House of Lords
Wednesday, 10 December 2008.
Prayers—read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.
My Lords, the Government are currently pursuing a substantial expansion of prison capacity, which is designed to increase the number of prison places to 96,000 by 2014.
In addition, the Government have taken steps to promote confidence in community sentences where that is appropriate, including an additional investment of £40 million funding for probation services this year.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am sure that we will all be pleased about the community sentences. The prison population, as the noble Lord has told us, is going up, which is perhaps not surprising when more than 1,000 new imprisonable offences have been created since 1997. The number of places is going up, but we are told that the amount of money available is going down by £1 billion over the next three years. Will the Minister confirm that the only results of these realities are that prison conditions will get worse, the rehabilitation service will be spread more thinly and prison will become even more ineffective? Would it not be more sensible to make these savings by scrapping the plans for Titan prisons, which are universally unpopular? I am sure that the Minister will have noticed that only yesterday they were condemned all around the House.
My Lords, it is vital that we plan to build the prison places that we expect we will need. We are committed to providing enough prison places for those who should be behind bars: the most dangerous, the seriously persistent offenders and the most violent. The Government make no apology for saying that prison is the right place for such people and, in doing so, we are committed to delivering value for money. We believe that what the noble Baroness described as Titan prisons—I prefer to call them prison clusters—offer the best value-for-money solution for providing additional capacity and to modernise the prison estate. It is not just about additional capacity. These prisons will enable us to seize an important opportunity to modernise the estate by decommissioning worn-out, ineffective prisons and using these gains in efficiency to support improvements in the delivery of what we all want to see: rehabilitation by delivering the interventions that help prisoners away from a life of crime.
My Lords, is it the case that the “Titanic” prisons, as I think they would be better called, were to have cost £350 million and they are now going to cost £450 million? Would it not be better to spend the money on modernising existing capacity and building small prisons local to the prisoners, so that they can be supported by their families as they should be?
My Lords, first, the estimate for the construction costs of the new prison clusters remains £350 million at 2007-08 prices. The estimate of £450 million that the noble Lord mentioned, which was provided to the Justice Committee earlier this year, was not an increase in the construction costs; it merely was the original estimate inflated for the years in which we expect these prisons to open—namely, some years ahead, in 2012-14. It is not an increase in costs in the terms that he asked in his question. We think that a mixture of prison building is important. These prisons will, of course, be put in places where it is already difficult for family and friends to visit those in prison. Indeed, we think that building them where we plan to will help.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has just said about the extra investment in the probation service. Can he confirm that it is the Government’s intention, as far as they can, to put far more emphasis on rehabilitation and preventing reoffending, because this is where too much of the money goes down the drain at the moment? I agree with him exactly about locking up people who have been convicted of violent offences, but should not the emphasis now be more on prevention and then rehabilitation by investment in services like the probation services and voluntary organisations which have contracts to support the work that they are trying to do in prisons and beyond?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we, this Government, have increased by 67 per cent in real terms our spending on probation since we came to power. That is very important. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced robust community sentences that include a wide range of requirements, including unpaid work, drug treatment and curfews. These are very important sentences indeed. Of course some people have to go to prison, but the vast majority, or a large number, of those who commit crime do not. We want to ensure that there are proper community sentences for those, and that is why this Government have spent so much money on probation.
My Lords, shall we hear the right reverend Prelate first?
My Lords, no, I do not have statistics about that. He will know, because there was a Question on IPP prisoners a few weeks ago, that we think that the reforms we made to the original IPP proposals in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act earlier this year will help IPP prisoners. The legislation that was passed and the processes that result from it will, we hope, alleviate what the right reverend Prelate is quite right to say is a serious situation.
My Lords, given what the Minister has said, can I assume that he agrees that our prisons are full of people for whom they are completely unsuitable, such as petty criminals with learning difficulties and mental health problems? Given that our rates of imprisonment are much higher than those of our continental neighbours, would it not be a good idea to carry out research as a matter of urgency into alternatives to imprisonment which have been found to work in other countries?
My Lords, research into alternatives to imprisonment has been going on for an extremely long time and will continue. Of course we accept that there are people in prison who should not be there. That is one reason why we look forward so much to the report of my noble friend Lord Bradley in January, which will deal with the issue of mental health and those in prison. We are working all the time to try to make sure that only those who need to be in prison are there, and to find alternatives for those who do not need to be there. The lesson for all outside is that people should not commit crime.
My Lords, we do not comment on future troop deployments, but our force levels are kept under regular review by chiefs and Ministers as part of routine defence business. Helicopter support to ISAF operations in Afghanistan is provided from a multinational pool of helicopters, to which the UK makes a significant contribution, and we always keep this under review.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Following the loss of nearly 200 surface transport vehicles at the weekend in the raids in and around the NATO bases of Peshawar, from which 75 per cent of the entire resources for the front line come, will any consideration now be given to utilising civilian helicopters, which would also take off some of the pressure from our own front-line resources?
My Lords, there is a significant problem following the incidents at the weekend and it will affect some NATO operations. Fortunately, most of our supplies go by different routes but there is pressure on the airbridge to deliver them. There is already a NATO contract with civilian operators to provide airlift for non-personnel to areas in Afghanistan. That has proved successful and extremely helpful and we continue to keep it under review. It is not suitable for troop movements but it is suitable for freight and it has been a significant help.
My Lords, I am somewhat surprised at the tone of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lee. I know, for example, that he is very keen on co-operation with our European partners, so he will be aware of the British-French initiative, which I am sure he supports, to get more helicopters into theatre. This is not simply a British problem; it is a problem for all our allies who are engaged in those situations. There has been a great deal of co-operation on this matter and I should have thought that the noble Lord would applaud the efforts within NATO and European countries generally to try to improve this difficult situation, in which we all need as much airlift as possible.
My Lords, it has been known for some time that there has been an increase in Taliban activity around Karachi and Peshawar and therefore the attacks that took place with very serious damage to a substantial amount of equipment came as no great surprise. What steps have been taken with the Pakistan Government to try to further improve security of supply, for which an airbridge will simply not be enough?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord King, is right: the airbridge will not be enough. It is very difficult to get our equipment and forces into Afghanistan when we are relying only on the airbridge. We have tried to work closely with those in Pakistan to achieve as much security as possible. Obviously, we put a great deal of emphasis on good relationships between those in government in Pakistan and President Karzai and others in Afghanistan, because it is only through better co-operation there that we will make significant progress in this matter.
My Lords, shall we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, first?
My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the policy of not commenting on leaks about defence matters. Did she hear the radio news this morning, when it was said that a Ministry of Defence source had informed the BBC of a date for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq? Can she say whether the anti-terrorist police have as yet gone into the BBC today?
My Lords, maintenance of helicopters is very time-consuming; I have seen the figures on how many hours of maintenance are required for just one hour of flying. It would not be possible to deploy more helicopters forward because we have to take account of the fact that some helicopters are on operations, some are being transported to theatre, some are undergoing modification because of urgent operational requirements, some are being used in training and some are being brought back from theatre. There is a range of aspects to this. It is not simply a question of saying that all our helicopters can be in theatre, as that can never be the case.
My Lords, the Chinook helicopters are now undergoing the kind of fitting that will make them operational. We are doing that in such a way as to make them ready for theatre in the shortest possible time. The Merlins from Denmark are being used in training.
My Lords, the national identity scheme cost report is laid before Parliament and gives a breakdown of the estimated cost of introducing identity cards and security enhancements to passports for UK and Irish nationals over the next 10 years. The latest report, published on 6 November 2008, gave a total cost as £4.785 billion which represents a cost reduction of about £1 billion compared with the original estimate of £5.8 billion made in 2005.
My Lords, given that Answer, why has a respected body such as the London School of Economics estimated the cost at double that amount, perhaps rising to even as much as £19 billion for the total project? During the debate on the Queen’s Speech on 3 December the Leader of the House said of the Government’s programme:
“It has one primary, overriding aim: to help people meet the economic challenges facing our country”.—[Official Report, 3/12/08; cols. 20-21.]
When every family in the country is cutting back, why are the Government pressing on with this unwanted and hugely expensive project?
My Lords, the noble Lord has asked two questions. The first should be addressed not to me but to the London School of Economics, as the noble Lord quoted its costings. Public support for the introduction of ID cards remains at 60 per cent. The question of the Government looking for cost cutting at the present time is well understood. However, 70 per cent of the costs that I have just quoted are associated with the introduction of biometric passports. Therefore, there would not be a saving if ID cards were to be abandoned.
My Lords, we have all heard over a considerable period the cost of implementing the ID card system. Will my noble friend tell us not so much about the advantages to the country in fighting terrorism but the advantages to the individual who is issued with a card?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. First, an identity card will make it easier for people to prove that they are who they say they are. It will also allow travel within the European Union without the need for a passport. About a third of the people who have been told that it will be available in 2010 have seen that as a good reason for having one. It will also help in the fight against identity fraud from which many people are suffering, which costs the country about £1.2 billion a year. Of course, it will confirm eligibility for public services. Again, fraud is costing the country about £800,000 per annum.
My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned identity fraud. However, he will be aware that the LSE study also found that the use of ID cards in combating identity fraud would be minimal. The LSE estimates that the saving might be £35 million, whereas identity fraud crimes cost up to £1.3 billion a year. Surely that is an enormous gap and means that the cards will be almost useless in that respect.
My Lords, it is important to note that the introduction of ID cards is not meant to be a total answer to or a panacea for any of the difficulties. It will be a major aid in the areas I mentioned as well as in fighting terrorism as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Davies. It is therefore seen as having a value. The cost to the individual in 2009-10 will be £30 per year.
My Lords, what items of information will be required to be held on the identity card? I have heard that up to 50 items will be there. What information will have to be given about changes in circumstances and what will be the penalties for not giving it?
My Lords, the identity card will have identity data including photograph and fingerprint biometrics, which will be held on the national identity register. It will also effectively have all the information that is currently in passports that we issue for some 47 million people. I will write to the noble Baroness on the second part of her question about penalties.
My Lords, the Government are very conscious that there needs to be an incremental rollout and that the cards need to gain and hold the support of the public. Identity cards became compulsory in November of this year for people entering or seeking to stay in this country. A pilot scheme for air-side staff at Manchester Airport and City Airport will be introduced in the latter part of next year. In 2010, it is hoped to make identity cards available voluntarily to young people, many of whom currently use a passport for entry to nightclubs and the like, and from 2011 voluntarily to members of the public.
My Lords, the Minister tells us that the personal passport interview offices will be used for identity cards. In the 216,000 face-to-face interviews that have already taken place, there has not been one refusal. Is that because the Government have the right policy or because they are a waste of time?
My Lords, we would not expect there to be refusals in the case of straight-forward applications. In 2010, or when people renew their biometric passport thereafter, they will have the opportunity of having a passport, currently costing £72, a package including an ID card at £30 or, as many people may choose if they are going to travel on holiday in Europe only, an ID card but not a passport. Where necessary, there will be face-to-face interviews for people who are entering the country for whom the card is compulsory.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when he tries to list the benefits of an identity card, it would be easier to do so if the identity card had two characteristics that it does not have at the moment: first, that it is compulsory and therefore does not differentiate between citizens and, secondly, that it is an entitlement card for benefits in this country?
My Lords, it is not the intention at the moment, or in future as far as we know, to have a compulsory scheme. That would require primary legislation. In Europe, apart from Denmark and the Republic of Ireland, we are the only country not to have an ID card. Indeed, in Denmark there is a national ID register, although there is no card.
Let me finish, my Lords. I do not think we can be expected to answer for the criminal fraternity who will, no doubt, as in every other case, seek to find some way around the system. We have to have a robust system that makes it as difficult as possible for forgery to take place.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current policy towards Zimbabwe.
My Lords, our immediate priority is to alleviate the suffering of the Zimbabwean people. The UK has provided £47 million in aid this year, but humanitarian relief cannot provide a sustainable solution to Zimbabwe's problems. Only a stable and democratic political settlement can do that. We continue to press for this outcome, including through the EU and the UN, and we are working with the states in the region to that end.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, very recently said:
“We won this country through the barrel of the gun and we will defend it the way we won it”?
This challenges the course, which is favoured by President Kikwete of the African Union, that dialogue is a better way forward than force. Is the Minister aware that an increasing number of African leaders see that Mugabe must go? Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister of Kenya, said recently of Mugabe:
“It’s time for African governments … to push him out of power”.
My Lords, we welcome every such statement by African leaders. Africa has demanded that it should lead on this issue, and we should all expect them to lead and to take whatever steps are necessary to resolve a crisis in a country that is both a humanitarian catastrophe for the people of Zimbabwe as well as its neighbours and a terrible scar on the reputation of Africa in the world.
My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the advice given to Her Majesty’s Government is that, in light of the fact that Zimbabwe is more a state in institutionalised chaos than it is a functioning sovereign state, it would be legitimate under international law for the UK to intervene for humanitarian reasons?
My Lords, let me adamantly say that we have not received such advice. Let me remind the noble Lord that, as recently as July, a resolution, which certainly did not even call for force but called for a much milder set of sanctions against Zimbabwe, failed in the UN Security Council. The Security Council resolution, which is normally taken as the basis for such intervention, is, in our view, not achievable at this time.
My Lords, surely all Members of the House will commend my noble friend on his valiant efforts in this field, and will recognise that British over-involvement will be used against us by the Mugabe regime. Would my noble friend agree that this is a test case of the principle of the international right to protect citizens against their rulers, and that the international community is falling at this first hurdle?
My Lords, let me say two things. First, I certainly think it is a test case for Ministers to be careful about what they say, because, as I have repeatedly said in this House, everything that we say here appears the next day in the government-controlled press of Zimbabwe. Already last weekend, there were stories to the effect that the British Government were calling for a colonial invasion of Zimbabwe. That does not help us advance this to the solution for which we all devoutly hope.
The second part of the noble Lord’s intervention was about the responsibility to protect citizens. Increasingly, the humanitarian catastrophe and the role of that country’s Government in generating it pose a direct challenge to the will and integrity of the international community as a whole and to Zimbabwe’s neighbours in particular. How long do they have to see this go on before they act?
My Lords, I think it is the Liberal Democrats’ turn.
My Lords, it is reported that the Minister is going to South Africa tomorrow to discuss the cholera crisis. Will he take the opportunity to ask South Africa whether it is preparing to send in rescue forces to protect the enormous numbers of aid workers who will need to be sent into Zimbabwe to save the people from starvation and disease and to begin the process of reconstruction?
My Lords, I am actually leaving straight from this House to South Africa to carry the sentiment of, I believe, the whole House that South Africa must act. It is up to the leadership of South Africa to construct the most effective way to do that. I know the motive and purpose behind the noble Lord’s question, but I would just say that humanitarian access is being achieved and that food aid is being distributed to 4 million people as we speak and it will be to 5 million people by next month, which is almost half those remaining in Zimbabwe. There has been some success in recent days in responding to the cholera outbreak. Yes, I agree with his sentiment, but I reassure him that humanitarian workers are currently able to do their job without much restriction.
My Lords, I am sure that we all give my noble friend the very best of good wishes for his mission to South Africa. He quoted the reaction of the United Nations in July, which predated the outbreak of cholera. Does not the inability of the Zimbabwean Government to cope with the spread of cholera beyond its borders mean that there is now an extra incentive to get the countries of the region behind doing something serious about Zimbabwe?
My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend. The UN Security Council will meet in closed session at the beginning of next week precisely to discuss the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe and the implications to which she has drawn attention. The fact is that cholera has now spread from Zimbabwe into South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. How much further must it spread before the region acts?
My Lords, as quiet diplomacy reaches its tragic conclusion, does not what the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and the Minister have just said confirm that this is no longer a Zimbabwe problem? This is a problem of cholera spreading, with disease and unrest, through the whole of southern Africa. We wish him well in his mission from this House today, but would he stop in Botswana to give it encouragement for its proposals to cut off fuel and petrol supplies to the Zimbabwean police and army, who seem to be on the rampage and arresting innocent people on all sides?
My Lords, the President of Botswana was here just two weeks ago when the Prime Minister had the opportunity to express on behalf of all of us our enormous support to that country for its brave and principled leadership on this issue. The matter of trying to hold back fuel is very difficult. Fuel is critical to those relief trucks which are distributing food to the 4 million people, and to the ambulances and the healthcare system which are addressing cholera. I do not know how we could stop fuel reaching the powerful military and security forces without them seizing it from the humanitarian workers. We have to weigh that suggestion carefully.
Barnett Formula Committee
Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee
Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
Barnett Formula Committee
That a Select Committee be appointed to examine the purpose, methodology and application of the Barnett formula as a means of determining funding for the devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom, to assess the effectiveness of the calculation mechanism to meet its purpose, and to consider alternative mechanisms, and that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members be appointed to the Committee:
L Forsyth of Drumlean, B Hollis of Heigham, L Lang of Monkton, L Lawson of Blaby, E Mar and Kellie, L Moser, L Richard (Chairman), L Rooker, L Rowe-Beddoe, L Sewel, L Smith of Clifton, L Trimble;
That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;
That the Committee have leave to report from time to time;
That the reports of the Committee shall be printed, regardless of any adjournment of the House;
That the evidence taken by the Committee shall, if the Committee so wish, be published;
That the Committee meet on Wednesday 17 December at 4 pm.
Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee
That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the Merits of Statutory Instruments.
(1) The Committee shall, subject to the exceptions in paragraph (2), consider—
(a) every instrument (whether or not a statutory instrument), or draft of an instrument, which is laid before each House of Parliament and upon which proceedings may be, or might have been, taken in either House of Parliament under an Act of Parliament;
(b) every proposal which is in the form of a draft of such an instrument and is laid before each House of Parliament under an Act of Parliament,
with a view to determining whether or not the special attention of the House should be drawn to it on any of the grounds specified in paragraph (3).
(2) The exceptions are—
(a) remedial orders, and draft remedial orders, under Section 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998;
(b) draft orders under Sections 14 and 18 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, and subordinate provisions orders made or proposed to be made under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001;
(c) Measures under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 and instruments made, and drafts of instruments to be made, under them.
(3) The grounds on which an instrument, draft or proposal may be drawn to the special attention of the House are—
(a) that it is politically or legally important or gives rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House;
(b) that it may be inappropriate in view of changed circumstances since the enactment of the parent Act;
(c) that it may inappropriately implement European Union legislation;
(d) that it may imperfectly achieve its policy objectives.
(4) The Committee shall also consider such other general matters relating to the effective scrutiny of the merits of statutory instruments and arising from the performance of their functions under paragraphs (1) to (3) as the Committee consider appropriate, except matters within the orders of reference of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
That as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members be appointed to the Committee:
B Butler-Sloss, L Crisp, B Deech, V Eccles, L Filkin (Chairman), L James of Blackheath, L Lucas, B Maddock, L Rosser, B Thomas of Winchester;
That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;
That the Committee have leave to report from time to time;
That the reports of the Committee shall be printed, regardless of any adjournment of the House;
That the evidence taken by the Committee shall, if the Committee so wish, be published.
That a Committee for Privileges be appointed and that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members together with the Chairman of Committees and any four Lords of Appeal be appointed to the Committee:
B Anelay of St Johns, L Bassam of Brighton, L Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, B D’Souza, L Eames, L Graham of Edmonton, L Howe of Aberavon, L Irvine of Lairg, L Mackay of Clashfern, L McNally, B Manningham-Buller, B Prashar, B Royall of Blaisdon, L Shutt of Greetland, L Strathclyde;
That the Committee have power to appoint sub-committees and that the sub-committees have power to appoint their own chairmen;
That the Committee have power to co-opt any member to serve on a sub-committee.
That a Select Committee be appointed to advise on the refreshment services provided for the House, within the strategic framework and financial limits approved by the House Committee;
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members together with the Chairman of Committees be appointed to the Committee:
L Brougham and Vaux, L Elder, B Fritchie, L Geddes, L Glenarthur, L Lee of Trafford, C Mar, V Montgomery of Alamein, B Pitkeathley, B Rendell of Babergh, B Thomas of Winchester;
That the Committee have leave to report from time to time.
Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
In accordance with Standing Order 74 and the resolution of the House of 16 December 1997, that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Members be appointed to join with a Committee of the Commons as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments:
L Campbell of Alloway, B Jones of Whitchurch, L Kimball, C Mar, E Mar and Kellie, L Walpole.
Motions agreed, and a message was sent to the Commons.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, as noble Lords will know, my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton will shortly repeat a Statement on welfare reform. There are 33 Members on the speakers list on the humble Address today. In order to accommodate the Statement and to allow us to rise at the target rising time of 10 pm, it would be helpful if Back-Bench contributions could be kept to a maximum of eight minutes.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made earlier today in the other place by my right honourable friend James Purnell. The Statement is as follows.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on our White Paper, Raising Expectations and Increasing Support: Reforming Welfare for the Future.
This White Paper will transform lives. We know the support we offer helps people get back to work. It can turn lives around. We want to make sure as many people as possible have this chance. That is why we want virtually everyone claiming benefits to be preparing for or looking for work.
It is a fair deal: more support, in return for higher expectations. It is a deal that has always underpinned the welfare state. As early as 1911, those claiming from the unemployment exchange could be disqualified if they refused a suitable job offer. It is a deal that was extended by the Beveridge report and championed by the 1945 Labour Government.
In 1947 Herbert Morrison said, ‘We have no hands or brains to waste, and no resources to fritter away on those who don’t contribute to our national effort’. Today, when the national effort is about a global downturn, we can no more afford to waste taxpayers’ money on those who play the system than they could then. But most of all we cannot afford to waste a single person’s talent.
