overseas universities.
The second report was that from the noble Lord, Lord Leitch, in which he asked universities to be responsive to the needs of industry to develop skills. This does not mean “goodbye” to the humanities; on the contrary, they matter very much to the quality of our society and to developing wealth. The response of these higher education departments can be found simply in embedding into their programmes the generic skills which every employer wants. Indeed, only a minority of recruitment requires subject-specific skills. It is the development of a range of generic skills that matters. These are my main solutions: first, asking how they find the time and funding; secondly, reducing red tape; and thirdly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, changing some of our approaches to teaching and using IT more skilfully.
The third issue that I want particularly to mention is the challenge that we will increasingly find in these very welcome and important overseas students to whom, as the noble Lord said, we are indebted for 10 per cent of fees. Because of the demographic changes occurring here and more strongly throughout much of Europe, there will be increasing competition for those students. Our response has to be in terms of the quality of the experience we offer them, based on research into precisely what their needs are. It is in the postgraduate area that the greatest opportunities for expansion may arise. That coincides with our national interest, because if we attract postgraduates here, we are attracting some of the ablest minds in the world.
Those are my three main points regarding universities, but the decision on the future of funding is for us to make. If, as most people assume, the student is to be asked to make an increased contribution, a number of elements will have to be satisfied. First, we should consult the student voice on the form of the contribution. Secondly, we should avoid differentials in public subsidy, with state-subsidised loans limited to some base level, say £3,000, and thereafter a fair market rate of interest should be charged. Thirdly, admissions must be needs-blind, supported by bursaries. Fourthly, it is our responsibility to ensure that there is no reduction in the real value of the unit of resource from the Exchequer. Finally, there must be a perceptible benefit to the quality of the learning experience that we offer to students, not only in terms of their degree courses, but in terms of extramural activities and supplementary learning, such as languages.
I believe that in our universities we have a world-class asset which much be cherished. If we are to cherish it, we in Parliament and those of you in government must have an attitude of care, respect and support for the enduring values of what makes the university so distinctive. Newman had some very valuable points to offer. In return, we can look to the universities for full engagement in meeting the needs of society.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this important and useful debate. One of the key considerations for the future of higher education is that students of all religious and racial backgrounds in this country can attend university free from threats of discrimination and racist and hateful attitudes. This must apply in every university.
For instance, in an area in which I have long been deeply concerned, it is vital that Her Majesty's Government take decisive and long-term action to deal with growing anti-Semitism on university campuses. The Community Security Trust recorded 59 anti-Semitic incidents in 2007, in which all the victims were Jewish students. Typical examples include: in Nottingham, swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti were scratched on the doors of Jewish students’ rooms and, in Birmingham, “I hate Jews” was written on the frost on cars. This sort of racism is nasty, is growing and is obviously completely unacceptable.
I hope that there will be a sub-group to the main cross-governmental anti-Semitism working group set up to deal specifically with higher education and that it will include the relevant sector bodies and Jewish community groups to agree on a long-term plan, to ensure that it is implemented and to see an end to the disgraceful and divisive boycotts which have been targeted at Israeli academics by unions, including the University and College Union, that do absolutely nothing to help bring peace to the Middle East. They infringe and assault the vital principle of academic freedom.
I am delighted that Her Majesty's Government are strongly considering providing resources for a UK-Israel academic collaboration fund, which would be extremely welcome, especially because it offers the opposite to boycotts—stronger not weaker academic ties between the two countries. In these two areas of vital importance—deeply harmful and evil anti-Semitism on campus, together with anti-Israel boycotts—we need firm, decisive and swift action. We need to fight discrimination, whomever it is against. We must ensure a more positive and anti-racist future direction for higher education in Britain. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Luce, we must make a bonfire of prejudices.
I have finished my speech two or three minutes early.
My Lords, I speak from the experience of being president of the council of the University of Chester. Although it received its charter only in 2005, it has a long history as an Anglican teacher training college, stretching back to 1839.
We take pride in maintaining a splendid school of education, but this now comprises only a small proportion of our activity. Our founding charter speaks of preparing people for “careers of service”, originally teaching in the church schools that were being founded. We have developed this vision in various directions, from extensive training for healthcare professions to recent developments, such as a course to train youth workers for the Muslim communities of the north-west, alongside our established courses in Christian and general youth work. We have taken a particular interest in seeking to promote community cohesion. We are keen to be part of the sponsorship arrangements for new academies. We also have a very active programme of student volunteers, who put no fewer than 15,000 hours of voluntary service into the community. That is just one university’s contribution. Our emphases are typical of other universities, which have maintained a Christian foundation amid the proper cut and thrust of a modern university.
Another feature of the university’s life is a commitment to engage with employers, to ensure that the professional and business needs of a diverse range of companies and public employers are met. This includes innovative programmes of work-based learning and close partnership with FE colleges, a number of which go back 20 years or more.
The Government’s decision to end funding for equivalent-level qualifications posed a challenge. More broadly, it posed a challenge for the church’s approach to ministerial education and training. We are grateful for the willingness of the Government to listen to us over these issues. Indeed, we are grateful that they will help the various training establishments, including the University of Chester, to adjust our portfolios in the light of the new structures.
Like most of the newer universities, Chester is a teaching-led university, although we have growing centres of research excellence. As we have expanded by a factor of no fewer than three or four over the past 10 years—a remarkable rate of expansion—many of the new staff whom we have appointed have come with doctorates and research experience. They understand the applied and teaching focus of the university as a whole. There is, however, something in what Newman called,
“The Idea of a University”,
which necessarily includes a place for research and for the joy of pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will say something about this spread of research funding and expectations across the whole sector, along with an understandable concentration where there is a particular centre of excellence, or where the capital investment needed is very large.
The university sector provides a diverse picture, and rightly so. The Government can take a good deal of credit for presiding over the recent period of expansion and diversification. There is, however, ongoing work required to maintain quality across such a diverse range of institutions. This needs to recognise the essential independence and autonomy of the institutions themselves—a point emphasised by other noble Lords. This has been vital to the development of the university sector in our country and its position in international comparisons.
My final point is that this independence and diversity needs to be held within an overall frame of government funding policy, which does not allow recent gains to be eroded. Against general reports that social mobility has dropped in our society since the 1970s, we do not need a wrong emergence of a new elite within our universities. That would be a danger. Any structure, society or organisation which supports freedom always tends to produce its winners and losers. One of the jobs of government is to provide a playing field and a support system which keeps that to a minimum. Whatever the future may hold, we need to promote excellence across the sector; that is, at the universities and the diverse range of institutions. That should be a prime aim of government in the years to come.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Luce and congratulate him on initiating the debate. I declare my interest as vice-chancellor of Cambridge University from 1996 to 2003. Our universities have performed well over the past few years. The quality of their science and engineering research is second only to the United States and it is now more fully funded thanks to the increase in the science budget. Problems remain, however, in transferring technology to the mainstream of our industrial base. Entrepreneurship has flourished in universities and there has been a healthy growth in the number of start-up companies spun out from the universities. But there is a need to develop mechanisms and incentives that will encourage investors, including our large companies, to become involved on a larger scale. We need to grow some of those small companies into companies that employ thousands, rather than tens, of people, so that they will have an impact at the national level.
The quality of teaching in our universities has similarly remained at a high level, but the financial support, as has been said, for teaching, unlike that for research, is far from adequate. Professor Alison Richard, the present vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, tells me that while funding varies considerably from subject to subject, on average, the university has to find from its own resources £5,000 to £6,000 a year per student to subsidise undergraduate teaching. The top-up fee has helped, but the financial gap remains large and is unsustainable in the long run. The funding of teaching remains unfinished business.
I will conclude with a point that I have made before but which needs to be made again. It relates to the lack of breadth in the subjects required to gain entrance to our universities, especially our leading research universities. At present, many students are, in effect, forced to choose between the arts and sciences at the age of 15. To my knowledge, we are the only country in the world that does this, and a lot of young people do not want it and are frustrated when they find their options blocked at university. The problem is exacerbated by our four-year science and engineering masters courses. I declare that while I was head of the Cambridge University engineering department, we introduced such a course in 1994.
To bring students to an internationally competitive masters level in four years, they need to start at a level that requires specialisation at school. Even then, the course is too short for any but the brightest students. It works satisfactorily at our very top universities, but for the majority of those who want to become professionals in their disciplines, the combination of a three-year baccalaureate followed by a two-year masters is better, which is why it is used in most other countries and has been adopted in the Bologna agreement. In the USA, a four-plus-two year course structure is common, but this would clearly be too expensive for us. The popular and profitable one-year masters courses could continue, but probably not for those who are going on to be professionals in science and engineering. There are efforts to broaden the scope of teaching in the final two years of schooling, such as the new diplomas and the new Cambridge Pre-U Diploma, about all of which I am enthusiastic. But we should have a long-term goal to require students to include English and mathematics in their final years of schooling and, preferably, a language.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on his eloquent exposition of the issues facing higher education in the UK. It is indeed a pleasure, if not a daunting task, to follow the wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on this crucial issue. I declare an interest: I hold an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham and was a former chairman of King’s College, London.
Since 2006, students have been able, if they wish, to invest their student loans in paying fees at private institutions. Although it was not much remarked on at the time, this change marked a new acceptance of private higher education institutions in the UK. As a former vice-chancellor of the independent University of Buckingham, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and his colleagues are to be lauded on gaining this acceptance for that university.
As long ago as 2002, the pro vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick suggested that some of the bolder UK universities might follow Buckingham's lead and become private. The question is, how could those “bold” universities proceed on that route of privatisation, and is it desirable for them to do so? Recent discussions have focused on two options for universities to win independence from government: the introduction of top-up fees and/or increased income from philanthropic support.
At a Cambridge Union debate in January, the vice-chancellor of Bristol University calculated that his institution would need to charge an additional £19,000 a year in top-up undergraduate fees if it wanted to replace its HEFCE teaching grant and bursary provision. As he stated, both he and many others would see such a charge as a controversial and ineffective measure. In May, Oxford University launched its campaign to raise £1.25 billion through philanthropic contributions but, although my noble friend Lord Patten, Oxford’s chancellor, rightly remarked then that universities need,
“to be able to demonstrate that they can stand on their own feet more effectively”,
I also noted his comment that that should be,
“without eschewing support from the State”.
During my nine years as chairman of King’s, I was delighted to note the generous and growing support that the college received from alumni and friends. I am certain that its next fundraising campaign, under its new chairman, Lord Douro, will have a global impact and relevance. We should be proud of that growing entrepreneurial spirit and diversity of income in all UK universities, both state and private. However, even Oxford and other distinguished Russell Group institutions such as King’s cannot hope to secure funding to match Harvard’s £36 billion endowment. Therefore, although we acknowledge and welcome the fact that universities need to diversify their income streams through philanthropic and other means, we must also recognise that that is not necessarily in the expectation that it will secure them complete independence from the state system.
At the moment, UK universities need adequate funding from the Government and from a range of private sources if they are to meet the rising expectations placed on them. Within that mixed economy, moreover, we must be vigilant in maintaining universities’ freedom. Academic freedom, including the ability to speak out against falsehood, clouded thinking and injustice, is more than ever a requirement for British universities. As Nelson Mandela, the great freedom fighter, said:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”,
but universities also need to be guarded from the still onerous regulatory burden imposed on them not only by the professional bodies, with which they have important and mutually beneficial relationships, but by the Government. We do not want universities to pay for their state funding by drowning in a sea of reporting requirements and bureaucracy. Higher education in this country needs to be protected from such a regulatory burden. Provided that such safeguards are in place, there is much that we can be proud of in our universities and much that is worth preserving when we are considering how they should be funded in future.
My Lords, first, I must declare an interest as chancellor of the University of East London.
The Government are in something of a bind over their higher education policy, caught between the commitment to widen participation and lifelong learning, the demands from the top table for the cash to compete with their US Ivy League cousins, and the pressing need to cut costs and keep the Student Loans Company afloat.
As university chancellors we have the same objectives as the Government in wanting to offer a first-class education and training to all and, in particular, to narrow the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged. However, despite significant investment since 1997, research shows that policy is in many ways working against the Government's intentions. Despite their advocacy of lifelong learning, already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Luce, the recent decision to withdraw funding for equivalent or lower level qualifications, condemned by Universities UK and the Select Committee alike, will reduce dramatically the number of adult learners in the system. The overwhelming majority are returning to university to gain professional qualifications and skills vital for the economy. That penny-pinching wheeze will affect precisely those students who wish to return to higher education to develop or change their careers.
I urge that any money saved will be targeted at those institutions that actually deliver on the widening participation agenda, rather than redirecting it to those that fail to deliver. Our mission in east London is to create opportunities for the people and communities of east London and to break down barriers to progression. It is integrated with the Government’s agenda of promoting partnership and engaging business. Above all, we are committed to the success of our students and to transforming their prospects.
That brings me to my final point: exactly how do we define successful outcomes in higher education? What does a successful student or a successful institution look like? The Government like to talk about diversity of mission and playing to institutional strengths but, as others have noted, the English have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy. The wealthiest institutions are receiving an increasing share of the overall funding pot. Perhaps we should not be surprised, but should we not expect better?
As a society we deserve better, and that starts with better and more honest measures of success. By that, I do not mean the sort of success that the broadsheets measure in their league tables, which is success at attracting government funding grants or admitting the better and more expensively educated to the groves of academe. What value is being added here? I suggest that it is rather more challenging—and the rewards should reflect this—to achieve success in taking students who are the first in their families to attend university, who may not have done particularly well at school and who do not have much money or support, and giving them the education, skills, ambition and opportunities to get their degree and a good job. Of course, that is a risky strategy, because not all of those students go on to succeed, but I would argue that that represents real value-added success. If the Government are serious about their stated values, as we are, I urge Ministers to stop punishing the universities that are trying to make a difference and to rethink what they are trying to do in the light of what is actually happening. We live in hope.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster from 1991 to 1999.
Other noble Lords have invoked the name of John Henry Newman. Today, we need a new John Henry Newman to imagine and define what is now required. The basic principle guiding future policy must be to strive for excellence in both teaching and research in the context of a mass tertiary education system. The question is how best that may be achieved, for it is a daunting challenge.
Higher education institutions need to be redefined in their core purposes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, implied. It is clear that they are no longer just vehicles for delivering third-level teaching and research. They are also major players in sustaining and promoting economic generation in the employment that they provide, increasing consumer spending power in their environs and the spin-off activity that stems from their research. Those beneficial effects have been recognised for some time now and have been further endorsed by the Government's announcement last March that they intend to create about 20 new campuses in England. The aim is to increase the participation rate, to improve the nation’s skills base and to promote economic development.
I applaud that new policy initiative, but how is excellence and quality to be preserved in both teaching and research? Secondly, how can cost be minimised and the economies of scale maximised? The answer to both questions lies in much more higher education institution collaboration and co-operation, preferably organised on a regional, federal or confederal basis. HEIs, especially the established universities, have been notoriously parochial and turf-protecting in outlook. Happily, there are signs of a welcome change.
Regional federations—particularly in England, because in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland there is much greater collaboration—and confederations should be formally established. As I have said in your Lordships’ House before, the tertiary system in California, developed by Clark Kerr, affords a very good guide as to how we should proceed. Centres of real excellence in research and postgraduate teaching can be identified for each region. This is especially needed in science and engineering at the moment. Student numbers in these crucial subjects are falling and departments have been closed down. Unfortunately, these closures have been made by individual universities with scant regard to the wider needs of region and nation. A regional framework would facilitate a more strategic context for the allocation of academic resources.
Other HEIs in a region would be able to make their own dispositions in the light of the designated hub university. This would doubtless include greater liaison and collaboration with further education colleges, which is vital. This is already going on spontaneously in many areas of the country and across many disciplines. The trouble is that it is altogether too ad hoc. Hub universities need to be identified for each English region, and of course there can be more than one. Other HEIs in the region would thus be better enabled to make their own dispositions regarding future developments, including, as I have said, a more worked out and coherent approach to collaboration with the further education sector. This is a policy that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills needs now to articulate in England and to promote if it is to live up to its title.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on initiating such an important debate on a vital topic for the future of the country. I start by declaring an interest as the principal of Jesus College, Oxford.
In my brief contribution, I shall touch on two points that have already been discussed by others: the diversity of the higher education sector and access. We have already heard that the ideal of a university as a temple dedicated to the life of the mind is nowadays supplemented by the more utilitarian view that universities are also engines of future prosperity and useful knowledge to improve our lives, for instance through curing diseases or preserving the planet. However—this is my first key point—universities should not all strive to do the same thing. A small number should aim to be world-class research and educational institutions, while many others should aim to support their local economy, for instance by training people in technical skills.
As we have heard, as a result of the system of incentives and esteem in this country, too many of our higher education institutions strive to climb up the same ladder: to be excellent in both education and research. Let me illustrate this with a striking fact. Of the 168 higher education institutions in this country, 147—nearly 90 per cent—award doctoral degrees or claim to be research institutions. Let us contrast this with the United States, where less than 6 per cent of universities award doctoral degrees, with the other 94 per cent pursuing other valid and important purposes. Translated into UK terms, this would equate to a dozen or so research universities.
Why does it matter? The answer is simple. Scarce resources are spread thinly across the whole sector rather than being concentrated in a small number of elite institutions and, importantly, training in technical skills tends to be left out as the universities that should be doing this aim to ape the elite. Rather than blurring the distinctions among universities, we should respect and celebrate diversity, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said. At the same time, we should distinguish between education on the one hand and training and skills on the other. These are not the same thing. If my daughters came home from school and told me that they had been to sex education classes, I would be comfortable; if they said they had been to sex training and skills classes, I would not.
My second point is about access. My own university, Oxford, has been set a target to increase its intake of students from state schools to 73 per cent. It has been criticised by Ministers for not achieving this. Currently, just over half Oxford’s intake is from the maintained sector. It rightly strives hard to attract students from less well-off backgrounds and from state schools and it provides, as we have heard, extremely generous bursaries to support them if they get into university. We want to attract the best students from all backgrounds; there is no gain to us in not doing so.
A naive view would be that, while 7 per cent of children are educated in the private sector, around half the students entering the top universities such as Oxford are from the private sector, so there must be discrimination. This is plain wrong. The entry requirement for Oxford and many other top universities is three As at A-level. Just about half the pupils in this country who reach this level are from private schools. In other words, this matches our intake. There is no evidence of discrimination. This proportion of three As at A-level from private schools would be higher if you counted only the A-levels that were shown by the Durham study to be hard and that count for Oxford entrance. The real question for the Government is why the maintained system, which educates 93 per cent of children, produces only half those who are suitably qualified for entry into elite universities. By pointing their guns at the universities, the Government are heading towards the wrong target.
My Lords, I am delighted to speak in this important debate and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for providing the opportunity to do so. As he said, higher education is one of this country’s great success stories. To his list of successes, I would add that we punch above our weight in measures of research impact and that our universities are major wealth creators, generating about £46 billion a year for the economy. At this point, I declare my interest as chief executive of Universities UK.
This opportunity to cast our minds 15 years or so ahead allows us to reflect on the role that we want our universities to play beyond the purely economic. We are entitled to hope that our universities will provide some of the answers to the grand challenges that we are likely to face in the next half century. I am thinking particularly of climate change. The speed and scale of likely change mean that now, more than ever, we need first-class minds to push forward the limits of our understanding of the geopolitical, social, economic and health-related consequences of global warming.
There are other unstoppable changes to which our universities will be at the forefront of helping us to adapt. Let us think about the healthcare implications of our ageing population and about the need for the coming generations to be part of the workforce for much longer. Demographic projections suggest that between 2011 and 2020 the number of full-time students will drop by 6 per cent across the UK. That is 70,000 students. On the other hand, there will be an increase in the older age groups from which most part-time students are drawn. This is a great opportunity for universities, as they are committed to helping more than 40 per cent of adults to attain skills to graduate level and above. This aim will almost certainly be achieved only through retraining that is delivered part time. Therefore, the Government will need to look again at whether provision for part-time students, which is at present much lower than that for full-time students, is adequate to meet this challenge.
That brings me to a further challenge. Public funding remains vital to the health of our universities. We have been grateful to the Government for restoring stability to the sector after years of underfunding. Together with the introduction of variable fees, this has been done by maintaining the unit of public funding in real terms. I urge the Minister to confirm today that this will continue beyond the current spending review. Without this commitment, any other promises will ring hollow. We need continuing public investment to maintain our international competitiveness. Although we lead the field in many areas, the UK lags behind many countries in spending on higher education. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, reminded us, we spend 1.1 per cent of GDP, whereas the US spends 2.9 per cent, while countries as diverse as China and New Zealand are rapidly increasing their own investment.
There is no doubt that these challenges will be better met if the sector can work closely with the Government on shared aims. For example, we have already been trying to ensure that, for the future, the new visa system invites in the best students and staff, rather than putting up barriers that send them elsewhere. Consultation of this sort is vital for making change run smoothly. The university sector has a long-established, key role in promoting and helping to deliver public policy objectives. As has been mentioned, when such consultation does not happen—there was the recent withdrawal of funding for students with equal and lower qualifications and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office withdrew funding for Commonwealth scholarships —institutions are left able only to advise the Government on unanticipated consequences. I hope that the Minister will agree that, working as partners in a climate of mutual respect and collaboration, with a shared vision of the future that focuses on ensuring that all those who want to benefit from higher education can do so, universities and government can deal together with whatever lies ahead.
I end by reinforcing the points that the noble Lord, Lord Luce, made about autonomy. This long-established autonomy has enabled our universities to flourish, to the huge benefit of students, our communities and the economy. I trust that all parts of the House will concur that continued autonomy is vital if universities are to deliver solutions for the future.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. I declare an interest as master of University College, Oxford, for one more month.
I start by acknowledging that higher education has a good deal to be grateful to this Government for. First, we have had strong support for research through the 10-year science and innovation investment framework, as well as the fuller economic recovery of research costs. As the noble Lord, Lord Broers, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said, the United Kingdom punches above its weight in this area, which is crucial to the success of our economy. Secondly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned, the 2004 spending review stabilised the funding of teaching per student, which had halved between 1976 and 2005.
This debate is about the future and I want to cover three points: teaching costs, internationalisation and access. Despite the measures that I have referred to, there is still in most universities a gap between teaching costs and revenues. At Oxford, average teaching costs per undergraduate are £20,000 per year and average income from all sources, including tuition fees, is £7,500 per year. The task of bridging that huge gap falls partly on the colleges and partly on the university. The university meets its share by diverting money given to it by HEFCE for research—the QR grant—and using it to subsidise teaching. The extent of this, according to recent calculations, is £13 million a year. When I told this to my noble friend Lord Dearing, he was greatly surprised—and it takes a lot to surprise the noble Lord. This is legitimate because it is a block grant that the university can use for whatever purpose it wishes. However, it is a tax on research—a tax on the very activity that we want to promote.
Secondly, higher education, as other noble Lords have pointed out, is a hugely international business. It is wonderful that it should be. In my college, we have 550 students from 45 different countries. Some people are now suggesting that universities recruit overseas for financial reasons. In my experience, academics resolutely refuse to respond to economic incentives. They take the best that they can get from all sources. Nevertheless, for a UK/EU undergraduate, we receive £7,500, whereas for a non-EU undergraduate we receive £20,000. It really is perverse to give such disincentives to the education of our own nationals.
Finally, despite many fears, tuition fees have not choked off applications from poorer students. Nevertheless, there is still a huge problem to be addressed. I read with great interest the recent evidence given by the director of Fair Access to a Select Committee in another place. Sir Martin Harris said that in his view this was not a financial matter—bursaries are in place to deal with the principal financial anxieties—or a problem of discrimination in selection. He said:
“I do not believe for a moment that any university discriminates against applicants on the grounds of social class in any direction”.
The problem, as other noble Lords have said, starts earlier. Sir Martin also said:
“However, one of the things I have been saying in all my pronouncements in the last 12 months is that maybe the focus should now shift and we should focus more on really reaching out to 14-year-olds and younger in schools to change aspirations and to recreate upward social mobility”.
I follow the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Krebs, in saying amen to that. The universities can and will play their part, but it is with schools and teachers that the solution primarily lies. I hope that these points will be taken into account next year in the Government’s review of the funding regime.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Luce on securing this debate. I declare an interest: 21 higher education institutions are members of London First, the business organisation that I lead.