We inherited a welfare state where less than a third of claimants had to do anything in return for their benefits. Even that third got paltry support to get back in to work, and the rest got nothing. This truly was a welfare state that wasted talent and wasted money, paying for the costs of failure because we were not prepared to invest in the possibility of change. This Government set about putting that right. We taxed the excess profits of the privatised utilities to create the New Deal. We merged the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to create Jobcentre Plus, so everyone who signed on for benefits also signed up for work. That was the first phase of reform—deepening the obligations to work so there was no fifth option just to stay on benefits.
As we saw those obligations cause youth and long-term unemployment to tumble, we set about the second phase of reform—we widened their scope. We piloted helping those on incapacity benefits with the New Deal for Disabled People and then with the groundbreaking Pathways to Work programme which increases the chances of someone being in work by 25 per cent. So, since this April, we are requiring all new claimants to take part except those with the most severe conditions, and in October we replaced incapacity benefits with the employment and support allowance which focuses on what people can do, not what they cannot. We improved the help for lone parents. With the help of the New Deal for Lone Parents, more than 300,000 more of them are in work. But we wanted more to benefit, so we are requiring lone parents of children between seven and 16 to look for work, and expect that to increase employment and lift 70,000 children out of poverty.
Now the White Paper kicks off the third phase of welfare reform. It is based on a simple idea: that no one should be left behind, and that virtually everyone should be required to take up the support that we know works. It is built on the recommendations of two independent reviews: the Freud and Gregg reviews. This White Paper confirms that we will implement the Freud report in full, including his “invest to save” proposal, where private and voluntary providers invest money to spend on helping more people back in to work, and get paid out of the resulting benefit savings.
Professor Paul Gregg’s report was published last week, and this White Paper confirms our support for his vision. It sets out how we will put it into legislation and pilot his recommendations so that nearly all claimants are either preparing for work or looking for work. We will migrate everyone on incapacity benefit on to ESA. Under the new benefit, the poorest and most disabled will get nearly £16 a week extra. Everyone else will get support to manage their conditions and prepare for work. They will be required to attend interviews to develop their plan to do this, and in the pilot areas advisers will be able to require them to implement that plan.
We agree with the Gregg report’s recommendation that parents should not be left until their youngest child is seven before they get help to prepare for work. The support we offer for lone parents has been transformed. We pay a £40 per week bonus to any lone parent going back in to work. We pay 80 per cent of childcare costs. We pay for travel costs to the job interviews and for interview clothes if necessary, and when the parent finds work there is up to £300 for emergencies. We can also help people with more serious problems such as depression, debt or drug addiction. Most of all, we have made work pay. A lone parent with one child, working 35 hours a week, will be on at least £304 a week in April 2009, compared to £182 in 1999 when the minimum wage was first introduced. Our goal is simple. We want more parents to benefit from that help in order to help themselves and their children.
That is why conditionality is so important. Only around 5 per cent of IB stock claimants voluntarily took up the support that Pathways offers, and only around one in four lone parents takes up the support offered by their New Deal. Partners in couples where no one is working face even fewer obligations.
The Gregg report found that,
‘conditionality backed with a regime of sanctions improves outcomes’.
As a result, the UK enters the downturn with the second lowest unemployment rate in the G7. But the report also found that countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands had lower unemployment and lower child poverty rates than the UK. So, if we want to abolish child poverty and improve social mobility, we need a welfare state that learns from the example of these countries.
This Queen’s Speech made it clear that we will reinforce our commitment to ending child poverty through the legislation which the Government will introduce. This White Paper is the other side of the coin, matching higher support with higher expectations.
Some people say that we should be slowing down the pace of welfare reform because of the downturn. The Government believe we should do the opposite. We should not repeat the mistake of the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of thousands were shuffled on to inactive benefits to keep the unemployment count down, and trapped there without support, abandoning them and scarring their communities.
In contrast, we are investing an extra £1.3 billion in helping people find work. But we will have increasing requirements of people the longer they are out of a job to make sure that they do not fall out of touch with the world of work. After a year, everyone will be allocated to a private or voluntary provider and expected to do four weeks’ full-time activity. After two years, we will pilot requiring people to work full time for their benefit.
This White Paper will also support children whose parents’ relationship has broken down. We will bring forward legislation so that it becomes the default option for both parents to register the birth of their child. And we will fully disregard child maintenance when working out income-related benefits from April 2010 so that children can take full advantage of the money provided for their upbringing.
The White Paper also makes clear our intention to apply new benefit rules for problem heroin and crack users. Instead of receiving jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance, crack and heroin users will receive a treatment allowance, alongside an obligation that they address their problem.
But there needs to be help for people to find and keep work as well as responsibilities to look for work. So we will double the Access to Work budget to allow more people than ever before the support they need to do their jobs. And because we recognise that disabled people are the experts in their own lives, we will legislate for disabled people to have the right to exercise choice and control over support they receive from the state. This ‘right to control’ will be a major step toward achieving disability equality by 2025—a transformation in the rights of disabled people.
These reforms point the way to a fairer society where children do not grow up in poverty, where disabled people enjoy real equality and everyone is given real help to overcome the barriers to achieving their full potential. We are looking after taxpayers’ money but looking after the future, too, by making sure we do not waste anyone’s talent.
I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement on welfare reform that was issued to the press yesterday afternoon, I believe, in its entirety. At least we in Parliament now know for certain what has been in the public domain for many hours. So when we get inappropriate briefings for the press from government departments well in advance of Parliament being informed of the Government’s intentions, should there not be established guidelines on what can be said and when? Was the White Paper, which was embargoed until the Statement began in another place, leaked to the press as well?
On the Statement itself, which we on these Benches broadly support, it has been my party’s policy that with rights go responsibilities. In whichever part of the House we sit, I hope that we were all brought up with that central tenet. That is why, before many of your Lordships graced this Chamber, a Conservative Government introduced the concept of availability for work as a condition for getting what was then unemployment benefit. It is a bit rich, then, for the Statement to say that the Government inherited a welfare state where less than one-third of claimants had to do anything in return for their benefits. In case anyone has forgotten—I certainly have not—the Government have had more than 11 years to correct this so-called anomaly. Why have they taken so long to come up with these proposals?
What we have here is not part three but part two of benefit reform, which started with the Welfare Reform Act, aimed at getting 1 million of the 1.7 million people on disability benefit into work. I discount the administrative rearrangement that the Statement calls “part two” as I cannot believe that it has made any difference to unemployed people, especially when the Statement confirms that only 5 per cent of invalidity benefit claimants voluntarily took up the support that Pathways to Work offers.
It was just the other day that we debated an affirmative instrument that added new conditions to income support for lone parents with children and put them on to jobseeker’s allowance. Over the next year or so, that will affect lone parents with children as young as seven. In that debate I pointed out that lone parents will be happy in work only if they can find suitable childcare. I still have not had an answer from the Minister about whether that can be guaranteed in all parts of the country. If it cannot be guaranteed for seven year-olds, surely the chances of lone parents of three year-olds finding suitable work, and being satisfied that their children are being properly looked after during working hours, are even lower. It is no use the Government paying 80 per cent of childcare costs if childcare is non-existent.
I agree unequivocally with the Government that it is wrong to believe that, because of the recession, this is not the time to be introducing the reforms in the White Paper. The doubters believe that, with Britain having the highest unemployment figures for nine years, with 1.8 million people out of work, any changes to the availability-for-work regime should be delayed. I say to them that there is a strong evidence base showing that worklessness is associated with poorer physical and mental health and well-being. Even in these straitened economic times there are job vacancies to be filled in some places, even if they have been reduced by 40,000 over the past quarter. Opportunities therefore exist, and in my book there is never, ever a bad time to encourage people to seek them. I remember my noble friend Lord Tebbit being roundly criticised for the phrase that he never uttered, “Get on your bike”. It was of course spun—just as much as the first four pages of this Statement are spin.
We also agree with separating family units when calculating jobseeker’s allowance and income support. We see no reason why half the unit should have to sign on, with the other half getting the relevant benefit with all the conditions that are attached to it while their partner need do nothing at all. That must be wrong.
Chapter 2 of the White Paper sets out the very beginnings of a plan to reform the benefits system, which is so complicated that it is widely recognised as a disincentive to getting people both on to benefits and into work. The amalgamation of benefits was proposed last year by David Freud in his report. I pay credit to him for a piece of work that has framed not only the debate in this area but the very similar proposals of both the Government and my party, as shown in our recent Green Paper.
The Freud report, which the Government say is accepted in full—after, by the way, a Prime Ministerial hiccup that originally rubbished it—gave three options for working age benefits. They were: to continue to reflect people’s different circumstances based on the income support personal allowance rate; a single benefit with a single rate; and a single system with two rates, a basic rate and a long-term rate. He concluded that the current system is relatively inefficient whereas a single system with a single rate could maximise efficiency, and a single system with two rates would be very similar to the present arrangements but may be an improvement on it.
Even though the Government have had over a year to go nap on one of these options, they seem to me to be sitting on the fence. They propose to,
“simplify and improve the benefits system following consultation by … exploring models to reform the benefits system, including looking at a single income-replacement benefit for people of working age”,
“exploring how we might develop our plans to support carers alongside working towards a simplified benefits system”.
That is hardly accepting a report in full. It leaves the door wide open as to what the Government will end up doing. How long will this consultation last, and when do the Government expect to respond to it?
That said, much of the White Paper will be reflected in the welfare Bill, which I hope the Minister will confirm will be published in January in another place, where I would expect a speedy passage. On this side of the House we will give it every support, although as usual I cannot guarantee that it will leave our House in exactly the form that it arrives.
My Lords, we on these Benches also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said about the press getting hold of the White Paper before this and the other House. Tomorrow’s debate gives the House a chance to explore some of the wider issues raised by the White Paper, so I shall be relatively brief this afternoon.
We give a warm welcome to the intention in the White Paper to help as many people as possible into meaningful work, but we are more guarded about some parts of it and opposed to other parts of the surrounding policy. It is something of a relief to have the final document before the Bill is published, which I presume will be early in the new year. We have had the Freud report, the Government’s Green Paper, No one written off, and just lately the Gregg review, and there has been much speculation about what will be in the final Bill.
The economic climate for any major change to the welfare system is not good, but we know that the Government are determined to press ahead with the full package in spite of the caution given by their own advisers, the Social Security Advisory Committee. Other groups representing disadvantaged people are also very concerned about aspects of the policy, the most concerning being how the tougher sanctions regime is going to work in practice. We must be sure that claimants understand just what is expected of them by Jobcentre Plus offices. Research on how sanctions affected lone parents found that they often did not understand that they were being sanctioned. Why should they necessarily understand that word, or the ghastly word “conditionality”? Other DWP research on Pathways sanctions showed that they incentivised people to attend work-focused interviews, but not to engage further; therefore, it is imperative that the sanctions system is communicated clearly to claimants before it is invoked. I am glad that this was highlighted by Professor Gregg and is mentioned in the White Paper.
However, we hope that the sanctions regime will be a last resort. Will there be real flexibility in Jobcentre Plus offices for dealing with those who have fluctuating conditions such as ME, MS and mental health difficulties? I know that the purpose of the regime is to get people to comply with their obligations by attending work-focused interviews and, later on, taking part in work-related activity, but there will be many people who are not fully engaged simply because of health problems. It would be heartless to subject them to sanctions.
Another area of concern is compulsory community work experience in return for JSA after two years of claiming. We are absolutely opposed to treating the unemployed like criminals, which is bad enough in a benign economic climate but unforgivable in a severe recession. Nor do we agree with supplying free labour to employers while paying individuals less than the minimum wage. What would be the difference between this kind of work and community service? Punishment is one thing; meaningful employment or work experience is another, for which people should be paid adequately.
We are opposed to any measures that force lone parents with children younger than seven to find work until there is more flexibility in jobs, full evaluation of the changes already made in this area and, most importantly, affordable and adequate good-quality childcare in place across the country. I note that the Minister said that those with younger children must “prepare for work”. Will he tell us what that means?
What should be factored into any calculations of childcare is that, in a recession, when a lot of older workers have been made redundant, more grandparents are likely to be jobseekers and therefore not available for free childcare duties. On a more positive note, we warmly support the fact that parents on means-tested benefits will be able to keep all their child maintenance payments from April 2010.
We support moves to pay private and third sector organisations to provide back-to-work support that caters for individual needs rather than for a one-size-fits-all programme, but the Government must adopt the right funding model. There must be some incentive to ensure that companies help those furthest from the job market, otherwise they will cherry-pick those easiest to place and leave the rest, particularly in today's climate. The White Paper, I am glad to say, explicitly addresses this issue in the sentence,
“we believe we can successfully discourage parking by designing programmes and funding models to properly incentivise providers”.
Apart from the split infinitive, that statement is welcome, but must be properly monitored.
I am pleased to see that the White Paper makes clear that carers will not be moved from income support on to JSA until the Government have a clear and detailed plan setting out how they will reform the benefits system over the longer term.
Finally, we add our voice from these Benches to those who are calling for an independent commission to look at the whole benefits structure, including tax credits and the tax system in general to reduce complexity, increase transparency, improve work incentives, cut fraud and error and increase take-up.
My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who have participated thus far in our deliberations. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, started with the issue of press briefing. I simply repeat what I said last time he raised this point, when we debated the PBR. I have no idea who may or may not have leaked documents. That is not the way that I proceed, and I think that I have always dealt with the noble Lord and other colleagues in the House on a very straightforward basis as far as that is concerned.
I agree with the noble Lord absolutely, and it is a key thrust of the paper, that with rights come responsibilities. I am pleased that we have a shared understanding of that. He said that it was a bit rich that we should come forward after 11 years with these proposals. There has been a journey to deal with these issues. We started, as I said, with the New Deal and putting together the Benefits Agency and employment support in Jobcentre Plus. That was the start of the programme, and we moved on, as the noble Lord acknowledged, with the Welfare Reform Bill to introduce the employment and support allowance. It is not right to say that IB is only an administrative arrangement, which I think was the thrust of his point. The number on incapacity benefit is 2.6 million, but that is down 178,000 since its peak in 2003 and down 47,000 in the period from May 2007 to May 2008.
The noble Lord raised again the issue of childcare. Let me be clear that there will be no requirement in the White Paper for lone parents with children under the age of seven to look for work. The Gregg report looked at three categories: the work-ready group, those for whom progression to work was important, and those for whom there should be no conditionality—people in the employment and support allowance group. The noble Lord will be aware that we have invested well over £25 billion in childcare for the early years in England since 1997, and the Government have stated that by 2010 there will be a childcare place for all children aged between three and 14 in England whose parents want one, with that provision available on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm. Again, as I said when we debated the regulations regarding lone parents, if no suitable or affordable childcare is available, there will be no requirement on a lone parent to take up work. I hope that that was very clear from our debates.
The noble Lord makes the point, and I agree, that we should not step back from this process simply because we face challenging economic times. What has fundamentally changed and developed in recent years is that there is a clear understanding that work is good, not only for people's financial well-being because it is generally their best route out of poverty, but for their self-esteem and health as well. Therefore, all the work that we are doing to help people get closer to the labour market, or to stay in the labour market, is very important. It is right to say that, notwithstanding what has happened to the headline unemployment figures and the rate of employment, some 200,000 people were taken off jobseeker’s allowance in each of the last two months. It is a dynamic situation. I am pleased that the noble Lord supports our approach to couples.
We remain interested in David Freud’s ideas for a single system of working-age benefit, but none of the options is straightforward and we would need a high degree of public acceptance before embarking on changes on this scale. We are considering the best way to initiate a public debate, and will put forward proposals when we are ready. Freud did not make any specific recommendations for reforming the benefits system. His main conclusion was that there were no obvious solutions and many difficulties in moving from where we now are. However, we remain attracted to the idea of a single benefit and continue to develop our thinking.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, welcomed the thrust of the White Paper, but with some reservations. She queried whether we were right to proceed in the current climate, but I would simply reiterate that we have learned lessons from the past. We need to keep people who find themselves out of work close to the labour market, and not languishing on benefits. We need to prepare people for the upturn. The noble Baroness made reference to sanctions and, particularly, the need for clarity. I absolutely agree and think that that point is dealt with in the White Paper. If we are going to sanction people, it is important that they understand what is involved, why it is being done and what to expect. That is a fundamental component of a fair system.
The noble Baroness took issue with the White Paper’s proposal to pilot people working for benefits. I think her point was that, at the end of a year on the flexible New Deal, the unemployed might be stigmatised or criminalised. I am bound to say that that is not how we see it. The whole thrust of this is about supporting people and helping them back towards the labour market and, we hope, into it. The noble Baroness was pleased that we are not proceeding with any suggestion that lone parents whose youngest child is under the age of seven should have to take up employment.
What does preparing for work mean? It could mean a variety of things. It could mean dealing with a skills need, family budgeting or childcare arrangements. It is important to have flexibility on this. The noble Baroness also referred to the fact that contracting arrangements need to ensure that people do not cherry-pick, and that the easiest to get into work are not addressed first while others are forgotten. Some discussion of the proposals for accelerated payments—so that the more people we get into work, the greater the payment—will help to address that particular issue. I am pleased that the noble Baroness supports our decision that carers should not be moved on to JSA before we see where the review is heading.
The noble Baroness addressed the case for an independent commission. The Government are aware that there have been calls for an independent commission, but are not convinced of the need for one, especially since there is a broad consensus that we should find ways to simplify the system and improve work incentives while maintaining flexibility to provide for groups with different levels of need. I hope that addresses the points raised and deals with Members’ queries.
My Lords, I strongly support the Government’s policy of moving people from welfare into work, and accept the appropriateness of a degree of conditionality. However, is the Minister prepared to give the House three assurances?
First, on 25 November, I put it to the Minister that, in requiring people to take up work, it is essential to have regard to things such as the availability of accessible transport; the nature of the work itself; whether it is suitable for the person concerned, given things such as their impairment, previous career and work history; and whether it is reasonable to expect a person to take up a job that would lead to a fall in their family income. I think that the noble Lord was inclined to agree with me. Will he see to it that the legislation will prescribe that factors such as these are taken into account in requiring people to take up work?
Secondly, will the Minister see to it that the legislation includes provision for statutory assessment of a person’s needs when they become disabled while in work, as called for by John Robertson MP in the Private Member’s Bill that he introduced in another place? Those needs could then be taken more effectively on board by employers, with a view to enabling people to remain in work rather than fall out of the labour market. Thirdly, will the legislation remove what I think the Government recognise as the disgraceful anomaly whereby people with severe sight loss are precluded from claiming the higher-rate mobility component of DLA?
My Lords, on that last question, the noble Lord will be aware that we have continued to look at the issue he has campaigned upon. We are not yet in a position to accede to the request that drives that campaign, but we will doubtless continue to engage with it.
On legislation, there is already a process embedded in the Welfare Reform Act 2007 requiring a work-focused health-related assessment. As IB customers are transferred on to that system, that will operate for them as well.
The noble Lord reminds me of an Answer that I gave on 25 November on suitable work, available transport and significant falls in income. All of those issues should be properly taken into account.
My Lords, I was having lunch with somebody on Monday who was involved in a company that was placing people in employment. The company was paid a retainer and then a success fee after 13 weeks if the person was still in a job. He rather surprised me by saying that one of the burdens put upon the company was to find the unemployed in the first place. He actually had to send people around areas where people might not have work and identify the unemployed. Is that a case of data protection? It is extraordinary that his company could not be helped by being given the list of people claiming benefits, so that it could at least visit them and ask about it.
To follow up on the point about sanctions made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, from the Liberal Benches, I am unclear what happens if somebody refuses to respond to any of these initiatives. Do they get all their benefit removed? Do they then find themselves on the street begging? I do not quite understand how the sanctions systems work and would be grateful if the Minister would make that clear.
My Lords, I am a little puzzled about the noble Lord’s first point, but would be happy to engage with him outside this exchange to understand the detailed and specific circumstances. Under the new proposals for the jobseekers’ regime, there will be three stages conducted with Jobcentre Plus. The flexible New Deal contractor would then kick in, but that would be via an arrangement involving Jobcentre Plus. I am trying to think of circumstances where contractors would just be asked to go and find the unemployed and deal with them themselves. That does not fit with the proposals that we are talking about, but I would like to understand it a bit better and see if there are issues that we should be addressing. It is not an integral part of these proposals.
Varying sanctions apply in varying circumstances. If it is the employment and support allowance, it would be the withdrawal of its work-related component.
As regards the fundamental point that the noble Lord presses, there are protections for vulnerable people, which we debated in relation to the lone parent regulations. The level of the sanction withdrawal is restricted, particularly where children are involved. However, it is quite a complicated regime; hence the need for clarity in it. I shall be happy to write if the noble Lord wants more specific detail.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I consider that my noble friend is absolutely right to point out the benefits of work. It is also absolutely right for the Green Paper to emphasise that the longer you are unemployed, the more unemployable you become. That has been transparently obvious over the years. Therefore, the focus, even before a child is seven, of keeping a parent, particularly a lone parent, attached to the labour market, if necessary backed up by minor hassle, is absolutely right for the long-term investment in that family’s future.
It is sometimes easy for male authors of reports to underestimate how hard it is for a lone parent on a low income and often in poor health, coming out of a marriage or a relationship, to bring up children and hold down a job. It is seriously hard work and stressful, infinitely more so than the situation of a 20 year-old who does not care to get out of bed in the morning. I hope very much, therefore, that jobcentre staff will understand—I am sure that they will—the stresses and strains which somebody torn three ways at once faces. At the moment if you are either disabled or a lone parent, 16 hours’ work qualifies you for tax credit and therefore effectively counts as full-time work for benefit purposes, even though full-time work is normally regarded as 30 or 35 hours a week. Will my noble friend confirm that that is still the case and that we are not expecting lone parents to be sanctioned if they seek to work for less than the formal 30 or 35 hours a week; in other words, that the 16-hour regime will continue? Will he take on board very seriously the point by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that the longer our population lives, the more we shall need to support informal and family carers as an inexpensive and much more attractive alternative to very expensive residential care? Anything we do to make it more difficult to be a carer will have perverse effects on us all. Can my noble friend also give me assurances on that?
My Lords, I can certainly do so as regards the latter point. The White Paper makes it clear that we will not seek to transfer carers from income support to any regime which requires conditionality for them, certainly until the Department of Health review is completed and we have a more holistic picture of how we should support carers. I very much take the point that they provide a huge service to many people in our country and that we should value them as much as possible. I absolutely accept the point about the difficulty of lone parents moving towards and going into the labour market. One of the key components of the White Paper is that rather than determining what people are required to do and how they go about that when they are dependent on benefit—whether it is employment and support allowance, income support or jobseeker’s allowance—there should be more flexibility to address their particular needs. In particular, the relationship with the advisory Jobcentre Plus in building a relationship and developing supportive help will be important. The noble Baroness referred to 20 year-olds having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. I am bound to say that as a 62 year-old, I sometimes suffer from the same problem.
The noble Baroness also asked about flexibility for people who wish or need to work only 16 hours per week. The JSA rules include flexibility around availability for work. This can be negotiated and discussed with the adviser.
My Lords, the obligation under the regime will be to comply with conditionality. Depending on the lone parent’s circumstances, this will mean engagement with the job market and taking up employment. As I have said in previous debates, it would enable people to work only for 16 hours a week. I am conscious that that has probably not answered the specific question about whether, if that is an absolute right, it is being withdrawn. I think that the answer is no but I will have to write to the noble Baroness on that.
My Lords, I note from a very quick look that the White Paper requires people to take part in full-time activity in return for benefits. Who will provide the full-time activity? Will it be provided in the form of a government scheme or is it expected to take another form? I am not clear how this proposal will be implemented.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is probably referring to the four weeks of activity during the first year of flexible New Deal. That provision should be part of what the New Deal provider, which would be a private or voluntary sector contractor, would have to facilitate. I am looking to the Box for more support, but I believe that to be the case.
My Lords, I refer to the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, about the single working age benefit. It is not just David Freud who came up with this idea; Professor Gregg did as well. Would I be right in interpreting from the Minister’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that there is no likelihood that provisions for a single working age benefit will be in the forthcoming Bill? It would be very helpful to know that.
Secondly, the Statement said that Access to Work was to be extended to 48,000 people with disabilities, but the scheme could assist nearly a million people. Getting people into work, assisting employers to provide work, and sustaining work so that it is not just “no pay to low pay” but no pay into a job with a career in prospect, are essential elements of this policy if it is to meet the needs of the client group it is seeking to serve.
My Lords, in terms of what the legislation is likely to contain, everything in the White Paper will not necessarily need to be translated into primary legislation. Some proposals can be dealt with administratively under current arrangements, some can be dealt with by secondary legislation and some will have to be dealt with by primary legislation. The proposal is for a power to be taken in that legislation to remove income support from the scene but no power, as far as I am aware, to go further than that currently. The implementation of that removal of income support depends on a range of things, in particular the issue around carers, which we touched on earlier.
Regarding Access to Work, we think that 48,000 people would be helped in 2012-13. The budget has been doubled; that is very significant support for disabled people and a very popular programme. Of course it is not all that needs to be done. There is the whole panoply contained in Pathways to Work. There are the new arrangements around psychological therapies to support people—the IAPT programme—and embedding advisers into that programme. There is the range of measures that Carol Black is looking at under the cross-government approach to employment and people with mental health conditions. There are, of course, obligations under the DDA on employers in any event to make reasonable adjustment. So Access to Work is an important part of the picture but not the whole picture.
My Lords, I have two questions on younger children. First, the noble Lord will no doubt be aware of the great importance of the relationship between a very young child and its mother or other parent. This secure attachment is particularly important in the first three years. Can he give us an assurance that the Government will not in any way bring pressure on parents to leave their child and go to work or training during that period?
Secondly, will the Minister explain the logic of paying an 80 per cent grant for parents to send their child out to childcare so that they can go to work and not paying anything to the parent who stays at home to look after their own child?
My Lords, on the first point, the proposals that we have previously discussed and which are being put in train are for lone parents whose youngest child has reached the age of seven to engage with the labour market. The change that we are dealing with in the White Paper is for those lone parents with younger children to prepare for work, and we are going to pilot some of those arrangements. The proposal is that that would engage where lone parents have their youngest child between the ages of three and six, so it would exclude the very young children to whom the noble Lord refers.
The issue of encouraging all parents to work if they wish to seems to me to be important. It seems right that we facilitate the opportunity, whether it is one parent or two parents who wish to work, for there to be good quality childcare provision. At the end of the day, the issue is, if there is reliance on the benefit system, who should engage with it. That is why, as part of these proposals, we are seeking broader engagement for situations where there is a couple, perhaps one of whom, sometimes the one who would need to engage least with conditionality, makes the claim. We want, in a sense, to reverse that process.
My Lords, I assume that the noble Baroness is referring to childcare provision. It is not necessarily state provision that we are talking about; it could be any appropriate provision. I think that most of it is in the private sector, and some of it is provided by the wraparound arrangements at schools. It is for any provision that is qualified provision.
My Lords, who is responsible for making a decision about what is a serious condition? The noble Lord probably knows that I am going to refer to the ME community. At the moment, they are absolutely terrified of anything to do with social security benefits, because they fear that they will be made to go to work or to do cognitive behaviour therapy or graded exercises to get themselves better, when they know that the extra stress involved is likely to make them more sick.
I remind the noble Lord that both the Chief Medical Officer and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recognise ME as a serious condition in line with multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. Far too often, ME people are made to feel that they are the scum of the earth, that they are scrounging and seeking attention. Please can I have a reassurance that these people will not be forced into employment when they cannot maintain it?
My Lords, I believe that I can offer that reassurance. On the fundamental question of who decides, medical advisers are contracted to Jobcentre Plus who undertake the assessments for the purposes of the employment and support allowance. Certainly, if judgments are made that people are not able to engage with work and do not have the capacity to work, they will be put in the support group and there will be no conditionality attached to them. There is a broader issue around people with fluctuating conditions, and it is important that those who are engaged in these assessments are knowledgeable about these things, and we believe that the people who we use are knowledgeable. The noble Baroness raised that specific question on a previous occasion. Perhaps I can write to her further on that.
My Lords, I have been listening to this interesting discussion. In our area, I understand that we have apparently healthy couples who have not worked for years. Apparently, they have close knowledge of this complicated subject, and the clerk, who is dealing with a large number of people, cannot compete with them in putting these arguments. Is this the case?
My Lords, it is an issue of resources for Jobcentre Plus. It is an important point, particularly given the current economic situation and the strains that will be placed on Jobcentre Plus. The answer is yes. As part of the PBR, £1.3 billion extra was made available. Some planned closures of Jobcentre Plus offices have been put on hold, given the current challenges faced by Jobcentre Plus, but it is important that the resources are there. However, it is not only a question of resources for Jobcentre Plus; as part of the new contracting arrangements—and in particular the Freud proposal, which is about the AME/DEL switch—the intention is to draw in private sector investment, which in due course will be reimbursed, paid for out of savings in benefits. Those arrangements will be piloted and will also be part of the resource issue.
Debate (5th Day)
Moved on Wednesday 3 December by
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to open today’s debate on the gracious Speech. I am particularly pleased that I am able to share the task with my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.
The issues that we are debating today—help with housing, effective transport systems, regeneration, a stronger voice for local people and democracy, and protecting and enhancing our natural environment—all help us to build the future strength and sustainability of our economy and communities.
In this speech, I am bound to frame the Government’s Bills in a wider context because this debate comes at a time of exceptional circumstances, which demand exceptional measures. The challenges facing the Government are clear: to provide real help for people in tough times; to support strong, resilient communities; to continue to plan for the long term by creating more sustainable communities; and to prepare people and businesses so that they are best positioned to take advantage when the upturn comes.
The legislative programme announced in the gracious Speech and the housing measures announced last week, together with the package of measures which the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in last month’s Pre-Budget Report, show the Government’s absolute determination to respond effectively, flexibly and fairly to these rapidly changing circumstances.
At the heart of these issues sits housing. Thanks to the fact that last year, with strong support from this House, we created the Homes and Communities Agency, we are now better placed to take forward the conversations with industry and local authorities that are necessary.
As we all know, strong communities are built on the foundation of quality and security of our homes. These are testing times for families. We have to ensure that they have a roof over their heads, and that is the first step to helping them to weather the storm.
The Government have already taken swift and significant measures to address the challenges that face the housing market and homeowners. In September, we set out a £1 billion package designed to provide immediate help to improve the advice available to people facing repossession, to provide help for more first-time buyers and to speed up the construction of 5,500 more social homes.
In the Pre-Budget Report, we went further still. As part of the broader fiscal stimulus package, we are bringing forward a further £775 million of housing and regeneration investment, including £575 million to provide additional support for social rented homes. In addition, last week we announced a new scheme to ensure that hard-working people who suffer a loss of income have the option of staying in their homes.
Under the home owner mortgage support scheme, households that experience a redundancy or significant loss of income because of the downturn will be able to defer a proportion of their interest payments on their mortgage for up to two years. The Government will guarantee lenders that they will get back the payments in return for participating in the scheme. This is in addition to support available to out-of-work and vulnerable households through the recently expanded support for mortgage interest and mortgage rescue schemes. More than 60 local councils will be putting their mortgage rescue schemes on a fast track, giving a lifeline as early as this month to families having trouble meeting the mortgage through no fault of their own. We are supporting free and impartial debt advice through increased government funding. All this will help not only people facing uncertainty and hardship today but will mean that everyone from developers to local authorities are better placed to respond to the opportunities that are there even today, and certainly in the future.
Bringing forward investment in housing is good not just for tenants and home buyers; it provides work for construction firms in leaner times, which is essential for the country in the long term. It is important to be clear that after this downturn the country will still need new homes to be built on a scale that we have not seen for a generation. If those homes are to be built, we need a construction industry that is ready to get moving as soon as the market picks up. That is why our Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill will inter alia improve legislation on commercial contracts, provide a fairer system for construction companies and ensure that they get a decent cash flow. That will make a particularly big difference to small and medium construction companies, which provide local jobs and deliver a vital service to local businesses and home owners.
Decent, affordable housing is at the heart of building stronger, fairer and more prosperous communities. There is a direct link to be made between the connection people feel to their communities and how far they feel that can influence change and impress their views and concerns on local government for a thriving, confident economy. People are more resilient when they feel they belong and can play a full part in communities that are strong and sustainable. In difficult times, in particular, people want to know that they are being treated fairly.
Last week the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government published Fair Rules for Strong Communities. The Prime Minister put it best when he said:
“Stronger communities, quite simply, will help our country come through these times faster and stronger”.
That means that we must have rules that are not only fair but are seen to be fair by everyone: those on welfare, in the criminal justice system, in the immigration system and young people. Fairness means ensuring that local leaders have the freedom, powers and ability to lead their communities forward. Local people have a right to know how their local council works and how to get involved in what happens in the local community. In difficult times there is also a greater need for certainty as well as flexibility that can generate innovation and creativity. That is what we try to provide for local government.
The three-year local government settlement provides local government with the stability that it needs to plan ahead sensibly. That sits alongside the flexibility and the need to respond to local pressures that are now framed by one of the most successful innovations in local government in recent years—the local area agreements. Fairness must be driven deep into the way we treat the people we live alongside. This Government have done a great deal to promote equal rights, in partnership with noble Lords across this Chamber, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in particular.
Ensuring that everyone can play their full part in society is even more important in difficult economic times. We need to ensure that no talents are wasted through discrimination of any kind. I know that there will welcome for the fact that the Government are bringing forward a Bill that takes the next steps necessary to promote equality, to fight discrimination in all its forms, including age discrimination, and to introduce transparency in the workplace, which is the key to tackling the gender pay gap.
Just as we are committed to fair treatment, we are committed to the right of people to have a fair say. That brings me to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. I am afraid that I cannot shorten the Title of the Bill so noble Lords will have to bear with me. That Bill makes the link between the need to open up opportunities for people to know about, become involved in and influence local government policy, and the need for local government to have a more strategic opportunity to build stronger regional and local economies. The Bill is based on evidence and ammunition provided in part by the Jane Roberts commission, on the evidence set out in our own White Paper, Communities in Control, and its recommendations, and on a consultation process on the subnational review. We have taken local government and its partners with us at every stage. This is about giving local government additional tools so that people, no matter where they live, can have fair and equal access to, for example, more information, an equal voice and the right to a response.
A major concern in this House is that turnout in local elections hovers around 35 per cent. How do we overcome that? There is a strong body of evidence suggesting that a lack of public information and awareness about how to get involved is a major barrier to participation. The Bill introduces a new duty on local councils to promote democracy by taking practical action to inform local people, not just about what the council and councillors do, but about how to get involved, not just in local government but, for example, as school governors or members of a foundation trust. The evidence is clear: the more people feel involved, the more likely they are to feel satisfied, the better the services will be and the more confident the community. That is why the Bill also extends the duty to involve to 11 new bodies including the Homes and Communities Agency and the Environment Agency.
The Bill also introduces a new duty on local councils to respond to petitions. Petitions are a familiar part of the local government landscape, but currently less than a third of local authorities guarantee a response to them. Why should people living in one area know they can expect a response while the next-door authority cannot even be bothered? People deserve a proper response to their views on local issues, which is why this step is necessary.
One group that has often been left out is tenants who have often lacked the resources and expertise to ensure that their interests can be represented at a national level. I am delighted that in the Bill we are fulfilling the commitment we made last year to establish the new national tenant voice, ensuring that tenants’ views and interests are represented.
At this time, when small and large businesses are facing major challenges and when we know that the strength of our economy is dependent on the ability of our very diverse regions to plan proactively, it is right that we should strengthen our regional response. We have some outstanding examples of how the regional development agencies are taking forward the proposition of bringing together activity and effort. For example, Yorkshire Forward’s renaissance towns and cities programme is about involving the community in regeneration and encouraging communities to form town teams made of public architects, town planners and consultants to decide what they want to take ownership of development. The objective is to ensure that towns and cities are well designed, connected, accessible and are good for families and business.
At the moment, we have far too many conversations going on in different places about what each region needs to plan properly for a strong economy. We have a conversation about housing, there is one about transport there, somewhere else there is one about spatial planning and somewhere else again there is one about economic development. The Bill will therefore introduce a duty on local authorities and regional development agencies to work together to draft a single strategy for their region. This is a practical measure that has widespread support and will ensure that the direction and priorities set are being designed by those best placed to make those judgments. It will establish a full partnership with local authorities themselves, which will have a full role in developing and signing-off regional strategies. However, we also want local authorities to have more purchase on local economic development so the Bill introduces a duty on upper-tier and unitary local authorities to assess the economic conditions in their area and opens up new opportunities for councils to build on the work that is now in place to promote cross-boundary and subregional working. For example, housing, skills, investment, and transport are not confined to single local authorities. Increasingly, regions as diverse as Manchester and Hampshire are showing that things are better done in greater, stronger partnership and the Bill responds to that.
These possibilities are hardly confined to city regions. We also need to support strong communities nationwide in rural and urban areas. A fifth of the new affordable homes built in England by this Government have been in rural areas. We are boosting rural employment through the payment of £2.9 billion over the next five years to farmers in return for environmental land management. We are spending £90 million this year as part of a total programme of £600 million over the next seven years to help businesses and communities in rural England. The funding, which is available through the regional development agencies, will help businesses to work together more effectively, to modernise their premises, to increase the skills of their people and to add value to their products. It will also help to improve the quality of life in rural communities.
We are also monitoring food prices and looking at whether the price reductions that we are now seeing are being passed down to consumers, with farmers also receiving a fair price, and we will continue to bring public pressure to bear where appropriate. We are setting up a new council of food policy advisers with outside experts to help us to develop a sustainable, healthy and secure food supply.
A strong and effective transport system is also a major contribution to supporting a strong economy. In addition to our existing plans, we announced at the Pre-Budget Report that we would bring forward more than £1 billion of transport capital investment. This includes additional investment of £700 million next year to stimulate the economy. This investment will cut congestion and increase capacity on our roads and railways. We have also announced additional investment projects in future years that are worth £300 million in the delivery of improved routes to key UK ports and airports, such as Manchester.
Last week, in delivering a sustainable transport system, we set out our approach to tackling the country’s immediate transport problems and shaping our transport systems to meet the longer-term challenges that are critical to our prosperity and way of life. We have a long-term goal of doubling railway capacity, working to deliver 1,300 new passenger carriages, 150 station modernisations, and freight improvements by 2014. We are investing in the £15.9 billion Crossrail project, which, once built, will provide a boost of at least £20 billion to the UK economy as well as generating an extra 30,000 jobs. It will also help to secure London’s position as a world-leading financial centre by delivering a 10 per cent increase to the capital’s rail capacity when it opens in 2017.
At the same time, we are working hard to reduce the carbon footprint of domestic transport: for example, through the potential of low or zero-carbon vehicles and helping people reduce their need to travel. We certainly welcome the recent agreement in Europe on improving the fuel efficiency of new cars, which will require a significant increase in the rate of CO2 reductions.
The measures that we are announcing today will also make a vital contribution to our natural environment and how we manage our natural resources. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill will improve the way in which we manage our marine resources and will maximise the benefits that we get from them. No other country has attempted quite such an ambitious and wide-ranging structured approach to marine management. This builds on the Planning Act, which we debated only a few weeks ago, and together they will ensure a streamlined consenting process for all offshore infrastructure.
The draft floods and water Bill will improve flood risk management and the sustainability of our water resources, and will give effect to some of the conclusions drawn in the report by Sir Michael Pitt into the summer flooding in 2007. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will say more about these measures later in our debate today.
In conclusion, I return to the themes that offer the greatest opportunity for our country successfully to manage the difficult times ahead: ensuring that people, families and communities make the right choices for them on the basis of knowledge and information, access and influence to what affects them; ensuring greater fairness, which stretches from the right of the individual to be treated equally to equal access to skills and jobs through strong local economies, underpinned by intelligent, far sighted and coherent regional strategies that make the most of local character and strengths; and ensuring the sustainable development and management of our wider environment to manage stress and prepare for the future. These are the building blocks of a stronger democracy. They are the tools that will enable us to face the future, with all its new and unpredictable challenges, with more confidence. Above all, they will sustain the spirit as well as the substance of our communities.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for opening the debate and I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ contributions. This broad debate covers many important areas, as the extensive speaking list shows. I shall spend most of my speech on the first two of the topics up for discussion; that is, local government and equality. I shall briefly touch on transport. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Taylor will give us the benefit of his experience on agriculture and the environment.
The Minister naturally focused on local government. As she mentioned, this Session we will have the opportunity to consider the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which has already had its First Reading in your Lordships’ House. When the Government first gave notice that a Bill along these lines would be introduced, there seemed to be much more emphasis on community empowerment. After speaking with the Minister, I understand that the Government have chosen to drop some of the more controversial community empowerment elements but that they believe the gist remains much the same. The Government claim that the focus of the Bill is to,
“devolve more influence, power and control over local services to citizens, communities and councils”.
At the same time, the Bill establishes even more remote quango-like bodies to take control of regional development.
I do not wish to stray into Second Reading territory, but I will say that it has not gone without note that this Bill, which has not only a long and disjointed name but a somewhat ramshackle air, has lots of motherhood and apple pie and a whole load of nothingness. It adds to the overall impression that not only have the Government run out of good ideas, they have no big vision for Britain and cannot bring the long-term change our country really needs.
The Government continue to cling to their belief that the unelected, unaccountable and inefficient regional bureaucracies can somehow empower communities and bring about the change that we need. The most significant element of this Bill seeks to transfer the functions of the ineffective and unaccountable regional assemblies to regional development agencies. But the musical chairs of passing their functions from one regional quango to another will do nothing to give local communities a greater say on where, for example, new homes should go, nor speed up the planning system.
This Government may claim to be committed to devolving power away from the centre and to local people but this is nothing more than hollow words. It is clear from this Bill that devolution to this Government is little more than a desire to have loyal political appointees at every level of government who are willing to carry out Whitehall’s commands. The Government introduced this regional bureaucracy and they should take the blame for its failure.
This side of the House believes that, rather than passing the functions of the regional assemblies to another unelected and unaccountable regional quango, the first step should be to scrap the whole tier of regional planning which, on top of local and national planning policies, has created a quagmire of red tape and complexity. We believe in giving real power back to local people.
Despite housing supposedly being a priority for Her Majesty’s Government, the housing provisions in the draft legislative programme have been dropped from this Bill. This is a lost opportunity to introduce practical measures to help kick-start the housing market and protect families from having their houses repossessed. On transport, too, the Government fail to deliver the change that people really want. Their approach on transport appears to be directly opposed to their desire for more citizen involvement. For example, what role did local communities play in the recent decision to allow the expansion at Stansted? How well is Labour listening to those who oppose the third runway at Heathrow? How have the Government responded to the finding in a recent poll that only 4 per cent of businesses thought that the third runway at Heathrow would be of economic benefit to them?
Even on railways, the Government are trying to solve overcrowding by pricing people off the most popular routes and on to the roads. Then they seek to price people off the overcrowded roads with national road pricing and unpopular congestion charges. This is not a sustainable transport policy. By contrast, the Conservatives would seek to give the rail industry the freedom from micro-management it needs to invest in the network and develop the capacity needed for the ever-rising number of passengers. We would also seek to provide a high-speed rail link to replace domestic flights, deal with overcrowding, release capacity on existing lines, and aid the economic and social regeneration of the Midlands and the north. It will be a genuine low-carbon alternative.