Each year, London’s universities turn over £11 billion and earn £1 billion in export earnings. The higher education sector in the 21st century continues to fulfil its traditional role of providing our society with skilled graduates and intellectual capital, but it is now also a major economic powerhouse. The success of our universities and the future competitiveness of our economy have become intimately entwined. The Government, universities and business cannot afford to rest on their laurels. We must produce employable graduates and we must ensure that entry and completion standards do not drop if we are to meet ambitious throughput targets for higher education.
To illustrate this, I will borrow an example from our newly elected Mayor of London, who asked his audience to name the most competitive city in the world—politically, intellectually and economically—in 800 AD. The answer was Baghdad. Then the largest city in the world, with more than a million people, Baghdad was home to a great university, the House of Wisdom, where scholars came from all points of the compass to study mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology and geography. Today, London attracts 86,000 non-UK students each year and is the top destination worldwide for international students, who contribute nearly £1.5 billion per year to the UK economy.
However, no city’s or country’s pre-eminence is guaranteed for ever. For the sake of our country’s future competitiveness and for their own self-interest, our universities must now build much closer relationships with the business world. Currently, the topics and contents of the courses offered by universities are largely determined by students’ preferences. Universities are funded according to the number of students who start and finish their courses. Their incentive from the Government is to provide popular courses that can be filled easily and make progress towards achieving the Government’s target of 50 per cent of young people entering higher education by 2020. Courses in more difficult and unpopular subjects, such as maths, science and engineering, which are vital to our economy, are undersubscribed and remain in notoriously short supply.
Furthermore, employers complain that too many newly qualified graduates apply for jobs without the essential skills needed in a modern workplace: problem solving, the ability to work in teams, communication skills and even—incredibly—reasonable levels of literacy and numeracy. I illustrate that with the example of a leading legal firm in the City, which recruited 70 new graduates last year after receiving 1,200 applications. Although the vast bulk of these came from UK universities, only three successful candidates came from this group; the remainder were from overseas universities. This example is borne out by a London First survey of more than 2,000 London employers. It is a student’s employability skills, not just their paper qualifications, that win jobs in a highly competitive market.
My plea to the Government and the higher education sector is to recognise more clearly the urgent imperatives of the 21st-century economy. Please listen more carefully to employers and take more account of what they need from the higher education system: more emphasis on quality, not quantity, and on higher standards of employability.
My Lords, I declare an interest as an academic at the University of Hull. I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on initiating this debate. It is by no means the first such debate, but it is a necessary one.
In the time available I should like to focus on two areas of continuing concern. The first is one that I have raised on a number of occasions, and that is the sheer burden of bureaucracy on universities. The situation is less bad than it was, and I welcome the approach taken now by the QAA, but there remain significant problems. These are quantitative as well as qualitative. As the QAA acknowledged in its strategic plan for 2006-11, higher education is subject to many regulators. Universities UK makes a similar point, when it says at paragraph 58 of its briefing note:
“With universities having so many stakeholders there is a considerable potential for duplicated demands, confusion and bureaucracy that not only hinder the effectiveness of universities but also undermine the effective use of public funds (by diverting them into administration and paperwork)”.
The problem, however, goes beyond the sheer weight of bureaucracy. It is the nature of regulation that has generated problems. Top-down sector-level regulation has tended to induce a risk-averse culture. As the unit of resource declined and the need for funds became more acute, universities were too prone to accept regulation, implement it and, indeed, gold-plate it. Much of the regulation itself led to a tick-box approach rather than reflection and a willingness to be innovative. I am pleased to note acceptance of the fact that there is a case for the rationalisation of regulation—I very much welcome the QAA’s approach, very different from that which existed when I initiated a debate on this subject in 2001—but we still have some way to go to achieve a light, as opposed to a lighter, touch.
The second theme is related. It concerns the burden deriving from pursuing goals that may not be compatible. Universities are expected to achieve goals, each of which may be eminently desirable, but which in combination create tensions and may render one or more of them unachievable.
Let me illustrate that by identifying three goals. First, the Government wish to achieve an increase in the undergraduate population. Increasing numbers produce not only a new body of students but many with different needs from those who previously went into higher education. That will be even more so in the future as a consequence of demographic change. Secondly, there is pressure to maintain high standards, not least in the awarding of degrees. I disagree with the chief executive of the QAA in his comments on degree classifications. I believe that the existing grading system means something and remains appropriate. The issue is not categories but quality. In my own institution, and certainly in my own department, we have strict mechanisms in place to ensure quality. Thirdly, there is pressure to achieve high retention rates. There is an obvious cost, both to the student and the public purse, if students fail to complete their programme of study.
There is a valid case for each of these goals. However, with limited resources, the danger is that in seeking to achieve two of the three—and take any combination of two—you jeopardise achieving the third. My concern is that this is not recognised sufficiently.
I bring my two themes together. Because we have different regulators, each concerned with a different aspect of what higher education delivers, we fail to look at higher education holistically. There are not just heavy pressures but, at times, conflicting pressures. I believe that there needs to be a greater recognition of that fact and, basically, less of a tendency to say to academics “do this, do that” and more of a willingness to say “well done”. We are among the best in the world in higher education not because we outspend our competitors but rather because of the sheer commitment of those in higher education. Given the limited resources, higher education in this country has achieved a high level of excellence, and that is a cause for celebration. It may achieve even more if left alone more often to get on with the job.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Luce for giving us the opportunity to have this debate, and I want to place my remarks in the broadly humanist frame of reference that he established in his fine opening speech. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I am a jobbing academic. Both the noble Lord and I still find ourselves at the chalk face, and I have been so since 1975. First, I want to say a little about what is positive in our current educational system before looking to the future, as my noble friend Lord Luce advised us to do.
On the basis of my variegated experience—which has included teaching at polytechnics and being a Fellow of a Cambridge college and now a professor in a Russell Group university, and having taught also at an Ivy League school, which has given me some experience of how the American system works—I believe that we still have in our country a very traditional and almost romantic conception of the unity of teaching and research. That may be carried too far in certain respects. My noble friend Lord Krebs referred to the fact that an amazing number of our institutions give out PhDs. But at the same time there is something very positive about this, and it helps to explain the vitality of our teaching. At a time when people are talking about grade inflation and poor teaching, the low dropout rate in our universities is something to be proud of.
Let us look to the future. Professor Geoffrey Crossick, chairman of the longer-term strategy group of the board of Universities UK, is predicting a much bumpier ride for higher education. There are demographic problems which suggest a possible financial crisis, certainly financial difficulties, and little can be done about that. But we can talk about one fundamental thing that Professor Crossick mentioned in his recent remarks: the research assessment exercise and the tremendous importance of getting right whatever now replaces it. The last operation is now under way and he has stressed that it is important to ensure that whatever is put in its place retains the research culture and, in particular, does not lean towards an overly instrumental attitude to scientific research. We should still maintain proper support for curiosity-driven scientific research. At this point, British scientists still win about 10 per cent of international prizes, well beyond what their numbers would suggest. We cannot be sure that this will be so 10 or 15 years from now, despite the amazing scientific tradition in this country. We must do everything possible to ensure that it will be so. The new RAE exercise or its replacement must be an important part of that. It is an absolutely crucial matter.
When I was teaching in America the New York Times issued the results of peer reviews. This was before we had our RAE results. It was remarkable to see how even at an Ivy League school there would be alarm if a department which was considered good had not done so well. It kept everybody on their toes. People moved up and down the list. The RAE has done that for this country, and it is tremendously liberating for many scholars working in unfashionable departments. It is an enormously valuable institution. Mistakes have been made and it is an incredibly difficult thing to do well. I fully acknowledge that there are problems with it, but we must make sure that what replaces it does at least as good a job.
Finally, John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, addressed the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 8 April on the subject of widening participation in higher education. This is an important theme. All noble Lords share in the disappointment at the fact that the figures for social disadvantage in this country have remained stubbornly unchanged for many decades, and I understand the Government’s concern. However, at no point in his speech did the Minister refer to the importance of excellence in higher education. While we have entirely justified concerns about access and widening participation, we must remain committed to excellence, otherwise the much vaunted global competitiveness of the UK system will be lost.
My Lords, I am not quite a jobbing academic, but I am the third academic to speak in this debate—in which there have been far too many chiefs and not enough Indians, if I may say so. Give or take a few days, this is the 17th anniversary of my maiden speech in this House, in a debate on the future of manufacturing. I pointed out then that there was no future in manufacturing in the old-fashioned manner, antagonising Members on my own Front Bench right from the beginning. I said that we would have to move on to R&D-intensive, high-value-added industry, and for that the country had to have much more education than was being provided at the time. I am glad that we have proceeded in that direction, but I am still not quite satisfied.
One of the major problems in British society is that we mistake uniformity for equality. We impose uniformity on a system that for all sorts of reasons should actually have multiple rankings. Because we have uniformity, we waste resources on people who should not be getting them. I do not mind saying that because I come from the London School of Economics. We are a low-endowment university and we live by our wits. I very much welcome the revolution of income-contingent fees for higher education, which we pioneered at the LSE. Unfortunately, not enough has been done in that respect. There is a lot of misinformation about student debt, because people do not realise that the full debt on an income-contingent loan does not have to be repaid, only a proportion of salary above a certain minimum. So there is no mortgage fear in this respect. It is a strange country where people worry more about getting mortgages for houses at non-inflated prices while resisting borrowing for education, an asset which earns much more income than would any house.
I would like to see the full fee charged. However, different universities should be allowed to charge different fees because their costs are different. There should be no government subsidy for teaching. The Government should deal with all such resources through bursaries. No university should get any subsidy for teaching; they should meet teaching costs out of their own revenues. This would encourage much more concentration on where the comparative advantage lies. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said: why should we have so many universities giving PhDs? Why do we pretend that PhDs from different universities are of the same quality? I have been a teacher long enough to know that that must be a fallacy.
The California system, to which many noble Lords have referred, is a great example of how you can achieve diversity and equity while charging fees but not imposing uniformity. It is because we impose uniformity that we have the problem of, for example, access. How many people are going to Oxbridge? Who cares? What matters is that people get higher education, whether at Oxbridge, Manchester, Warwick or wherever. Many people should not go to Oxbridge; perhaps it is not suitable for them. We should concentrate on a variety of junior colleges with one-year, two-year or three-year degrees. That will spread higher education and let people have higher education at the pace that suits them. We should not insist on completion. Let people drop out and come back. Let us have a credit transfer system so that universities do not capture students and treat them like slaves until they get a degree. The attitude seems to be that they are not allowed to go away and, if they do, the little education that they have had will be of no value. I have probably spoken quite enough. I would like all teaching subsidy to be abolished and all research money to be allocated solely by the RAE.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luce. I shall confine my remarks to my particular experience, with four years as the independent adjudicator for higher education. I also have an interest as former chair of admissions at Oxford, and head of St Anne’s at Oxford. In my capacity as adjudicator, I dealt with student complaints from 147 universities. I issued 1,400 decisions, with a disproportionate number of complaints from overseas and postgraduate students. From that perspective, I saw what could, and did, go wrong—but also what went right.
I am filled with admiration for the wonderful job that our universities do, on a shoestring, for many times the number of students who attended when your Lordships were young. The expanded universities are now, however, a microcosm of the world outside, with all the diversity and problems to be found in the general population—disabilities, poverty, child care, lack of support and unfamiliarity with the system. I shall refer to two of the problems that I dealt with.
Among overseas students, whom we value and on whom there is such heavy reliance, the Chinese educational culture is so different that we are ignoring, in our ignorance, the transition that we expect Chinese students to make when they are admitted here. Over there, there is a hierarchy with a veneration of professors, but no academic competition and no ownership as such of the wording of texts. Some of the books used are many hundreds of years old. They rely on the lecturer to help them, out of class. Yet when they come here, we are critical and independent, we have class-based teacher-student interaction and we regard plagiarism with horror, whereas they can scarcely understand or fathom what concerns us. Will the Chinese students adapt to our system or do we have to adapt to theirs? There is much to be said for the halfway house, for UK campuses to be found in China and the mentoring system. One dissatisfied Chinese student wrote to me, saying, “As God is my witness, I thought British education was the best in the world”: but in his case, it had not been.
The other problem I will refer to is the extremism and racial tension of society, which has reached campus and, indeed, may even start there. Some universities are failing to keep the peace on campus, even though that is the place for dialogue. The universities, and the University and College Union, have failed to get to grips with the guidance on good race relations and the avoidance of extremism issued by the DIUS and UUK. The UCU is an unprofessional union, and universities would do well to cease to recognise it and to deal with the alternatives.
My own university, Oxford, tops the league tables. I am, therefore, distressed to have to note that in dealing with racism it has, like some other universities, apparently ignored the code of practice on freedom of speech and its obligations under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and other acts controlling freedom of speech. When I complained, as others did, about the trouble caused by the presence of David Irving and the BNP representative at its union, the university spokesman replied that he was not in a position to know whether the university had complied with the law. It seems that it did not take the advice that it should have on the race relations obligations, and seemed unaware of the limits on freedom of speech, whether you like them or not, imposed by law. Along with other universities, it needs to study the law and its obligations, update the code of practice on freedom of speech and take action to promote good relations. The tools are there; the department should consolidate the guidance that applies to campus racism. Students should be told to whom to complain and be helped to do so. Before we go forward, we must take care of the problems of the students we have.
I will conclude by paying my respect to teaching, above all, but also to research. I have frequently been stopped at railway stations and airports by former students who I barely recognise. They say, “You taught me”, and they are grateful. That makes it all worth while, but no one has ever stopped me to say, “Your research made all the difference”.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for raising this debate, which has turned out to be an important one. A declaration of my personal interests will reveal the area that I want to cover. For many years, I have been a medical academic but also an NHS manager. Recently, I chaired a London strategic health authority, which is responsible for commissioning education and training places from higher and further education for the NHS. I now chair the council of St George’s, University of London—a health sciences university which, by the way, has the highest retention rate of any UK university.
I have therefore looked at relations between the NHS and higher education from all sides now, as the Joni Mitchell song says, and I am afraid that I have looked:
“From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall”.
When on earth will the new department, the DIUS, agree a joint, long-term strategy with the Department of Health for educating the health and social care workforce that makes sense for both the NHS and for higher education? For many universities, which massively expanded their capacity to meet the voracious demand for nurses, allied health professionals and doctors in the past decade, the agreeable cash cow of the NHS has quite suddenly turned into our key strategic risk. Such is the volatility of NHS funding that it is not surprising that some universities are exiting from the fray altogether—City University, for example, which provided excellent quality university teaching for nursing education, is one that springs to mind.
Important though the Darzi review is, strategic health authorities seem to have turned their attention away from education altogether since the recent reorganisation. Once more, we are back into the bust bit of the boom-and-bust cycle, which is the result of poor workforce planning on the part of the NHS, short-term vision and failure to communicate the need for changing skills; and, on the university side, a failure to address responsively the need for research excellence to be relevant to the needs of the NHS and for training to be tailored to the changing face of health and disease.
I shall not touch on the recent reorganisation of postgraduate medical education, but that in itself poses significant challenges for the medical school in addressing the changing face of specialties and preparing undergraduates for the different kinds of specialties and the different needs of healthcare. There is no joint strategy between the two departments and agreed ways forward.
The opportunities are vast for widening participation. There are 1.3 million jobs in the NHS and 900,000 in social care services, of which 600,000 are in the independent sector. This workforce will continue to grow inexorably as the numbers of the very aged grow, and as those surviving with physical and mental disabilities demand and rightly expect the same life choices as the rest of us. We must have a joint, unified workforce with a common understanding of the basic principles of health and social care sciences. In spite of numerous initiatives such as foundation degrees, which have proved exceedingly difficult in the area of healthcare, the creation of new roles, joint NVQs at the bottom end of the life-skills training ladder, assistant practitioners and the like, we have somehow failed to address this serious problem.
It is usually left to the initiatives of individual higher education institutes and interested professionals acting on their own behalf to create the cutting edge examples that get the right kind of children going through the diverse biological education and health science enthusiasms that we want them to adopt. It is this approach that will lead to a better workforce. At the moment, we are nowhere near there and a joint strategy has to be worked on very soon.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Luce on the debate. I declare as an interest my role in Cardiff University.
Wales is known to punch above its weight in higher education but the sector faces real financial threats and devolution has brought its challenges. The turnover of universities and colleges in Wales exceeds £850 million a year and represents value for money. Indeed, the Welsh economy receives an output of more than £4.5 million for every £1 million invested in the higher education sector by the National Assembly. But there are tensions between time in teaching, research and the entrepreneurial translation of innovation into industry for the emerging knowledge economy. To benefit fully from the emerging knowledge economy, further investment in higher education and learning will prove essential.
Given the graduate premium, university education must be widely accessible, regardless of social background or financial considerations. The Welsh higher education sector consistently outperforms England in widening participation. Indeed, yesterday’s Audit Commission figures for England show marked under representation in higher education of those from poor social backgrounds. Cardiff University recently became the first in Wales to receive the Frank Buttle Trust quality mark for its support for looked-after children and people leaving care so that they can progress into higher education. It is a myth that research-led excellence institutions do not contribute fully to the widening access agenda.
But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said, widening access in recruitment must be linked to student retention. Their learning experience must be of a high standard and relevant to their needs, and they need inspiring and supportive role models to stay the course. Last year in Cardiff we awarded more than £1 million in means-tested grants from financial contingency funds to students from low-income backgrounds who were at the greatest risk of leaving university because of financial problems.
Support for students with disabilities and long-term medical conditions is also essential, but it has a cost. The Disability and Dyslexia Service in Cardiff currently works with more than 1,800 students, and a specialist mental health adviser helps students with long-term conditions to access support to remain on their course. Poor student retention represents a financial and human waste and it is essential that, once in, students are helped to develop.
The threat of inadequate investment is of grave concern to the Welsh higher education institutes. Public investment in higher education is now lower in Wales than in either England or Scotland and, therefore, the ability of the Welsh higher education sector to punch above its weight may not be sustainable without further investment. How are the Government planning to ensure that devolution does not widen inequity in society by removing opportunities across the UK?
Do the Government recognise that British universities overall face fierce international competition for students, particularly from other English language countries, a point outlined by my noble friend Lady Valentine? These students have loyalty in the long term that affects their investment in Britain in the future when they become economically active. Will the Minister comment on whether the overall funding of Commonwealth scholarships will not be cut but will be refocused to less developed countries? These respected schemes have attracted students to highly skilled areas of study and enhanced the infrastructure in those developing countries with which we have historic links. Does the Minister recognise that outreach distance learning programmes and university partnerships with developing higher education institutions abroad provide a cost-effective way of educating healthcare workers and others in their own countries? These schemes encourage such people to stay there to develop services rather than risking a brain drain from the developing world, whose students come over here to study and then decide to stay.
I ask the Minister to address both these issues. I fear she may say that devolution is outwith her remit but, for the social fabric of our society, it is important that we do not allow devolution to create gross inequity.
My Lords, like others, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing the debate so well today. I declare an interest as a member of court at the LSE and Lancaster and Newcastle Universities. I am also involved professionally in De Montfort University.
The immense challenges of the 21st century mean that we desperately need a high-quality, comprehensive matrix of higher education, with different institutions playing different roles. The developing diversity is already exciting. Universities such as De Montfort or TVU are developing productive relationships with business and local employers. They are also building strong links with key professions such as nursing, pharmacy, social, community and youth work, the police and probation services, and they often provide a success story of effective multiculturalism. Others such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are well positioned to accelerate the trend, specifically and firmly embraced by Newcastle, to regenerate the concept of the civic university, rooted in the community but dedicated to world-class teaching and research and at the centre of the knowledge economy.
For the UK to flourish, we can leave none of our human potential untapped, but, as a civilised society, we surely cannot still accept millions of people going to their grave never having begun to recognise their potential, let alone fulfil it. Further education often gives the lead in this. Most sectors make a growing contribution to widening access and to enabling the United Kingdom to be a convincing player in globalised communities, not least by their work abroad and by their overseas students here. Both of these contributions are essential in their own right, but they are also vital to the quality of learning and research within any community of scholars.
I fervently hope that we do not pursue the misguided notion of having totally separate teaching and research-based universities. The quality of each discipline is enhanced by interplay with the other, whatever form the research takes. In our evaluation of research, we must look to its special value when based on practical engagement in the dynamics of society. Of course we must nurture our older universities with their pace-setting role of established, high-quality research and teaching, and we must never lose our commitment to the imperative for ensuring the strength of original, free-standing research. That research is indispensable to the future of humanity. But I can think of no better shortcut to falling standards and lowered morale than fostering the concept of a teaching institution with no involvement in research, however it is organised.
Amid the quantitative preoccupations of modern society, the imperative of values, reflection and intellectual originality becomes more significant than ever. Will we suffocate ourselves as a species in a surfeit of information because we have neglected the vital disciplines of properly digesting and analysing that information? Cleverness must never be allowed to squeeze out wisdom. Good management is important, but good management for what? Who is on the bridge and what is the destination? The classics, arts, humanities, ethics and philosophy are as critical as ever to the creative quality of life, but they are also critical to the very survival of the species.
We simply cannot afford not to give high priority and public expenditure and taxation to the generous funding of higher and further education. The state must remain central to guaranteeing it. To pretend we cannot afford it is nonsense. As in other spheres, the danger is that we give in to the priority of private affluence as against the necessity for collective expenditure, and we do so at our peril.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Luce for initiating this debate. This is a very timely topic and has generated tremendous interest in the House and the community.
I declare an interest as a past professor of chemistry in a number of universities in the country. As a result of that, I would like to concentrate on some aspects of the funding of science, both past, present and future, in universities. As the noble Lord, Lord Broers, pointed out, there has been a significant increase in the projected funding of science in universities. Over the next four or five years, this is to be in the order of 17 per cent. However, a recent report by the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills in the other place pointed out that, although the budget has increased, it does not cover all the spending commitments imposed by the Government during this period. It does not cover some of the spending commitments already agreed—for instance, the 80 per cent of the full economic cost of research. It also involves the potential closure of some of the facilities run by research councils. These are very perturbing features.
I believe the full economic funding of research work in university departments to be a significant and desirable change in the funding programme. But, as the Royal Society of Chemistry has pointed out, the way research costs are being assessed has led to a number of industrial firms, particularly pharmaceutical companies, slashing their support for research in university departments of chemistry. The figures they quote indicate a drop of 25 per cent in the number of postdoctoral grants. I do not find it surprising that an increase in the cost of research has led to this reduction in funding, but the Royal Society of Chemistry suggests that a major factor in this reduction has been the introduction of full economic costing.
This change in the funding pattern has been introduced over the past two years by the Government to allow universities to recover indirect costs from projects, such as academic staff time, the use of various instrumental facilities, and library, building and rental support services. I believe it is fair that these factors should be included in any assessment of research sponsored in a university—it has been one of the ironies of the funding of science in universities in the past that they have not been included—but it leads to problems in other general areas.
The figure suggested by the research council for projects sponsored by industry is 80 per cent, but some universities appear to be charging as little as 10 per cent or as much as 120 per cent. Certain charitable funding organisations have also been subjected to these extra costs, but as they are unable to pay them, often for very legitimate reasons, some universities are refusing to accept grants from those bodies. This reflects how dependent universities are on this funding to run their science departments. It is important that the Government address the problems at the interface between universities and industry if we are going to have a healthy relationship between the two, as well as the position with charities.
A further problem occurs with EU framework funding, where the figure of 80 per cent will not apply. The Government should address this problem. We must avoid the chaos that ensued from the funding programme for one of the previous frameworks. Here the percentage was minimal compared with the one given by other organisations. One of the consequences of this funding is that it influences other aspects of universities. There is a suggestion, for instance, that recruitment is being associated with people’s potential to raise money. It is also possible that less funding is directed to blue-sky research. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, referred to the recent paper by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, The Race to the Top, but there is little doubt in my mind that blue-sky research is a fundamental factor in the progress of universities in this country.
My Lords, I join those who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Luce on obtaining this important debate. I come 24th in the list and I come with one point. It is probably almost a marginal point to some in relation to the many that have gone before. I believe that the only raw material that every nation has in common is its people, and woe betide it if it does not do everything possible to identify, nurture and develop the talents of all those people. With that I couple the marvellous phrase of Sir Winston Churchill that,
“there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man”.