The noble Baroness also made optimistic statements about equality, especially about the Bill that has been introduced for this Session, and I hope that it will indeed live up to her predictions. I am immensely proud that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the Sex Discrimination Act in 1986, the Race Relations (Remedies) Act in 1994, the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, and the Employment Rights Act in 1996. Equality law currently involves nine pieces of legislation, more than 100 regulations and over 2,500 pages of guidance and codes of practice. Simplification will make it much easier for both employers and employees to understand their rights and responsibilities in this area.
But good words and positive noises will not achieve equality; therefore we will be looking carefully at the Bill to ensure that it is an effective and practical piece of legislation. In this important area I hope sincerely that this time the Government have not just indulged in another round of tweaking and targets that do nothing to address the root causes of the problem. It is clear, after all, that there is still a problem. Equal pay legislation was first introduced more than 35 years ago and there is still pay inequality between men and women, some unfortunately in our public bodies. While I welcome the Bill’s intention to increase transparency in public bodies and thus to highlight hidden inequality, I hope that the Government will lead by example by getting their own house in order. The failure of so many government departments to reach the targets last April does not give us much hope that the extension of the three current equality duties covering gender, disability and race will lead to any significant change.
Many of the Bill’s provisions addressing inequality in the private sector are equally lacklustre. It is very disappointing that the right honourable Harriet Harman was unable to include compulsory pay audits for companies which have been found guilty at an employment tribunal, and we hope that the Government will reconsider this matter. There is also a great deal of confusion about what some of the provisions will in fact do. Ensuring no discrimination when providing services looks fine and easy on paper, but such promises run into genuine difficulties when applied to the real world. For example, what do the Government expect the effect to be on adoption agencies seeking to match a child with ethnically similar parents?
Of course, the Welfare Reform Bill, whose White Paper has just been released and which contains so many Conservative policies, is also to be introduced in this Session. As with the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which this Bill continues, we give our full support to the overall aims of the Government’s reforms. Just imagine, though, how many disabled people, single parents, or long-term unemployed would have been helped by now if Labour had understood earlier the Conservative conviction that allowing people to remain dependent on state handouts rather than encouraging them to develop the confidence to get back into employment is not in anyone’s interests. It remains to be seen whether the Government have understood the warnings from these Benches that imposing centralised targets and obligations on employers is useless if legislation is not matched by an understanding of and support for the changes that many businesses must make before they can offer equal job opportunities. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale will seek to ensure that businesses are not blamed when they find themselves unable to live up to the expectations that the Government are unable to meet.
On race equality, the Government prefer to make soothing blanket statements rather than genuinely thinking about what equality means and how to ensure it. I have spoken on this before, but I wish once again to emphasise just how damaging the Government’s use of the fuzzy vagaries of state-driven multiculturalism is to the opportunities of so many of this country’s most vulnerable people. While girls of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are able to be pulled out of British schools in their early teens without any questions being asked by the appropriate authorities, this Government cannot claim that they are affording the same protection to women of all backgrounds or offering them equal opportunities.
Similarly, the continuing failure to bring forward the same protection of the law to bear on drugs which are considered to have prevalence only in East African communities means that the Government are willing to consign large numbers of a whole community to long-term underachievement and associated health problems. Cultural sensitivities should not be an excuse for turning a blind eye to a drug habit that is destroying a community. Let us be honest: we would not hesitate to legislate and prosecute if the users were not confined to a single ethnic or racial group. The Government have finally accepted the Conservative policy to reclassify cannabis and I hope that very soon they will also accept our arguments on khat.
The Government occasionally seem to have given up trying to ensure meaningful equality in some of the harder to reach communities. The now infamous letter from Jacqui Smith, which my honourable friend Damian Green made public, showed that the Government were fully expecting increased racism as a result of the economic downturn. When he replies, I should be interested to know whether the Minister agreed with her analysis on that point and what steps the Government intend to take to counter this worrying problem.
I have only touched on the Conservative policies in these three areas because I am aware that many of your Lordships wish to speak today. I look forward to hearing the response of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as well your Lordships’ contributions on these very important issues.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I look forward to continuing to work with her and with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, particularly if she is effective in achieving realistic measures in her own party’s policies to return to local government the powers taken away from it by her predecessors.
I look forward, too, to the Bills we shall be considering. I look forward to all Bills—partly because I enjoy legislation—although I know that one should not treat them as a kind of extended word game. The challenge for the Government would have been to achieve resistance to introducing large legislation, although there is talk about this being a thin programme. During the summer I tried and failed—I suspect this will find a resonance with other noble Lords—to clear up my office at home. I put in chronological order the statutes which had resulted from Bills on which I had worked during the years in which I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House. However, I had also to put them in size order because they got bigger and bigger—and not, perhaps, with increased significance.
My noble friends Lady Thomas of Walliswood and Lord Lester of Herne Hill will look in detail at the proposed equality Bill. I would not presume to anticipate, in particular, what my noble friend Lord Lester might say. The House is lucky to have his expertise. I suspect that a large equality Bill may mean more exceptions to the principles we would welcome. I hope that is not the case. It may be that we will wish to scrutinise the regulations alongside the Bill. However, I believe the Bill is not the responsibility of either of the Ministers on the Front Bench today.
The department of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, deals with communities and local government and is closely connected to other departments, which makes this debate quite tricky. I shall use the way in which policing operates locally as an example. The noble Baroness’s Bill has provisions about petitions to local authorities and I shall simply refer to the petition on the No. 10 website at the moment. It urges the rejection of directly elected crime and policing representatives and suggests instead,
“to work with representatives of local government and police authorities in giving the public a greater say in setting local policing priorities, and to use the money … on providing more police”.
The petition continues, but that is the guts of it. It is an important issue.
Conversely, housing is within the noble Baroness’s department, although that, too, is not confined to it. Tomorrow my noble friend Lady Barker will talk about the health implications of poor housing. I am asking not for more legislation but for greater urgency in addressing the crisis in the supply of houses and of affordable housing in particular, the crisis in the loss of homes caused by loss of income, the cost of rents and the problems of repossession. Last week’s announcement about repossessions will apparently help 9,000 families—significant for those who will be helped, but a tiny number overall. We do not yet know the criteria for eligibility for assistance from that scheme or how the scheme will be policed. When will the September mortgage-to-rent proposals be fully implemented?
Are the Government prepared to see the current economic conditions as an opportunity? There are silver linings, or there should be: the use of land whose value has fallen, and capacity within the construction industry for building both by housing associations and by local authorities. That will not happen by itself, however; it needs investment from central government and more flexibility locally, including, for instance, the freedom for local authorities to borrow against council assets. If the capacity within the construction industry is not used, I fear that it will not be there when the economy turns up again.
Perhaps some of that would require legislation—the local authorities’ borrowing position certainly would—but whether we need this local government Bill is another matter. Is it required to meet the issues that it apparently addresses? Is it the best way to address those issues? I say to the Minister that I do not require an answer to those rhetorical questions. The team on these Benches working on the Bill will include my noble friend Lord Tope, whom I welcome. We have, in my noble friends Lord Tope and Lord Greaves, councillors with long and current local government experience. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Greaves will display his enthusiasm for the issues that are contained in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill as well as a practical approach to it.
My noble friend Lord Tope, with his considerable experience on the Committee of the Regions, reminds me that in Europe we talk about “spheres, not tiers”. That is an immensely useful shorthand reminder, which I pass on because I have no sense that the way in which central government works with local government is regarded as a negotiation of equals. Will we ever see a local government Bill coming out of a joint working party comprised equally of central and local representatives? Will we ever hear a Minister at the Dispatch Box, in response to a question, say, “I cannot answer that; it is not a matter for Westminster government”?
We will discuss the detail of the LDEDC Bill next week—I wish there were an easier acronym—so I do not want to go into too much detail now, but it looks like another Bill where the Government have not been able to resist paternalistic tendencies. I struggle to see that legislation is necessary for much of it and, where duties are imposed, that it is necessary to impose the “how” as well as the “what”. In other walks of life it is understood that nurture and support involve giving freedom.
I am aware of how topical the issue of minimum standards is. I am not seeking to comment on the recent unhappy cases that have been so much in the news, but we on these Benches are concerned about the performance management of local functions by Whitehall. It seems to me from talking to colleagues in local government that it is almost impossible not to play to the criteria and not to direct resources—people as well as money—to what is counted. What is counted is not necessarily what really counts. That is not confined to local government. When I visited my GP’s surgery last week, I was asked to fill in a questionnaire. My GP said to me that he was not yet driven to tailor services by the questions likely to be asked of him, but he could see that it was coming.
The gracious Speech referred to constitutional renewal, which is relevant to local government, although I dearly wish that we were not faced almost annually with a review of the constitutional arrangements. My reaction is probably as nothing compared to that of councillors and local government officers, who could do without the diversion from services.
The latest Bill shrieks to me of a government agenda of moving everybody to large unitary authorities and “strong leadership”. Our concern is not lessened by the danger of leaders becoming detached from their own back benches and their opposition. Even though it is 25 years and one month since I was an opposition councillor, I would always claim that there is a role for the opposition. This is quite a different matter from the role of the council as community leader, which is for the whole council.
There is nothing like a threat to one’s way of life or quality of life to bring the community together. When we debated the Planning Bill, what seems about 10 minutes ago, my noble friend Lady Tonge said that it was an article of her political faith to oppose the expansion of Heathrow. My noble friend Lord Watson, who is a neighbour geographically as well as politically of both hers and mine, will say something on that.
Local authorities do not need to be told of the importance of their role in the current economic crisis. The local government Bill provides an economic assessment duty. Statutory guidance, which there is to be, does not smack of a partnership between local government and Whitehall. Many local authorities are putting together economic recovery plans for their own communities, and they and we are horribly aware of the strain on their finances. There are reductions in interest rates, Treasury management—of course, they are not alone in suffering that—and the extra strain on services. My own local authority, which has seen many children educated in the private sector over the years, is suddenly seeing a rush to its own schools. There are more places to be provided.
All this is taking place in a system of local government finance which has little support. We will have one local government finance Bill, but the cautious addition of the business rate supplement barely tinkers with the situation. I appreciate that it is necessary for Crossrail, but it is not an answer to the many problems. The impact of the local government finance system is wide. I increasingly believe that councillors across the country are generally so ground down by the focus on council tax levels and budgets that it stifles the capacity for innovation.
One of the areas of difficulty for local authorities is the recycling market. Tales of piled-up—I hesitate to describe them as “dumped”—items collected for recycling do nothing to encourage the public. Investment in recycling materials could be productive. One hopes that that might be a focus for attention in the difficult times to come. It is essential that we do not forget environmental and climate change issues and that we use capacity in the construction industry towards these ends. I believe that my noble friends Lord Mar and Kellie and Lord Teverson will say something about environmental and climate change matters among other things.
These debates are frustrating; there is so much that one could cover. I shall mention finally two matters which may seem merely procedural but are substantive. The first is how this House will deal with issues which fall within the category of “financial”, where we tripped over real problems at the end of the previous Session. The impact of those matters was far wider than financial, but this House’s role was called into question.
Secondly, a measure that is gaining some ground is the use of a Joint Committee to scrutinise the balance of power between central and local government. Noble Lords will understand that on these Benches we profoundly disagree with the view that power comes from the centre, but in the system that we are in, the balance needs to be tipped significantly towards the local.
My Lords, I would like to speak today mainly about the environment and transport. In that context, I declare an interest as campaign director for Future Heathrow.
I yield to no one in my concern about climate change. I wrote my first article about it at least 20, possibly 25, years ago. If noble Lords read it they would see that I was in something of a panic mode, as many people are today. I went through that phase and learned vividly from the wonderful novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that the best advice when you are faced with a really serious situation is “don't panic”. That is an important part of the message that I want to talk about today in relation to climate change.
Climate change is probably the most serious problem that we face, but at the moment, I am afraid there is a tendency to throw out some good ideas that are necessary both for our general welfare in this country and for dealing with climate change. At the same time, one or two people make the mistake of believing that there is a simple answer: that we should revert to a pre-industrial society, where, to use the phrase of Thomas Hobbes, life for many people was “nasty, brutish and short”. Returning to a pre-industrial society or anything remotely like it is a bad, bad idea.
I also remember losing my faith in the Greenpeace movement to a large extent when it abandoned the scientific and technological approach. I got very angry when the Brent Spar oil rig was going to be sunk in the mid-Atlantic trench. All the scientific and technological evidence was that that was the best thing to do. That was ignored by the Greenpeace movement and sadly we ended up with a policy that was counterproductive for the environment. There have been many other examples since then of some people—by no means all—in the green movement being anti-scientific and anti-technological in their approach. We need to get rid of that because otherwise we fail to address an important argument.
There is a danger of arrogance, too, when I read people in the green movement talking about everyone else being liars, hypocrites or at best fools. I simply comment that they might not actually be listening to the argument. My feeling generally is that people in this country and increasingly in the world are acutely aware of the problem but, like so many of us, struggle to find the best way of dealing with it. That is not always immediately apparent.
I was reminded the other day when talking to a scientist that the climate change issue is essentially one of pollution. It is a profoundly serious issue of pollution, much more important than many others. It is worth remembering that a few years ago we were all rightly concerned about the decline in the ozone layer because of the use of CFCs. We have largely solved that problem now because the ozone layer is building up again, but we did not solve it by stopping people from using refrigerators or other items that required CFCs. We changed our methods scientifically and technologically. Some noble Lords, like me, will clearly remember the great smogs in London and other big cities in the 1940s and 1950s. They were very enjoyable on one level because you never got home from school without finding several cars up on the pavement and so forth. We solved them not by stopping people from heating their homes, but by introducing smokeless fuels and a variety of other fuels that enabled people to carry on heating their homes. In other words, we overcame the problem by using science and technology.
Putting a price on harmful emissions is clearly a good policy. We ought to encourage it and that is why emissions trading is so important. Enabling people to insulate their homes is also a good policy and we ought to be putting as much money as we can into that to enable it to happen. It is beneficial in so many ways and is a particularly good policy.
Those are policies that I want to encourage; there are many others. I particularly like the Government’s approach, referred to in the Queen’s Speech, of introducing a variety of measures over time. I would like to see us paying people for microgeneration, which is now increasingly common and popular, and is one of the reasons why I welcome the Planning Bill so strongly. It is not only the Infrastructure Planning Commission that is profoundly important in leading the way. Some of the minor changes—or what appear to be minor changes—to planning issues should make it easier to do that.
The other area of policy that I think is very good and has links to transport is an integrated transport system. To a large extent we have forgotten that phrase, which is sad. It was very much the policy of the Labour Party, supported to a limited extent by the Liberal Democrats and less so by the Conservative Party, which tended to see a free-market approach as necessary. My own strong view is that this country’s problem with transport policy is that we have ceased to integrate the public transport systems, including aviation, not just rail and road, which is how this argument has evolved recently. In all European countries, and most other countries that I know about, an integrated transport policy is regarded as meaning all public transport: rail, road and air. According to the European Union document that I quoted a month or two ago, all countries are integrating air, rail and road. This is why the hub airport argument is so important in that context.
It always strikes me as remarkable that the Liberal Democrat party, with its claims to be more pro-European than any other, is doing more to lock us out of the European economy by its attack on the hub airport concept and its importance as a central part of the emerging integrated European market. When people say that they do not want the expansion of Heathrow, I say, okay, we will keep aircraft flying around London for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for a chance to land. Is that what we mean by “good for the environment”? If we stop people travelling by air through Heathrow, they will simply fly from Manchester, Glasgow or Edinburgh to Amsterdam, Paris or Frankfurt. That will not help climate change either. If you look at what the Europeans have done, in Amsterdam and elsewhere, their integrated transport systems are designed to be more environmentally progressive than ours. That is why I quoted from the website. We are not doing that, and we need to start doing it again.
Finally, and I say this very strongly, this country led the world with the Industrial Revolution. People tried to stop the expansion of the railways. The Duke of Wellington famously said that the trouble with the railways was that they encouraged the lower orders to travel. That is dangerously similar to those who say that they do not like low-cost airlines. The spirit of the Duke of Wellington is alive and well in some quarters. I simply say this: we are quite capable of solving the problem of climate change. An integrated transport policy should be part of that and we should learn from our European colleagues on this. Do not take the simplistic approach of saying that aviation is worse than rail, or that rail is worse—or better—than road. Technology changes. That is why railways, which were initially opposed for environmental reasons, ended up being supported. The same will happen to aviation, and to cars when they become electric. Do not forget our history. Do not forget how we led in science and technology. We can do it again, but we need to be part of the European and global economy. To do that, we need an integrated transport system, which we also need for the sake of our environment.
My Lords, I will focus on the proposed equality legislation. Since the introduction of the first anti-discrimination legislation over 40 years ago, the Church of England has been consistent in its support for the use of the law to combat the manifestation of prejudice and to promote equality and fairness. We believe that the law has a key role to play in countering discrimination. Any Bill which seeks to make anti-discrimination law more coherent and effective will therefore, in principle, be welcomed by the churches, faith communities and the myriad other organisations in the voluntary sector.
If churches and faith organisations are cautious about the impact of this Bill, therefore, it is not because of its fundamental, underlying aim, which they support. Rather it is because of concerns about the potential for the Bill to impact adversely upon them and upon the whole voluntary sector in terms of the burdens imposed. It is also because of concerns that it may be seized upon as an opportunity by those who wish to confine freedom of religion to the purely private sphere.
That a comprehensive review of the complex body of anti-discrimination law that has developed over the years is timely is undeniable. However, the case for further extending the scope of legislative provision in this area is less clear cut. In this, as in other areas, it is important not to expect the law to do more than it can reasonably be expected to do. Not everything that is wrong is best tackled by legislation, and it is doubtful whether the scale of the huge growth in the volume of legislation in recent years has been justified. It has certainly contributed to the more litigious nature of our society.
Furthermore, while the protection of individuals’ rights is necessary for the common good, adding further legislation designed to protect those rights at this stage may be counterproductive. Given that a statutory framework is already in place, the emphasis might usefully now shift to implementation, education and advocacy in order more effectively to embed respect for rights in our culture.
Anti-discrimination legislation is, by its very nature, complex and intrusive. By effectively placing the onus of proof on the defendant rather than the claimant and providing for unlimited damages in relation to successful claims, it already imposes a heavy burden on any organisation that employs staff. It is noteworthy that, while the Government's consultation on the reform of discrimination law touched on the possible additional burdens that fresh legislation might create for the public sector and businesses, it failed to recognise that the organisations least well placed to cope with ever more regulation are those in the voluntary sector. Most bodies in that sector, including the large number of small entities that make up the churches and other faith bodies, are essentially local, dependent on voluntary income and have, at most, a handful of paid staff and little by way of human resources or other professional support. Care must be taken to ensure that the Bill does not impose impossible additional burdens on these smaller organisations.
A key aspect of the Bill to which we shall naturally be paying close attention from these Benches is how it handles the difficult and crucial area of how a proper balance should be struck between competing rights regarding religious belief. We are not alone in having been concerned at what has appeared to be a growing trend towards regarding religion and belief as deserving of a lesser priority in discrimination legislation than the other strands. The argument appears to be that, because religion and belief are susceptible to personal choice in a way that other strands are not, religion and belief should be subordinate to those other strands when they are in competition with one another. We believe that to be a false analysis.
The preservation of religious freedom, including the right to manifest religious belief in all its diversity, remains a cornerstone of an open, liberal and tolerant society and was a constitutional principle in this country long before the Human Rights Act passed into law. Nor is religious equality achieved by the elimination in public institutions such as schools or local authorities of expressions of religious belief. That does not achieve equal respect for different religious groups and those of no religion; rather, it amounts to an enforced secularism that fails to respect religious belief at all. A genuinely generous equality allows the expression of religious belief not only by individuals but also by religious groups, and allows it to be expressed both in what they believe and in what they say and do.
From that point of view, a key issue that will arise in the passage of this Bill will be the approach taken to the carrying forward of the various exceptions that Parliament has previously conferred on religious organisations in existing legislation. Success in dealing with that issue will depend on the way in which potentially competing rights are balanced. That this process is, and is seen to be, undertaken with rigour and objectivity is all the more important where it relates to sensitive issues, not only to do justice to those directly involved but to ensure that the legislation has the support of fair-minded people.
Where Parliament is legislating for a situation in which the exercise of the right to freedom of religion conflicts with the human rights of other persons, its responsibility is, of course, to seek to ensure that the competing rights are balanced in the way required by Article 9.2 of the European convention. This requires that any restriction on the manifestation of religion or belief must genuinely be necessary; and that where it is imposed it must be no greater than is reasonably required to secure the proper protection of the other right.
Finally, there is an important issue about the legislative process itself. It was a matter of concern to many of us that the previous Equality Bill was amended at a late stage to insert a power allowing the Secretary of State to make regulations extending protection from discrimination and harassment on grounds of sexual orientation to the provision of goods, facilities and services. Whatever our view on the issue itself, we very much hope that when the new Bill appears we shall not find that it confers similar powers to make detailed provision in contentious and sensitive areas by delegated legislation. Where such matters are involved, we are clear that they should be dealt with in the Bill so that they can be subjected to a proper process of detailed scrutiny, not least to enable Parliament to satisfy itself that any necessary balancing of potentially competing rights has indeed been conducted properly. We will want to play our proper part in such scrutiny.
My Lords, I shall focus on agriculture, particularly food security. I see that the Minister who will reply to the debate is breathing a big sigh of relief because on this occasion I am not pursuing him as regards local government reform.
My Lords, surely I can venture a little way towards the unitary local government issue.
The noble Lord may enjoy responding to what I am about to say.
During debates on the gracious Speech this House has rightly spent considerable time examining economic issues, particularly the implications for our domestic economy, trade and, indeed, the currency of the present financial crisis. However, a number of factors are converging to create a global crisis for food security which is every bit as serious as the global credit crisis, and is made even more serious by the global financial situation. It is therefore disappointing in the extreme that while the gracious Speech contains measures dealing with environmental issues, particularly marine and coastal access, which will certainly have minor implications for food security, the only other measure which can be said to impact on agriculture is a draft Bill, the Floods and Water Bill. It is hard to see that Bill, or indeed the Government’s attitude in general towards food security, as in any way an adequate response to the situation we face.
The statistics are stark. Each year the world’s population is increasing at a rate equal to the entire population of Great Britain. By 2050 at least, if not before, there will be more than 9 billion mouths to feed in the world. At the same time, UN figures show that each year drought, deforestation and climate volatility are already taking out of food production an area equivalent to the size of the Ukraine. Thus, while we need to double food production by 2050, we will have to do so on a reduced area of cultivable land worldwide, and with fewer resources than at present. Climate change threatens production levels on existing land and will make some uncultivable. Worldwide water availability will certainly restrict output. The volume of food aid is now less than half what it was in 2000. The situation is therefore grave.
It is because these facts are incontrovertible that the content of the gracious Speech disappoints in its inadequate response—one might almost say nil response—to this challenge. The Government have had rather a relaxed attitude to these issues for some time. In 2005 a joint Treasury/Defra report asserted that whatever food we in Britain might be short of, the world would supply. Margaret Beckett MP, at the Oxford Farming Conference, famously remarked:
“The world is awash with food for us to import”.
This remark was rash at the time; it is now risible. A recent Defra analysis said:
“Climate change is likely to bring new challenges for food security, not of rich countries, like the UK, but of less developed tropical regions”.
That will not do, especially for a net importer of food such as the UK.
Surely, in addition to helping the developing world feed itself through aid and investment, we should right now stop importing the vast quantities of food that we can grow ourselves. Ten years ago we produced a surplus of pork; we now import a third of all the pork we eat. We ship in more bacon, lamb, eggs and chicken than we did 10 years ago. This is most emphatically not a protectionist point. Trade must continue to play an important part in food security, but the Government’s current view seems to ignore the growing global food security crisis in which, by increasing domestic production, we could help ease the pressure on stretched global markets. We have the infrastructure, soils, climate and skills to increase that production. This is significant because 2008 will go down as the critical year when more than 50 per cent of the world's population became city-dwellers.
It would be unfair to imply that absolutely nothing is happening within Government with regard to food security. In the past year the Cabinet Office produced a report called Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century. This was followed by a Defra consultation paper entitled Ensuring the UK’s Food Security in a Changing World. In October Hilary Benn announced that a council of food policy advisers would be appointed. The noble Baroness mentioned this council in her opening remarks and I am sure that the noble Lord will wish to update us in his winding-up speech.
Given the gravity of the crisis which confronts us and the world, I would have expected the gracious Speech to contain urgent measures, for example, to remove barriers to maximising domestic food production; to support CAP reform to make farmers more able to respond to consumer demands; to resolve the question of the contribution GM technology could make towards increasing food production and reducing agricultural costs; and, in particular, to address the 45 per cent reduction in funding for research and development in agriculture that we have seen in the past few years by reordering government priorities.
It is hard to think of an issue of greater importance than feeding ourselves and helping to feed the world. The primary duty of any Government is to provide security for their people, and that includes food security. Frankly, a draft Bill on floods and water, reasonable and honourable though it may be, does not even start to address the challenges we face.
My Lords, it is a pity that the Government’s business managers decided to group equality together with local government, transport, agriculture and the environment, rather than with home, legal and constitutional affairs. That means that, for the purpose of this debate on Human Rights Day, equality has been put into a separate compartment from human rights, even though the right to equality before the law and to the equal protection of the law is a human right and indeed a constitutional right which we hope will be recognised and protected under the equality Bill. That was rightly recognised in the mandate given to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Equality without discrimination needs to be viewed from a broader human rights perspective.
However, unlike the Official Opposition, we wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce a further equality Bill during this Session. We shall seek to strengthen the Bill where it is weak, to clarify its terms where they are obscure, and to make it workable and effective in practice. We will support the Bill’s passage, provided that it meets these essential objectives. There is great expertise across the House in the areas to be covered by the Bill, on which the Government would be wise to draw. Several noble Lords who will make important contributions in this debate will be centrally involved.
Successive Governments have made piecemeal changes in discrimination law since I had the privilege more than 30 years ago of working as Roy Jenkins’s special adviser at the Home Office on what became the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Acts. Since then, successive Governments have added layer upon layer to a great barrier reef of complex, opaque and anomalous primary and subordinate legislation. One of the most grotesque examples, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, may be interested to discover, was the equal value regulations introduced by the Thatcher Government, which this House, unusually, condemned in passing them through the House.
Employers and trade unions, public authorities and other service providers and victims of discriminatory practices and procedures are left in the dark about their position under the law. The complexity and obscurity of the law and the bureaucratic and tortuous nature of some of its procedures create unnecessary litigation and delays that undermine respect for the law and impair access to justice and effective individual and collective remedies.
The Government wasted a decade in failing to meet the pressing need for comprehensive reform. Instead, they put the cart before the horse by creating the EHRC before tackling the reform of the law. The resulting delay means that Parliament now has the last chance before the next election to enact a statute of which we may be proud.
According to the current list of ministerial responsibilities, the Government Equalities Office is,
“responsible for the Government’s overall strategy and priorities on equality issues”.
But the description of its work does not mention the broader human rights perspective, and ministerial and Civil Service responsibility is balkanised across Whitehall. Instead of joined-up government, discrimination law reform has been poorly co-ordinated, and no government department has been willing to take responsibility for the EHRC, which has become Whitehall’s orphan Annie.
We fought hard in this House during the passage of the most recent Equality Act for the commission to be genuinely independent from government influence and for commissioners to be appointed on merit in accordance with the UN Paris principles. It is vital for those values to be respected in practice; for appointments to be on merit and for the commission to avoid becoming a politicised NGO. The EHRC was created to be an independent public authority acting professionally and using its powers effectively to promote equality and respect for human rights and to combat unlawful discriminatory practices. It should leave politics to the politicians and concentrate on its demanding statutory mandate.
What then are the essential requirements for equality legislation of which we may be proud? The Bill must contain clear, consistent standards to make this area of the law more user-friendly and accessible. The Government have promised that there will be no regression. The Bill must level up and not down. They must create an efficient and effective regulatory framework, securing accessible remedies through procedures which are inexpensive and expeditious. The law needs to be effective in achieving widespread change while, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark emphasised, avoiding imposing overly burdensome and bureaucratic obligations. We welcome the development of public sector duties, giving greater emphasis to securing real progress in policy-making and service delivery. That must not be an exercise in creating mountains of unnecessary paper or the mechanical ticking of boxes on standardised forms.
I shall quickly refer to a few topics that we shall have to look at in depth. On sex discrimination and equal pay, the commission has published the bleak facts about the squandering of the talent of women and the prevalence of sex discrimination and sexual harassment and unequal pay for equal work. Women are grossly under-represented in top jobs, and improvements are moving at a snail’s pace. The full-time pay gap has begun to widen and stands at 17 per cent. According to Sunday’s Observer, on a world league table of equal pay ranking, the UK is 81st out of 130 countries.
The Government’s response to the pay gap is weak. The gracious Speech refers to the Bill as designed,
“to help address the difference in pay between men and women”.
Mere help will not suffice. The Government intend to rely on public procurement instead of requiring equal pay audits from large and medium-sized private and public sector employers. Public procurement is important and provides a lever for change, but it is necessary to clarify the ability to use equality requirements in public procurement without breaching EU rules.
The equal pay procedures have been criticised by senior judges, equality experts and equality agencies as tortuous and unworkable. They need to be simplified. The private, as well as the public, sector should be subject to positive duties, placing the responsibility on employers to ensure equal pay, instead of relying on individuals to sue them. That would enable an employer to implement equal pay on the basis of a rational and well-thought-out pay equity plan.
The procedures in employment tribunals need to be streamlined, with the power to refer complex cases to the Employment Appeal Tribunal or the High Court. Group or representative claims should be dealt with together, and there is a need for systemic remedies for systemic discrimination; for example, where in an individual case a court or tribunal finds sex discrimination in a collective agreement or pay system, there needs to be suitable machinery for changing the system in an orderly way. That, unfortunately, was abolished by Mrs Thatcher’s Government.
We welcome the Government’s intention to reform disability discrimination law to close the gap created by the unfortunate recent decision of the Law Lords in the Malcolm case, and to apply the concepts of direct and indirect discrimination not only to sex, race and other types of unlawful discrimination but also to disability. Together with the duty to make reasonable adjustments, that should ensure that existing legal protection is not undermined by the Malcolm decision.
The subject of religion has already been addressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I listened with care to his speech. I had the misfortune to disagree with some of it but I agree especially with what he said about the right to express religious belief and the importance of Article 9 of the convention, which is recognised in the Human Rights Act. However, I hope that he, together with the Church of England and indeed the House, agree that it would be divisive and unworkable to saddle public authorities with a duty to promote religion and belief, including a lack of religious belief, when exercising their public functions. It would also be divisive and unworkable to enable civil claims of religious harassment to be made on the ground that the claimant’s human dignity has been infringed. That would encourage vexatious claims, which would interfere unduly with the rights to free speech and religious freedom. While religious freedom must of course be protected and religious discrimination forbidden, this is an area where one size does not fit all, and exceptions must be no more than are appropriate and necessary.
Finally, we welcome the Government’s decision to make it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of age in providing goods, services and facilities to the public and performing public functions, but we regret the decision to kick it into the long grass.
In conclusion, we will support the Government in their efforts to enact the Bill but they should not take our support for granted, using the self-imposed problems of a short parliamentary Session to limit necessary debate and amendment when the Bill is in this House.
My Lords, I wish to speak on the environment. I confess at the outset to having had real difficulty about what I might say beyond welcoming the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and the flood defence measures that have been announced. Issues on the environment are so complex and often confront us with difficult dilemmas whether we are talking about individuals, the Government or society as a whole. The trouble with dilemmas, especially those with a longer-term profile, is that it is all too easy to delay facing them squarely and making the necessary decisions. We can live with a certain inertia. To take an obvious example, we are still in the early stages of a culture change on how buildings are heated. I constantly go into shops, offices and other public buildings that are overheated to an uncomfortable degree. As a society, we need to accept that a whole new culture on energy conservation must be embraced.
Another obvious and immediate example to which reference has already been made is the third runway at Heathrow. From a perspective of aviation needs and from comparisons with other major airports in Europe, an overall economic case for the third runway seems clear. Yet it will probably—almost certainly—be an unpopular decision, adding to pollution in a densely populated area and compounding the sense that were we starting from scratch, we would not locate a hub airport for London in such an area or one so close to London itself. It is also unclear how making provision for increased volumes of air traffic could be compatible with the target of an 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the UK by 2050, given that the only way known to us to propel aircraft is through turning hydrocarbons into water and CO2.
Aviation is in a slightly different position from road and rail transport where other options are available. However much the efficiency of the engines may yet be improved, it is an energy-intensive activity. In saying that, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Soley, because I have no support for those who invaded Stansted Airport this week and committed criminal acts. We need democratic, careful and thoughtful discussion, not intemperate unilateral actions because the issues are so complex and difficult.
Nuclear power has attracted similar passions in the past. This is a classic example of a thorny dilemma. It seems pretty obvious that the chances of getting anywhere near the 2050 CO2 target will require a major reinvestment in nuclear power—if not quite on the French scale, then beyond what we have done in the past. The Government have moved steadily of late towards supporting new nuclear stations, but they are still leaving commercial decisions to electricity generators themselves. Will the market deliver? Will it deliver sensible long-term choices? If by any reasonable judgment we need a long-term nuclear capacity, does that not need more direct government involvement in relevant decisions and planning than is currently the case?
It is salutary to note that without the recent shifts in government policy there was a real danger that all the benefits of the introduction of renewable technology and wind power, largely because of government regulation and obligation, would have been completely negated if we had simply closed down the present nuclear capacity. Of course, I recognise that the fears about safety, long-term storage of waste, and so on, are real and raise genuine environmental questions of their own. I believe that these issues are soluble but I understand the dilemmas the Government have faced that have to some extent resulted in putting off key decisions.
We can move the focus to the difficult issue of coal, which is one of our indigenous energy resources and will be so when North Sea oil and gas effectively have been exhausted. The usual assumption is that in future coal will be burned only in power generation where carbon capture and storage are in place. Perhaps that ought to be the case for oil and gas generation of electricity because they also produce a large amount of CO2 even if only about half the amount of coal itself, but CO2 capture and storage is unproved technology. It seems to be possible but we do not quite know what its cost and practicality will be on a really large scale. If we order no new coal-fired plant in the immediate future, such as that at Kingsnorth, do we not risk power shortages in a few years’ time, as has often been suggested in this House? Can we count on installing CCS technology whatever the cost without wider international agreements? It would be a great pity and, in some ways, not of much effect if this country were to adopt a policy on CCS different from other major economies.
Gas-fired power stations have been the main market solution for the past 20 years; the so-called “dash for gas”. That has conveniently helped the country, the Government, meet the Kyoto obligations because they produce just less than half the CO2 per unit of electricity generated compared with coal. However, that will result in us needing to import at least 80 per cent, possibly even 90 per cent, of our gas requirements by 2020. That is another difficult dilemma, which it is, in many ways, too late to face. I often think that future generations will look back and think that we have simply squandered the benefits of North Sea oil and gas in a generation or two.
All this is set against the climate change agenda. The Government have committed us all to the challenging target of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050. We now need a credible strategy to reach that target that addresses, somewhat more directly, the various areas where, for one reason or another, there has been a certain absence of longer-term planning. It is only as the ideal and the vision are cashed out in practical planning that we will be able to test and evaluate things against the broader economic, social and environmental agendas that are around. It will be credible only if it is taken forward on a European and, indeed, an international stage, as the gracious Speech indicated.
That brings me to my final dilemma. Action to reduce the demand for oil, gas and coal will have the effect of reducing their price on the world market. Look at the fall in oil prices in recent months in response to quite a small reduction in demand. That makes oil and gas more affordable to everyone, especially in developing countries. In many ways, that is to be welcomed. The difficulty is that the value in oil, gas and coal lies largely in the energy that is locked up in their atomic and molecular structures, and that can be unlocked only by turning them into carbon dioxide and, in some cases, water. Countries that have indigenous resources of oil or gas are very unlikely to leave them in the ground. The economic pressure to utilise them is great whether a country is the poorest or richest on earth. In one way or another, and at one speed or another, it looks as though the world’s resources of oil, gas and, to some degree, coal are likely to be turned into increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Halting deforestation and carbon capture technology are likely to have only a relatively small impact on this process, at least for the medium term, perhaps until 2050.
If global warming is caused by increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which is the dominant, but not universal, belief among the world’s scientists, climate change—global warming—is likely to continue throughout the 21st century. If so, alongside necessary efforts to mitigate the rise in CO2 concentrations, should there not also be more attention to the demands of adaptation to climate change, which does not look to be easily reversible? The impact of climate change is likely to be greater on poorer countries, partly for geographical reasons and partly because they have fewer resources to enable them to engage in the process of adaptation that richer countries will be able to do more easily. That is a major dilemma. How do we strike the balance between resources devoted to decarbonisation and those devoted to adaptation to climate change? The question needs more open discussion and cannot simply be put on one side because of the overwhelming moral imperative that the Climate Change Act has set before us.
I wish the Government well as they grapple with these huge, difficult challenges, and I look forward to explicit longer-term planning across these areas. It is not just on the financial front where the limitations of market-driven solutions are becoming apparent.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s proposals in the gracious Speech to bring forward legislation to promote local economic development and to create greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making. The theme of handing power back to people—this was articulated in the Government’s report, Preparing Britain for the Future, which recognises that:
“People want to work with and direct Government to do things for them, not just have their Government do things to them”—
I welcome the emphasis in this report and its desire to empower individuals by involving them in the design and delivery of local public services and in other measures that are designed to promote local democracy and larger numbers of active citizens. This is all correct. New Labour has done much to move the debate on in this whole area, and should be thanked for it. However, the devil, as always, is in the detail, and a lot of my work over the past 25 years as a social entrepreneur has been precisely about demonstrating what some of these aspirations might mean in practice in some of the poorest communities in Britain.
The present recession, of course, may bring with it many difficulties for all of us—business, the public and voluntary sectors—but it also brings with it new opportunities that entrepreneurs such as me are keen to grasp: opportunities to spend hard pressed taxpayers’ money more efficiently and in new ways through social enterprise, to grow and deepen the practical relationships between business, the public and the social enterprise sectors, and to find new ways of delivering services so that we all get more bang for our buck. To do this, the Civil Service has to move further than it has done to date to create the kinds of environments in which these new relationships can flower and flourish. There are still too many silos in government. Despite many years of rhetoric about joined-up thinking and joined-up action, I still see all over this country, in some of our poorest communities, example after example of these kinds of relationships not happening or being prevented, at great cost to the public purse. Partnership is all about personal relationships and not just about structures, systems and processes.
Two words—democracy and delivery—have been at the heart of new Labour’s policies. The intention is to deliver public services more efficiently and in a more joined-up way, while at the same time involving people more effectively in the decision-making process so that it feels real to them. The trick is to get the right balance between talking and doing.
There is a danger that if community empowerment is about creating yet more committees in local communities across the country, we will miss a great deal of the creative input from people who actually do things rather than just talk. The Bromley by Bow Centre and Poplar HARCA, the £300 million housing company—both of which I helped to found, so I must declare an interest—have taken this thinking very seriously over the years and have struggled, with some success, to marry the structures imposed on us by the Housing Corporation while encouraging the active participation of residents.
The key is to help residents on housing estates to develop practical citizenship rather than stay at home watching television or spend their lives at endless meetings creating mini versions of the local authority. Power and trust are key. Rather than simply consulting and involving people in how the state delivers services, social entrepreneurs with the desire—and, with support, the capacity—to deliver those services should be encouraged and enabled to do so.
I would go further and say that in regeneration areas where local people can demonstrate a viable quality plan to run a public service—be it a school, a housing maintenance programme, or services for disabled people or the elderly—the presumption should be that the public body should contract out that service. Yes, this will make the local situation messy, but communities and families are equally messy, and unless local services connect with that fact, they will not deliver effectively. By enabling far more provision of local services by local organisations, with all the appropriate safeguards and a real focus on quality, state funds stay in communities and local people feel far more empowered.
This is the approach that we have adopted at Bromley by Bow. We call it communities in business. We sat down with the local authority and negotiated a range of services that we could deliver in a more appropriate and connected way. However, this approach is not generally welcomed by civil servants at a national, regional or local level. It unsettles them and worries them because there is a genuine transfer of control into the community, which brings us back to the paradox of this Government saying that they want to involve local people, but are actually very keen on control. If you are serious about community engagement, ultimately, you have to trust local people, let go and not micro-manage.
The social enterprise movement in Britain is starting to challenge some highly cherished principles about equity, risk management and democratic accountability; namely, principles that are strongly defended by many politicians and public sector officials, often in the face of evidence that they simply do not deliver for the poorest communities in this country. In particular, social entrepreneurs suggest that power and decision-making in disadvantaged neighbourhoods might be more productively vested in those who can deliver, rather than in representative elected committees and boards. Starting with people before structures, we challenge the prevailing notion of what constitutes democratic legitimacy. Social enterprise is rather more honest about the failure of existing representative structures of local government to involve, or even interest, the great majority of the population.
The early vision of our previous Prime Minister was a great one; rhetoric suggested a radical entrepreneurial approach but, in practice, programmes such as Sure Start were more focused on management than enterprise, more on formal representation than direct practical involvement and, yet again, more on short-term than long-term vision. New Labour seemed set on creating what colleagues of mine have called “communities in committee”, which have so often been stifled by the institutional forms on which they rely.
Instead, I believe that hard times provide us with an opportunity to take a hard look at alternatives to this approach, which delivers public services, practical action and the participation of our citizens. We call this approach “communities in business” and we have started to have some success with this new way of working in the East End of London, where our family of social enterprises, in partnership with business and the public sector, is now putting together a £1 billion regeneration project. We offer this hard won practical experience to Ministers and are willing to share with them the detail as they take their Bill through Parliament. There are examples of local authorities coming to similar conclusions. The London Borough of Newham is a good example and I would encourage Ministers to look at what it is doing. It has important lessons to teach us all.
Across the country, people are growing weary of traditional community consultation and community governance, which has failed to engage their interest or commitment, or make any real changes to their lives. Compare these processes to Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign and you begin to get an idea of the difference between a traditional public sector approach to community involvement and that of a social entrepreneur. Places like the Bromley by Bow Centre have grown up out of this frustration, engaging large sections of our community in their own regeneration, but our approach cannot be drawn up as a Cabinet Office blueprint and then standardised across the country.
Communities need to be given the space and the freedom to develop in a way that works best for them. To be successful you have to take account of the local environment. Nevertheless, lessons can definitely be learnt from these examples of good practice and worthwhile guidelines can be drawn up. I believe that you really become a citizen of this country by what you do, not just by what you talk about. Creating a country of active participants could refresh our democracy in new and interesting ways, but it is about more than drawing everyone into endless committees and meetings. Let us leave committees and meetings to places such as your Lordships’ House. Let our people be active citizens.
My Lords, I shall begin with an apology. Although I have a very bad throat, I put my name down to speak in this debate because it raises some extremely important issues on which I want to share a few thoughts. The gracious Speech commits the Government to creating a single equality Act. In so doing, it redeems the Government’s pledge given in the 2005 election manifesto. The proposed equality Act will reduce nine major pieces of legislation and around 100 statutory instruments to a single Act and will harmonise different strands of equality. I welcome the Bill and many of its provisions.