I declare an interest as a patron of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, which every year provides 2,000 vocational and academic courses for prisoners, many of them in the field of higher education. Education is said to be the factor with most bearing in fighting reoffending. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people in our prisons have very low academic ability and some have none at all. It is not surprising that the Prison Service concentrates almost entirely on the people with the lowest form of need but in our prisons there are many others with talents which can be discovered and nurtured. The prison system and the sentence provide an opportunity to make something of those talents. I hope that, when the Government are making their plans for the development of higher education, the ministries concerned will liaise closely with the Ministry of Justice to make certain that the needs of this part of our population are properly met and referred to the people who can help. After all, something may well be discovered which would be to the advantage of the country, and woe betide us for not using an opportunity to identify, nurture and develop it.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this extremely interesting and very wide-ranging debate. Because time has been so limited, many noble Lords have talked about one or two subjects only. As it has been such a diverse debate, covering many subjects, trying to pick out common themes has been quite difficult.
It is worth starting with the issue at the forefront, if we are looking forward over the next decade. I refer to numbers. At present, about 40 per cent of young people between the ages of 18 and 40 go on to university. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, said that this figure represents an increase. When he was at university in the 1950s, the figure was 4 per cent; when I was there in the late 1950s it had risen to 6 per cent; by the 1980s, it was 14 per cent. But that figure was still well below the average for advanced industrialised OECD countries. Today the figure for most of those countries is more than 40 per cent, so in order to catch up, we have to go further. In his report, the noble Lord, Lord Leitch, put the target at 50 per cent. I think that all political parties accept that as a reasonable target, but to reach it means widening participation. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, made the point that 60 to 70 per cent of young people among the top socio-economic groups go to university. That means that we have to reach out to widen participation among the lower socio-economic groups, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said.
The noble Lord, Lord Patten, said that the chances of somebody from the lowest socio-economic group going to university are six times less than for those from the top socio-economic groups. Therefore, it is a matter not just of widening participation and increasing numbers but of social equity to give these people a better chance of getting to university. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, it is not a question that the universities alone have to address. Some 92 per cent of those who have the qualifications to get to university—that is, two A-levels or the equivalent—already go to university. Increasing the number of young people who get these qualifications at school is so important. The Government’s present agenda includes diplomas and efforts to motivate young people. We have to accept that we have failed many of them. Because the dropout rate is so high, we know that the secondary school curriculum we offer does not attract them. The Government are doing a great deal, but the universities can help as well. The partnership at Newcastle, for example, is very important. Inviting schoolchildren to universities, giving them access to science practicals, for example, showing them what happens at university and offering extra-mural classes all help to raise the aspirations of young people. It is vital that we continue with such experiments, some of which have been mentioned by my noble friend Lady Walmsley, and increase them to help widen participation.
It is also extremely important not to mix up the issue of fair access with widening participation. Some 4,600 people get three As at A-level. Relatively few universities have less than 80 to 90 per cent of entrants from state schools. A relatively small group of universities has problems in selecting students.
On widening participation and access, we should beware of moving too far in the direction of A* or Pre-U exams. To achieve such qualifications, schools need to provide extra tuition when they may already struggle to deliver further maths. Let me give a great plug to the Further Mathematics Network, which has done an enormous amount to encourage state schools to provide further maths. We need more of that sort of thing from the universities. If schools go down the route of A* and Pre-U exams, it is vital to offer state students the opportunity for the extra training required if they have it. Going down that route will make widening participation and access more difficult.
Many noble Lords have spoken of fees and lifting the cap. If we go down that route, it must be needs-blind. We have an extraordinarily complex system of bursaries that we have acquired as a result of OFFA. That was illustrated by my noble friend Lady Walmsley. There is a great deal to be said for having a national system of bursaries that helps to provide a fairer, more level playing field between universities.
If we go down the route of bursaries and maintenance grants, we are going back to a world that we were trying to get away from in the Higher Education Act 2004 and making students increasingly dependent on their parents’ income. Some parents still refuse to fill in forms.
Widening participation through pulling in more students from low socio-economic groups is important. Let me pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick. Since we are to lose 700,000 young people over the next decade, we must look to mature students, many of whom prefer to work part time rather than full time. It is quite absurd—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix—that the present system incentivises full-time students rather than those studying part time. Indeed, it discriminates grossly against part-time students. Mature students may want to earn and learn, but, if part time, they have to pay fees upfront and have no access to loans. Only 10 per cent of part-time students receive any form of maintenance grant, and the cut-off point is £25,000 a year for their assessed income, whereas 60 per cent of full-time students are now eligible for maintenance grants, and the cut-off point is £65,000. There is gross discrimination against part-time students and we will have to make use of them.
I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of Birkbeck College. Colleges such as Birkbeck come almost top in the student survey leagues for satisfaction and remain at the top of the research league. On research, let me pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lewis. We should pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, for what he did for the science community and for maintaining and increasing the proportion of funding going to science. But the UK is still very far down the league in terms of proportion of income devoted to science. Some 1.75 per cent of our GDP goes on research funding, compared with an average of well over 2 per cent among advanced OECD industrial countries. Countries such as the United States and Japan have now reached the 3 per cent mark, which is the target we have.
We may be looking in the CSR for a more generous funding settlement. Nevertheless, there is a problem with the full economic cost of funding. The noble Lord, Lord Lewis, mentioned the problems with charities; there is also the problem that the universities are being given only 80 per cent of the full economic cost. Ten per cent is supposed to come from their capital funding and another 10 per cent is to be found among the universities. That amounts to £1 billion a year that universities have to find from their own funds for what is supposed to be the full economic cost. It would be good to see government departments living up to the Government’s promise here and paying full economic costs on their own research commissions.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, raised a vital point on autonomy. On the research funding for the Facilities Council, the Government used the Haldane principle of autonomy. They claimed, “It is not our business, it is the Research Council’s business”. They cannot have it both ways. We have the Government interfering on the ELQ issue. They interfere in decisions made by HEFCE, dictating what it should do and how it should spend its money. On the other hand, when a decision is made and people say, “Can you really allow the Research Council to make such a mess of its funding?” they say, “It is nothing to do with us. It is all to do with the Research Council”. The Government have to make up their mind.
We have had a diverse debate. We have a diversity of institutions. Like the noble Lord, Lord Luce, I think we should celebrate and build on that diversity. It serves us well.
My Lords, this has been a most useful and interesting debate, one that has covered in great depth this important subject. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on securing the debate and on the excellent range of contributions from across the House.
The noble Lord eloquently pointed out that we face many challenges. Higher education institutions and FE colleges have to adopt from and adapt to the ever-changing environment around them. We have been promised that the Government intend to work with the higher education sector on what action should be taken over the next 10 to 15 years to ensure a world-class system of higher education.
We also need to be proactive in ensuring that we do not squander the talent that already exists, and that the success of our research establishment in the global academic community is strengthened and enhanced. There is nothing wrong with a strategic approach but we must not lose sight of the day-to-day challenges. The United Kingdom produces around 9 per cent of the world’s research papers. To ensure that we remain world leaders, universities must be confident that they are able to attract the best academic minds. Fear of debt and artificial engineering of inclusion must not be the determinant or deterrent factors.
The important work done by the higher education sector in the advancement of scientific research has been highlighted in this debate. I will make a few observations about this area. This country enjoys one of the finest reputations in world science and wider research. That is a legacy of which any Government should be proud. Yet I am concerned that the Government’s growing stranglehold over science funding represents nothing less than a breach of trust with the science community and is putting the independent direction of scientific research at risk. In recent times, we have seen a reduction in this important sector. How do the Government intend to salvage their science policy, to liberate it from the creeping political interference that has characterised recent experience?
A few months ago, the Secretary of State announced the next steps in the implementation and development of the research excellence framework. In consequence, we will have to wait a further year before the new framework is implemented—it is now not to be operational until the 2014 academic year. Can the Minister provide a further update on the consequences of this extra delay for research planning and research activity?
The concerns expressed about the relative value for higher education institutions of A-level qualifications in assessing candidates’ respective suitability for admission to higher education courses deserve to be considered. The Government need to be clear that the voices of higher education institutions are heard in the design and implementation of the changes they are making to A-levels and in the creation of new diplomas.
We all recollect the Government’s much heralded target of 50 per cent of young people entering higher education. Yet in answer to a Question in another place on 10 June, only five local authorities were exceeding that target. Indeed, in a significant number of local authorities the proportion of young people entering higher education at 18 and 19 has fallen since this Government came to power. The overall figure for England stands at around 40 per cent. My noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes rightly pointed out that to widen access it is crucial to first address the disparities students face in secondary education. Only then can we expand on wider participation.
One component of the Government’s approach to widening access has been the use of higher national diplomas and foundation degrees. Since 1997, the number domiciled in the United Kingdom who qualify for a higher national diploma and go on to study for a first degree in the following academic year has fallen. Similarly, since the introduction of foundation degrees, the number of those who qualify for such a degree and go on to a first degree has fallen.
Some students cite the pressure of personal debt as a reason for not continuing. The average level of debt for those who graduate is around £15,000, a considerable sum for many either already at or considering going to university. This often proves a deterrent and will certainly focus the mind of any potential student about the marketability of the skills that they will learn in securing employment and paying off the debt incurred as a result. The Government’s own estimates are that it takes a student around 13 years to repay a student loan. This can appear a remarkably long time for someone embarking upon a course of higher education. Students need access to advice that will help direct them into courses that best suit their particular skills and interests, alongside meeting the needs required by employers.
Further to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I would like to touch briefly on ELQs. While I acknowledge the importance of a first degree, I am deeply concerned that the Government’s decision to cut £100 million funding will have a huge impact on part-time learners, mature learners and those returning to the workplace, particularly women. In view of the Leitch report, a better skilled and educated workforce is crucial if we are to remain competitive, with the growth of emerging economies. It will have a major impact on universities such as Birkbeck and the Open University, which are so supportive in enabling people to study around families and work commitments. When 25 per cent of Open University students study for qualifications in maths, science and technology, they will now be at risk because of the ELQ funding cuts. How does the Minister reconcile that loss with the importance of the skills agenda?
My noble friend Lady Rawlings highlighted some of the really visionary work undertaken by a number of universities. It highlights the need to ensure that universities are not burdened with unnecessary interference and bureaucracy. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth candidly spoke of how much further the Government need to go to free up universities. We are fortunate to have the excellent calibre of academics such as him leading the way in our universities. With so many excellent and much better qualified speakers than myself, I leave it to the Minister to answer the many questions raised in this debate.
My Lords, I have found the debate enormously stimulating. It has been hugely important. Having listened to noble Lords beginning their contributions by declaring interests, I was trying to think what kind of interest I could declare—apart from having been a student union president. That might be an interesting one. I declare an interest as a woman with a little treasure in her heart. I think the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, would agree that if we all have a treasure in our hearts, how we unlock that talent is the key at the centre of the debate.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for securing this timely debate and for his wide-ranging and thought-provoking opening remarks, which provided a perfect context for it. I welcomed particularly his suggestion of a bonfire of the prejudices.
The debate is particularly timely because in his speech at the Wellcome Trust earlier this year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Universities, Innovation and Science—I always get that the wrong way round—has launched—
Skills, that is right. We will get there.
My right honourable friend John Deham launched a wide-ranging debate on the future of higher education. He signalled a desire to develop a 10 to 15-year framework for the future of higher education, which is why today’s debate has been so helpful. The higher education sector is changing rapidly in an international context. We know that other countries are developing fast. For example, the number of Chinese graduates tripled between 2001 and 2006 to more than 3.5 million per year. We have a world-class higher education system, but we cannot rest on our laurels. By launching the 10 to 15 year framework for the future of higher education, my right honourable friend opened up a series of discussions which will allow the Government to gather the opinions of those who work and study in higher education. The result of this work will be a dynamic and wide-ranging document that sets out the framework within which the higher education sector will develop and thrive during the next 10 to 15 years. This framework will help to ensure that higher education meets the growing and challenging demands of the 21st century; it will provide a reference point for future policy-making decisions; and it will enable progress to be measured objectively and transparently. It is the Government’s intention to set this framework before, importantly, reviewing undergraduate variable fees in 2009.
The way in which we are approaching this debate has been welcomed, as I am sure all noble Lords have seen. We have asked a number of distinguished contributors to provide advice to us on a series of strategic questions about the future of higher education. They are questions about the international role of our universities, about the consequences of demographic changes during the next decade and beyond—highlighted today by my noble friend Lady Morris and by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing—and about teaching and the experience that students have in higher education. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, reminded us, all students—those in custody as well as those in higher education institutions—are important. Those questions are also about part-time provision, which has been highlighted by many noble Lords today. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, they are a very important group of students in university. They are questions about how universities use intellectual property and the income from research, and about careers in research.
My right honourable friend has asked distinguished colleagues to look at how academics can contribute more effectively to public policy-making, on which I think noble Lords will have views. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, suggested, they will look at how we understand the performance of our universities as the higher education sector both in this country and abroad becomes more diverse and the environment in which it operates becomes increasingly challenging. They will look, too, at widening access to higher education through more transparent admissions processes, through improved partnership with, and recruitment from, further education colleges, and at making scientific, engineering and maths degrees a realistic goal for the most talented of our young people, whatever their background.
In his speech, my right honourable friend used a phrase that bears repeating. He said that in producing our framework, we would not only look at what government should do but also set out what universities “should aspire to achieve”. We have respect for the autonomy of the university system in this country, which is an important point made by noble Lords today, first of all by the noble Lord, Lord Luce.
However, to talk only of autonomy is not enough. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested, we need to be clear about our goals. We need a shared vision of what it will mean to be world class in higher education as the world changes around us with bewildering speed. The Government’s challenge is to set the right policy framework with the right incentives to achieve a world-class system overall. The Government have earned the credibility to lead this debate, but in partnership with an autonomous sector. Our track record in sustaining investment and facing up to unpopular choices means that we are a partner with which universities can work with confidence.
We are determined not to allow the analysis that we have rightly asked for in this debate to lead to paralysis. We are still determined to go forward and continue making decisions in the mean time. A recent example was the new university challenge, which was highlighted by my noble friend Lady Morris. It will enable 20 towns and cities to develop university centres, bringing higher education closer to those with the potential to benefit from it.
I shall try to respond to the many points made in the debate. If I do not do so adequately here, I will endeavour to write to noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and others spoke about the importance of part-time student support. This Government were the first to make financial support available to part-time students. We see their role as being increasingly important in higher education, and we know that, as the student body becomes more diverse in the future, it is a challenge to which we must respond.
Many Peers highlighted concerns about our forthcoming fees review. My noble friend Lord Desai, in celebrating the 17th anniversary of his maiden speech, made a bold proposal on that question. However, as we have said previously, there will be an independent review of the first three years of the new fee arrangements. It will be wide ranging. The draft terms of reference that we published in January 2004 said that it would cover not only participation and retention rates but issues such as the impact on teaching, students’ choice of subjects and graduate destinations.
The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, spoke about many things with, as ever, great eloquence, but touched on the importance of meeting the challenge on skills. We know that the proportion of working-age adults holding qualifications at level 4 or above is increasing, from 25 per cent in 2001 to 31 per cent in 2007. We are not complacent: we believe that our 40 per cent ambition is achievable. However, many countries are already exceeding 40 per cent. We know that we have the opportunity, because 6 million adults hold only level 3 qualifications. We want to see them stretched and able to achieve their level 4. There is an important skills debate to be had, and universities have an enormous amount to contribute.
The noble Lords, Lord Luce, Lord Broers and Lord Patten, and my noble friend Lady Warwick and many others mentioned the importance of funding, its volume and its diversity. By 2011, we will have increased funding for universities by 30 per cent in real terms since 1997. Funding per student will stay constant in real terms at the same time as we introduce fees that bring in an extra £1.3 billion annually to universities. My noble friend Lady Warwick would, I think, be surprised if I went further and made commitments beyond this CSR period, but I heard what she said.
We have also committed to diversity of funding and encouraged universities to develop their research partnerships. We have asked students to share the costs of higher education and, as some noble Lords mentioned, we have introduced our matched-funding scheme to support voluntary giving, which will use £200 million of public funds to lever in £400 million in donations. That is very important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, we should be proud of the increasing entrepreneurial success of the university sector in this country. I agree with her on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about widening participation. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp: we should not confuse widening participation with fair access. There are debates to be had on both. For the record, university participation among the four lowest socio-economic groups rose from 17.5 per cent in 2002 to 19 per cent in 2006. I congratulate all those higher education institutions who have worked hard, through their outreach work and by working with the “Aim Higher” scheme, to increase success in widening participation. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that we are working very hard to create an integrated information and application process. The noble Baroness is right: all the strands of information that help students to make choices about student finance and university courses should be made far more streamlined. We will be launching an integrated system in September, through Student Finance England.
The interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, gave Ministers in this Government the opportunity to congratulate the University of Oxford on its outreach work and recruiting more students from state schools. While the noble Lord may talk about pointing guns, I talk about pointing funding. We point that funding at many targets, including schools, further education colleges and such initiatives as “Aim Higher”. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, said clearly how important the role of schools is in widening participation. I agree with him.
The noble Lord, Lord Janner, raised an important point about recognising the devastating effect that anti-Semitism and other hate crimes can have on those university students who experience them. My department takes this very seriously and I hope it will be able to work positively with the sector and all those involved in the All-Party Group on Anti-Semitism. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, talked about extremism in higher education and the need to tackle it more widely. I congratulate my honourable friend Bill Rammell, who is leading a debate in higher education at the moment, on the role of academic freedom in combating extremism. The right to speak out, espousing views that are sometimes extreme, is very much a core value of this country, and something that we would like to ensure that all those involved in higher education can be proud of. The noble Baroness highlighted that the DIUS has produced guidance for universities on how to promote and reinforce shared values, support mainstream voices who want to speak out, break down segregation among different communities, and ensure that every student feels safe on campus. These guidelines have been widely circulated. They include practical information about booking rooms and managing external speakers. I hope they are helpful in providing practical support to those working in the sector.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Bew, talked about research. Of course, research is an enormously important part of higher education. By 2011 government funding for the UK research base will have risen to around £4 billion, from £1.3 billion in 1997. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, whether her party would be prepared to show a similar commitment to funding the science base in the UK. I would be tremendously supportive of that commitment if it could be made. We are committed to ensuring that the UK maintains its reputation for world-class research. The new Research Excellence Framework will recognise and support excellent research of all kinds in all disciplines, wherever that research is being carried out. That means across the sector. The new metrics-based assessment system will enable academics to spend more time on high-quality research. It is being tested and piloted; I would not call that a delay. I would call it an important piece of work that has been supported by the sector and by research. The new system will be in place, when it has been tried and tested, by 2014.
The noble Lords, Lord Smith, Lord Broers and Lord Lewis, and others talked specifically about science. Science funding has increased with regard to the research base. It has increased significantly, doubling in real terms under this Government. It must continue to increase, and will do so over the next three years. We are very clear about how the Research Funding Council’s independence will work. It is important that the Government and research councils have distinct roles. We will see funding in three streams, looking at sustaining world-class research within the UK; harnessing research to tackle such key challenges as climate change; and increasing the impact on the economy through collaboration between research and business. On another note, noble Lords should be reassured that we have seen significant increases in the numbers of people applying to study maths, science and engineering. I remember, in the last debate on higher education that I took part in as a Back-Bencher, talking about the need to see more people coming forward to study science at university. I am delighted that it is starting to happen.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the need to tackle regulation within higher education. I take that very seriously. We are making progress, but we are not complacent; a lot more needs to be done. My noble friend Lady Warwick and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about the importance of international scholarships. I want to be clear that DfID is increasing its funding of scholarship programmes. I know that there are concerns, but I say again that the Government are committed to increasing funding for overseas scholarships.
The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, raised her concerns about the strategy for education of the health and social care workforce. The DIUS and the DoH work together on many matters, not least the questions raised by the noble Baroness. The Darzi review will be out soon. There is a great deal of contact between the two departments. I hope that the higher education sector can respond to the NHS as an extremely important future employer. Through the review, we should make sure that the environment exists to make that possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about devolution, which I care about very much. I would be very concerned if we saw devolution adding to inequality. We do not necessarily have to be the same in Wales and England, but we have to see opportunities for all potential graduates and postgraduates across the UK. My right honourable friend John Denham will, in his review, be looking at research in particular across the UK. It is also an important issue for Wales.
This has been an important debate. I will make sure that all noble Lords’ comments are fed back to the department, and are heard and looked at carefully. I close by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Luce, again for securing this important debate.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to thank all noble Lords for the quality of their speeches and the Minister for her extensive reply. A strength of this Chamber is that it can be reflective and think long term. This was my purpose in asking for this debate on higher education.
So many big guns from the field of higher education have contributed that it would be invidious of me to pick out any one speaker, save to say that the range of knowledge, experience and wisdom that we have heard today was self-evident to everybody. Despite the tight discipline that had to be shown as regards the length of our speeches, noble Lords made a wide range of significant and important points. Notwithstanding the Minister’s difficulty recalling the title of the Secretary of State, I very much hope that she and her colleagues will think carefully about the issues that we raised. I cannot resist asking what other second Chamber in the world today would produce the range of wisdom and experience on this subject or any other that we have heard today. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to set out to the House today how the Government propose to make further progress towards the fair and equal society that we want to see.
“I am pleased to announce that we are today publishing our key proposals for the Equality Bill in a document entitled Framework for a Fairer Future. Copies are available in the Vote Office.
“For us, equality is a matter of principle; it always has been. As the Prime Minister set out on Wednesday in his announcement on social mobility, we want to address the serious inequalities that still exist. Addressing these inequalities and creating a fairer society are important for three reasons. First, fairness is important for the individual. No one should have to put up with discrimination. Secondly, fairness is important for our society. A society that is equal and fair is one that is more at ease with itself. Thirdly, fairness is important for our economy. An economy that sees no one pushed to the margins or excluded brings the widest pool of workers to employers. Diversity makes us outward-facing and helps us to compete in the global economy.
“The first equality law was brought in by a Labour Government more than 40 years ago. Progress has been made to outlaw discrimination against you if you are black, if you are a woman, if you are lesbian or gay, if you are disabled or if you are older. But though progress has been made, inequality and discrimination still persist. Men who work full time still earn 40 per cent more per hour than women who work part time. Though more disabled people are now working than ever before, a disabled person is still two and a half times more likely to be out of work. If you are black or Asian, you are less likely to be in work and, if you are in work, you are more likely to be earning below the level of your qualifications. Homophobic bullying still blights the lives of most lesbian or gay young people and it is still perfectly lawful to tell someone, ‘Sorry, you’re too old’, to refuse anything from healthcare to insurance.
“The Bill and package of measures that I will outline to the House today represent a radical shift in our approach to fighting unfairness and breathe fresh life into our equality agenda. Our package of measures includes the Equality Bill that we promised in our previous manifesto, secondary legislation and action by the new Equality and Human Rights Commission. We expect everyone—the public sector firms that do business with the public sector and companies in the private sector—to play their part.
“On pay, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 80 years before women are paid the same as men. It is impossible to tackle discrimination when it is hidden. That is why we want a new era of openness when it comes to pay so that women can see, in their own workplace, just how much more men get paid than they do. Just as every school has to publish its exam results, so that parents can see, and every hospital has to publish its waiting lists, so that patients can see, I want employers to report on key equality issues such as gender pay, so that their employees can see. This will put the spotlight on pay unfairness, which we all know goes on but which stays swept under the carpet.
“Under its legal duties to promote equality, the public sector will lead by example, but 80 per cent of people are employed in the private sector, where the pay gap is double that of the public sector, so we must have progress on fairness in the private sector. We will do that in five ways, through the fact that 30 per cent of all companies do £160 billion-worth of business with the public sector and by considering how public procurement can be used to deliver transparency and change. The Equality Bill will outlaw clauses in employment contracts that prohibit employees from disclosing their pay to one another. Where an employer has been found to have unlawfully discriminated, we will provide for the employment tribunal to be able to make a recommendation applying not just to the successful complainant but to everyone in that workplace. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries under its legal powers into sectors where most progress needs to be made, starting with the financial services sector. We are going to tackle sexism in the City. Through a new kite-mark system, we will challenge companies to report on equality.
“We expect that business will equally regard reporting on its progress on equality as an important part of explaining to investors, employees and others the prospects for the company. We will review progress on transparency and its contribution to the achievement of equality outcomes and, in light of this, consider within the next five years using existing legislation to achieve greater transparency in company reporting on equality.