As the Government rightly note, equality is vital for the development of individual talents and for creating a cohesive society. It is precisely because I welcome the Bill that I shall concentrate on four or five areas where it needs to be strengthened. First, the Government spend between £160 billion and £175 billion on procuring goods and services from the private sector. This gives them powerful leverage, which should be used effectively to ensure that the private sector fulfils their equality objectives. In the 1980s and 1990s, the American Government did that with considerable success in the name of contract compliance. The Bill refers to the Government’s power, but it is not entirely clear what pressure they intend to exert on the private sector, how they will enforce and monitor such powers, and what incentives and penalties they will rely on to make sure that the private sector realises their objectives.
Secondly, the Government are rightly worried about ensuring equal pay for women. The difference in earnings between men and women is 17.1 per cent in the public sector and 21.7 per cent in the private sector. For part-time workers, the figure can be as high as 36.6 per cent. An average full-time weekly earning for men is £521, as opposed to £412 for women. Not surprisingly, the World Economic Forum placed Britain 81st in the world in terms of equal pay. Something needs to be done.
While 43 per cent of public sector organisations have completed or are planning to conduct an equal pay review, only 23 per cent of private sector organisations are doing that. As has been pointed out, at this rate, we will have to wait for 150 years to ensure equal pay for women. How will we tackle this? The Government rightly talk about a mandatory pay audit. Obviously, there is something to be said for that, but it is a strong, blunt instrument. One way would be to make the organisation concerned transparent so that these things can be easily understood. Another would be to make it easier to pursue and resolve the complaints that individuals might make within an organisation or in a court.
The same problem occurs in relation to the ethnic minorities where the disparity is even greater. Equally qualified men receive highly unequal pay, which is sometimes known as the “ethnic penalty”. I am a little surprised that the Bill is silent on that and concentrates almost entirely on gender equality.
Thirdly, the Bill also is silent on the regular audit of government policies with regard to their impact on equality. The Government have rightly agreed on a £700 billion package to bail out banks and the financial sector. But they have offered only £1 billion to help out small- and medium-sized businesses, which is to be delivered through the banks. Let us look at this from the standpoint of ethnic minorities. Most ethnic minorities work not in banks and the financial sector, but in small- and medium-sized businesses, and they get a very tiny slice of the national cake.
More importantly, banks have not been even-handed in their lending practices or risk assessment. The Runnymede Trust, of which I am a patron, recently published a report called, Financial Inclusion and Ethnicity. It showed conclusively that the banks have been deeply biased in their lending practices. If that is the case—I hope that the Government will commission a survey on this—what provisions have the Government made to ensure that support for small- and medium-sized businesses is channelled through banks, but is carefully monitored?
Unless carefully planned, government policies—the example that I have given confirms this—are likely to marginalise ethnic minorities, and recovery from recession, as and when it occurs, which I hope will be soon, will not be inclusive and fair. It is striking and somewhat disappointing that in the debate the other day on business, no mention was made of how the Government policies of bailing out banks or small businesses are likely to impact on ethnic minorities. Even my noble friend Lord Mandelson, whom I admire, made absolutely no reference in opening the debate to how government policies are going to affect ethnic minorities and whether they might not turn out to be deeply discriminatory—unintentionally, of course—in their impact on ethnic minorities.
My third point concerns the policy of positive action. The Government are rightly committed to a policy of positive action, which broadly states that if two candidates are equally qualified, a member of an under-represented and disadvantaged group might be preferred. We see this sort of positive action in many areas, and it is permitted through case law in the European Court of Justice. That is fine, and I welcome the policy, although it seems to have been opposed by the CBI and many other institutions. I want to go a step further. To say that preference will be given to under-represented and disadvantaged groups when the candidates are equal raises two questions. First, it is never easy to decide whether two candidates are equally qualified. When someone is to be appointed to the House of Lords and one candidate is a professor and the other a businessman, both equally qualified in their fields, how do we decide? Secondly, and more importantly given past experience, there is no guarantee that bias and discrimination would play no role in the judgment of candidates. It is because we realise these difficulties that we have talked in terms of targets, which offer a broad indication of what an organisation should look like if it is fairly and justly run. Targets are not quotas, which everyone knows are unacceptable.
When we note that women MPs make up only one-fifth of the membership of House of Commons and say that something needs to be done, we are neither advocating a quota nor saying that women should be selected only when they are equal in all other respects. What we are saying is that given women’s representation in the country at large, there is no good reason, unless we assume that they are less intelligent, why women should not be more or less equally represented. Starting from that kind of self-evident premise, how do we explain the failure of an organisation to come up to these norms? Such thinking is even more necessary in relation to ethnic minorities, the disabled and other under-represented and disadvantaged groups. I would suggest that the fact that a group is under-represented and disadvantaged does not come into play only after other factors are taken into account. Instead it should be one of the important factors to be taken into consideration in the first instance when deciding who is best qualified for a particular job.
Finally, I turn to the specific duty that the Government intend to place on public sector inspectorates to monitor how well public bodies comply with their equality obligations. I like this proposal, but in order for it to be effective, there will have to be greater transparency in the organisations concerned, both private and public, and greater powers for the inspectorates to name and shame organisations; and perhaps even the power to impose penalties. I see no reference to such measures in the Bill. It becomes particularly important in relation to the private sector, which is beyond the ambit of official inspectorates. What is going to be done in relation to that sector? I draw attention to the simple fact that 11 per cent of the directorships in FTSE 100 companies are held by women, fewer than 2 per cent by ethnic minorities and even less by other disadvantaged groups. What do the Government intend to do about that?
My Lords, I put my name down to speak today in the mistaken belief that there would be a transport Bill, on to which I could tag some remarks about small-scale energy generation and, indeed, a few comments on the state of Scottish democracy. I accept that those last comments might have been more appropriate to yesterday’s debate, and I know that I can speak only once. Lastly, I will stick to the eight-minute time limit.
Expecting to take an interest in the air and marine security Bill, I discover that the former area will become part of the police Bill and the latter will no longer be legislated for. Airport and airline security are already major issues; most passengers know that because of the queues at check-in, security and at the gate. As a regular rail passenger to this House, I know that while the rail journey time from central Scotland has remained static at around four-and-a-half hours, the air journey has become longer as the result of airport problems. The journey time by air and rail from central Edinburgh or Glasgow is now probably about even. This is a welcome but perverse way of encouraging modal shift from air to rail, but it does deliver rail-for-air substitution.
Next week, Virgin Trains on the west coast main line will deliver an almost hourly service between Glasgow and London, thus approaching comparability with National Express East Coast’s Edinburgh to London timetable. It will be interesting to see whether a modal shift takes place from Glasgow as has happened from Edinburgh, at least to a degree. Virgin Trains needs one more Pendolino set to achieve an hourly schedule, which is part of the 1,300 carriages eventually to be delivered by 2014 and thus would be too late.
On marine security and piracy, I listened with interest to the Radio 4 interview yesterday with the new admiral who has taken command of the multinational force brought together to combat piracy off the Somali and Yemen coasts. His problem is what to do with the pirates once they have been caught. The requirement to land them in a local state with a suitable justice system is a difficult one, and I am not surprised that there is reluctance among such states to clutter their court systems and prisons with someone’s else’s criminals. I am therefore not surprised that marine security legislation will not be brought forward until, presumably, there is a viable strategy. In the mean time, I wish the Royal Navy well in its anti-piracy mission.
I am disappointed that there is no high-speed rail Bill or any precursor to one. Everyone knows that such a line is necessary and that it will be built, so my complaint is that when it takes so long for a major infrastructure project to be built, why are we not starting the process now, given that we need a high-speed network?
On the motoring front, I am pleased to see that 50 car models are now in bands A and B for emissions. Several are medium-sized family cars, not just super-minis. This shows what engineers can be made to achieve. Are the Government doing enough to encourage the purchase of bands A and B cars? Perhaps vehicle excise duty should be reduced from the £35 being charged for band B vehicles. Moreover, to set a good example, perhaps the fleet of ministerial cars ought to be drawn only from bands A and B models.
On the small-scale and microgeneration front, I hope that the Government will bring forward the proposed general permitted development order which will enable the equipment needed for the domestic generation of electricity to be installed quickly because such projects will not have to go through the planning process. Domestic electricity generation would be allowed to expand in the way it ought to. However, I accept reluctantly that householders need to be grant-aided—I was about to say “bribed” as they are in Germany, but that would be inappropriate—but confusion about planning permission is an unnecessary barrier to a development that everyone wants to see take place, but wants everyone else to do. There also appears to be another unnecessary barrier to domestic generation in the need for the Met Office to sell data about wind conditions in specific areas. I know that research and development must be paid for, but perhaps the information could be discounted because we need microgeneration plant to be installed quickly.
Finally, I turn to Scottish democracy. While it is good that Scottish politics now have an outlet again—at Holyrood—it is unfortunate that it can be only domestic and inward-looking in focus. The present settlement appears to enable only a teenage or young adolescent democracy when Scotland ought to be a grown-up democracy facing the world. For example, it is not possible to develop a Scottish foreign policy or defence policy, as it is for any other state of 5 million people.
Even a devolutionist will agree that there are already problems of interference by the United Kingdom Government thwarting Scottish democracy. First, Treasury Ministers refuse to fund policies which they do not like—I refer to the withholding of attendance allowance and the future withholding of council tax benefit. Secondly, there is no ban in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act on political party donations from outwith Scotland in the run-up to Scottish parliamentary elections. This favours unionist parties and has no reverse opportunity. Thirdly, there is a need for a ban on the Scottish Parliament’s lack of borrowing powers so that the infrastructure policies can be effected without resorting to obscure Scottish futures trusts or other devices. This is an undemocratic restraint on the people of Scotland.
Ultimately, the real issue for the people of Scotland is whether they ought to resume responsibility for sovereignty and a place in the world, or whether they want to continue to be submerged within Britain as a peripheral semi-autonomous region. This is a moral question and the issue of economics cannot be significant in it. No movement towards national identity has been so founded, with the possible exception of Singapore. It is a question of belief on a come-what-may-basis.
That rant over, those are a few thoughts on a thin but gracious Speech.
My Lords, I have been keen to speak on this dimension of the gracious Speech. In particular, I shall focus my remarks on the proposed equality Bill, which has some aspects I celebrate and others on which I wish to raise a slightly dissonant note. After all, who can disagree with the need for fairness and equality of opportunity? One would have to be out of one’s mind to disagree with the need to tackle discrimination and disadvantage. Some provisions in the Bill—particularly those relating to age discrimination and gender equality—owe much to the work of Members of this House, in particular the noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Young of Hornsey, and many others who have fought for these dimensions of equality provision for a very long time.
However, my note of dissonance is a reflection of my many years serving on the Commission for Racial Equality, where we struggled with the modernisation of the law and battled with how to make the existing law work in practice. It is a noble and laudable aim that the Bill should seek to amalgamate existing legislation, provisions and regulations and simplify the process. I turned to the Women and Equality Unit for a description of the proposed legislation and what I found caused me great concern. I shall draw the Minister’s attention to a few of the unit’s reflections that I found on the internet and ask for clarity.
We have now, I hope, an increasingly excellent Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is in its early days of bedding-in under the able leadership of my good friend Trevor Phillips. I discovered from the guidance notes on the department’s website that the Government have subsequently set up a cross-party task force, chaired by the very able noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, to look into increasing the number of women councillors across the UK. Surely that work could have been undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I discovered in the next paragraph that we also now have a Speaker’s Commission, which is to consider and make recommendations on how to improve the representation of women, disabled people and people from ethnic minority communities in the House of Commons. So we already have two other bureaucracies in addition to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was meant to end all other discriminatory bureaucracies.
In a further paragraph I discovered that there has been recently established a National Equalities Panel, which is chaired by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics, and, bizarrely, this new organisation is to look into the interconnected factors associated with family background, educational attainment, where you live, the sort of job you can have and its influence upon your life chances, as well as gender, ethnic background and whether or not you have a disability.
What, then, is the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? The Government are passionate about the need to legislate and cannot let go of the quill pen. As these examples prove, they seem to feel that there is an increasing necessity to bureaucratise and duplicate existing provisions. This concerns me deeply. If we are meant to amalgamate regulations and provisions into a new Act, how many supplementary bodies and dimensions of public money will go into supporting these additional activities? These new bodies will not necessarily advance the causes of freedom, equality, better democracy or fairer opportunity; they will simply allow greater inquiry.
This leads me to my next concern. While supporting as a whole the necessity for better equalities provision, I must sound a dissonant note. I read carefully the Government’s response to the consultation on the equality Bill and came across important paragraph 17 entitled, “Simplifying the law”. At this point I thought that everything would become easier but I then discovered that the Government intend to abolish the existing two-tier levels of definitions and tests in the Race Relations Act and standardise the definition of “indirect discrimination”. This will lead to a lawyers’ field day. What a feast they will have when trying to define “indirect discrimination” and standardising the definition. The Commission for Racial Equality failed to manage that in the improvements to the regulations and law in 2000; I struggle to see how that will be achieved here. I am sure the Minister will elucidate further.
I find the next statement in the paragraph deeply disturbing and, of necessity, it needs to be strongly opposed. It says:
“We will align the approach to victimisation with the approach taken in employment law and extend protection to children in schools whose parents”—
“or siblings complain about discrimination”.
If enacted, this will provide a charter for fiddling and meddling based on playground antics. It would give to certain authorities—and sometimes, even, to the police—the opportunity to spin with delight and to go round proving pathetic and pointless complaints. It will be meat and drink to those who want to harass people who already feel under pressure in life. It would empower a joyless system which, instead of protecting freedom and promoting responsibility, would be pernickety and pursue idle points. If this measure is to be pursued into the equality Bill, I hope it will be fiercely rejected.
The opportunity provided by this legislation is profound. What lies behind it? As the Minister said in her introduction, it is to enhance the opportunity for everyone to have a fair chance. That is absolutely right; no one would disagree with that. But the Minister went on to say that these are exceptional circumstances—she was referring of course to the current economic squeeze, the pressure that business is feeling and the fight for survival in some cases—and she referred also to the need for the sustainability of our economy. That brings me back to the guidance note on the Women and Equality Unit’s website which encourages the Equality and Human Rights Commission to lead an inquiry into the financial and construction sectors. The inquiry will look at the underlying causes of inequality and consider measures to address discrimination and increase diversity in these sectors.
I cannot comment easily on the construction sector but it may be that many who work in it have time at the moment to be inquired into. I strongly suggest, however, that it would be idle and unhelpful to lead an inquiry into the financial sector during this period and to consider these measures when those in that sector need to pursue more critical operations to secure our economy, provide for sound and basic financing for ordinary people to survive in business and in their homes and ensure that our economy is brought back to life. This is the kind of unnecessary activity that I am sure Trevor Phillips will find that his commission does not have time for.
I want to support the Bill as long as it is sensible, rounded and based on common sense. I do not wish to be churlish but I encourage the Government to ensure that there is no opportunity in the Bill to duplicate existing processes, set up additional bodies and continue to have inquiries that simply add process rather than pursue opportunity.
My Lords, I shall contribute to the debate on the housing proposals in the gracious Speech. In doing so, I register my interests as a trustee of Shelter, chair of the Circle 33 Housing Association and chair of the Surveyors Ombudsman Service.
This debate is taking place against the backdrop of the current housing crisis which, as the Minister rightly argued, requires exceptional measures for exceptional times. Undoubtedly, this context justifies the continuing radical reappraisal of our housing strategy that is now taking place. Key to that are measures that will give consumers more influence and control over where they live, the standards of accommodation provided and how that accommodation is funded.
First, therefore, I welcome the announcement of the homeowner mortgage support scheme which will provide considerable reassurance to hardworking families caught up in the consequences of the recession. It also sends a strong signal to the mortgage lenders that repossession should in future be the last resort, not the first. It is a common-sense policy that recognises that repossessions are a cost not just to the industry but to all of us who are left to fund the alternative accommodation when vulnerable families become homeless. Building on that initiative, I hope that the Government will now also take the opportunity to expand the mortgage-to-rent scheme announced in September, which has the capacity to provide longer-term security for those in financial difficulty who cannot maintain their mortgage payments.
Secondly, it is welcome that the Government are now taking action to give tenants in social housing a greater voice. I hope that that will develop into a broader expansion of rights and scrutiny so that council housing can become integrated into the new regulatory regime. As I know from my experience as chair of a housing association, the right level of scrutiny and accountability can be a real force for continuous service improvement and a drive for excellence. Given that we are now acutely aware of the failings of the free market in housing provision, though, I also hope I can persuade the Minister that the time is right to extend those rights universally across all housing providers, including the private rented sector. Currently that sector is failing to rise to the challenge of being an effective third arm of housing provision. It could be a major partner in meeting future housing need but it needs help in addressing its outdated business model, which results in squalid, overcrowded accommodation for too many of its tenants. These issues were comprehensively explored in the recently published Rugg report, and I welcome its contribution to this debate.
I acknowledge that there are groups for whom the private rented sector can be an ideal provider— those for whom choice, flexibility and mobility are key factors. While some live in high quality accommodation, however, that is not the experience of the majority, with over 40 per cent living in non-decent homes. Dampness and disrepair remain a significant issue, particularly in the older housing stock. That has a significant impact on families with children, often living in overcrowded conditions, where health problems and lower educational achievement are rife.
In addition, rents in the private rented sector are not cheap. While potential owner-occupiers may find rent levels more affordable than mortgage payments, the situation for those who might otherwise have been offered accommodation in the social rented sector is very different. For example, in 2005 local authority rents were about 45 per cent of those in the private rented sector.
There is also considerable evidence that neither tenants nor many landlords know their rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is usually the tenants who fare worse in that relationship. They find it difficult to hold the landlord to account for poor service and often feel unable to pursue a complaint, fearing that they could lose their tenancy. In these circumstances, I believe that the time is right to give private rented sector tenants similar rights and protections to those enjoyed by social housing tenants. That could help to improve the quality of the housing stock, which could in turn encourage greater flexibility and mobility between the different housing sectors.
A step towards that would be the creation of a national registration and accreditation scheme for all landlords and managing agents. Ideally, that would be complemented by a simplification of rental law and standardised tenancy agreements. But this will not achieve its goal unless we also take urgent measures to tackle the poor quality of housing and lack of repairs in parts of the rented sector. Part of the solution must be adequately to resource local authorities to enforce their powers under the Housing Act 2004, but there is also a role for independent inspection and scrutiny of the larger landlords in the sector. I hope the Government will feel able to address that proposal.
I turn to improved regulation and consumer redress across all housing transitions, including buying and selling. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the provisions in the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act that strengthened consumer rights in property buying and selling and required all estate agents to belong to a redress scheme. However, there is surely now a case to consider rolling out consumer protections across the housing industry as a whole. There is, for example, no logical reason why letting agents should not be subject to the same consumer redress requirements as estate agents.
Earlier this year, Sir Bryan Carsberg reported on his inquiry into the regulation of residential property. Not surprisingly, he found a worrying lack of awareness from consumers about the roles and qualifications of the different agencies involved. He recommended simple, transparent information for clients, proportionate control over the service provider and consistent enforcement and redress. His report was warmly received by the responsible players in the sector. The time is now right to take that package forward to provide renewed consumer confidence. While I welcome the OFT’s recent announcement of its intention to conduct a market survey of this issue, I do hope that it will also take account of Sir Bryan’s work. It makes sense to have the right structures and frameworks in place at the start of any market recovery.
A voluntary Property Standards Board has been established by a group of the professional organisations in the sector with the aim of setting out cross-industry codes to build on Sir Bryan’s recommendations, but without the backing of legislation to make these standards binding there is a risk that the housing sector will splinter further into those committed to high standards of customer care and those who want to cut corners at the customer’s expense. I therefore hope that the Minister will feel able to give some reassurance that the Carsberg recommendations for regulation and consumer protection can be properly assessed and implemented in the current legislative programme.
These are difficult times for the housing sector, but one thing we have learnt is that the market alone cannot be left to resolve the crisis. In many areas, the Government have rightly taken steps to intervene and protect consumers. The time is now right to extend those rights across all sectors on a comprehensive basis. I hope that the Government will now take the opportunity to join up their policies and usher in a new sense of confidence and empowerment for housing consumers.
My Lords, we are almost halfway through the list of speakers in this interesting debate. As with all debates where a series of subjects is put together, it has been rather ragbag, but, so far, it has been of extremely high quality. I have no doubt that it will continue to be of a similar high quality after I have spoken.
I intend to be fairly discursive, because the two things on which I would have concentrated are the Bills coming to your Lordships' House very soon, the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and the other Bill for which the Minister could not think of a short title—I thought that it might be called the LocDemEdCon Bill, which sounds a little nonsensical. Whether that sums up the contents of the Bill we will find out. I remain to be convinced that it is a Bill in which I really want to get involved, but, as always with the Minister, I am entirely open to persuasion that it is excellent. We will find out.
I very much welcome the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which has been a long time in gestation. It has had a lot of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, from which it benefits. It is solid legislation, and I look forward perhaps to improving it even more in your Lordships’ House. As far as both Bills are concerned, we are like greyhounds waiting in the slips to unleash ourselves on the new legislation, but since their Second Readings are next week, I do not see much point in saying much more about them today.
I was very interested in the previous speech, made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about housing. As I am speaking today from the Back Bench and do not necessarily have to parrot party policy, I can say that I agree with a great deal of what she said. It is a great shame that, following the previous housing legislation, which was mainly about public sector and social housing, the Government have not taken the opportunity to bring forward legislation on the private rented sector, because so many of the housing problems in this country rest with it. I hope that the Government are thinking hard about that and will consider seriously many of the proposals put forward by the noble Baroness.