“Many people still seem to think that it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate against someone because they are older. It is not and, with the number of people over 85 set to double over the next 20 years, it makes no sense. People are not over the hill at 60 to be either refused insurance or discriminated against in healthcare. We will lay down in the Equality Bill duties on the public sector to eliminate age discrimination and promote equality for older people. We will take powers to outlaw age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. We will need to allow for a transitional period for changes to be made to comply with the law before it comes into effect, but work is already under way, and we will consult on making provisions to bring the new law into force more quickly in those sectors that are ready to comply with the law.
“On disability, too, we need to be able to see who is including disabled people in their workforce and who is shutting them out. That way, we can see who is making progress year on year, compare comparable organisations, learn from the best and challenge the worst.
“We need to make further progress on fairness. That is why we will legislate to give more scope for employers, if they want to increase the number of women or black or Asian employees, to take positive action. This will help the police, for example, who want to make more progress on diversity because they know that they can be most effective when they reflect the ethnicity of the communities that they serve. To allow progress on women’s representation in the House of Commons to continue, we will extend the permission for all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection until 2030. We will consider with the Commissioner for Public Appointments whether a specific power to encourage diversity for public appointments within her remit would assist her in this task.
“Next month I will publish a further paper setting out our proposals in greater detail and over the coming months there will be a continuous and determined programme of further action, which will include considering whether there is a case for representative actions to employment tribunals, working out whether we can toughen the law to give redress to people who suffer discrimination on multiple grounds and working with the trade unions to strengthen the excellent and pioneering work of trade union equality representatives in the workplace.
“This package will see us make further progress towards a fair and equal society. A single statute to replace the complex web of legislation that has grown up over the years will make it easier for people to see their rights and understand their obligations. The Equality Bill will be written in plain English alongside the necessary legal language.
“In the past, when Labour has brought in laws to promote equality, they have been controversial. I hope that now, in the 21st century, there will be agreement that we must all play our part in making this country fairer”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. It is disappointing that, once again, a Statement should have been made in the other place after the Government had already given briefings to the press. I was dismayed to see the headline splashed across the Daily Mail this morning proclaiming, “Women More Equal Than Men”. That headline was generated, I would say, by the Government’s briefing, which has set the wrong tone right at the outset of an extremely important and sensitive debate. Once again, the Government’s departure from convention in their pre-emptive media strike threatens to jeopardise this serious agenda. I am grateful to have my chance to respond to this Statement in the place where these proposals should have originated: Parliament.
The Equality Bill will be welcome legislation. Consolidation of equality legislation is important because it hits at the heart of the problem. To ensure level-pegging, people need to know where the pegging is. A streamlined approach is surely the way forward and I look forward to working with the noble Baroness in improving the legislation, when it arrives. Together we can move towards a more equal and fairer society.
This Bill has been a long time coming. It was a manifesto commitment in 2005. We have been told today that there will be another announcement in a month’s time. I am concerned that we are simply being reminded today that the Government have not forgotten about their commitment to equality. This is crucial legislation, which could be a big step forward, so why have the Government taken so long to make this crucial stride?
We welcome the broad thinking behind the proposals to tackle age discrimination, but the lack of detail on implementation and exemptions is baffling. Discrimination against a person on account of their age is abhorrent. We strongly support fair provision of services for older people and we need to make sure that the proposals will genuinely benefit them. Age discrimination proposals will have a serious impact on the health service, yet, once again, there is little detail in the Statement. Can the noble Baroness explain how age discrimination proposals would affect not just the planning of services but decisions about the treatment of individuals? I am sure that your Lordships’ House will bring much experience and expertise to this issue, because this Chamber has certainly never discriminated on the ground of age and recognises the wisdom that comes with age.
The true impact of proposed equality legislation will be in the practical workability of the detailed proposals. Without further information, we cannot assess the real impact of the Government’s proposals. For example, the Minister noted in her Statement that the Government would use procurement contracts as a way of increasing transparency with regard to the pay gap, but how will this work? The implication seems to be that, if the figures are bad, a company will not get the business. What is the Government’s clear position on this?
The noble Baroness mentioned in her Statement that employment tribunals will be able to make wide-ranging recommendations when an employer is guilty of discrimination. What exactly does this mean? We have a firm position on this. We have proposed compulsory pay audits for employers who are found guilty of discrimination. Are the Government adopting our position? Does the Minister have a different solution, or is it simply empty rhetoric?
It seems that we are in danger of these proposals becoming a noble gesture. The diversity targets for government departments might have been met with applause but, after a decade of opportunity, the Government have failed to meet their self-imposed targets. The pay gap in the Treasury is 26 per cent. Only 31 per cent of senior civil servants are women. The Ministry of Defence is the worst: only 13 per cent of its top jobs are filled by women. The Government have claimed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct inquiries into sectors where progress needs to be made. It seems clear to me where it could start. When will the Equality and Human Rights Commission be invited into the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence? If the Government are really committed to taking a firm stand on equality, they should lead by example and get their own house in order first.
These proposals are in danger of being half-baked. For example, the Government’s position on positive discrimination needs further clarification. Can the noble Baroness explain how far this would extend? Would an employer who felt that their organisation would benefit from more white men be able to discriminate in favour of them? Would, for example, the head teacher of a primary school staffed only by women be able to discriminate in favour of a man under these proposals?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission covers religious discrimination, yet there is no mention of this in the Statement. Indeed, when the Statement was debated in another place, the Minister ignored the issue and failed to answer the question. We are fortunate to have another chance to ask that question, which it is essential that the Government answer. Will the Equality Bill include religious discrimination, or is it the case that what was hailed as a priority by the Government when Mr Blair was Prime Minister has now simply slipped off the agenda?
I come back to the tone of the equality debate. Ministers have used phrases such as “empowering the resentful”. Is it any wonder that the headlines were so negative this morning? Where is the positive and sensible approach in that kind of language? The language is important because it changes the tone of approach and thus the chance for success. This is what will frame the proposals—in Parliament and in public—and be the bedrock for any future progress.
After all these years, after manifesto commitments and press releases, the Government are in danger of missing the opportunity that this proposed legislation presents because of their obsession with being seen to be doing the right thing, rather than actually doing the right thing. They could be introducing a revolutionary approach to equality today, announcing legislation that promotes fairness and diversity and building a positive and sensible framework and coalition. In what should have been the biggest step towards a fairer society in decades, the Government have merely stumbled out of the blocks.
The Bill has noble intentions, but the noblest of intentions should not be dashed by partial policies and divisive politics. In such a highly sensitive area, the details are crucial, as is communicating them in a positive and sensible way in accordance with convention. This is a chance for cohesion and fairness. This is an opportunity firmly to entrench the British sense of fair play. The Government should rise above party politics. I hope that the Minister will join me in endeavouring to achieve the noble intentions behind the Bill with a renewed commitment to a positive and thorough way forward.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for early sight of the Statement in the other place. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, that we should rise above party politics. If one leaves out the bits of her speech that were full of party politics, highly partisan and very cross, there were positive aspects of it which I have never heard a Conservative—or shadow—Minister make. That is extremely welcome.
This House has very special expertise, some of which is held by noble Lords sitting here, in tackling inequality and promoting comprehensive, user-friendly equality legislation. All the strands, as we now call them, of discrimination are very well represented in this House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, has asked me to express her great regret that she cannot be here this afternoon. I mention her in particular because she and I, along with others, are going to form a cross-party—and beyond-party—group to work in this House to help the Government in both Houses to make this legislation effective. The criteria by which we will judge it are as follows. First, whether the Bill will contain clear, consistent standards. It needs to consolidate the existing law to make it more user-friendly and accessible. Secondly, we will look at whether the regulatory framework is efficient. There needs to be an effective, efficient and equitable regulatory framework aimed at encouraging voluntary and easy steps to promote equality. Thirdly, we will look at whether the remedies are accessible. People should be free to seek redress for the harm that they suffer as a result of unlawful discrimination through procedures that are fair, inexpensive and expeditious. The remedies should be effective in achieving widespread change.
We will look with particular care, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, did, at the proposals on equal pay. I declare an interest, because I have represented, among others, the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the pending cases, known as “Redcar”, dealing with the problems that afflict local authorities as a result of past failures to accord equal pay. There is broad consensus among all experts that the Equal Pay Act, which Barbara Castle introduced in 1970, whereby employers had five years before it became effective, has proved ineffective and unworkable.
For those with long memories or long lives, this House made a contribution in 1983, when Mrs Thatcher’s Government were compelled by a Luxembourg court ruling to introduce equal pay for work of equal value. Something remarkable happened in this House at that time, and I shall leave a copy of the debate in the Library for those who care to read it. In the Commons, the late Alan Clark, in a somewhat inebriated state, introduced the regulations and, I am afraid, made an idiot of himself. When the regulations were introduced here in the Lords, Lord McCarthy introduced an amendment, which was passed by this House, believe it or not, supported by, for example, Baroness Seear, the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, and many others who are still alive. The amendment stated that the House,
“believes that the [equal value] regulations do not adequately reflect”
EC law. That is the basis on which the regulations were passed. In the course of that most remarkable debate, Lord Denning, who had dealt with many equal pay cases, said that although the EC law was clear,
“We have suffered a large number of headaches in order to understand that statute”—
the Equal Pay Act—
“Its tortuosity and complexity is beyond compare. No ordinary individual can understand it. We in the Court of Appeal had the greatest difficulty”.—[Official Report, 5/12/83; col. 901.]
He went on to explain that the whole procedure was so tortuous, complex and unworkable that it made equal pay a dead letter.
I have read the Statement and the accompanying summary with great care. I do not understand how it has come about—against the wishes, I am sure, of the right honourable Harriet Harman and equality Ministers—that there is to be no obligation placed upon private sector employers, unless they are involved in public procurement, to carry out equal pay audits. It is all very well to talk about Kitemarks, but I remember the words of the late Archbishop William Temple, who once famously said, “Whenever I intend to travel on the Underground, I intend to buy a railway ticket—but the fact that there is a ticket collector at the other end just clinches it”. Without a complete, radical and proper overhaul of the nonsense introduced, I am afraid, by the Conservatives in 1983 on equal pay, we will not achieve it. Nothing in the Statement indicates that there will be that radical overhaul.
I wish to raise one or two other matters. There needs to be collective machinery for eliminating discrimination in collective agreements. Obviously there need to be representative actions, whereby if some 1,000 employees seek equal pay or non-discrimination they do not all have to bung in separate pieces of paper and they can be gathered together in a comprehensive way.
Obviously, multiple discrimination needs to be tackled, as has been done in Canada, for example. On age discrimination, of course we all should welcome the intention to extend the law to goods and services; but I do not understand why the Statement refers only to the need to “take powers” to do so, instead of saying, “We are going to extend age discrimination legislation now”. I do not understand the reference to “a transitional period”. It will be at least a year and a half before the Bill becomes law. That seems quite long enough to bring the age discrimination legislation into force.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, referred to religion. The single public duty which will involve promoting equality and tackling “disadvantage” is welcome, but there are great dangers in treating religion in exactly the same way as ethnicity or gender. I say this in front of three very distinguished right reverend Prelates, who will know exactly what I am talking about. Religion is an issue. People with a faith and those who do not believe in God at all are covered by the notion of religion and belief, or the lack of it. The idea that a public authority is meant to decide to look at “disadvantage” related to religion or belief, or the lack of it, and then do something about tackling it, is horrendous, because one person’s religion is another’s blasphemy. Setting one religion against another and calling on public authorities to grapple with that would be wrong.
I want to make it clear, as I have done already to Ministers, that you cannot have a one-solution-fits-all approach that treats religion as identical to ethnicity or gender. There are similar problems relating to sexuality. Asking people about their sexuality raises privacy issues, in the same way as asking about their religion. I very much hope that these issues will be dealt with when we get to the details.
I thank noble Lords for the welcome that has been given to the Statement. I endorse what both noble Lords have said: that this House has a special task when we consider these proposals in detail—not just because we are wise and old, but because we have a unique collection of expertise which will make our debates on this Bill particularly vital and significant.
I welcome the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. She said that this was an opportunity for fairness and she was quite right. In the other place the Minister invited the Opposition to work closely with the Government in making this legislation as effective and as principled as possible. I extend that invitation. I would particularly welcome the noble Baroness’s help if she were able to get Conservative newspapers to take a more positive line on the great benefits that we are offering in this Statement.
On the specific questions, I begin with age discrimination. This is an enormously significant day, not least for this House and for particular colleagues who have spent a great deal of their professional lives and personal commitment encouraging us to arrive at this point. The public duty on age discrimination will challenge a culture in which older people are often seen as invisible and worthy only of second-class services. We will see a significant change in the culture of the health service. We must see that. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, we need a transitional period, because we are challenging health services to look at the way they work from top to bottom in relation to people with chronic and acute illnesses who occupy so much of the concern of the health service. However, the public duty on age discrimination will come into force immediately that this Bill comes into force; but we must work with the industry to ensure that services can be delivered properly.
On pay, I listened closely to what the noble Lord said. He has extraordinary experience on this issue. We want to make sure that transparency on pay audits is our most effective weapon. We want to abandon gagging orders whereby, extraordinarily, people are unable to discuss their pay with their colleagues. On pay audits, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, referred, we have issues to address in our public service, not least the Treasury. Using the new instruments for the first time will give us real power.
In terms of the private sector, there is an argument for incentives rather than a single sledgehammer. Throughout the whole range of instruments, we will get procurement, quality and higher standards that we can promote and demonstrate. We will be able to achieve the sort of outcomes that the noble Lord wants.
My Lords, we will certainly review what will happen in the private sector, as my noble friend said in the other place today, in terms of the way pay audits are put into force. We will monitor that closely.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, asked whether positive discrimination would mean that white males would be discriminated against and under what circumstances? She cited the case of the head teacher. The important thing that we are trying to do here is to give employers who need to be able to address under-representation an opportunity to do so without fear of being sued. We are not imposing quotas; we are not imposing criteria. This will be permissive. It will not mean that people with fewer qualifications or experience will not be promoted over others but it will mean that there will be more fairness, so that employers can address the problem of under-representation when they have two candidates of equal merit. Equal merit is very important.
In relation to religion, in this country we have groups of communities, which, because of their religion—as much as their ethnicity—find it difficult to access services. There will for the first time be a public duty in relation to religion. I am thinking particularly, for example, of Muslim women, who are sometimes not comfortable accessing health services. Without going into the argument that the noble Lord raised—I am sure that we will have time to do so in future—we are particularly interested in challenging the culture that does not take account of these sorts of differences and the way in which they impact on parts of the community. That is essentially what we want to achieve.
Both noble Lords raised the issue of procurement. We are committed to using the leverage that public procurement offers to promote equality in the private sector. The detail of how we do that will clearly be subject to further consideration and consultation. However, it can and should contribute to the delivery of equality objectives. My time has run out. I am happy to expand on those answers when Back-Bench Members raise additional questions.
My Lords, I start by saying how delighted I was to hear the Government’s announcement. As a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I welcome many aspects of the announcement, and particularly the fact that there will be a single public sector duty, covering all strands that the commission covers; the promotion of equality through public sector procurement, as has been mentioned; and the simplification and transparency that will be guaranteed. However, in these very few minutes, I will concentrate my brief remarks on the aspects relating to age.
As the noble Baroness has said, I have spent most of my adult life campaigning for older people to be recognised as citizens who are equal to younger adults, not as a different and separate species. Persistent and endemic age discrimination has meant that that has been the reality for most old people, although that is largely unrecognised in our society. This shift in policy is historic. I am sure that older people across the country will celebrate when they feel the difference that this should make to their everyday lives, particularly if the legislation is strong enough to guarantee that. Arbitrary decisions—for example, in healthcare where blanket decisions are often made rather than those based on individual diagnosis and prognosis—will no longer happen. Where travel opportunities, access to credit and many other opportunities to purchase goods and services, or participate in activities, are denied arbitrarily in this regard younger people take them for granted.
I understand that the Government intend to phase in the implementation of the goods, facilities and services legislation. With Age Concern and Help the Aged, I am anxious to know what this means. Which sectors will be subject to the legislation first, what will be delayed and when will the end point for implementation be reached? These facts are crucial, as any delays will affect older people more than the young, for obvious reasons. They do not want to miss the pleasure of enjoying any benefits that this legislation should bring them because they have already departed this life.
Dignity, feelings of self-worth, acceptance on equal terms with others and being valued and judged fairly and realistically—not on the basis of stereotypes and biased views—can transform the lives of many older people and ensure that they feel they are full citizens of this country. I hope the Minister can reassure me on the timing of these measures.
My Lords, no one knows more than the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about how complex our health and care services are. It is important that the changes that we make, whatever they are, are the right ones and that we help the people we intended to, without unintended consequences.
The health service has done a lot of work already, in relation to an ageing society and chronic conditions—we have the framework for older people and so on. We are now working very closely with them to address these issues, as they are doing. I cannot give a timetable, but I assure her that we have a sense of urgency about this. It is right, just and sensible that we are deliberately phasing this in, but that does not mean that in the interim nothing will happen. I believe that a great deal will happen. These are not signals that we are sending; they are an intent to act. The sort of work that we are doing already in health and social care to change practice, culture and challenge the way things are done, means that we will, I hope, see changes very soon. I look forward to working with her to make sure that the work we do with other stakeholders is well understood, well communicated and as effective as possible.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for reading the Statement and for her later words on particular aspects of religion. Will she ensure that the wider needs and doctrinal sensitivities of the faith communities are borne in mind, when legislation concerning equality is being considered?
Yes, my Lords, it is extremely important that we continue to work closely with all the faith communities. Apart from duties on religion, there are many issues as we progress our work on equality which will have a direct bearing on faith communities. I make that pledge in all conscience.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and welcome it. As a founding disability rights commissioner, I have a long-standing interest in equality issues. I look forward to participating in the debates on the Bill when it is brought forward. I hope to also participate in the cross-party group of the noble Lord, Lord Lester.
I will confine myself to a couple of questions. As has been observed, there is a particular expertise on these issues in the House. It will, therefore, have a particular role in debating and passing the Bill. Can the noble Baroness tell me whether there will be opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny, which many people have been anxious to see? Mr Trevor Phillips, some months ago, spoke about the Bill as being pro-fairness. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the integrity of existing anti-discrimination legislation will be maintained, without being watered down. In particular, can she confirm that the integrity of the disability equality duty, involving disabled people in assisting authorities to implement it, will be retained in the Bill?
My Lords, I am very grateful to have been prompted by the noble Lord, Lord Low, to say how much I welcomed the statement from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that an all-party group of critical friends will be set up to help us make sure that this legislation is the best of its kind. We propose to introduce a single duty across all protected grounds and we are very much committed to that. It will make so much sense in view of the morass of legislation that we have on equality at the moment. There are no fewer than nine pieces of legislation, more than 100 pieces of subordinate legislation and 2,500 pages of guidance on the EHRC website.
In that process we are not weakening existing protection for disadvantaged groups and, especially, not for disabled people. We recognise already that the disability duties have had a very positive effect, for example, in requiring public bodies to involve disabled people when designing and delivering services. I can give the noble Lord every assurance that, because the specific duties will be subject to further consultation, we will work very closely with stakeholders on the way that that is worked out in practice. We want them to be as robust as possible.
We have had a very long consultation process on this Bill. Within the next month, we will bring forward our full response to that, which will be the precursor to the Bill. The pre-legislative scrutiny may still be under consideration, so I cannot give a definitive answer on that point at the moment.
My Lords, I, too, welcome what has been announced today, but I have a query. Age and equal pay are very much a theme. However, we still have no mention of pensions. Of course, by a previous ruling of a court, pensions are part of pay. As age and pay, including pensions pay, are involved, will there be a hard look at the annuity problem? Still there is a discriminatory practice between the amounts paid for the same pot of money to women and to men on the grounds that women are assumed to live longer than men.
My Lords, the question raised by the noble Baroness is extremely sensitive and very important. We will not deal with that degree of detail in the Equality Bill, but I can assure her that the issue is alive and flourishing in this House, and there will be opportunities to address it.
My Lords, can the Minister provide assurance that in those fields where the workforce is mostly female, which applies to most of the health service, where feminisation of the workforce has been noted, we will be able to avoid a reverse discrimination? In teams which include many young women, it may be considered better to appoint a man as a way of getting around maternity leave and the other aspects that go along with the employment of younger women who may be in their fertile years.
My Lords, I can repeat what I said in relation to the broader question about how we intend to address issues of under-representation. The overriding criterion, which does not change in this Bill, is that people applying for jobs are, and should be, appointed on merit.
Criminal Justice: Witness Anonymity
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement following the judgment of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, issued Wednesday last, in the case of Davis. As the House will be aware, the Law Lords decided that there was not sufficient authority in common law to provide for the current arrangements for the admission of anonymous evidence, and said that this was a matter for Parliament to deal with by statute. The Government, therefore, urgently will be bringing forward a Bill to rectify the situation. I hope, very much, that the Bill will be published next week, and that, subject to the usual channels, it will be debated through all its stages in the House of Commons the following week.
“For reasons which I will explain, it is essential that the Bill receives Royal Assent, and comes into force before Parliament breaks for Summer Recess. I am very grateful to the opposition parties for their co-operation in this matter, but I fully appreciate that, like other Members of the House, they will not be able fully to judge the merits of the Government’s proposals until their detail is available in the Bill.
“The background to this is as follows. As long as there has been crime, the criminals concerned have sought to intimidate those who are witnesses in order to avoid punishment. Criminal justice systems across the world have sought to deal with this problem. Criminals do not operate by the rules, but the rule of law requires that justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done. The right of a defendant to confront his or her accusers in open court has been a key feature of all systems of justice worthy of that name. That right is one which should be modified only where this is fully justified.
“In recent years, witness intimidation has become an all too common feature in crimes of a serious nature, especially those involving guns, gangs or drugs. Such is the fear that can be engendered by such criminals that entire communities in an area may be reluctant to come forward to give any evidence about what they know.
“In the Court of Appeal judgment in Davis, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division, Sir Igor Judge, quoted the evidence of a detective who specialised in murder investigations. He said this, and permit me to quote at some length:
‘Most people opt not to co-operate and do not get involved. Doors are not opened, arranged meetings result in a witness not turning up, telephone messages go unanswered … This is not a problem that exists on an occasional basis … it is a problem that exists in practically every investigation in one way or another. Such problems exist on a daily basis. I have spoken to witnesses about a reluctance to give evidence. The common factor between all of them is fear.
‘They are in fear of their lives and that of their families and friends. There is a very real danger to such persons of death or serious injury, either to prevent them from giving evidence, or to punish them for giving evidence and to send a warning to those who may be thinking of assisting the police. This risk I know and the witnesses know is not necessarily at the hands of the defendants themselves, but at the hands of the associates of the defendant. If the defendant is in custody, it is often the associates who are the physical threat. In many but not all cases, the witness knows of the defendant and their associates.
‘They know they have easy access to firearms and the ‘ease’ with which they are prepared to use them’.
“To deal with this situation our courts had developed careful and proportionate measures by which the trial judge, where he or she believed it necessary, could order that evidence be given in such a way that the identification of certain key prosecution witnesses was disguised. In some cases, the key witnesses concerned themselves may well have been involved in crime, others will be innocent bystanders, and still others may be undercover police officers or agents. In the Davis case, key witnesses were screened from sight of the defence, given pseudonyms and had their voices electronically distorted.
“In the Davis appeal, the Court of Appeal reviewed all the circumstances, the common law authorities and the Strasbourg jurisdiction, and held that measures of this kind were both necessary and just to defendants in this case. Their appeals were therefore dismissed.
“In the House of Lords, their Lordships took the opposite view. In the lead judgment, the senior Law Lord, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, said:
‘By a series of small steps, largely unobjectionable on their own facts, the courts have arrived at a position which is irreconcilable with long standing principle”,
and common law authorities.
“The noble Lord, Lord Mance, who extensively reviewed the Strasbourg jurisprudence, said that he did not believe that the Strasbourg court in this case would,
‘accept that the use of anonymous evidence in the present case satisfied the requirements of article 6’.
“However, the noble Lord, Lord Mance, went on to say that,
‘the admissibility of evidence is primarily a matter for national law’,
and that the Strasbourg Court has repeatedly stated that the use of anonymous evidence is,
‘not under all circumstances incompatible with the Convention’.
“Importantly, the noble Lord, Lord Mance, said, it is not certain that,
‘there is an absolute requirement that anonymous testimony should not be the sole or decisive evidence’.