I thought of talking entirely about housing, because the current position is dire. The supply of mortgages has dried up for most people. House-building in the private sector has collapsed. The supply of social housing is collapsing on the back partly of the collapse of private sector housing and Section 106 schemes not going ahead, and of the shortage of investment capital. The Government are taking welcome action on repossessions, but, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, they do not appear to be facing up to the potential scale of the problem, which could turn into a flood. However, I then read the speech by my honourable friend Sarah Teather in the Queen’s Speech debate in the House of Commons a couple of days ago. I thought that I could not possibly match or better it and saw no point in just repeating what she said, which I hope the Government will take extremely seriously, as I hope they will listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.
A few people have spoken about transport. The spokesman from the Conservative Front Bench mentioned the welcome conversion of the Conservatives to high-speed rail. I am never churlish when people are converted to a good idea, although I think that their proposal does not go far enough. What this country has to look forward to, over a period which may be beyond the lifetimes of many of us here, is a high-speed rail network of the kind which other European countries have. Just one line to the north of England which then zigzags across the Pennines is not enough, but, nevertheless, the Conservatives’ conversion is welcome. My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie also mentioned the need for a high-speed rail line. He did not say so, but it is clear that he wants it to go as far as Scotland, which is quite right.
My noble friend is very lucky in that he lives in a town in Scotland called Alloa. He will think that he is very lucky for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is that Alloa has just been reconnected to the rail network of the United Kingdom, thanks to the foresight of the Scottish Parliament and Executive. I could make political comments about Liberal involvement, but I shall not—nevertheless, it is true. Noble Lords will know that I am a keen supporter of the campaign to reintroduce the missing rail link on the north of England trans-Pennine route between Colne and Skipton—there is a very active group called SELRAP. On Sunday morning, I had the great pleasure of being on Colne railway station to meet a train from Skipton, but instead of coming 15 miles along what would be the direct route, it had done a 75-mile diversion via Shipley, Leeds, Bradford, Hebden Bridge, Accrington and Burnley, finally arriving at Colne with 80 very happy people on it—perhaps there had been a bar on the train. It was the first ever excursion train to bring people to Colne; all those in the past took people away from it to places such as Blackpool. It was a good occasion. But there is a serious point here: there is a lot of expectation that government policy on the railways is changing; there is talk of a programme of electrification; and we hope that we will embark on a programme of reopening lines not just in Scotland and Wales but in England.
I then thought that I would talk about the uplands, because, from an agricultural, tourism, economic and climate change point of view, there is increasing understanding that the uplands of England and the UK require more government attention. The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, talked about agriculture, but my concern is agriculture in the uplands, because, unless hill farmers throughout the country can continue to carry out their jobs and trade, everything else that takes place there, from tourism to recreation and maintenance of the uplands in a satisfactory condition to prevent them degrading and contributing seriously to carbon dioxide emissions, will be of no avail. It is an important issue that some of us will want to come back to during the course of this Parliament.
I look forward very much to discussion and debate on the two Bills. I was interested by the challenging comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, on local democracy and community enterprise. I am not sure that I agree with him on everything, but if that is the standard of the debate that we are to have on the new local democracy Bill, it will be enjoyable after all.
My Lords, I shall follow the theme introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, by discussing some of the environmental issues that national policy has to address. I shall set them, however, in a global context, because all the environmental issues that we are likely to address are after all shared around the world. I should declare an interest in the sense that I chair a government programme called Living with Environmental Change—it is a government programme in that it is publicly funded. It is supported by all the research councils and a number of government departments and agencies. It takes an interdisciplinary approach to looking at the contribution that research and development in this country can make to some of these overarching environmental issues.
I need not repeat—because we have heard then already very eloquently described—some of the climate change issues with which we are anyway familiar. But looking at environmental change more widely, one has to recognise the exploitation of our natural resources. Some would say that we have reached a point where we are in danger of tipping some of our life systems. We know that depletion of aquifers and other water sources is one of the greatest threats to humanity not very far into the future. Looking at the depletion of global fish stocks, we know that very few if any fish stocks can really be described as sustainable.
One of the consequences of this environmental change is that with increasing urbanisation we are reducing the amount of land available for food production at the very time when our demand for food is rightly increasing. It is not just that the population is increasing: affluence is also increasing and with affluence comes the laudable objective of trying to achieve a standard of nutrition that we take for granted in the developed world.
With these concerns comes the recognition that we have been profligate in felling forests, with great consequences for climate change and loss of diversity. The World Wide Fund for Nature deserves some credit for having put forward so eloquently the concept of one-planet living, which aims to achieve a global society in which we live within the regenerative capacity of the planet's ecosystems and with an equitable distribution of resources. That puts it very well. In other words, we are urged to measure our ecological footprint and then find ways to reduce our adverse impact. There will always be some adverse impact: I am not suggesting that you can live without such an impact.
The challenge is to plot a way of returning to economic growth, to which we all aspire, while using less of the planet’s resources and reducing our waste and emissions into soil, air and water. Clearly, we cannot use fossil fuel as prodigiously as in the past 100 years. Therefore, we need to move from using ancient sunlight captured millions of years ago and now fossilised or turned into oil. We need to move to a sun-based economy using today's sunlight. I do not mean solar panels: I mean using plants, which after all are biorefineries themselves, and using them much more efficiently. If we develop biorefineries rather than oil refineries we will go some way towards a sustainable energy source.
We have debated in recent months what we mean by the second generation of biofuels, and this is when we look at innovation and hope. I remain naïvely optimistic that innovation can and will deliver some real opportunities. There is an opportunity to turn the second generation of biofuels—any biodegradable waste, whether lawn mowings, crop residues and much else—into fuel sources. Indeed, pilot schemes are already in existence. That removes the conflict that currently exists between food production and energy production. That is the agenda which I have tried to sketch out. We want to maintain our standard of living and others to match it. We want to turn to new energy sources which are less polluting, but we need above all to feed, house, and provide employment for an increasing world population, and we do so as water supplies are already overstretched. I agree so much with my noble friend Lady Shephard when she points out just how critical it will be to ensure that our agricultural resources are used to try to match that particular aim.
I feel very strongly that we need not only to protect and conserve but to restore all our damaged habitats. We are only beginning to realise the scale of the danger in degrading biodiversity and losing opportunities that we do not yet understand might exist in the natural world. We have already tried some of the instruments that can achieve those overarching aims in the field of climate change, such as trading schemes, financial instruments and, of course, regulation. However, I come back to innovation not as the sole solution but clearly an important and more positive aspect of regulation in trying to achieve these objectives. I suspect that those countries that move into the green economy faster than others will be doing themselves a great service. They will be exporting green technologies to others and producing clean power, clean water, clean air and healthy and abundant food. They will get the economic benefits. These green technologies will be as critical as information technology was when last we had a recession in the early 1990s when some say that the web and other such developments pulled us out of the recession.
I recognise that the gracious Speech was a bit thin to say the least on the environmental measures that will help to achieve these overarching aims, but the Marine and Coastal Access Bill is certainly an important contribution. It is part of a much wider national and international agenda. At this very moment, the United Nations Climate Change Conference is going on in Poland and the United Kingdom has to ask what we can realistically contribute from our own perspective towards these issues which I have addressed and which are entirely global.
I return to innovation. We have a very strong research base. Perhaps it is not as strong in the field of agricultural and environmental research as it was, but it should still be recognised. Agricultural and environmental research is only one aspect. Many of the problems will be dealt with by political economy and the social sciences. It is a multidisciplinary approach—a new approach to how one makes effective development. Research and development is the key to addressing many of these issues. It will not in itself be sufficient, but we need to ensure that our own management of research is spread inevitably and perfectly correctly between government departments, and government agencies and new organisations such as the Technology Strategy Board, which will have an enormous influence in promoting the new and old technologies that are appropriate for so many of these causes. We need to ensure that we have an integrated approach to rolling out all these research and development opportunities.
My Lords, I intend to concentrate on two aspects of the gracious Speech—on the snappily titled Bill we discussed earlier and on the overriding theme of the gracious Speech; namely, dealing with the economic downturn, particularly the role of local government in that. I have resisted any attempt to speak on transport. One of my roles is chair of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. We conducted a referendum campaign on a transport package and I have spoken far too much about transport. The results will be out at lunchtime on Friday, when I will see whether I will be depressed all weekend. I also declare an interest as Leader of Wigan Council and chair of 4NW, which I will come to in a moment.
My noble friend will be relieved that she has only one major Bill to deal with this time because she certainly had a lot to do in previous years. But it is an important Bill and I particularly welcome the way that it will bring in aspects of the national review, which was first published in July 2007. It is important to recognise that there is a regional dimension. Although I was interested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, I do not think she quite understands that the regional assemblies and the new forum will provide opportunities for local authorities to talk about problems that stray beyond their original boundaries. Economic matters are not confined within the boundary of one local authority but spread over a number of local authorities. I know that my Conservative colleagues in the north-west welcome the fact that they have an opportunity to talk and to try to find a way forward for the north-west.
The Bill will allow local government a much stronger role in shaping the economic strategy of the regions, which in the past has been imposed on them. However, I have to confess to my noble friend that we jumped the gun somewhat in the north-west. Last July, we abolished the regional assembly and created a body called 4NW, which is effectively the regional leaders forum in the legislation. It is building on our past record. We have a good record with the RDA and with government offices and have already discussed the policy direction of the single regional strategy. In Greater Manchester last August we reviewed our constitution to help to deliver the strategies of our multi-area agreement. We set up seven commissions, one of which will be called—again, snappily—Economic Development, Employment and Skills. This is doing, effectively, what the economic prosperity board in the Bill will be doing. Perhaps we will be slightly different because the majority of our members are not from local authorities and the chairman is from the private sector. It will be interesting to see how others do it. Clearly, local government should be at the heart of local democracy, so I welcome those parts of the Bill and look forward to discussing the detail of that in Committee.
Daily we see the severity of the economic slowdown in the country becoming more apparent. Local authorities need to be well placed to respond to this. The power of well-being, which I remember being fully debated in the first local government Bill that I was involved in back in 1999-2000, gives us the power and responsibility to get involved in these areas, to look at the impact on our communities and to respond in a way that, perhaps, we had not in the past. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned, the economic downturn will clearly have a negative impact on local authority finances. Deloitte has estimated that, with the increased costs and the reduction in income, there will be around a 6 per cent cut in local authority budgets. Clearly, it is not a time when we can think of passing any of that on to council tax payers. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I believe that this is a time when local authorities should, can and want to be innovative about moving resources to front-line services, and working in partnership with other authorities to make sure that it can be done effectively.
The Government recognise the role that local authorities can play in tackling the downturn as they involve local authorities, both regionally and nationally, in the regional economic councils. In response, many local authorities have already agreed to the 10-day payment requirement and have set up advice centres to deal with people with debts, particularly those with housing issues. It is well known that people who seek advice on housing matters before going to court regarding repossession orders fare much better than those who do not. We want to work with local small businesses, but there is a small issue that the Minister may want to think about. While we can be sympathetic in accepting late payments from local small businesses to ease their financial burdens, the Audit Commission judges local authorities by the efficiency with which they collect their debts. There may well be a contradiction between our being helpful and considerate to small businesses and being downgraded by the Audit Commission.
It is also important for local authorities to participate in apprenticeship schemes. I remember the 1980s, when children leaving school were unable to find employment. Many of those cohorts of kids are still the core of the workless today. They have not been in employment for the past 20 or so years. We do not want any more Thatcher’s children in this country. We are also willing to participate in the capital projects but, again, I remind the Minister that capital projects can take a while to get off the starting blocks. We need to protect those PFI schemes which are in danger because of the financial problems in the City. Those schemes can be delivered if they continue to get funding. In the north-west, the scheme for the Carlisle northern bypass has been struggling with its PFI. The Greater Manchester waste project is probably the biggest waste project in Europe but, again, if it does not get its PFI, jobs will be lost and valuable activities will not take place. One of the short-term issues should be to make homes more energy-efficient. If we can do that, we can create good jobs that will upskill people and get them to save money on their energy costs and be green at the same time. It is a good kind of project.
My noble friend Lady Jones mentioned housing. I do not want to go into the whole subject but I do want to raise one issue. There is something of a conflict with what CLG is trying to do over the policy on housing subsidies in the public sector. It has a policy of trying to redistribute housing subsidy. That may have been the right policy in the past but I do not think that it is in the current climate. There is a great inconsistency. If I, as a leader, was to recommend a council tax rise of above 5 per cent, I would be capped, but the CLG recommends that we raise our council rents by 6.35 per cent. That will affect some of the poorest members of my community. I hope the Minister will think about that. At this time, do we want to tax the poorest in our communities? I know some of them will be on benefits, but many, with small savings and job-related pensions, will not. We should be able to demonstrate that, within the current economic downturn, there are many local solutions to issues that occur locally. Local authorities are well placed to deliver those.
My Lords, I begin by declaring some interests. For over 34 years I have been a councillor in the London borough of Sutton. I am pleased to say that for the past 22 years the residents of that borough have enjoyed a continuously Liberal Democrat administration. Indeed, this year the Audit Commission, in its corporate assessment, awarded the administration the highest possible rating of four stars and judged it to be “improving strongly”, even after all those years.
The other interest that I want to declare is even more relevant. I have been a member of the Committee of the Regions, the EU body set up under the Maastricht treaty 15 years ago to be, in simple terms, the voice of local and regional government in the European Union’s decision-making process. That has not only taught me a lot about how sub-state government works in the rest of Europe, but shown me forcefully the importance of a strong and healthy local democracy in those parts of Europe that did not enjoy democratic government for most of the last century. I want to concentrate on local democracy today.
When I was a new, young councillor a long time ago, the Conservative leader of the then Association of Metropolitan Authorities—who happened also to be a Sutton councillor—told me that there were only two parties. I thought immediately that this was yet another go at the Liberal party. In fact it was not; he meant the central government party and the local government party. Thirty years on not a great deal has changed. In spite of all the fine words about central-local partnership, the signing of concordats, and so on, central government still has a remarkable unifying effect on all parties in local government. That is because actions speak louder than fine words. The reality, so often, is that central government still sees local government as little more than its delivery arm. Local democracy really means not much more than local administration. This is very well illustrated by at least the first part of what I call the “local democracy and a few other things” Bill. We are all struggling to find a title for it. Maybe we will have solved that problem by the end of the process that will begin next week.
Back in the 1980s some Labour councils adopted their own foreign policy. Indeed, there were times during the past eight years as a Member of the Greater London Authority when I thought I was back in the 1980s. Of course, councillors are politicians; they will have political views about foreign policy and many other national issues, and they have the right to express those views. However, nobody would now argue that the councils that they run should have policies on international issues and their own foreign policy. Those are clearly outside the scope of those councils’ responsibilities. Now it seems that the situation is almost exactly reversed. Of course national politicians have views about community empowerment local democracy and the right to express those views, but it is not the role of central government to legislate on local councils’ approach to community empowerment.
Just as local councils should not get involved in issues outside their jurisdiction, central government should concentrate on the things that only national Governments can do. I have learned over my 30 years in local government that Governments always legislate for the small minority of worst-case councils. I judge legislation not by what it will do for the worst, where almost anything will be an improvement, but what it will do for the best councils. Like most local government legislation of the past 30 years, that proposed for this coming Session will do little or nothing to make the best councils even better.
There is no greater believer than me in the devolution of power, but that is a top-down process. It is necessary because we live in one of the most centralised states in the democratic world. My greater passion is for subsidiarity, a word which my spellchecker does not recognise. It is sometimes a word that I do not think central government recognises either. It means that decisions are taken nearest to the people they affect: a truly bottom-up approach. Of course, it is a dream.
Last year, I had a view of what that dream might be like in reality. I was talking with a Minister in the Basque Government. He told me that, as an autonomous region in Spain, they collect 100 per cent of the taxes payable in their region. They then make a grant to the Spanish Government for the services that only a national Government can provide. For a few moments I had a vision. I had a vision of government Ministers clamouring every December for a meeting with me to explain that my council’s generous grant to them was simply not enough. Of course it was a dream, but if the Government are serious about local democracy and community empowerment, they need to apply the subsidiarity principle beyond just the EU and its member states.
Community empowerment does not need legislation; it needs political will and understanding. Above all, it needs central government to let go—to trust people and their elected representatives, and to let them do it in their own way. It is a dream, but 40 years ago, another man had a far more famous dream. I live in hope, but not in expectation.
My Lords, the Minister made a pretty good fist of imposing a degree of coherence on this debate, but the reality is that we have a rag-bag of Bills being discussed today and a rag-bag of departments represented; therefore, we can all choose what we want to talk about.
I will not cause the Government too many problems tonight. I could have talked about local government, in which case I would have found myself largely in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, or I could have talked about agriculture, in which case I would have approved of most of what the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said. Even on transport, I would have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, on the third runway, rather than my noble friend Lord Soley. However, I will focus on climate change, and maybe a bit about housing.
Even in those capacities, I must declare a few interests: my chairmanship of Consumer Focus, my interest in the energy field, and as a board member of the Environment Agency. In that capacity I also welcome the long-awaited marine Bill. I may not agree with every aspect, but I support it. I think that I will also probably be able to support the floods and water Bill, although parts will need clarifying.
On the role of energy in climate change, I have welcomed the creation of the new department that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, represents, among other departments that he represents in this House. I welcome the initial statements, including the speech yesterday by the Secretary of State, Ed Miliband. I also welcome the recent Ofgem probe, in which it recognises for the first time that there are a few problems in the market, particularly for the less well-off and more exposed portion of consumers. At this stage, energy prices should be coming down. They went up very rapidly last year, and have come down quite rapidly in the wholesale market. In the retail market, however, “coming down” seems to be lagging a lot more than “going up”.
I am equally concerned about the structure of the tariffs that people pay for their energy. The tariff structure should not mean that the poor pay more, but they do. It should not mean that you pay less for every additional unit that you consume rather than more. The present structure is both environmentally daft and socially regressive. It behoves the Government and the regulator to take more seriously a root-and-branch review of the tariff structure. I hope that the new Secretary of State has that in his sights.
Despite the current fall in wholesale prices, it is also almost certainly true that the medium to long-term trend of energy prices will be upwards. Incidentally, the same is probably also true of food prices, which went up and down over the past 12 months, partly for the reasons indicated by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard. It is also true that carbon-based energy prices going up should be a government policy objective, in order to drive behavioural change in businesses and individuals. However, we must reconcile a better deal for consumers with the environmental imperatives of reducing the carbon content of our energy and the use of energy as a whole. None of the present government interventions, whether through the trading scheme, where the actual price of carbon has gone down from €30 to about €16, or through the interventions in ROCs and CERTs and other incentives for renewable energy that give different implied prices of carbon, is high enough or sustained enough to drive serious change in the use of energy.
If we accept that the average price of carbon-based energy should go up as part of the climate change policy, we must also ensure that the cost does not fall unduly on the poorest. Currently, as the Ofgem study indicated, people who use pre-payment meters, who are off the gas network, who operate on standard credit—as most pensioners do—or who are small users of energy pay significantly more per unit than larger users.
We must offset a medium-term trend of a rise in energy prices through a robust commitment to a proper social tariff, so that the social tariff really is the lowest price that each company offers. We must enhance our energy efficiency measures and ensure that we have a coherent move to a lower-carbon energy base. In this context, unlike some in the environmental movement, I support the reinstatement of a commitment to nuclear power and welcome the imminent renewable energy strategy, which we will no doubt debate in this House. I also support some of the concessions that the Minister made during the passage of the Energy Bill on the feed-in tariff for distributed energy. I hope that the concession on heat strategy also bears fruit for low-carbon and low-cost energy.
We must redouble our efforts to improve the energy efficiency of buildings—all buildings, including the government estate—and particularly housing. This is true of both retrofitting existing housing and ensuring that building standards are of the highest quality for future energy efficiency, and any refurbishment in the successor to the decent homes programme in social housing.
My only other point is that we are now faced with a situation in which all housing sectors are deeply dysfunctional, whether we are talking about social housing; private rented housing; shared ownership schemes, which have not really got off the ground; owner-occupied housing, where the mortgage market is clearly in serious difficulty; or various proposals for mixed tenure. None of the housing markets is really working and there is insufficient flexibility both within and between the sectors to reflect the demographic changes in our society. Obviously, we need a greater supply of housing, but even if we have better energy efficiency standards, new build of any sort is slow in coming through. That is partly because the fall in house prices makes people reluctant to sell and partly because developers of new housing stock are extremely reluctant to put properties on the market which looked attractive a year ago but which are no longer likely to give them a return. The cutbacks in social housing that have occurred over the past 15 years are not easily reversed and therefore not many projects can be brought forward.
As a result, the real cost of social and private rented housing is rising because the pressure on those sectors is growing. There are empty new build flats in London while across the country 4 million people are on the housing list. Therefore, the housing policy needs special attention. I am glad that my former boss, Margaret Beckett, is taking on that task. I hope that she will take a root-and-branch look at all aspects of the housing market.
We need to ensure that the costs of adapting to climate change, particularly energy costs, do not fall most heavily on those least able to meet them. That is part of a wider problem. Green taxes can be just as regressive as non-green taxes. We need to offset any impacts of regressive green taxes through other measures.
An interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian suggested that people are unaware of the inequalities in our society. Those on low incomes are not aware of the high incomes being paid in the companies they work for and those on higher incomes do not know what the average income is. That is why I strongly support the measure in the equality Bill which will make it more difficult to hide inequalities within companies. If the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, wishes to press for that measure to be extended to companies which have been found to have practised gender discrimination, I will support her.
The equality Bill is principally about race, gender and disability but it is also concerned with wider inequalities in our society. I hope that our very good policies on climate change do not aggravate those inequalities and that we are prepared to implement measures to offset any such impact. If the cost of meeting climate change challenges can be regressive nationally, it is even more so internationally. We need to avoid both consequences.