In other words, there should be caution about treating the convention or apparently general statements by the Strasbourg Court, as containing absolutely inflexible rules.
“All of their Lordships accepted fully what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, said was the ‘reality of the problem’ of witness intimidation, ‘vividly described’ in the Court of Appeal judgment. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, went on to say that,
‘this is not a new problem, but it is a serious one. It may very well call for urgent attention by Parliament’.
“The noble and learned Lord, Lord Rodger, said:
‘Parliament is the proper body both to decide whether such a change is now required, and, if so, to devise an appropriate system which still ensures a fair trial’.
“The noble Lord, Lord Mance, echoed these views. He referred to the experience of New Zealand and the Netherlands, which have introduced statutory frameworks for the use of anonymous evidence, and said that,
‘it may well be appropriate that there should be a careful statutory modification of basic common law principles. It is clear from the Strasbourg jurisprudence … that there is scope within the Human Rights Convention for such modification’.
“Since the judgment was handed down last week, we have been looking urgently at how a statutory framework could operate, taking account of overseas experiences, not least that of New Zealand. Because of the urgency of the matter, the Bill is literally being drafted as I speak. The House will therefore excuse me if now I simply outline our thinking, although I may say that this situation has the advantage that the draft can take account of comments made in the House today.
“The essence of the scheme, which will be published in the Bill, will be this. The trial judge will have to be satisfied that the need for anonymity is established; that a fair trial will be possible; and that it is in the interests of justice to make such an order. There will be other factors that the judge will have to consider in reaching this decision.
“Parliament should never legislate at the speed with which I am proposing unless it is convinced that there are overwhelming reasons for doing so. I suggest to the House, however, that this requirement is satisfied in this case.
“Anonymous evidence is these days fundamental to the successful prosecution of a significant number of cases, some of which involve murder, blackmail, violent disorder and terrorism. Such cases could be jeopardised if we do not quickly fill the gap created by their Lordships’ judgment.
“The CPS is conducting an urgent assessment of the total number of cases in the prosecution pipeline which may be affected. Neither my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General nor I can yet give definitive numbers of cases involved. As soon as we have accurate numbers, we will make them available.
“In addition to those cases in the prosecution pipeline, there is great concern among the CPS and the wider public that a number of serious criminals convicted by a jury, whose trials satisfied Article 6 and common law requirements, and whose appeals have failed, would seek to make use of the technicality of their Lordships’ judgment to have their convictions quashed.
“The Bill will therefore contain measures to ensure that the Appeal Court should not quash convictions solely on the basis that the trial court lacked jurisdiction under the common law to provide for anonymity measures. The aim will be to ensure that defendants cannot take unfair advantage of the technical defect in the law which has until now been unidentified and unsuspected. I will publish this Bill just as it is drafted, and I will arrange to hold an open meeting for Members of both Houses in advance of formal consideration in this House.
“Let me also provide this additional but important reassurance. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has already announced in the draft legislative programme for the next Session the Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Bill. We had for months planned in that Bill to provide a statutory basis for anonymous evidence. I can therefore give this undertaking of what amounts to a sunset clause for this urgent measure: that the provisions of this Bill, if passed, will be included in next Session’s Bill. So there will be a full opportunity for both Houses to give further consideration to this important area of criminal process. I commend the Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, first, I thank the Government for involving the Opposition in discussions on the intended legislation. We recognise that Ministers are confronting a particularly testing problem, and we wish to be as constructive and helpful as possible.
The Government propose to introduce new measures in the form of emergency legislation to be scrutinised for no more than a day or two in each House of Parliament. We are therefore pleased to learn that it will be certain to include a sunset clause, with an opportunity thereafter for more thorough examination in the context of the Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Bill. Will the clause take the form of an express time limit? I say that because, as your Lordships' House has learnt to its cost in the context of the control orders legislation, the Bill may well be delayed. An additional factor is the racing certainty that the Bill will contain provisions granting delegated legislative powers and providing for guidance, neither of which we shall see or have any hope of seeing in the draft of the Bill at the emergency stage.
In the Statement, the Minister makes reference to cases that have already concluded in a conviction. The Statement reads:
“The Bill will therefore contain measures to ensure that the appeal courts should not quash convictions solely on the basis that the trial court lacked jurisdiction under the common law to provide for anonymity measures. The aim will be to ensure that defendants cannot take unfair advantage of the technical defect in the law which has been until now unidentified and unsuspected”.
That is a retrospective provision. Retrospective legislation is in principle inimical to our constitutional arrangements. It is justified only in the most exceptional circumstances. However, I have some sympathy with the Government. Without such a provision, a considerable number of already convicted defendants found guilty of the most serious crimes will be certain to have their convictions quashed. Nevertheless, I should like the Minister to assure the House that the Appeal Court will be free to quash such convictions if the special measures ensuring anonymity used in the trial of convicted defendants fall outside those permitted by the terms of the proposed emergency legislation.
Since the mid-1990s, it has increasingly become the practice to grant witness anonymity in certain categories of cases, such as murder, grievous bodily harm, gang warfare, drug-peddling and terrorism. Indeed, in some areas, in particular classes of case, it has become almost routine to grant anonymity. Can the Minister tell us the scale of the problem of witness intimidation and assure us that each application will in future be treated strictly on its individual merits, not granted as a matter of course?
The conclusion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, that the special measures employed in the trial of Davis were not compatible with the common law, led him to observe, as the Statement relates, that the reality of the problem of witness intimidation was serious and may very well call for Parliament’s urgent attention. This view was echoed by other noble and learned Lords. It is therefore clear that, contrary to some newspaper reports, their Lordships were only too well aware of the seriousness of the problem and sought a constructive way forward by suggesting legislation—advice that the Government are rightly taking. Does the Minister accept that this is the true picture?
The Government face the dilemma of crafting legislation that deals effectively with the problem of witness intimidation, yet at the same time complies with Article 6(3)(d) of the European convention. It is clear from the thorough analysis of the relevant Strasbourg cases by the noble Lord, Lord Mance, that the use of anonymous evidence is not incompatible with the convention in all circumstances. It is, however, equally clear that anonymous evidence that is the sole or decisive evidence in a trial will have a steep uphill climb to attain convention compatibility.
This is especially true in circumstances in which the defendant wishes to cross-examine an anonymous witness about his credibility. It is simply not possible for the defence counsel to test the credibility of a witness whose identity is unknown to his client. In the absence of identification, the defendant quite simply has no access to any information that would enable him to examine the character or the motives of the witness.
One way of resolving this problem is to guarantee the witness not anonymity but special protection. This has been the approach in the United States of America through the Organized Crime Control Act, which provides for the relocation of witnesses and their families to places of safety, sometimes providing them with new identities. Are the Government considering such alternatives?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for reading the Statement. I had direct and practical experience of this problem this year in a trial at the Old Bailey, and I declare an interest accordingly. We are in this situation because special measures that were introduced to protect the victims of rape or child abuse have been extended more and more. As the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has said, it has become routine for police officers to say to witnesses, “Don’t worry about coming forward or about what you say. You will be granted anonymity”. That means that when the case comes to court and the judge has to consider it, he is almost bound to accept the anonymity proposed by the prosecution or declare the trial at an end.
The granting of applications for anonymity and special measures has become routine. In the particular case to which I referred, the trial was due to start on the Monday. On the Friday, I received an application, which the CPS had not signed, containing a simple sentence in relation to each of the five witnesses, which said, “The witness is afraid of the defendant”. There were no details. There was nothing. That was what went before the judge. I was then faced with some five witnesses whose voices were disguised and who were concealed from the defendant by curtains. I could see them, but I could not describe them to my client and find out who they were. Although there were suspicions that there was some collusion, it was absolutely impossible to cross-examine them. There was no basis on which one could ask relevant questions that would test the credibility of unknown witnesses. That is the problem.
There is a need for anonymity in certain cases, but it has been granted far too often. The Judicial Committee of this House put a stop to this in its judgment last week. We now need to look for a statutory framework that can ensure that, in an appropriate case, anonymity is granted to a witness but the rights of the defendant to a fair trial are maintained. It is not enough for a witness to say, “Well, you know what it’s like around here. Grasses are not welcome”, or, “This is a dangerous area. I cannot speak freely”. If a witness can establish to the satisfaction of the judge that he has been threatened by the defendant or by the defendant’s associates, anonymity and special measures should be granted to him as a matter of routine. However, the fact that there is a climate of intimidation in an area should not in itself make the difference. The essential thing is that anonymity should be the exception and not the presumption, as it has tended to become in these past few years.
I also believe that anonymity should be granted only in serious cases. I have heard a suggestion that the Government are considering that it should operate in magistrates’ courts. These courts are not fitted out for special measures and the proposal to grant anonymity in cases that are suitable for a magistrates’ court is taking the principle too far.
Pre-trial applications should be made to a judge, who should determine them on evidence. If necessary, a special counsel should be appointed to test a witness’s fear of the consequences of giving evidence. Both parties should have a right to be heard and the usual duties of disclosure at pre-trial hearings should rest on the prosecution. The judge, when he makes his order, should be satisfied to a criminal standard that the evidence of the witnesses for whom anonymity is sought is not the sole or decisive evidence in the case. In Scotland, there is a requirement for corroborative evidence in almost every case. We have dispensed with it in rape trials in this country and the proportion of rape trials that succeed has gone down accordingly. The judge should be satisfied that there is no reason to believe that a witness has a motive or a tendency to lie. He should come to the conclusion that the credibility of the witness can be satisfactorily and properly tested, and that the fear for their safety is genuine and not merely a response to the claim that “grasses are not liked in this area”.
The judge must have in mind the basic, fundamental principle that caused this Parliament in 1641 to abolish the Court of Star Chamber: I refer to the need for open justice, with nothing happening behind closed doors. The judge should bear in mind also the general right of a defendant to know the identity of witnesses; should consider the significance of the evidence given by that witness; and should decide whether they can be protected by other means, such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland.
This is a difficult area. It has been tackled well in New Zealand and there is a template that we can follow. However, it requires a considerable amount of discussion and consideration. We will not block the temporary legislation that is being brought forward by the Government, but we shall examine it with some care—and even more so when the Bill comes before us in future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Thomas, for their constructive comments. I also pay tribute to the opposition parties that have already taken part in discussions on the emergency Bill that we propose to bring before the House in the next week or so. I accept that we face a challenging issue and that it will be critical to get the balance right.
The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked me about a sunset clause. He will have noted that my right honourable friend said that the undertaking was “what amounts to” a sunset clause. He also said, in answer to questions raised in the other place, that he would be happy to discuss with opposition parties the question of how to ensure that the principle of the sunset clause is taken into account without it necessarily appearing in statute. At this stage, it is perhaps best to await those discussions.
As for the question of appeals, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, put his point very well and I am happy to give him the assurance that he asked for. We want to avoid sound convictions being overturned. However, whatever happens in this area must comply with Article 6. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, also made some apposite points about witness protection programmes. I understand that there are witness protection schemes currently in operation that have worked successfully. These schemes will continue to be used in future. However, one has to accept that, for some witnesses, the complete disruption of their lives—moving to another part of the country, with all that that involves—will not be particularly welcome. So while we continue to wish to see witness protection schemes being used, they are not the only answer to the specific problem of people who are genuinely fearful of giving their testimony without the protections we are talking about.
We are still looking carefully through the potential cases involved to work out the numbers. It will include those that are in trial or in the pipeline and those that have gone before. I am cautious about presenting to Parliament the numbers before we have assured ourselves that they are absolutely accurate. When we have the correct figures, we will of course make them available.
On the question of sole evidence, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, is right in his remarks and the extract he repeated from the House of Lords judgment. Much will depend on the circumstances of the case and the nature of the witnesses. One may clearly draw a distinction between witnesses who are innocent bystanders giving statements of fact and being cross-examined on that basis and those who might be members of rival gangs. One has to accept that there are distinctions to be drawn and it is for the judge to ensure that Article 6 and the right to a fair trial is upheld whatever the circumstances.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for letting me have the details of some of the issues he is concerned about from his own experience in the courts. We will give very careful consideration to those. I do not quite recognise his description of the use of anonymised witnesses as “routine”. We will see the figures when we can bring them before noble Lords, but I suspect that it will be a very small proportion of the 1.5 million cases that go through the courts every year. I agree with him about the need to ensure that there is rigour in the processes by which anonymised witnesses are used. We expect the legislative framework of the Bill to be brought before the House and any guidance that my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General is considering to meet the point.
As my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor said in another place, magistrates’ courts are currently not excluded from these arrangements. We do not want to exclude them at this time. As some of the most troubling cases have arisen in youth courts and there can be real fear among witnesses, we think that they, too, ought to be covered.
I am grateful for those comments. We will make sure that they are fed into our discussions about the nature of the Bill to be presented to Parliament.
My Lords, I am bound to say that I find some difficulty in recognising the recent decision of this House which was mentioned in the Statement that has just been repeated—and I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating it. I am particularly surprised by the sentence to which the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, referred, which mentions a,
“technical defect in the law which has been until now unidentified and unsuspected”.
Does the Minister accept that the principle clearly stated by the House of Lords was that any conviction that is based solely or decisively on the evidence of anonymous witnesses cannot be fair? Does he agree that that principle prevailed throughout the 30 years of Irish terrorism despite the obvious threats in Ireland of intimidation? Does he agree that the departure from the basic principle that has been so clearly stated, which has now become so widespread, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, mentioned, is of very recent origin, probably not more than 10 or 15 years at most?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his comments. On the question of appeals, I want to make it clear that the Bill will contain measures to preserve the Appeal Court’s ability to quash convictions where the imposition of anonymity measures has, on the facts of the case, violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. I hope that clears that matter up.
The Government of course respect and take seriously this judgment of the House of Lords; that is why I am making this Statement today and why the Government will bring legislation into your Lordships’ House in the near future. However, it is also fair to say that witness anonymity has proven a successful development in the face of the undoubted fear that many witnesses have had about giving evidence when they may have felt their lives would come under threat. The Court of Appeal has been clear in its judgments that anonymity is not inconsistent with the right to a fair trial provided the need is clearly established, cross-examination is permitted and the trial must be fair. However, the Law Lords have now ruled differently. As I said, the Government respect that judgment. That is why we are taking this action.
My Lords, while it may or may not be expedient now to legislate, even retrospectively, as promised in this Statement, why did the Secretary of State for Justice describe as a,
“technical defect in the law”
the complete absence of any authority for depriving an unknown number of defendants of a core element of their right to a fair trial? If we describe such a deficiency as a mere technicality, are we not demonstrating a very dangerous attitude indeed?
I certainly hope not, my Lords. The comment in the Statement on appeals was, as I said to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that the Bill we will bring before your Lordships’ House will preserve the Appeal Court’s ability to quash convictions where the imposition of anonymity measures has, on the facts of the case, violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
As I also said to the noble and learned Lord, up to the point of the judgment, we were guided by the view of the Court of Appeal. Now that the Law Lords have made their judgment, we are bringing in legislation to rectify the position. At no time have the Government sought to do anything other than have in place circumstances that provide for a fair trial as indicated in Article 6. But I would say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that we should not forget that witness anonymity has also brought many benefits to our society as a whole.
My Lords, in view of the urgency and seriousness of this matter, what provision are the Government making to consult the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society about it? It is imperative that they are part and parcel of the discussions that take place.
My Lords, since the Government have been considering the outcome of the judgment we have focused on preparing instructions for parliamentary counsel and have taken part in a number of discussions with representatives of the opposition parties. I can assure my noble friend that we are keen also to discuss the issue with the distinguished organisations he mentioned.
I again make the point that, as was indicated in the draft Queen’s Speech, further legislation in this area is to be brought forward in the next Session. This House and the other place will therefore have ample opportunity to discuss these matters in detail following the passage of the proposed emergency legislation.
My Lords, I support all the points made by noble Lords who have asked questions in this short debate, in particular the points made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Lloyd and Lord Mayhew. Does the Minister agree that the extremely thorough speeches of the Law Lords in this case have shown that overuse of anonymity is in fundamental conflict with the common law rights of defendants and that it cannot possibly be regarded as a technicality? Does he further agree that the thorough speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mance, on the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights shows that a trial where the sole or decisive evidence is given by anonymous witnesses is prima facie not a fair trial, and that only in the most exceptional circumstances would it be possible to justify a conviction in such cases?
My Lords, it is a very considered judgment and, as I said, the Government respect the independence and integrity of the Law Lords. That is why we have accepted the suggestion that new legislation is required and why we will shortly bring a Bill before your Lordships’ House.
On the question of anonymous witnesses giving the sole evidence, I have read the carefully written judgment of the noble Lord, Lord Mance. He stated that it is considerably less certain that,
“there is an absolute requirement that anonymous testimony should not be the sole or decisive evidence, or whether the extent to which such testimony is decisive may be no more than a very important factor to balance in the scales. I doubt whether the Strasbourg court has said the last word about this”.
It is fair to say that Strasbourg does not have an inflexible rule and that it will depend on the individual nature of the circumstances of the case.
We wish to see a statutory framework in which the right to a fair trial is clearly guaranteed. A judge will have to weigh all factors into the balance in reaching a judgment on the question of whether the anonymous evidence is sole evidence. There may be cases where there are very good reasons for having anonymous witnesses. None the less, we want to achieve a situation where the right to a fair trial is maintained.
My Lords, perhaps I may tell your Lordships a story about how things were some 15 years ago, before anonymity orders became quite commonplace. I was at the Old Bailey for lunch one day and the senior judge said, “Go down to court so and so and watch the murder trial that will take place there this afternoon”. The case involved the use of a gun. There was a very short opening by the prosecuting counsel; he was going to call five witnesses who had been present and had seen the murder carried out. The first witness was called. He answered to his name—I am not sure about the address—but he, of course, was not there on the day. He knew nothing of it—there must have been some error. He was passed aside and we came on to witness number two. There were about five witnesses and, in different language, they all told the same fairytale, that they knew nothing about it whatever. Halfway through the afternoon, the judge said to the prosecuting counsel, “I think, Mr Smith, we will have to stop here. This prosecution cannot proceed”.
There is a procedure for treating a witness as a hostile witness and cross-examining him, but to do that to every witness called by the prosecution to prove a murder is simply not on. That whole trial collapsed because there was a conspiracy that one could only guess at, with fear or intimidation running through all the witnesses. None of them would speak. That was how it was and there was a serious problem. I am not saying a word about the solution. I have not had enough time to study it.
My Lords, that is an important point. We must remember that in many cases we are talking about very serious crimes in which witnesses are in real fear of giving evidence. If the rule of law is to prevail, it is important that such evidence can be brought before the courts. Equally, it is necessary always to ensure a fair trial. Getting the balance right is challenging but important and that is what we shall seek to do.
My Lords, as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, I was present at a briefing this morning where the police were outlining some of the implications for their work. Many people felt very real concern that some dangerous criminals would be released as a result of this ruling unless these matters are rectified, possibly involving some retrospective legislation. They also expressed how difficult it would be for the police to bring forward for prosecution those who, in the public interest, should be brought to trial.
I have two points for my noble friend. First, when the threshold is set for judges for reasons why a witness should be afforded anonymity, I hope it will not be at the level where the witness has actually to have been threatened. The witness may not be someone who the defendant expected to testify against them, so if it is a requirement that they actually be threatened, that threshold may be too high.
Secondly, it would be helpful to the House if more details were given of the implications for witnesses who opt for the witness protection programme, which requires them and their families not only to change their name but to sever all relationships for all time with all the people they have ever known; to be relocated to another part of the country; to be found accommodation at public expense, and not all local authorities are helpful in providing accommodation under those circumstances; and to be found employment. It is a major step for any individual and their families to take, and one which is extremely expensive for the state.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He is right about witness protection schemes. Given the disruption a relocation or change of identity can have to the life of a witness and his or her family, it is not surprising that these programmes are offered only in the most extreme cases where there is a threat to life. That situation is likely to continue, which is why witness anonymity is important.
On the question of the threshold, we will consider those matters very carefully in preparing legislation and considering what guidance will need to be issued in the future. A Court of Appeal case in the early 1990s, R v Taylor, set out the following detailed principles for the exercise of the power. There must be real grounds for a fear of the consequences if the identity of the witness were revealed. The evidence must be sufficiently important to make it unfair to make the Crown proceed without it. The Crown must satisfy the court that the creditworthiness of the witness had been fully investigated and disclosed. The court must be satisfied that there would be no undue prejudice to the accused. Finally, the court could balance the need for protecting the witness, including the extent of that protection, against unfairness or the appearance of unfairness. We shall consider all those matters.
My Lords, I wonder whether I might take up the House’s time for a minute or two more. On any basis, this is a very important subject. Sitting in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, I had to review a number of cases where anonymity had been used. It is fair to say that the reading of the decision of their Lordships in the recent case of Davis was very revealing to me, as it set out with such clarity the principles which their Lordships were going to apply. But I was not surprised to read in one speech—that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood—that he started off expecting that the appeal would be dismissed. Like me, he was influenced by the marshalling of the authorities as appeared in particular in the speech of the senior Law Lord. However, although I, equally, was persuaded by the speech of the senior Law Lord on the overwhelming effect of the authorities, I am bound to say that, based on my experience, I believe that it is necessary that legislation should be brought forward because otherwise trial judges dealing with these matters will be in an impossible situation. They cannot afford to wait and see what the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords will say about a case—they have to act on the material which is before them.
With regard to the cases I saw, I can assure the House that the trial judges were always very reluctant to adopt the course of resorting to anonymity. It was a last resort, and one can understand why they would be reluctant, because even without looking at the authorities which were so ably marshalled by their Lordships, it is clear that this is a very undesirable departure from the ordinary conventions of a trial. However, it is my belief that it is possible for a trial to be conducted with an element of anonymity in the course of the proceedings and still be fair to the defendant. Above all, the courts must always treat as paramount the principle that a defendant must have a fair trial.
The approach in the criminal courts is different from that in the civil courts. The civil courts can balance matters in a different way because the liberty of the subject is not at stake. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that it is critical, if legislation is brought forward, that the trial judge should have a discretion to decide whether the case goes on or not, with the witness’s identity not being given.
The second thing I want the Minister to bear in mind as absolutely critical is the fact that whereas legislation can alter the position with regard to the common law, it cannot, of course, alter the human rights position. We do not want a division between the approach taken in the legislation and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, which in this area is not as clear as it should be but will no doubt develop. I would like the Minister to indicate that there is no proposal not to give the usual certificate of compliance with the Human Rights Act. I apologise if he has already made that clear; I am afraid that I was not able to be here for the reading of the Statement. I suggest that the observance of the requirement of that certificate is critical.
Justice is needed not only for the defendants but also for the public. We cannot have a situation where, with the more developed methods of tracing individuals, a case can be properly brought where the evidence is there but no trial takes place at all because of a technical problem. I use the word technical deliberately because what should be involved is not technicality but justice. The judge should be there to see that justice is done. He should be enabled to do that.
My Lords, that was a helpful comment and intervention. On the two specific points, judicial discretion will of course be important within the framework set by the legislation. Secondly, yes, I will be required to sign the certificate. We will bring forward legislation that we believe is entirely consistent with Article 6 and guaranteeing a fair trial.
rose to call attention to the case for a royal commission on the state of prisons; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, our prison system is in crisis. It is not the fault of the Prison Service that prisons are overcrowded, underresourced and subjected to a non-stop barrage of criticism in Parliament, the media and by the public as well as an absolute torrent of legislation, initiatives and conflicting instructions from Government, much of which appears to be motivated by knee-jerk reaction to events rather than considered strategic direction. Nor is it the prison system’s fault that over the past 15 years the penal system has become increasingly politicised, with political parties vying with each other, in what is described as penal populism, to appear toughest on crime. This obscene competition has been described as an arms race in which neither is prepared to give way in case it results in electoral catastrophe. Thanks to media attention, law and order assumes a high profile with floating voters, which is another reason it demands political attention.
The aim given to the Prison Service stems from that given to the criminal justice system as a whole, namely to protect the public by the prevention of crime, by preventing reoffending. Yet with the reconviction rate running at 64.7 per cent for all adult males within two years of being released—10 per cent higher than in 1997, when this Government took office—the prison system is clearly failing to achieve that aim. No amount of sweet talk or selective use of other statistics can alter this inalienable fact. The reconviction rate, which can be broken down into different categories, but above all can be measured, remains the only one by which success or failure can be judged. Should we accept this situation as being inevitable with a prison system or should we try to do something about it?
When I was appointed Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1995 I was told that a good day for the Prison Service was one on which no one escaped and no one was locked out and held in a police cell for which it had to pay, the current rate being £459 per night or £28 million per year. I was also told that improvements were only made by implementing recommendations made by outsiders following disasters. It was interesting that outsiders saw instantly what was wrong, which insiders—who presumably must have known that all was not well—obdurately refused to publicly acknowledge or do anything about until pushed. This might seem cynical, but within a week of being appointed I realised that there was more than a grain of truth in it. Already I could see serious flaws in the structure of both prison system and prison management that were, and remain, considerable impediments to good practice.
I am second to no one in my admiration for the wonderful and dedicated work that countless people, official and volunteer, carry out with and for prisoners throughout the prison system. I also recognise that there have been a considerable number of improvements affecting treatment and conditions, but I am concerned about how many of them die when the governor of the prison concerned changes. I am also aware of the frustration and anger of those who know how much more could be done with and for prisoners if only the system allowed it.
Those of us in a position to put forward positive proposals, as we in this House are privileged to be able to do, should make every effort to persuade both the Government and the Prison Service that, by changing their attitude to facts that they may not like, as well as laying themselves open to helpful and well intentioned outside advice, they are far more likely to bring about the improvements that they say they desire.
The Prison Service is run quite unlike a business, school, hospital or armed service in that, with a single exception, no one is responsible or accountable for any functional area, and budget conformity and process are the determining factors. Of course, these are important, but they are not wholly appropriate when dealing with people. People must be treated like people, the best weapon in that treatment being other people. If you manage people like commodities, you may get some paper answers, but they will be totally meaningless as far as the development of a person is concerned.
Unfortunately, no one from outside looks at the way in which the Prison Service is managed. When Mr Justice May reinstigated independent inspection in 1979, one of the reasons being to satisfy public disquiet over solely in-house inspection, he instigated it only for prisons and not for the Prison Service as is the case for the police service, the Probation Service and the Courts Service. Neither Michael Howard nor Jack Straw would agree to initiate the necessary primary legislation to allow me to do this when I asked to inspect Prison Service headquarters.
The current situation has not been dreamed up or imposed by either the Ministry of Justice or the Prison Service, but inherited from a decision in 1962 to make prisons a department of the Home Office, with a senior civil servant as director-general. All those brought in to examine and report on subsequent disasters have commented in one form or another about the implications of asking civil servants to perform operational tasks for which they are not qualified. Lord Mountbatten in 1963, my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf and Sir Raymond Lygo in 1990, and Sir John Woodcock and Sir John Learmont in 1995 all drew attention to such issues as:
“The number of decisions being taken by people without relevant experience”,
“The importance of Ministers’ advice coming from a wider range of professional, academic and lay sources than that provided by the Prison Service”.
They also reached the following conclusions:
“Better prisons cannot be achieved by a piecemeal approach … Unless there was a preparedness on the part of the Home Office to take its hands off the management of the Prison Service in its day-to-day business, and allow itself to be constrained by matters of policy only, then it would not be possible to effect the changes deemed desirable and which have become very clear to me as being necessary”
It was further stated:
“Vesting all the authority in an accounting officer is a device which is understood and readily accepted by the Civil Service but I do not believe that it is an apt model for the complex task of managing the Prison Service … The high security estate should be managed as a whole rather than piecemeal. An Operational Director should be appointed”.
Those are just six out of a whole volume of recommendations. However, the final recommendation was implemented for high-security prisons, an escape from which was held to be particularly damaging for the Home Secretary. It was instigated with considerable success, as I saw for myself. Consistently directed high-security prisons stand out as a coherent group, with huge advantages such as the ability to turn good practice somewhere into common practice everywhere. I have never been able to fathom why this success was not at once copied in other failing parts of the system.
Unfortunately, the same did not happen to one of the recommendations made by my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, although it was turned into a priority in the White Paper Custody, Care and Justice: The Way Ahead for the Prison Service in England and Wales. This was published in 1991 and endorsed by all political parties, but it still rests on the shelf. It included a commitment to,
“develop community prisons which will involve the gradual realignment of the prison estate into geographically coherent groups serving most prisoners within that area”.
If only this had happened. Organisations such as the CBI, chambers of commerce and Remploy tell me that employers would much more readily look for solutions to skills shortages among prisoners held locally. Mental health and drug treatment practitioners tell me how much easier it would be if prisoners remained in the same region. Millions of pounds would no longer be wasted on moving prisoners all over the United Kingdom to fill empty cells, sometimes in the middle of courses, or to prisons in which identified needs cannot be met, and so on.
Why, if all this is known about some of the avoidable contributors to the crisis in our prisons, on top of all the reports of inspectors, penal reformers, academics and other interested organisations, is no notice taken of recommendations designed to help resolve a crisis, unless they are initiated in-house or in-political party? The Government will say that much is being done, pointing to the volume of work to which I have already made reference. They will point to two management inquiries that recommended the retention of the status quo. Indeed they did, but one was entirely in-Prison Service, and the other could by no means be called independent because one of its members was the deputy director-general of the Prison Service and another was one of its non-executive directors.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, has written two reports, each accepted without discussion and before consultation, both bearing on my case. Neither addressed the management or structure of the prison system but rather the management of the management and the building of more prisons. Indeed, his last report prompted the chief inspector to comment that building seemed to determine policy, rather than policy determine building. Professor Nicola Lacey, in one of her Hamlyn lectures for 2007, entitled “Escaping the Prisoners’ Dilemma”, said:
“If the dynamics of penal populism are a structural feature of ‘late modern’ society, all avenues for institutional reform, designed to counter the culture of control, seem blocked”.
Are they? She goes on to say:
“An escape from the cell of penal populism . . . will be possible only if the two main political parties can reach a framework agreement about the removal of criminal justice policy—or at least key aspects of policy such as the size of the prison system—from party political debate. This might be done by setting up an initial Royal Commission or something of yet wider scope . . . a further important condition would be the reconstitution of some respect for expertise in the field”.
Her statement interested me because I first thought about a royal commission some 10 years ago. I am by no means alone in that.
I am interested to see that, recently, more and more people are coming to a similar conclusion. Royal commissions have fallen out of favour in recent years, allegedly in favour of Select Committees. I now submit that in the case of the prison system, urgent consideration should be given to their reintroduction. I would go further. Royal commissions are ad hoc advisory committees, formally appointed by the Crown, by virtue of its prerogative powers. The last one, under the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, was appointed to examine criminal justice in 1992, reporting in 1993. The risk of appointing a one-shot commission is that its report will, like so many others, merely gather dust on a shelf, having been studiously ignored by those it attempts to help but who do not want to listen.
There is a precedent for a better alternative. In 1970 a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was established to be an independent standing body to advise the Queen, the Government and the public on environmental issues. Its remit is to advise on matters concerning pollution, on the adequacy of research and the possibilities of danger. Within this it has freedom to consider and advise on any matter it chooses and the Government may also request consideration of particular topics. But the primary role of the commission is to contribute to policy development in the longer term by providing an authoritative factual basis for policy-making debate and setting new policy agendas and priorities. In reaching its conclusions, the commission seeks to make a balanced assessment, taking account of the wider implications for society of any measures proposed.
It seems to me that that is precisely what is needed in the case of our prisons. An expert outside body, taking a balanced look at current dangers and future trends, making balanced assessments and giving advice on the wider implications for society of any measures proposed, is what the prison system lacks. Imprisonment is a very complex matter and I know that other noble Lords intend to bring out many more aspects that would also benefit from such outside scrutiny than I am able to cover in the time available.
I realise that it is easy for me from these Benches to bemoan how party politics appear to have distorted penal policy, but I believe that both the Government and the Prison Service would benefit from regular examination by independent experts rather than rely on current practices, which have produced so many flawed outcomes. Governments come and go, but prisoners will be in prison no matter which party is in power, and continuity of direction is of supreme importance to them and the public. I therefore hope that the Minister and his colleagues will not dismiss this proposal as just another debate. I feel that I am on the tip of an iceberg, the rest of which consists of many others inside and outside this House who feel and say the same thing. We all stand ready to help move the proposal forward in any way we can, and look forward to being invited to do so. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I feel deeply honoured to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, given his expertise on this subject and I thank him for initiating the debate. It is very novel that he talks about the establishment of a royal commission. I could not agree more that one is needed and that the time for its establishment is drawing very close indeed.
On 8 June the prison population reached 82,791. If we go back a little further to 22 February, the total prison population exceeded the usable operational capacity, which was the first time in history that had occurred. That shows how difficult things are becoming. On 2 April, 85 prisons, 59 per cent of the total, were overcrowded, and 12 of those were 150 per cent more overcrowded than the figure for certified normal accommodation. The consequences that flow from such a situation are undesirable, deplorable and, if I may so, very dangerous indeed.
I should like to say a few words about women prisoners because I am very concerned about their position. We are locking up too many vulnerable women. At any time, 1,000 women prisoners are on remand, 50 per cent of whom do not receive a prison sentence. Indeed, many women prisoners suffer some form of mental illness and it is wrong that they should be in this position, with the consequence that suicide and self-harm are increasing considerably. I can do no better than to quote from the report of my noble friend Lady Corston on the death of six women prisoners at Styal prison in 2002-03. The report was published in March and states:
“I do not believe, like some campaigners, that no women should be held in custody. There are some crimes for which custody is the only resort … but I was dismayed to see so many women frequently sentenced for short periods of time for very minor offences, causing chaos and disruption to their lives and families, without any realistic chance of addressing the causes of”,
why they committed the crime in the first place. The report goes on to say that the effect of these sentences on 18,000 children who suffer yearly because their mothers are in prison is nothing short of a catastrophe. It concludes that,
“the nature of women’s custody in many of our prisons needs to be radically rethought”.
That is certainly a task that a royal commission could undertake.
One other thing that particularly concerns me with the overcrowded prisons and the overstretching of the people who have to service them is that it leads to frustration on the part of those who are incarcerated and it causes outbreaks of disaster. In many ways, some good things are being done. The Chief Inspector of Prisons recently described the improvement in prison learning as being one of the most ardent successes. That is a success, but it could be lost.
In conclusion, the one group that we must also not neglect are those on whom we rely: the people who have to look after the prisoners and who are being badly treated. They were promised by no less a person than the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that if Labour came to power, they would have their trade union rights and negotiations restored. That promise has not been kept. Indeed, last year, when there was a dispute, they took a day’s strike action to draw attention to overcrowding. They got little thanks for what they were doing. I hope that they are not forgotten.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that it is a splendid idea that we should have an independent body looking at the problem. Only that way shall we get the improvements we desire, which will be beneficial to those in prison and those who have to look after the prisoners.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Prison Reform Trust. In all of our troubled public sector, the prison system is in the greatest disarray and danger. I therefore warmly welcome the decision of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his ability to prompt this debate.
In all our debates on the public sector, the prisons come off worst for the reason that the noble Lord gave. Political leaders are prompted by the media to compete for encouraging severer sentences on the assumption, which must be fallacious, that the fuller our prisons, the happier and safer our society. For that reason, I support the idea of a royal commission which should not be put forward lightly but, in the present state of the political debate, is necessary.
Jack Straw suggested last July, almost a year ago, that there should be a national conversation on the use of prisons. A royal commission would help to inform and guide that debate. The dangerous facts are well established. The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned the dangers of overcrowding. People will always argue the extent to which prison does or does not work. What is certain is that prison cannot work in the present overcrowded system which diminishes and, in many cases, destroys the chances of rehabilitation. A prisoner who is also a prisoner of a drug habit, or who cannot read or write or do elementary mathematics, or who suffers from some form of mental illness, will find no remedy in a prison where the staff are constantly scurrying about looking for prison space and where two men are held in a cell designed for one, or three men are in a cell designed for two. All of the possibilities for rehabilitation, which we all know exist, disappear to vanishing point in those circumstances. The saddest indicator of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned, is the suicides in prison, of which there were 92 last year—an increase—half of which involved prisoners on remand who had not been convicted of any crime.
This is a Cross-Bench debate and no one in their senses would blame the Government for this state of affairs in its entirety, but one or two points need to be made. We have had a flood of legislation, a sort of frothy uneven torrent, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. Some of it has been good and some of it was bad; some of it repaired legislation that was passed by the same Government previously. There has been a great deal of fidgeting about with administration. I had never thought that salvation lay in changing the labels on officials’ doors, but a lot of that has gone on. It has happened with NOMS and in the creation of the Ministry of Justice. There is always a case for putting different functions together under one roof, but you often create a new division as you heal an old one. That is exactly what has happened under the new system in which prisons have been brought together with the courts, but the prisons are separated from the police.
One specific matter has not been mentioned. The position of prisons Minister ought to be important in this system. We have had eight prisons Ministers in 10 years. This is a frivolous and indefensible way of running a Government. We are at the end of June and already the commentators are beginning to speculate about a July reshuffle by a Government who are in some difficulty. That causes a frisson in the Westminster village, but it is a hell of a way to run a country. This kind of frivolous merry-go-round should be brought to an end.
In conclusion, I wish to say a word about Titan prisons. The Government have said a little more, but now let us have a little more information. Titan prisons are not going to be quite as big as was originally thought. I worry about the culture of big prisons, the culture of the gang, of drug abuse, of threats, of exploitation and of the ever more limited engagement of the staff with individual inmates. I hope the Minister will reply on that. I would much prefer the concept that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, before him, advocated of community prisons. I wish to quote another advocacy which reflects that well.
“We should aim to provide good local community prisons which allow individuals to maintain family and community ties and have the ability to provide excellent support and interventions … I see these prisons becoming far more engaged with their local communities and better at building relationships with a wide variety of other organisations”,
so that such prisons,
“become a vital part in the civic fabric of every locality”.
That was Mr Charles Clarke lecturing the Prison Reform Trust in September 2005 during a short epoch which, if I may say this without causing trouble, marked the high watermark of enlightenment on prison matters for this Administration.
I will end on that point, although there are many points that one could make, because the debate is limited in time. I have been given the impression over and over again by so many individuals and small groups involved in the prison system—locally, on a slightly larger scale and nationally; in this House, but overwhelmingly among volunteer organisations up and down the country—that the contrast between the enthusiasm and imagination which those groups show and the rather weary and battered approach of the policy makers in this field, under the political media pressures that I described, can be brought to an end and that imagination and hard-headed sensitivity can be brought to bear on finding answers. A royal commission could help us to do that.
My Lords, I strongly support the call by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission into the state of our prisons.
This country has never before had a royal commission into the state of our prisons, except that in 1964 we set up a commission and then disbanded it in 1966 before it completed its work. The principal reason why that committee foundered was that its terms of reference were very wide. If a royal commission were established, it would be important to avoid making the same mistake again. The terms of reference of the royal commission should be limited to three things: first, prison conditions and regimes, secondly, prison management, and thirdly, the use of imprisonment. Although there has not been a royal commission, there have been a number of inquiries into the state of our prisons, from the Gladstone committee of 1895 to the Woolf report of 1991. A royal commission could do worse than reiterate the principles set out over a century ago in the report of the Gladstone committee.
The crucial contribution that the Gladstone Committee made to penal thinking was its insistence that reforming prisoners should become one of the primary aims of the prison system. It argued that prisoners' treatment,
“should be more effectually designed ... whenever possible to turn them out of prison better men and women, both physically and morally, than when they came in”.
This argument is as valid today as it was at the end of the 19th century. Set in today's context, this philosophy would argue for a smaller prison population held in prisons where regimes were based on the need to prepare prisoners for release. For many years, the United Kingdom has had a higher proportion of its population in prison than most other western European countries. We currently have 148 people in prison for every 100,000 people in the general population, compared with 93 in Germany and 85 in France. As a result of our overuse of custody, we tolerate a routine degree of overcrowding which could have shocked the Gladstone committee. It was critical of the fact that the provision of the Prisons Act 1865 that every male prisoner should sleep in a cell by himself had occasionally—I emphasise that—not been adhered to because of the reception of unusually large drafts of prisoners.
Compare that with the position in Britain today, where our local prisons are routinely overcrowded. Overcrowding means that 18,000 prisoners are held two to a cell, built for one person. It means that it is much harder for prisons to provide genuinely rehabilitative regimes which could reduce reoffending on release. It means an increased risk of suicide and self-harm; that point was ably demonstrated by previous speakers. It means that prisoners are often moved before they have finished educational and rehabilitative courses, which could have helped to reduce reoffending. The pressure of numbers also means that prisoners are often moved to prisons far from their homes, making it harder to keep family links intact, even though support from a family can provide a very strong incentive for released prisoners to avoid further crime.
Most offenders who are sent to prison each year in England and Wales receive sentences of less than 12 months. In most cases, these sentences do no good. They do not provide significant public protection, they are too short for significant rehabilitative work to take place, and they are followed by high reconviction rates—that has already been explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
Most of these offenders would be better dealt with by supervision programmes in the community. There are an increasing number of intensive and rigorous programmes, which make real demands on offenders and significantly restrict their liberty. They also hold out more hope of preventing reoffending than a short prison sentence. When offenders are imprisoned, there is overcrowding. There is overwhelming evidence of the importance of rehabilitation in protecting the public from further offending. There can be a significant impact on reducing reoffending from regimes which involve highly focused work on attitudes to offending, help offenders to restrain impulsive and aggressive behaviour, increase their empathy with victims, develop their education and employment skills and provide help with drug and alcohol problems. Getting offenders into jobs reduces their likelihood of reoffending by between one-third and one-half. According to one study, providing offenders with basic skills education cuts their likelihood of reoffending by two-thirds. Offenders who enter and stay in a drug rehabilitation programme have an average rate of reoffending which is one-fifth of their previous level.
The appropriate use of imprisonment and the need for rehabilitative prison regimes are inextricably linked. A royal commission with a remit to examine the use of prisons, the management of prisons and prison regimes could produce proposals for a more rational approach to imprisonment and one with a better chance of protecting the public through reducing reoffending.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for securing this important debate on a royal commission on prisons. It is most timely, particularly as we are about to embark on a course of action that will fundamentally change prison policy as it has been followed by all Governments since the Second World War. We are going to increase our prison capacity to a level which takes us quite out of the west European view of the place of imprisonment in society and more towards the level of the countries which have only recently moved to a democratic form of government. We are also envisaging moving towards vast places of incarceration—carceral villages—each holding 2,500 prisoners and a large number of staff.
Since time is short, I will restrict my remarks to the increase of prison capacity and the decision to spend what I believe is an additional £2.3 billion to take us to 96,000 prison places by 2014. The Secretary of State for Justice told the Royal Society of Arts on 26 March that there is no case for a royal commission because we now have Select Committees. Of course, he is right. In fact, the Justice Committee in the other place is currently conducting an inquiry into whether the enormous sums spent on criminal justice are an effective way to spend so much money.
On 13 May, the chairman of that Select Committee, Alan Beith MP, asked the Secretary of State for Justice:
“Have you not”,
“pre-empted the entire argument and discussion by committing yourself to the Titan prisons and, thereby, really foreclosing large, vast amounts of public expenditure and a commitment to a very large number of prison places without the opportunity of considering whether this money might stop more crimes if it were spent elsewhere in the system?”.
The Secretary of State responded simply by saying that we need a substantial expansion in the number of prison places. Yet, only a few months earlier, he is on the record as saying that,
“you have got to have a rational debate about the number of prison places that need to be provided”.
The report of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on which the decision is based provided no detailed analysis and no weighing of alternative policy options. We are suffering here from a serious lack of analysis of evidence, of proper research and of consideration of the possible benefits of different options. Therefore, there is a vacuum, which a standing royal commission of some sort needs to fill.
Such a royal commission might look at, among other things, the following questions. Compared with 17 other OECD countries, our spending in the UK on safety and public order functions is the highest. It is markedly higher than in France and Germany, and higher even than in the United States, yet our spending on health is the third lowest. Is that a sensible allocation of resources? A royal commission might also look at the impact on crime of a high use of imprisonment. It would have to conclude that there is no evidence of a clear relationship between levels of imprisonment and crime rates. Countries with high imprisonment rates are not safer than countries with low imprisonment rates. All the evidence suggests that spending on imprisonment beyond the level necessary to protect the public from serious harm is not cost-effective. If a royal commission were to consider all the evidence, it would conclude that the huge expansion being planned could have seriously damaging consequences. It is likely to move money away from the existing prison regimes in all prisons. It could reduce the resources that are channelled to those agencies that can keep offenders out of prison and could solve some of the problems that get them there in the first place.
The policies that we are now following are not based on evidence. They emerged from an unhealthy competition between politicians to use the number of people in prison as a symbol—a symbol that says, “We care about crime. We want people to be safe. Building more prisons is how we respond to the natural feeling that people should not get away with harming others. Sending more people to prison is how we respond to the fact that poor people in disadvantaged areas suffer most from crime”. Giving the public more use of prison in response to those legitimate concerns is a false promise, because imprisonment for the lower level perpetrators, the sick and the addicted brings no safety to those who suffer from crime. Someone needs to say, “We must stop spending our public money so profligately with such high commitments far in the future on something that does little social good and leads to much social harm”. Instead, we need to look at the evidence on how to spend that money on what we know is more effective.
A highly respected royal commission studying and reporting on the use and practice of imprisonment could be a great help to politicians, to get them out of the profligate path that they are taking us down.
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I place on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for instigating it. No one in the Chamber can be in a better position to do so. I, too, am in favour of a royal commission. Such a commission could produce an overall strategy for prisons in the 21st century—a strategy designed to help those who commit crimes to settle back into our community and a strategy that tackles the reason for crimes being committed.
Policy decisions affecting the criminal justice system should not be made in a vacuum, nor should they be made without consideration being given to the impact of any change in policy on the whole prison system. The prison strategy should not, and must not, merely cover a punishment for criminals: it must include a positive attitude toward prisoners while they are in prison and give assistance to them on their release.
Unfortunately, for diverse reasons, over recent years, we seem to have veered away from a supportive role towards what I refer to as the three Bs: bung them through the system; bang them up; and build more prisons—not a good recipe for success.
Today is not the first time that concern has been expressed about our prison system or the criminal justice system as a whole. I remember clearly the horrors of the 1980s—in particular, the riots that began in Manchester prison, which spread throughout the prison system. I lived those riots minute by minute, day by day, because at that time my husband was the chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association. I also remember the report of Lord Justice Woolf on the riots. He wrote of the cancer of prison overcrowding and the starving of resources of the prison system, which resulted in having to resort in daily crisis management.
What has changed? That was more than 20 years ago. Then there was a Conservative Government. Now there is a Labour Government. So the answer does not lie in a change of political parties; it lies in a change of political thinking; it lies in a change of political will. Unfortunately, a constant during those 20 years has been an ever-increasing prison population combined with an ever-increasing prison building programme. Rather like the building of a new motorway, extra capacity is soon used up and cannot cope and the circle continues. Overcrowding has increased. Overcrowding is disastrous. Tension inside prison increases; suicides soar; assaults on prison staff climb; instability becomes the norm.
Obviously overcrowding affects prisoners, but it also affects those who work in prisons. Prison staff are just as much the victims of overcrowding as the prisoners. Let us not forget that the living conditions of prisoners are the working conditions of prison staff. If the former is bad, so is the latter.
The Government think that the answer lies in Titan prisons. I shudder at the prospect of them in the United Kingdom. Imagine a disturbance in such a large establishment. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have considered this aspect of the proposed mega-prisons, and what their answer to such a crisis would be? I am not alone in my fears, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, illustrated. Anne Owers, the highly respected Chief Inspector of Prisons, also has grave doubts about them. In her 2006-07 report, she said:
“On the horizon loom the Titans—2,500-strong prison complexes, flying in the face of our, and others’, evidence that smaller prisons work better than large ones”.
That is a management view.
What do the representatives of those working in prisons think? Paul Tidball, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association is “underwhelmed” by the case for them. Colin Moses, the president of the POA, and Brian Caton, its general secretary, believe that they will be unworkable, as does Harry Fletcher, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers. We need a change of direction, which is why we need a royal commission.
Finally, I know that the Minister recognises the value of those who work in the prison system to that system and to society as a whole, and I hope he will ensure that they are fully consulted on any plans for the future.
My Lords, since I became the Bishop to Prisons last October, I have been deeply impressed by the number of people, the range of organisations and the depth of academic research associated with prisons and penal reform. I have also been struck by the amazing degree of agreement about the problems and the possible solutions. It leaves me wondering why there is such little progress in our society in dealing with these well known difficulties. It also leaves me wanting to add my voice to the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission.
People end up in prison as a consequence of a failure to relate to other people justly and properly and a failure to imagine what their actions have done to other people and how they have damaged them. If prison is a place for people who have failed to relate humanely and justly, and is there to reform and restore the offender back to society, it follows that it should be a place where offenders learn how to relate humanely and justly. However, the question that hangs over the debate and all our prisons today is whether the prison experience diminishes or enlarges the offender’s potential to relate humanely and justly to others. Despite the excellent work done in the Prison Service and the third sector, I am afraid that it is simply not possible confidently to answer yes to that question. That is why we need a royal commission.
Some of the most effective work that is being done in prison is in restorative justice. A small number of courses are already operating, including some run by the Chaplaincy Service. Restorative justice recognises that the crime does harm to a victim. It acknowledges that crime disrupts the network of duties and responsibilities between the offender, the victim and the community. Most importantly, it makes the offender face their offence, and in the process enables them to discover, or recover, their own humanity. It is where they begin to learn to relate humanely and justly.
The weakness of the criminal justice system and the prison experience is that it depersonalises crime. The strength of the restorative justice process is that it repersonalises the crime by making the offender deeply aware of the human impact of their offence. A recent UK study of victims taking part in restorative justice revealed that 90 per cent wanted to tell their offender what impact the crime had had on them; 80 per cent wanted to be given reasons for, and answers about, what had happened; and 73 per cent wanted an apology.
Not all victims want to come face to face with their offender. However, when the offender confronts his offence by facing his victim, it becomes a significant step in changing attitudes and behaviour. I hope that a royal commission would examine carefully the place of restorative justice in prisons as a pathway to reducing reoffending, which is a government priority. Well resourced programmes, widely available in all prisons, would ensure that prisons become places where offenders learn how to relate to others. There is little hope of a released offender relating humanely and not reoffending if, while in prison, they have been confirmed in their previous attitudes and patterns of behaviour. If prison diminishes the prisoner’s potential to relate humanely, as I believe it does at the moment, we cannot be surprised at the current rates of reoffending. If, on the other hand, prison were to enlarge the prisoner’s capacity to relate humanely to society, not only would we see a reduction in reoffending, but we could also rename the criminal justice system, much more hopefully, the “restorative justice system”.
I give the warmest support to the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission.
My Lords, I also applaud the securing of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I remain agnostic about whether a royal commission is the answer. However, I am implacable in my view that prisons in our society are one of the greatest reproaches in the public estate.
The number of prisoners has risen from 45,000 in the early 1990s to 82,000. The interesting thing is that imprisonment rates are not much greater; it is the number of laws on the statute book for crimes that carry custodial sentences that has increased so dramatically. I do not know whether the 44 criminal justice Bills that we have seen in the past 11 years, with more than 3,000 new criminal offences, have a part to play, as well as the increasing length of prison sentences.
The fact is that prisons are the repositories of our social problems. I have four points to make. The first is that we continue to have a financial incentive to incarcerate people. We all agree that prisons are largely populated by people with drug addiction problems, mental health problems and learning problems. The vast majority are dysfunctional people. That is not to say that some prisoners are not bad people who do dreadful things. We all agree that that element of the population should be in prison. However, I believe that what vexes noble Lords is that the vast majority of prisoners are social casualties.
Why were they not picked up by special education, social services, drug rehabilitation programmes or mental health programmes? I can tell you simply. The cost of keeping someone in prison is about £514 a week. The cost of keeping somebody in a psychiatric intensive care unit is £3,766 a week—seven times as much. Every local authority’s health and social services budget is pressed; there is not enough money. When welfare workers who mean well but do not act fast enough let the problem develop, in the end it is the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice that pick up the bill. Prison is a free good, and as long as it is a free good, there will be a financial incentive to use it.
My second point concerns offender health. The Government made a step forward—at last—in claiming prisoners’ health as part of the NHS. I am sympathetic and respectful to the Government, because this will be a ticking time bomb. We see in our prisons one of the highest levels of morbidity; between 60 and 75 per cent of inmates affected by drug addiction problems; 20 times the rate of communicable diseases of all kinds, both airborne and blood borne, including TB, hepatitis C and HIV; massive suicide problems—we have spoken of the desperate situation of the 92 suicides last year; very severe mental problems; and gerontological problems. We have 76 year-olds sleeping on top bunks and people so old that they cannot feed or wash themselves. Are they being treated appropriately in prison institutions?
The NHS now has responsibility for prisoner health. It has to commission, and to follow guidelines and NICE protocols. This will lead inevitably to a ratcheting-up of standards, but at great cost. However, above all else, we must have localisation: programmes for health, mental health and drug addiction that can be integrated between the prison and the community. These are not conditions that can be treated within the context of a three-month or even three-year prison sentence, let alone in circumstances where at no notice prisoners are moved from pillar to post. It is interesting to note that the highest incidence of suicide occurs one month after a change, be it admission, change of prison or release.
That brings me to my next point: rehabilitation. Precious little planning is made for rehabilitation in the community. These are people with few emotional, physical and financial resources. When they go back into the community they feel lost and thus find it easy to fall back into old ways. My call is for a renewed effort by the TUC, the CBI and chambers of commerce to play their part in employing former offenders. There is not a company in the country that does not tell us about its policies on the environment, diversity, women and volunteering, but I want to know about their policies on employing former offenders. Doing so should be the sign of an enlightened company in which people are proud of employing former offenders. I do not pretend that that is easy; noble Lords know that my work is in the employment search field. I also want to know about the Government’s policy in this regard.
As regards employment, we need a renewed and sharper focus on prison education. I simply highlight the work of the Open University with the prison establishment to develop educational facilities. Only 1.5 per cent of men and 1.7 per cent of women prisoners are enrolled, but perhaps not surprisingly the completion rate is higher than elsewhere. On the other hand, the conditions and background of many involved are not at all easy. I hope that we can do more to help those working with the Open University.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the Government and the Prison Service. I believe that we can and must do more to change the views of the public. We have changed views on racism, gender, smoking and seat belts, and we must now do more to create a climate in public opinion that encourages the Government and the Prison Service to become more enlightened and productive.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who has made a number of important points, and to listen to the range of experience and expertise lined up to speak in the debate. I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham on securing this debate and forcing us to think once more, in a strategic fashion, I hope, about what is to be done about our prison system. Many people, having done the job he did as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, would have been content to put their feet up and take a certain satisfaction from the sense of a job well done, but not my noble friend. The energy and dedication with which he has continued the battle in this House to get a prison system of which we can feel proud rather than ashamed are most admirable. This debate is apposite because, of all the topics that exercise your Lordships, the question of how many people we send to prison and how we treat them there probably causes as much heart-searching regularly as any other topic I have heard discussed in this House.
I shall not take up valuable time by rehearsing the catalogue of woes that afflict the prison system at present. Other noble Lords have already done that more than adequately. I shall put them in the context so brilliantly analysed by Professor Nicola Lacey of the LSE in her recent Hamlyn lectures, to which my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham referred. The woes afflicting our prison system result from a drift from moderation or tolerance towards a culture of severity, repression or control which characterises our penal system at the beginning of the 21st century and is clogging up our prisons, despite falling crime rates and the best intentions of the Labour Government.
Ministers will know, from our debate earlier this year on the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, that I favour a change in our institutional arrangements for dealing with these matters to ones based more on consensus than an adversarial approach. However, would a royal commission on the prison system supply what is needed? Certainly, judging from this debate, plenty of people will be ready to write its report, but I have some doubt about the proposal, as presented, for a royal commission.
To begin with, the commission would need to encompass the criminal justice system as a whole, not just the prison system. Prisons cannot be divorced from our whole society’s approach to crime and punishment. The Howard League has established the Commission on English Prisons Today, a valuable initiative which should inject and stimulate new thinking. Could a royal commission add value to that? The precedents are not encouraging: that on the criminal justice system in 1993 under the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, had few tangible outcomes. In the 1960s, the one on the penal system broke up in disarray, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said. It will always be difficult for a body with a broadly based membership charged with looking at fundamental principles to reach consensus on something so hotly contested as the aims and methods of the penal system.
However, we need a forum in which penal policy can be formed and tested against informed and expert opinion. Those who resigned from the 1960s royal commission believed that the search for agreed basic principles was a fruitless exercise but that a programme of pragmatic, experimental change might afford a way forward. That led to the establishment of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, a successor to rather than a carbon copy of the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders, which preceded the royal commission between 1944 and 1964.
I am grateful to the staff of the Library, who drew my attention to an article in the Political Quarterly for 1979 by Rodney Morgan and Brian Smith, chronicling these developments. They argued that radical analysis of existing policy and the formulation of long-term policy solutions require independence from the intricacies of current administrative exigency, the constraints of party political ideology and the vested interests of personnel constituencies. The advisory council undertook a number of focused studies with circumscribed terms of reference and published nine reports between 1966 and 1980, but it did not survive Mrs Thatcher’s onslaught on quangos.
Would a revived advisory council or something like it do the trick? That is not clear. Professor Lacey argues that systematic differences between political economies organised along different lines create regularities affecting the penal culture which are more or less stable. Regularities such as these give us rates of imprisonment at eastern rather than western European levels. The whole process is underpinned and reinforced, as we have heard, by a political and media culture in which parties vie with one another to see which can be toughest on crime. That in turn creates what Professor Lacey describes as a “prisoner’s dilemma” from which escape is difficult. A revived Advisory Council on the Penal System, or perhaps a permanent sentencing commission, could help point the way out of the prisoners’ dilemma towards a penal policy that met at least some of the aims of both the Government and their critics.
In any event, I very much hope that, after today, the Minister will agree to take this discussion forward with a view to the debate having some practical outcome, so that it does not become just an academic exercise.
My Lords, I shall do my best. This debate of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, could not be more timely or important and I thank him for it. The state of our prisons today is a tragedy for those imprisoned. The overcrowding is now 9,000 over the maximum capacity and rising, and the necessary regimes and services to provide for their needs are thus seriously undermined. Evidence abounds of severe cuts in training, education and mental health services and of other services being unable to meet the ever-growing need—I have had the most terrible briefing from the BMA on its concern—and suicides are rising. The catalogue is frightening.
It is a tragedy for the prison staff who have to work in these conditions, where it is a miracle that things have not already collapsed, and it is impossible for them to do their job as they should and could. It is a tragedy for the families outside, where tens of thousands of children lose a parent to prison every year and become more likely as a result to become involved in the criminal justice system. And it is a tragedy for each and every one of us in society today, where reoffending is between two-thirds and three-quarters, where people do not feel safe or confident in our prisons or the criminal justice system, and where we are all being diminished as a society in the process.
Extraordinarily, while we imprison more people than any other country in Europe, and criminalise young offenders in particular, the Government response is to commission more of the same at a cost of billions. This includes $2.3 billion for the Titan prisons, which all the evidence shows are the antithesis of what should be done to create a humane, effective prison system. The Government pay lip service to the importance and effectiveness of community penalties while requiring cuts over three years in the budget of the Probation Service, which manages these offenders in the community. The £40 million allocated earlier this year to the service is matched by these budgetary cuts, thus making the government support a chimera.
I chair a £4 million initiative called Rethinking Crime and Punishment which has for seven years been looking in depth at the uses of custody and its alternatives. Our manifesto, which is launched here next week, strongly supports, on the evidence, community penalties for all but the most violent, dangerous and prolific offenders, for whom prison is clearly necessary. This means reallocating those billions to community alternatives where reoffending is significantly lower, damage is reduced, prisons can do their job and, above all, society is safer.
I entirely support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission on prisons. It would give an opportunity to stand back from an issue that has become so politicised and distorted, so driven by events and short-term advantage and concerns about appearing soft on crime, and instead to look dispassionately at what we really want from our criminal justice system. It could make recommendations in a strictly evidence-based, thoroughly researched and thoughtful way at arm’s length from government.
Some noble Lords may remember a precedent; it has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Low. It was not exactly a royal commission but an advisory council on the treatment of offenders which was set up in 1966 and produced some seminal reports. Its members included the great Baronesses, Lady Serota and Lady Wootton. It gave rise, inter alia, to community service, which was carefully implemented through pilot schemes. Sentencers and the community were both involved before the scheme was rolled out nationally. A royal commission should, of course, carefully select its expert members and have a well focused remit. We would all benefit from such an exercise.
In the midst of all the detailed argument, I want to bring us back to the fundamental thinking which we need now by quoting the inimitably eloquent words of a Liberal Churchill in 1910. He said:
“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it”.
The quality of our civilisation, the strength of our nation and the living virtue in it are indeed being put to the test. We must not fail it.
My Lords, the British Crime Survey reports that crime has decreased by 42 per cent since 1995, which is a welcome statistic. However, there is precious little evidence from any reputable research that our existing penal policies have contributed to that decrease. It is arguably a reduction in spite of those policies, not because of them. The overall realities of penal policy are a brutal nightmare, although it cannot be said too often that there are many valiant, dedicated, inspired and totally committed people within the police, prison, health and other services, struggling to achieve a more civilised and effective culture. And prevailing culture is obviously fundamental to sustaining qualitative improvement.
The harsh realities bear repeating. Reoffending remains high with two-thirds of prisoners reoffending within two years. Within one year of release 76 per cent of children under 18 reoffend. Almost 20,000 men and women have to exist in inadequate cells designed for only one person. At the beginning of June 2004 there were 74,850 people in prison. A year later this month it is 82,791. This is a trend that will bring us to 100,000 by the year 2012. Amid the overcrowding in prisons the number of suicides is frankly appalling. There were 92 in 2007. In 2007 alone, eight women took their own lives, equalling the number for the two previous years combined. Seven under-21s took their own lives in 2007, compared with only two in 2006. The youngest was just 15. On top of all this, there is substance abuse and self-inflicted wounds.
How can we call ourselves a decent, civilised society with all this grim evidence of wasted, stunted lives? Our prisons are full of people who should be in secure, specially equipped centres specifically catering for mental health. Again the facts are shocking, with 90 per cent of prisoners having a diagnosable mental health problem and 70 per cent having two or more such problems. These prisoners are vulnerable to bullying, substance abuse and damaging cell relationships. They have difficulties securing access to appropriate healthcare and counselling. There is little opportunity to resolve traumas originating in past life. I have seen for myself how arrival procedures in prison can be highly stressful. Screening for mental health problems is too often minimal. The absence of anything like sufficiently meaningful daytime activity severely aggravates the situation.
The Howard League for Penal Reform, the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health and other similar organisations, together with enlightened thinkers with frontline experience within the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice, are brimful of sound analysis of what needs to be done. There is an urgent need to provide a forum in which this wisdom can be brought to bear. The notion of Titan prisons, with all the rationalising talk about centres of excellence, economies of scale and the best possible use of expertise, cuts very little ice with those with mainstream experience and responsibility. Most of the reputable research suggests that, to make effective progress with rehabilitation—which must surely be the only sane, overarching objective, not least on grounds of economic sense—smaller, more personal units are above all what is needed, particularly for the young. The Titan proposal is flawed from the start and should be fundamentally reviewed before we embark on yet another counterproductive exercise entailing the waste of huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. I have always believed that the concept of what we have traditionally called royal commissions has a big part to play in a healthy democracy. Free of short-term electoral preoccupations, and not egged on by the worst elements in the media, a royal commission is able, with gravitas and care, authoritatively to build up an understanding of what is really the nature of the social challenge confronting us and to propose a sound, strategic approach to answering it on which the debate about legislative requirements can focus.
Building on the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the recent excellent and telling report by my noble friend Lady Corston, I believe that there is no issue which more requires a royal commission than this one. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for having introduced this Motion today.
My Lords, I, too, endorse that sentiment and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on bringing this matter for debate before your Lordships' House. A country is judged by its performance regarding its prison system and penal policy. We are told by the noble Lord that prisons are in crisis and the speeches have bristled with human rights issues and personal tragedies. The Howard League’s figures on prison suicide are terrible to read; in the case of women, especially, the figures have leapt by 167 per cent over the past couple of years, and the under-21s likewise. The youngest, a mere 15 years old, has already been mentioned.
The tasks of such a commission should be to look at the comparative figures for the UK versus other countries and, if it was appointed tomorrow, at the currently rising numbers in this country looked at on their own. I shall give noble Lords a few figures. My source is the International Centre for Prison Studies—this is the realm of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern—and the figures are very up-to-date. I shall use the unit of measurement used in the centre’s national reports of number of prisoners per 100,000 head of population. The figure for the UK, which we have had already, is 152. I gather that in some countries, including the United States, Russia and other eastern European countries, the figures are way higher. We may be talking about 600 or 750 per 100,000 of population, but I shall ignore those and come closer to our coastline, starting with Scandinavia.
I think we would all assume that in Scandinavia we will find a small number of prisoners per 100,000—at least I would—and so it is: Denmark has 66, Sweden 79 and Norway 75. There is an interesting parallel here. An organisation called Transparency International publishes an annual league table on the most and least corrupt countries in business dealings. It is based on businessmen’s evidence. Up at the top, in the sense of being the least corrupt, come the Scandinavian countries. It is rather interesting that these penal figures correspond.
For France, the figure for prisoners per 100,000 of population is 91, for Germany it is 88, and Italy 75. We creep over the 100 mark with the Netherlands. Then there is the very startling result for Spain; I think the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, himself would be surprised. It tops the UK, with a figure of 154. There has been a tremendous increase in the Spanish prison population, from 35,000 in 1992 to 70,000 in June of this year.
I also looked at the number of juveniles in prison. In the UK, 2.9 per cent of the prison population are defined as juveniles, minors and young prisoners. There may be some irregularity in the figures because the exact language may not be capable of totally accurate translation country by country. In Scandinavia, the figure in Denmark is 0.1 per cent; in Norway, 0.3 per cent; and in Sweden, 0.2 per cent. In France the figure is 1.1 per cent and in Germany it is higher, at 4.4 per cent. Then there is the astonishing figure of 11 per cent for the Netherlands which includes imprisonment outside institutions. In Italy, the figure is 0.9 per cent. We are not the worst in percentage terms—we are beaten by Germany and the astonishing figure in the Netherlands.
On the occupancy level of prison accommodation, the figure for prisoners in the UK is 113 per cent against 100 per cent accommodation. Spain has the astonishing figure of 140 per cent, Sweden 106 per cent and France 118 per cent. All the others are below 100. Our figure is worrying.
The royal commission should then look at the causes of our high figures. There are four possible things to look at: the restrictive attitude to bail; the restrictive attitude to parole, because of the fear of letting somebody out who commits a crime within 24 hours; the indeterminate sentences, where people linger; and long sentences, where there has been a huge change from the pre-war era. At that time about 9 per cent of male prisoners were serving three years or more. The comparable figure for 2002 was that 61 per cent of male prisoners were serving longer sentences. We have switched to long sentences.
I will have to stop now, but I want to say one word on Titan prisons. The idea of a Titan prison creates dismay in my heart. With 2,500 prisoners locked up in a single building, what will happen if there is any sort of riot, industrial action or any of the things that we have been reminded of? What will life be like for those prisoners if they are being bullied or there is some sort of sexual aberration? You can imagine conditions of total horror. I close on that note. I hope there is still time for some rethinking there.
My Lords, during the 1970s, when I was a member of the Parole Board for England and Wales, the prison population was half what it is today. We would have been deeply shocked had we foreseen that only 30 years later the numbers in prison would grow to over 80,000.
My noble friend Lord Carter of Coles, whose review of prisons has already been referred to, has demonstrated how the increased use of prison in sentencing has rendered the capacity of our prisons inadequate. In the light of that, despite some of the comments made this afternoon, he inevitably had to propose significant enlargement of the prison estate. He had to propose something of that order. Yet he knows, and the Government repeatedly assert, that government policy is to reserve prison for the most serious and dangerous offenders. Indeed, community sentences have increased at an even greater rate. Such sentences are rightly preferred when sentencing in our criminal courts not only because our prisons are currently full but because prison has so many deleterious consequences in terms of so many aspects of institutionalisation and the harmful influence of the prison culture.
If community sentences are to be more effective and if they are to receive wider public acceptance and support for what appears to be a soft alternative option, more consideration needs to be given to the value of publicity for the sentences awarded. Last week the Evening Standard reported:
“Company bosses who employ illegal immigrants are to be named and shamed in a further attempt to crack down on people-smuggling, Ministers announced today”.
In the other place, my honourable friend Liam Byrne, the Minister with responsibility for immigration, said that the names of companies and directors would be published on the UK Border Agency website. Why should that idea not be pursued in other types of criminal case? I know from my own experience in business and trading standards that naming and shaming businessmen guilty of offences such as fraud can be a powerful deterrent to the majority of businessmen who are concerned with maintaining a good reputation among their peers and customers.
There was a time when local newspapers used to publish extensive reports of court hearings, such as in local magistrates’ courts, and of the convictions. In the 19th century local newspapers had pages devoted to local court proceedings. That is rare nowadays and a major deterrent aspect of criminal convictions and sentences has been lost. Except in very serious cases or those where the accused is a celebrity—how unfortunate it is to be a celebrity, because the people convicted may have their convictions and sentences recorded in the newspapers—most people need have no fear whatever that their neighbours and workmates will get to know about it.
I could if I had more time quote extensively from modern judges—even though the former Lord Chief Justice has left the Chamber—but I shall confine myself to the great Jeremy Bentham, who said that publicity is the very soul of justice. When, as is the case today, few people attend court proceedings and newspapers rarely report them, some other means should be found to keep the public informed, perhaps by way of appropriate websites or otherwise.
I welcome community sentencing schemes not only for the inherent value of restorative justice—a phrase to which I was glad to hear the right reverend Prelate refer—but especially if there is some visibility to the public of community service in action. A recent Ministry of Justice paper records Mike Wells of the London Community Payback Scheme as saying:
“The offenders wear yellow jackets and the superior has an orange one. We put a board up saying it’s a Community Payback Scheme. And we leaflet the area so that everyone knows we are there and can see justice in action”.
I recommend that kind of publicity. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who initiated the debate, that I doubt the need for a royal commission on prisons because so much information is known, but if there is to be such, it should be broader, dealing with sentencing of all kinds.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for this debate. If a standing royal commission takes place, it should not sit on a shelf. It would need to look also at aftercare and resettlement, because reoffending rates remain high, with two-thirds of prisoners reoffending within two years of release. That figure goes up to 76 per cent within one year of release for young people under 18. Many of them come from care or are homeless. Children under 16 should not be in a prison situation, especially a Titan prison, but in a secure school, having full-time education, plenty of exercise and support in changing their habits. There should be zero tolerance of bullying. Many of those young people have truanted from school, been involved with drugs and alcohol, and have a chaotic lifestyle. They should be given the chance of challenges such as those provided in the camps in America, where activities like those offered in the Duke of Edinburgh schemes are undertaken.
Prison health is now the responsibility of the NHS, which I welcome. However, there is no national information on the amount of resource being spent by PCTs on commissioning prison mental health care, either from specialist mental health trusts or as part of the day-to-day work of primary care teams. Nor is there any way of comparing what is spent on prison primary care with what is spent outside. With so many health problems existing in prisons—whether physical, mental or dual-diagnosis, which is a combination of mental illness and addiction—and elderly long-term prisoners, there is no way of judging whether this level of provision meets the health needs of prisoners. Many of these mental health patients should be out of prison and treated in secure mental health units where their conditions are understood.
An article in the March/April edition of Diabetes UK’s magazine says that prisoners with diabetes often pay a high price in health terms, struggling to square self-management with the prison regime, which is not helpful to prisoners. A prison officer called Andy Cross at HMP Woodhill, a category A remand prison, is a diabetic himself. He helps prisoners with their diabetic problems and advises prison staff on how to manage diabetic prisoners when things go wrong. This include hypos due to low blood sugar or glucose. Prison staff often mistake hypos for behaviour problems. Andy has become a diabetic liaison officer for the Prison Service. There are many public health needs in prisons. Recent developments include a specialist TB nurse at Pentonville and a hepatitis programme across London, while the Health Protection Agency is setting up a prison network across the country. One could have a royal commission for the prison health service alone.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for instigating this debate. I declare an interest as an adviser to the trustees of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. In these few minutes I shall concentrate on the area I know best in the prisons debate; namely, mental health issues in prisons. I suggest that what we can observe going on in the recognition and treatment of prisoners with mental illness is enough of an issue on its own—let alone everything else that noble Lords have talked about—to make it clear that we need a royal commission on our prisons to take a calm, dispassionate, expert and accurate look at what is going on, and to recommend, in a cross-party, cross-expert way, a true change of direction.
Wearing my rather eccentric Prime Minister’s Champion for Volunteering hat, I am at present working on a review of volunteering in the criminal justice system. There are thousands upon thousands of wonderful men and women doing all sorts of incredible things as volunteers in our prisons up and down the country. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, paid tribute to them. They get precious little thanks or chance to meet each other, but they are checked by the Criminal Records Bureau to ensure that they are the right people to do the job. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, a positive result from a Criminal Records Bureau check might give you just the qualification you need to be the mentor for some young offenders who are very troubled. They need to know what others who have been there have now discovered. I wonder if we should be thinking differently about that; a royal commission could do so.
My other real concern is that those volunteers say that their freedom to work effectively in closed institutions relies entirely on the attitudes of the governors of those prisons. We should be under no illusions. That is one of the reasons why we need a royal commission. Prisons have become our last closed institutions. They are being used to warehouse people, many of whom should never have been there. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said, perhaps it is for reasons of cost.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, has already said that there is a huge prevalence of mental health problems in prisons. Ninety per cent of prisoners have diagnosable mental health problems, compared to around 20 per cent of the general population. Seventy per cent have two or more mental health problems, compared with 5 per cent of the general population. That means that mental distress is both more prevalent in prisons and much more complex than in the general community. The default prisoner—the general, normal prisoner, as it were—is someone with a complex mix of mental health issues, substance abuse issues and other problems that have rarely been managed well by the public services.
Yesterday the Sainsbury centre published From the Inside, a report on what prisoners and prison officers in the West Midlands have said about the impact of imprisonment and aspects of daily life in the prison environment which affect them. The prisoners said that they were most bothered by bullying, other inmates, having no one they trusted to talk to, substance misuse—a huge issue—unresolved past-life traumas and difficulty accessing services, particularly healthcare and counselling. What does this tell us? It tells us that mental health issues in our prisons will get worse and that both staff and prisoners know it. That, if for no other, is a reason for having a royal commission.
There is one other issue that we ought to look at and a royal commission could examine. The Government are undoubtedly to be given credit for handing over prison healthcare to the National Health Service. We were all immensely relieved to see that happen not very long ago. At the moment, £20.8 million a year is spent on mental health care in prisons through NHS inreach teams; that is about 11 per cent of total prison healthcare spending, or just over £300 for each member of the prison population. The really worrying thing about that is that it is only about one-third of the amount required to offer what government policy stated it would do—that is, to give equal standards of care to those inside prison and to those outside it. We need a royal commission to look at this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, pointed out, we are at the top of the league in spending on prisons, but towards the bottom on health. These people are sick. They need treatment. A royal commission could guide us in the right direction. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and very much support his proposal.
My Lords, your Lordships have heard countless reasons for supporting this excellent Motion, so persuasively proposed by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. Not the least of those is the all-too-apparent growing unease among practitioners and the public about whether the prison system has a deterrent effect and is fit for today's purpose. We must have an independent and objective look—a non-political look, if you like—at whether a greater use of community and restorative justice sentences would produce far better results and, incidentally, cost taxpayers much less. We have heard the extraordinary figure that we spend a higher proportion of our GDP on law and order than any other OECD country. That alone is pretty odd.
However, we cannot complain that this Government have been inactive on crime. Over the past 10 years we have seen a torrent of some 50 criminal justice Bills and a positive tsunami of new imprisonable offences. We are told that the crime rate has fallen, but that is certainly not reflected in the number of people in prison, as we know. Your Lordships have heard how numbers continue to rise. The effect that overcrowding is having on staff and inmates alike is an increasingly visible cause of concern. Nor has there been any decrease in the reoffending rate; 65 per cent of released prisoners are reconvicted within two years, as we have heard. For the youngest men—I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, that they should not be there in the first place—the figure is an appalling 76 per cent within less than a year of release. That is why I hope that the urgently needed policies to reclaim these youngest offenders for a satisfying, crime-free life will continue to be seen as a priority by the Government, whether or not there is a royal commission. What is needed on release is a blitz of support for young offenders from professionals, volunteers and local employers to ensure that there is somewhere for them to live, a job and/or skills training, and, above all, a mentor.
The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned women prisoners. When women are in prison many children suffer as a result. It has long been accepted that a prison system designed on military lines by men for men is patently unsuited to women's rehabilitation needs. Last year’s Corston report, echoing many previous reports on women and prisons, recommended an entirely different strategy of small, local, community-based rehabilitation units. Encouragingly, the Government had accepted 40 of the 43 recommendations, but now, this very week, we had the sad announcement that they are rejecting the basic Corston analysis and we are back to square one.
The Government do not seem to understand that many view as completely illogical and contradictory their acceptance of the Carter plan to build up to three Titan-style prisons. Anne Owers, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that this flies,
“in the face of our, and others’ evidence that smaller prisons work better than larger ones”.
Not only does this move in the opposite direction to Corston, but it flies in the face of the Government’s own plans for far more “localising” of education, health and social support services and indeed their whole social inclusion agenda.
Corston, once in place, would have been a logical part of the preventative strategy for families at risk that the Government have enacted and reinforced with their own, crucial, Children and Young Persons Act. A royal commission’s independent, objective view of the whole Corston/Titan conflict would itself be invaluable. So, too, is the more radical approach to prison which is beginning to gain ground and is perhaps even beginning to be discussed in some government circles.
Louis Blom-Cooper, a distinguished barrister in this field, has just published a book which argues that 60 per cent of the prison population should not be there. He proposes that any future building projects should end, and that there should be a reduction of prisoners over the next 10 years to 50,000. Of course, we must always lock up dangerous criminals, but if we are increasingly saying that for most offenders prison does not work, and that many more community and restorative justice sentences should be imposed, with responsibility for those passed to the offender’s local area, then there is surely some logic to this challenging proposition.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for providing us with the opportunity to talk about prisons. I declare an interest as a non-executive member of the National Offender Management Service management board and its audit committee. However, the points I wish to make are my own, not those of any board or committee.
Over the past decade spending in real terms on prisons is up by 37 per cent. However, the prison population has risen by around a third over the same period and continues to rise because more offenders are going to prison, and for longer. Until, and unless, it becomes dangerous to take any more prisoners, our prisons have to accept whoever the courts so decide to send there.
Since 1995 there have been no category A prisoner escapes. In the five years from 1991-92 to 1995-96 there were 19 category A escapes. In 1996-97 there were 33 escapes from closed prisons; in 2007-08 there were four. In 1996-97 there were 1,115 abscondments; in 2007-08 there were 513, lower than at any time in the past 10 years. From 1990-95 there were 11 prison riots, including in Manchester, which lasted, I believe, 25 days. Since 1996, there have been just three major riots, and in all three cases control was regained within less than 12 hours and no prisoners escaped. That is hardly a sign of a failing system.
Reoffending rates have fallen in respect of those serving prison sentences and those serving community sentences. For those discharged from prison, comparing 2005 with five years earlier, the proportion reoffending within one year has fallen from just under 51.5 per cent to just over 49 per cent, with the number of offences committed by those offenders—mainly with respect to those sentenced to more than 12 months—also falling.
I would not wish to suggest for one moment that the current Chief Inspector of Prisons believes that everything is as it should be in our prisons, as her introduction to her most recent annual report, for 2006-07, makes clear. That introduction contains the following statement:
“Nevertheless, it is a credit to those running and working in the prison system that prisons have remained as safe and decent as they have, in this period of unprecedented pressure—facing not only increased numbers, but also increased expectations. Prisons remain, overall, better places than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and a number of the prisons inspected this year had progressed, against the odds”.
Evidence shows that recently inspected prisons are performing better against the four tests—safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement—that the chief inspector uses to assess the health of a prison than in previous inspections. Some 130,000 individuals a year go through the prison system. The number of self-inflicted deaths in 2007 was 92, which was higher than in the two previous years but marginally lower than in 2003 and 2004. The three-year rolling average has continued to fall, and it is my understanding that the number of self-inflicted deaths this year to date is below the number at the same time last year, although that situation could, unfortunately, change very quickly. No self-inflicted death can simply be accepted, but the trends do not suggest that prisons are in a downward spiral, despite all the pressures on numbers.
There has also been a reduction by more than 60 per cent in the past 10 years of drug misuse in prisons, as measured by the random mandatory drug testing programme, which, subject to what a pending report may have to say, is in my view a credible programme. There is evidence to suggest that intensive drug treatment, provided it is followed up in the community, can reduce reoffending levels by at least 10 per cent.
Increasing good work continues to be done, through a variety of sources, in providing programmes for offenders to reduce the likelihood of their reoffending and to increase their prospects of securing employment or a place on a training or educational programme on release. Likewise, considerable effort is put into trying to ensure that there is appropriate accommodation for an offender to go to on release. Our prisons exceeded the targets set on the number of offender behaviour skills programmes completed and on employment and settled accommodation for offenders on release.
Our prisons have been and continue to be the subject of reports. There was the CRE investigation, followed more recently, for example, by reports either concluded or in train from my noble friends Lord Carter of Coles, Lady Corston and Lord Bradley. There is also a further report by David Blakey in relation to drugs in prisons. The Chief Inspector of Prisons reports on establishments and other issues affecting our prisons. The independent monitoring boards at prisons also produce reports, as does the ombudsman for the Prison Service. Our prisons are subject to parliamentary scrutiny through Select Committees and the National Audit Office, as well as Parliamentary Questions and debates.
I do not believe that the state of our prisons necessitates or justifies yet another investigation by a royal commission. It is true that in her most recent annual report the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that either a royal commission or a major public inquiry like the Woolf inquiry was needed, but that was in relation to developing a penal policy for the future, which is not what is being called for in the Motion. I do not believe that our prisons, and those who work in them at all levels in a wide variety of activities, get the credit they deserve for what they achieve despite extremely challenging circumstances. Already there are, and continue to be, numerous reports, investigations and reviews of prison activities and procedures. The evidence does not show that we have a failing Prison Service and does not provide a case for yet another investigation through a royal commission on the state of prisons.
My Lords, at this late stage of this excellent debate, with most of the arguments already made, repetition or summing up seem the only options available to me. I fear that I am only qualified to do the former with the limited oxygen that I have left. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, who said that long-term prison policy has never been in greater disarray.
There has been no discernible unified strategy for at least the past 40 years or more, so I am certainly not attempting to make political points when I say what I have to say. Nor am I in the business of joining the chorus of mostly ill-informed media comment about the prison estate—the headline stories about people trying to break into, chiefly, open prisons, or the disgraceful luxury which exists behind prison walls. All too few of those who write about such things have ever actually ventured inside a prison. I declare an interest as a former magistrate who has visited most parts of the estate, from local and training prisons to secure training centres.
I am certainly not criticising the Prison Service itself, for it is surely right to acknowledge the commitment and, often, sensitivity of very many in that service, who achieve much with slender resources, often in very difficult circumstances. For a minute noble Lords should contemplate the roads that we have been tempted down in the past in an effort to deal with the inexorable rise in the prison population. These include the short, sharp shock; the use of prison ships; the overuse of police cells; disused army camps; and now, heaven forefend, the construction of what I call “mega cans”—after all, it is an American idea, and surely “Titan”, being god-like is too positive a word to be used in this context. The Government are free to have the copyright of this idea, if they want it.
Defenders of the present arrangements point to the £1.7 billion currently earmarked for additional accommodation, albeit the wrong kind in the eyes of many. Warehousing, as it is correctly called, will undoubtedly facilitate containment. What about the other more productive policies—the policies which declare, unambiguously, that in order to cut the 64 per cent reoffending rate, there should be reasonable time out of cell, not the planned 3 per cent cuts, which will lead to weekend lockdowns? There should be meaningful education programmes, and work and training should be widespread and fulfilling, as exemplified in the charity Fine Cell Work.
There is no overall standing-back strategy to put all these factors together and make coherent policies from them. A royal commission would provide such a platform. Can I ask the Minister two questions? I will build on the invaluable comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. We are all aware of the distress felt that those with mental health problems should be locked up in general prisons. As a former magistrate, I well remember the sinking feeling one had when confronted by an offender with obvious learning disabilities. One had no means of disposal relevant to his or her condition. Some of the former maximum security mental prisons were closed many years ago, no doubt for good and humane reasons, so that we now have only three in the prison estate. Where are their successors? Are there any dedicated prisons in the pipeline for those with learning disabilities, who need to be constrained for their own safety and ours? If not, why not? What is the current position about the availability of NHS facilities for offenders with mental health problems, who pose a threat only to themselves?
My second question relates to the sentencing process. Does the Minister feel that magistrates, for example, would benefit from a greater insight into what prison can do for offenders, before they embark upon the sentencing process—in other words, by having some sort of informative guide provided by the Prison Service? Before there is any spluttering about the Prison Service interfering in the judicial process, I stress that the suggestion is that this initiative should be purely educational and helpful. It should certainly be without any steer as to the outcome of any proceedings.
There are many strands to put together, most of which have been enumerated in this excellent debate, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. The case for a royal commission is crystal clear. I am sure that it is a conclusion with which the eminently fair and reasonable Minister will agree. It is society which is in the dock here—not a Labour Government, not a Conservative Government, but all of us. It is not too much to say that we are now at a crossroads. Are we going to turn that crossroads into a roundabout, as has so often been the case in the past? Or are we, for once, going to venture down the right road, confident in the lead given by a successful royal commission?
My Lords, I rise to add my small voice to a debate on a very important issue and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
It is often said in debates that everything that can be said has been said, but not by everybody. We have been privileged today to have listened to a preview of the evidence that would be given to a royal commission on prisons. Every strand of concern has been exposed. There have been one or two political swipes, which is understandable and acceptable, but, by and large, we have had the voice of experience.
All too often, prisons—those in them and those who work in them—have, sadly, been used as a political football. What we have heard this afternoon should encourage the Minister to consider the possibility that after 15 years since the last commission, perhaps now is the time to initiate something similar. I speak as someone who had the privilege to be the parliamentary consultant to the Prison Officers’ Association some 20 years ago. In that capacity, I visited 32 prisons, from the north to the south. The public sometimes do not appreciate our criminal system—criminals are sentenced, they are sent to prison and the doors clang behind them. As far as the public is concerned, that is the end of it. However, inside those prison walls, there are not only those who have committed crimes, but those who work in prisons at various levels. I hope that this debate will highlight the issues that need to be resolved. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in defence of the existing system and its successes, but that ought not to blind us to the fact that while I have been involved—for, say, 30 years—the prison world has undergone a revolution not only in numbers, but in the nature of the crimes that people commit, the nature of the people who are incarcerated, and the style of society. Inside prisons, prison officers do their very best.
I am not privy to inside comment, but I have listened to the debate for the past two and a half hours and been very impressed by the quality of the background and erudition of those who have taken part. The Minister may tell us that there is a strategy; but there are those who will say, “Tell us what it is, and we will be able to comment”. If there is a strategy, a direction and a plan, with no disrespect to the Minister or his colleagues, who have an impossible job to do, he could take the evidence from this debate and say to his colleagues that there is a feeling that now is the right time to take the heat away from the present debate. Sadly, as issues come up, as disputes emerge, as crisis after crisis comes along, there is a feeling that one is in the middle of a battle. You win one battle and you have another battle to face; you are in a war. The Whip has kindly pointed out to me that my time is up, so I will sit down and hope very much that the Minister has kind words to say about the Motion.
My Lords, I support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and congratulate him on his speech. I propose to concentrate on the entirely non-political issue of how our prisons are run—their management. As I have studied the matter, it seems to me that the inheritance of today's management from the past is daunting. The 2007 edition of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology states that robustly independent critical chief inspectors have repeatedly identified “appalling” and “unhealthy” prisons in which regimes are impoverished and the staff culture is antagonistic. Prisons are costly, overcrowded, a constant management headache and apparently difficult places in which to maintain a positive regime.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, wrote that the heart of the problem of the Prison Service is the absence of a business-like structure; it does not have the benefits that flow from people knowing what to do and how to do it; and to whom they are responsible and accountable. The problem has been compounded, in the view of the writers of the Oxford Handbook, by considerable tension between Ministers and senior prison executives and between individual prisons and headquarters. We are told that both have led to frequent organisational changes. On that, I would say that that such an experience is immensely undermining of the confidence and effectiveness of senior management. I have known men of outstanding ability seeking to run public sector organisations in which there were ambiguities and changes of this kind and departing in despair.
The handbook also refers to costliness. In any organisation, two issues matter: unit costs and how effectively the units are used. On unit costs, the Carter report of 2007 says—I find this difficult to believe—that the full pay package in public sector prisons is 61 per cent higher than in the private sector counterparts. This may be a reflection of the inadequacy of pay in private sector prisons; I am in no position to judge. However, Carter tells us that labour costs are due to rise in the next four years from 80 per cent of total prison budgets in 2006-07 to more than 90 per cent in 2010-11. In such circumstances, there is a premium on the highly effective management of resources, particularly of people.
In contrast to what is required, Carter tells us that organisational structures are outdated and inflexible, with too much emphasis on grade and not enough on role. He says that the modernisation of the prison workforce is long overdue to address what he describes as the costly, outdated and inflexible pay and grading structures. He criticises the lack of adequate information for effective management and financial control, and says that the prisons lack a standard operating model to address a widespread variety in staffing levels and regime provision. Prisons cannot do a good job unless managers have clear stable objectives, clear accountability, authority, freedom to get on with the job, excellent financial information systems, guidance from a standard operating model, and strong backing when they take measures to deal with the management issues facing them.
Of course overcrowding and the frequent movement of prisoners associated with it compound the management problem. If, as was reported in 2004, the average tenure of governing governors in an establishment is still only one year and nine months, that would add to the management problem.
I support the Motion, not because the Government are inactive or because Ministers have been the least bit incompetent—indeed, there has been a flow of measures—but because this kind of management issue needs to be tackled. This is a matter for professional managers. I was alarmed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, say that there was no director of operations except in high-security prisons. This is a big management problem that needs to be tackled by excellent managers, and I hope that the Government will take that point on board.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on once again giving us the benefit of his experience in bringing this Motion before the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, referred to his experience in the 1970s when he served on the Parole Board and when the prison population was about half what it is today. I recall as a recorder the last enlightened period of prison management. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, was the Home Secretary and did his best to drive down the prison population as opposed to putting it up. I well remember his advice. Many people were opposed to the direction in which he sought to drive policy.
We must ask ourselves whether society feels safer today with 82,000 people in prison than it did in the 1970s. Is our security any better when the proportion of the population in prison is, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia and the noble Lord, Lord Neill, pointed out, so much higher than in our European counterparts? Is London safer than Paris or Copenhagen? One has only to ask the question to realise that the number of people in prison does not make for a safer or happier society. One of the reasons for that—I am sure there are others—may well be that if you double the number of people in prison, you also double the number of people who come out of prison. They come out with the wasted lives to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred—lives that have been wasted because no attempt has been or can be made in prison to address their social problems of illiteracy, mental ill health, drugs and so on. I recall a client of mine saying that it was easier to get drugs in prison than in the outside community—they were freely available. Despite everything that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has said, I do not think things have improved since then.
The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, put his finger on it when he pointed out that prison cannot work in the present situation because overcrowding destroys any chance of tackling these social problems. My noble friend Lady Linklater drew attention to the tragedy of prisoners’ families; the fact that, every year, tens of thousands of children lose a parent. Those children grow up to be the criminals of tomorrow: that is something that is frequently forgotten. Lock up more people and you create greater social problems among the families who are left behind.
What is the solution? The noble Lord, Lord Rosser—very bravely, if I may say so—has been the only noble Lord to support the status quo. He tells us that things are better now than they were, and that he does not see a need for a royal commission. The noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, was doubtful about the benefits of a royal commission, because of the history of royal commissions that sat in the past. He wondered whether we should revisit the advisory council for the penal system which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater pointed out, produced wonderful reports in the 1960s that led to community sentencing and so on.
The noble Lord also wondered whether a permanent sentencing commission might be the answer. I immediately thought of the sentencing commission promised by the Prime Minister in his legislative programme—his pre-Queen’s Speech that we heard recently. The proposal for a sentencing commission was endorsed by the Lord Chancellor, Mr Jack Straw, in another place. What is this talk of a sentencing commission? They are putting forward into the legislative programme a sentencing commission on which the working group is still consulting. I declare an interest as a former member of that group. Such was my position, I felt that I could not remain a member, and anything that I say about it is derived from documents in the public sphere, in particular the consultation document that the working group has issued.
Noble Lords might think the term “sentencing commission” raises the prospect of breaking the cycle, bringing down numbers and bringing in reforms—but not a bit of it. It is derived from the report in June last year of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. In Securing the Future, he proposed a major new building programme to increase capacity to a net 96,000 places by 2014, and recommended that long-term measures should be taken to avoid continuous and expensive prison building. The Titans project, which many noble Lords have criticised, was derived from that report.
The noble Lord sought to link resources with sentencing. At first blush, that seems sensible; but on examination it is not. The proposal that the working group put forward in its consultation document—it does not support it, but has merely put it forward for consideration—is based on the Minnesota or New Carolina system in the United States. A grid system has been introduced so you know what a sentence is going to be and time is added on for previous convictions and mitigation ceases to be important. The system produces something the Home Office might like: it forecasts within 2 per cent of target. But in Minnesota it has put up the prison population annually by 6.6 per cent since 2000 which, although I am not a mathematician, suggests that prison numbers double in the space of seven or eight years if that percentage rate of increase continues.
The sentencing commission the Government are considering and on which the working group is working does not in any sense address all the problems that noble Lords have talked about today. That is why I support the concept of a royal commission as put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. There are important questions to be asked. Who should be in prison? Should it be the 1,000 women being held on remand, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, told us? Should it be young people, whose futures are made even bleaker by their time in prison? What sort of offence should send people to prison? That is the first question: who should be there?
The second question is: what is the right balance of occupancy that enables prisons to be used in a creative way and that offers the possibility of rehabilitation? If we are overcrowding prisons to the tune of 113 per cent, which means that three people have to share a two-man cell, there is no opportunity for that work. The royal commission could address that issue. What resources are needed? Are they needed to build more prisons like the proposed Titans or should they be used constructively to enable people released at the end of their sentence to become involved in society? The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, referred to the essential need for jobs and housing for prisoners when they come out, as well as families that are still intact. My noble friend Lady Neuberger referred to the critical question of mental health and all those who are locked up when really it is treatment that they need.
The issue is politicised and has become increasingly so throughout the 1990s and into this decade. We have to have an independent view so as to bring some sense into prison policy. That is why we shall back the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in this crusade.
My Lords, in this debate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, calls attention to the case for a royal commission on the state of prisons.
By a unique blend of complete mastery of his brief, trenchant parliamentary interventions and a relentless determination to persuade the Government of the error of their ways, the noble Lord has succeeded in driving the disgraceful state of our prisons way up the political agenda.
Above all, he has instilled in us a sense of urgency about the need to implement the policies he advocates. I recall very well experiencing that sense of urgency during the long passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill earlier this year when so many of the issues ventilated today were thoroughly discussed. It is because of his view that time is at a premium that I question whether the establishment of a royal commission is really the best way of achieving the noble Lord’s own objectives. Royal commissions are not normally associated with expedition, although I accept that some have taken evidence and reported more quickly than others. Nevertheless, a royal commission did not seem consistent with the need to get on with things. Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is very clear about what changes he wants. He does not need to wait for the royal commission to tell him what to do.
Now I discover that the noble Lord has in mind not the usual royal commission but the special model of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. It would, as I understand it, undertake regular investigations by independent experts of particular issues. I readily accept that such investigations are necessary. However, I am not convinced that they are best conducted by a royal commission rather than, say, by a Select Committee—or, indeed, by an outstanding independent organisation like the Howard League for Penal Reform. Like my noble friend Lady Bottomley, I am an agnostic on that matter. Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has identified an important gap that needs to be filled, whichever institution is best suited to undertake the task.
However, by far the most important factor in transforming the appalling state of our prisons will be the policies that Governments pursue. That is why the unremitting pressure from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on Ministers in Parliament to change their policies is absolutely fundamental to making any progress at all—and far more important and productive than anything the royal commission could achieve.