My Lords, I shall focus on the equality Bill. As has been noted, it is appropriate that we examine this issue as we note the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and—as I learnt this afternoon from the APPG on equalities—the debate in Europe on the anti-discrimination directive gets under way. I hope that Britain will be a leader in that conversation and will ensure that our legislation complements that of Europe.
The equality Bill presents us with an opportunity to clarify an area marked by opacity, complexity and a degree of myth. I support the Government’s commitment to the legislation, although, like others, I feel that there is much to debate. I am sure that we shall do so vigorously in the weeks and months to come. There are real fears that bringing together the different pieces of discrimination legislation will result in a “lowest common denominator” approach and weakened legislation. I have heard comments on this from those involved in combating racial discrimination and in disability campaigning. Some women have expressed the fear that gender discrimination, particularly the pay gap, will not be vigorously pursued. Others make more specific comments on that in their responses to the Government’s consultation exercise.
There is a nervousness that advances made under the old legislative regimes will not be carried over into the new Bill except in a diminished form. Particular needs must, of course, be considered in legislation. Discrimination manifests itself in a variety of ways which are not necessarily consistent across all the different groupings. We need to achieve a balance between the generic and the specific. I can see that some people might interpret this as weakening legislation. We must be mindful of that. We can also see how complex this endeavour is. For example, we need to examine carefully how we tackle disadvantage and discrimination on the basis of religion. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark addressed that issue, albeit from slightly different perspectives. I look forward to a probing debate on that matter.
I take the view that our goals are best achieved by working together across boundaries formed historically as a result of perceived and real common interests and experiences to secure the best possible legislation. Even though it may be argued that there are qualitative differences in the experience and degree of discrimination and disadvantage between the targeted groups, and even though tactically there may be some advantage in maintaining divisions at certain points, it is more productive to combine forces to achieve longer term strategic goals.
These concerns about which sections of society might lose out and which might gain are based in part on a perception that there is a hierarchy of need or a deficiency model which sees the various groupings as having to compete with each other for limited resources. However, this is not just about perception. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, demonstrated, it is very real. He gave the example of the disparity between the pay of ethnic minorities and that of their peers, which seems to have dropped off the agenda.
These issues are particularly urgent in the current economic climate where it will be possible to claim that some initiatives are too costly and cannot be implemented in ways that we might wish because of the financial situation. However, fairness and social justice should not be bound exclusively to the present conditions. Indeed, it seems to me that we have a responsibility to ensure that the legislation enacted is fit for purpose for some time to come. I agree with the Minister that during such difficult times we most need to aspire to the highest possible levels of justice and fairness in order to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Another important issue, which has been touched on, concerns the clarification of what is meant by, and allowable under, the umbrella term “positive action”. Such clarification is sorely needed. At present, this is an area of substantial misunderstanding and, indeed, ignorance. It is sometimes referred to as “positive discrimination” and/or “reverse discrimination”, often by people who should know better. I agree with the results of the consultation on the Bill, which showed a broad consensus, that clear and authoritative guidance on this matter is essential. There will be tough areas to address though, particularly if there is a move towards enabling employers to take into account under-representation of disadvantaged groups when choosing between two equally qualified candidates for a job. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said on that matter. It sounded to me very much as if he was advocating quotas. I am not in favour of that strategy. I should like to hear him speak further on that. I am sure that we will go into it in detail.
Many people have pointed to the level of seemingly endless bureaucracy being a real deterrent in implementing current anti-discrimination legislation. Public sector bodies that will have to understand and deliver policies will not be helped by having to fill in dozens of forms each time they need to implement a particular action. I hope that there will be scope for developing a framework which moves away from process-bound outcomes based on a ticking boxes delivery.
It is interesting to note that it was not so long ago that anyone seen as a proponent of equality of opportunity was caricatured as a member of the “loony left” or as a “woolly minded liberal”. Although today we have made significant strides towards—for want of a better term—mainstreaming equalities, there are still those who are unable to accept or grasp the significance and importance of a systematic, fair, embedded approach to equality of opportunity, even though the moral, business and human rights cases and justifications for attempting to eradicate discrimination have been effectively argued for many years now.
Often public misconceptions are fuelled by scare stories in the press and elsewhere and the bullying tactics of those who attempt to close down reasoned debate through the use of terms such as “political correctness”. This sloppy, overused expression is often called into play to denigrate notions of fairness and social justice which underpin the legal and other types of mechanisms adopted to help us move towards equality of opportunity. Accusations that equality means trying to make everyone the same, that every attempt to level the playing field constitutes political correctness gone mad, and claims that white middle-class men need not apply, are a common feature of popular journalism which serve to undermine the quest for a more equitable society. I am sure we can expect a litany of such comments in the press as we debate these issues in the months to come, and I hope that we will not be intimidated or caught on the back foot, or backtrack apologetically.
In his foreword to Fairness: A New Contract with the Public, Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, states:
“Britons today aspire to live in a society in which no one’s destiny should be determined by the circumstances of their birth”.
I would like to think he is right in that assumption but we still need to do a better job of informing the public about equalities and human rights. We are not talking about a minority, when all is said and done. This is not a minority interest where only other people are affected by the impact of discrimination and disadvantage. The majority of people will probably have been subjected to or experience them either directly or indirectly at some point in their lives.
What we are seeking is, on one level, quite simple—to be fairly treated regardless of where we come from and what we are seen as representing. I do not underestimate the enormity of the task which lies ahead but I look forward to working with noble Lords across the House to make this a truly effective Bill, enabling us to take another step towards a fairer, more equitable society.
My Lords, I struggled with the problem of whether my speech would fit into this evening’s debate, as it could well have come under the area of education. However, I am really pleased that I am speaking this evening because the subject of my speech is equality, and it dovetails with the very fine speech which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has just given.
I would like to speak about a project that I have been involved with on improving relations between Muslims and Jews. To give a bit of background, I became a trustee of an organisation called the Coexistence Trust about three years ago; it had been set up jointly by my noble friend Lord Janner and His Royal Highness Prince Hassan of Jordan. I was a trustee who attended the odd meeting and did not do very much. Last May my noble friend Lord Janner buttonholed me and asked if I would like to become chairman. In a weak moment I said yes which I regretted for a week but then I thought, “You have got the job now; you had better make a good job of it”. I am doing my best and actually enjoying it very much.
The Coexistence Trust set out to go around the world getting Jewish or Muslim parliamentarians in various parliaments to deal with the issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. My noble friend Lord Janner, in particular, was very successful in getting lots of people to sign up to this. When I took over as chairman I wanted to change the emphasis and to concentrate on the UK. It may come as a surprise to noble Lords to find out that on our campuses there are tensions between Jewish and Muslim students, and I felt we should address this issue. A meeting was held and I got into conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. There seemed to be a great meeting of minds between us. We talked about how we could address this issue and the concept of a road show came into being, where we would go round various universities as parliamentarians.
In any conversation between Jews and Muslims, of course, the Middle East is the elephant in the room but we wanted to keep it out because if it stayed, it was going to kill all debate about other subjects that we felt were really important. By and large, we were successful in doing this although we had a few tense moments. The essence of the road show and the debates was to start off with parliamentarians talking about their journey, in particular the journey of Jewish immigrants who came to this country 100 years ago and that of Muslim immigrants who came here 30 or 40 years ago. There were similarities in that the new immigrants did not speak the language, they moved to the same area as other immigrants and their food and culture were different from those of British society in general. There were also similarities in how they managed to address the new country they were living in.
We got together a group of parliamentarians, mainly from your Lordships’ House, but there were a couple of Members of Parliament as well. It was a cross-party group with Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Cross-Benchers and Labour Party Members. As well as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, the group included the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, from the Liberal Democrats, the noble Lord, Lord Hameed—a Cross-Bencher—the noble Baronesses, Lady Afshar and Lady Deech, and my noble friend Lord Janner. From the other place we had the right honourable Michael Howard, who attended one of our road shows, and the Labour Member of Parliament Khalid Mahmood. I would like to thank all of them because they gave up a lot of time travelling around the country. It is not easy to give up time but they did it very well.
The format was quite interesting. We went to five universities—Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Birmingham and Leeds. At each debate we had four panellists—two Muslims, two Jews, all parliamentarians. The first debate was at the London School of Economics. I have to confess that I was petrified. I was convinced there was going to be trouble in the audience and that nobody would turn up, but it was packed and it was a very exciting evening. We all started by talking about our family background—where we had come from, where our grandparents had come from, what their experiences had been in this country and the prejudice and hostility they had suffered in their lifetime. Not surprisingly there was a tremendous commonality.
The issues that came up were interesting. We talked about being British Muslim and being British Jewish. We talked about integration. As a Jew I talked a lot about assimilation and the fact that the Jewish population in this country is declining rapidly because of intermarriage. To a lot of people that is a threat to the Jewish community. We talked about Sharia law. We talked about the way universities deal with examinations being held on religious holidays and the issue of food that is common to both religions. We both have some rather arcane and difficult dietary requirements that are difficult for other people to understand. Nevertheless, for observant Jews and Muslims, these are very important. Most of all, we talked about the real common threat to both communities of the resurgence of the BNP and everything that it is doing. Whether it is attacking Muslims today or Jews yesterday, it is the same people attacking all of us in the same way.
What was most exciting was that after the debate we generally had a dinner with members of the Jewish Society, the Islamic Society, the panellists and some of the university administrators. This gave people an opportunity to become much more involved and to talk about their fears and concerns. It was an overwhelming success. Members of the Jewish and Islamic societies who had never spoken to each other were exchanging mobile phone numbers and saying that they needed to get to know each other and understand each other’s religion better. That was very rewarding. Nobody in the room disagreed; nobody said that it was a complete waste of time, and that was tremendous.
We have posted a video of this road show on the website that has been set up. We are encouraging students to get on blogging sites because that is the way they communicate. Anyone who wants to can reference the website at www.coexistencetrust.org.uk.
I want to conclude by talking about a particular danger that we saw. At one ancient university a student said that she had been having a meeting with a member of the faculty about taking a day off for a religious event and the member of the faculty had said, “If I do it for you, I am going to have to do it for pygmies and mountain people”. That provoked stories of numbers of instances where members of the faculty had been less than helpful to Jewish students and, I would guess, to Islamic students, to women, and to people from all sorts of minorities. Members of faculties in our universities are able to say and do things that would not be permissible in the workplace or in schools. We need to address this issue to make universities a much better place for students to be in.
My Lords, it is a privilege, and it is rather frightening, to follow that brilliant, humane and thoughtful speech, which was totally different from anything that anyone else has said in the House so far. That is a great recommendation in a debate such as this.
I shall concentrate on the equality Bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech, a development that in general I value greatly. However, I have some concerns about the upcoming Bill stemming from a meeting with members of the Bill team during the previous Session, for which I am extremely grateful to the Minister who was involved at that time. We learnt that at that time the Bill already contained about 320 clauses. That is a matter of concern in itself, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, who was also talking about the complications of the Bill.
Meanwhile, I deeply regret the absence of a broad opening clause or clauses explaining the main thrust of the Bill and indicating how the managers or owners of companies could be confident that they were interpreting it correctly. I am sure that we are all aware of the frustration of managers, particularly of small businesses, in this country and how much resentment has built up over time as the barrage of legislation rained down upon them. Guidance is all very well, but a straightforward description of the main purposes of the Bill and how it is supposed to be managed in practice in its opening clauses could be very helpful. After all, managers as well as employees should benefit from a single equality Act. Have the Government decided to include a main purposes clause in the Bill?
The briefing prepared for this debate by the equality commission is helpful; the recognition that we need a simpler approach to equality, rather than the current mishmash, is core to the reform of equality law, and I welcome many aspects of what is before us. In particular, the newly defined public sector duty and the obligation that it places on the public sector inspectorates to monitor compliance are very welcome. So is the idea of using public sector procurement to oblige suppliers to improve their own equality practices. This is not a new idea—I remember it from my time in local government—but I welcome the greater emphasis placed on it by the Bill. However, I confess to having some doubts about the commission’s wish to see a general clause,
“addressing the issue of socio-economic inequality”.
At first sight, it seems overambitious, to say the least.
I will spend the rest of my time on the matter of women’s equality, particularly in the workplace. Women are not a minority group. On the contrary, they are the majority of the population. Laws about the pay and promotion of women have been on the statute book for years. Yet they are routinely evaded by the methods used, for example, in recruitment for promotion, particularly for senior jobs, and by rules which prohibit discussion of pay packets among employees. It comes as no surprise then that the number of women in senior or boardroom positions in major private companies does not reflect the value of their abilities to those companies.
At the same time, many companies recognise the need to move in a different direction, if only so as not to lose valuable employees. So the expected inclusion in the Bill of equal pay itself is welcome, as are measures to ban secrecy clauses in contracts. Legislation to enable representative actions—what the Americans call class actions—for equal pay claims is also welcome, if long awaited. It seems that the Government want public sector bodies to report on important issues, such as the gender pay gap, and they may encourage public authorities to achieve this via contract compliance. The equality commission also wishes to use other methods to end pay discrimination, possibly via equal pay audits as recommended by the code of practice on equal pay, approved in 2002.
The Government’s framework document on the Equality Bill, published last June, gives an insight into pay gaps between women and men in government departments. In the Treasury, for example, the gap is 26 per cent, whereas in the Government Equalities Office it is minus 4 per cent; in other words, the women are better paid than the men. It reminds me of the comments by a Civil Service union representative who held a session with the women’s parliamentary group some years ago about how difficult it was for women in the Civil Service who had children to get back on to the promotion ladder—and therefore get back their equal pay status—particularly if they had had a period of part-time work following childbirth. The Civil Service used to be an exemplar of good and equal treatment, and I hope that it will continue to play that role.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s decision that employers will be able to take positive action by taking into account the under-representation of certain groups when selecting between equally qualified candidates. This will apply to all the under-represented groups, and one of the cheering aspects of the framework for the equality Bill is that both the CBI and the TUC support positive action of this sort. In their different spheres, both organisations can exercise pressure in favour of equal treatment under the law in the very important field of employment, not just for women but for all the other groups excluded from full participation in society.
I have but scratched the surface of this very important subject. I am comforted, if that is the right word, by the knowledge that we will spend many hours on the Bill during the coming months.
My Lords, I am going to speak about something very important which was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.
Recently, Mr Huw Irranca-Davies has been appointed to be the new United Kingdom Fisheries Minister, and we wish him well. He has said that he is going to work for the whole of the United Kingdom. That means working closely with the Scottish Government Fisheries Minister, Richard Lochhead. The Scottish Government are very keen to abolish discarding and are also anxious to have their own quota system. This, unsurprisingly, has not found favour with Defra, and has been put down to party political manoeuvring by the SNP; but I do not think it is. I think that there is a genuine demand for this from the Scottish fishermen, and for good reasons. What I am going to say concerns Mr Irranca-Davies, and I ask the Minister to pass on to him what I am going to say.
This is the time of year when the annual battle with the EU about the total allowable catch of cod and other species takes place, and it is rough on a new Fisheries Minister to be appointed at the back end of the year. Last night, the EU increased the total allowable catch of North Sea cod by 30 per cent, which must be good news if only because it should help reduce the cod discards; but at the same time the total allowable catches for haddock and whiting have been reduced by 11 per cent and 15 per cent respectively.
I am sure that it is quite obvious to your Lordships that the practice of throwing overboard to die—that is, discarding—fish caught in excess of a quota is not only doing nothing at all to conserve fish stocks but, in a world where millions of people are starving, can only be described as wicked, wicked waste. Fishermen, particularly in Scotland and Cornwall, are very conscious of this and have the strongest objection to having to do it; indeed some have refused to do so. But as long as the system of total allowable catches is in force, the practice of discarding will continue, because white fish do not live in neat blocks of just one species. In a mixed fishery, you may be fishing primarily for, say, haddock, but you cannot avoid fish of other species coming into your nets. You are almost bound to catch some cod, and if you are not allowed to land them because you have already caught your quota, what can you do but throw them away?
The Norwegians do not allow discarding. All fish must be landed, and a small price is paid even for undersized fish. I cannot understand why we cannot do that, too. I am told that it is much more difficult in a mixed fishery, but I cannot see why, and I think it is basically because the EU does not want to do anything about it. Last night's talks between Norway and the EU about various aspects of fishing included discards, and the EU has imposed a ban on discarding joint stocks over the minimum landing size. Surely a ban on discards under minimum landing size is what we really need.
What does more damage than anything else to cod stocks, or fish stocks of any kind, is the catching of undersized fish; that is to say mainly young fish which have yet to breed and for which there is no market. Preliminary trials have recently taken place, on the Orkney fishing vessel of Mr Tam Harcus, of a type of trawl he has invented, which will reduce the number of small cod caught, while retaining the larger marketable fish and the valuable monkfish and megrim. He used nets made from 160 millimetre mesh, instead of 120 millimetre mesh, with an area of 300 millimetre mesh net at the entrance to the trawl, which allowed many of the smaller fish to escape. This works with that particular mixed fishery, as the ugly great monkfish is in part wide like a flatfish, and the megrim resembles a lemon sole in shape, so that only the smallest can escape through the larger mesh. It does not work, of course, when you are fishing for roundfish such as haddock and whiting, which are smaller than cod.
I hope the Norwegians will stand firm about discards, in spite of being accused of righteousness by Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. I ask Mr Irranca-Davies to give the Norwegians all the support he can in future talks, however much the boys in Brussels dislike the idea. Otherwise the only way to reduce catches is by reducing effort, in the shape of days at sea or number of boats, by closing fishing grounds, or by modifications to fishing gear, which is a slightly hit-and-miss method, but has made quite a difference.
The fact is that the common fisheries policy does not work for this country and has been a disaster for us. I have twice introduced a Bill to take us out of the common fisheries policy, but in vain. I think Alex Salmond did, too, also in vain. So I hope that Mr Irranca-Davies will try to work with Richard Lochhead to get a better deal from the EU, if it is possible to get anything good from them, and at least try to put an end to the practice of discarding—not just reduce it, but put a real end to it—because it is doing nobody any good.
My Lords, the gracious Speech contains the assurance of,
“measures to protect the environment for future generations”.
Today we focus on a wide range of topics in the gracious Speech, including transport and the environment. The Government are poised to make a decision on the former that may imperil or indeed make a nonsense of their commitments on the latter. The announcement has been postponed, but if, as expected, the Government declare for a third runway at Heathrow, increasing flights to more than 700,000 a year, or for mixed-mode alternation, increasing flights to 540,000 a year, the result will be a grotesque breach of their environmental commitments.
I declare an interest. I am Lord Watson of Richmond and I have been a resident of that beautiful part of London, often described as Arcadia, for more than 50 years. Its environment is such that it delivers, I am glad to say, on the promise of a century ago by London’s expanded District and Circle line, that it is where the country comes to town—or today, rather more, where the town can still come to the country to savour views of the Vale of Thames that constitute one of this country’s greatest scenic assets.
I also declare an interest in protecting this asset, both as chairman of Arcadia, working with Sir David Attenborough to enhance this very special environment from Hampton Court to Kew Gardens, and as a former president of HACAN, a London-wide alliance against the remorseless expansion of Heathrow.
I must explain one matter very clearly and frankly. It relates to democracy as well as to the environment. Indeed, I believe it strikes at the essence of trust in government. When I was president of HACAN, a debate was held in Richmond Theatre between Sir John Egan, then chairman of BAA, and me. The debate was chaired by David Dimbleby. Coachloads of Heathrow employees had been bussed in to demonstrate the economic necessity of the planned fifth terminal. Sir John, who I believe believed it at the time, said that this fifth terminal was essential if we were to compete with Frankfurt, Paris and Schiphol. Have you noticed how other airports get added? The latest to be added to the list are Milan and Dubai. Then he went on to say, “If we get the fifth terminal, we will never ask for a third runway”. Well, here we are; a third runway, a sixth terminal and/or alternation, and in due course—why not?—a seventh terminal and a fourth runway.
I sat in the Gallery in the other place on 11 November this year and heard the Minister, Geoff Hoon, pledge:
“We do not intend to compromise on our European air quality obligations”.
I then read in the London Evening Standard on the fifth of this month his explanation of his delay in making an announcement. It was, “I’m going that extra mile for the extra runway”. I felt not the outrage of nimbyism, but a real democratic sense of betrayal. The truth is that so many promises have been breached that it is simply not possible to believe the promises or to accept the assurances because of what has happened over the decades.
Why has the opposition to what is planned grown so formidably? It is not just because the recession has eroded the economic case for expansion, although that is clearly so. It is not only because the environmental case against expansion has become so much more powerful since the 2003 report. It is because the Government are simply not trusted on the issue. Originally, 12 boroughs representing 2 million people were opposed to the expansion at Heathrow. Today, 21 boroughs representing 4.5 million people are opposed. A Government who value trust should be very careful.
Of course the Government’s position is not easy. They find themselves stranded between growth, perhaps at any cost in a recession, and the commitment to the environment that they declare inviolate. Everyone knows that to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 is entirely incompatible with the continued expansion of Heathrow. Aviation already accounts for no less than 13 per cent of the UK’s total climate change impact. We can expand as planned and retain our 2050 commitment only if we end almost all other emissions in the United Kingdom. Faced with this conundrum, the Government remind me somewhat of Mark Twain’s comment about heaven and hell; namely, that he had good friends in both.
The Government have to decide where their loyalties lie. In this, they may be helped by an immediate environmental challenge. In the other place, Mr Hoon pledges not to,
“compromise on our European air quality obligations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/08; col. 656.]
These relate specifically to nitrogen dioxide limits. In Brussels, the EU environment Commissioner states:
“Technical reports underpinning the Heathrow expansion suggest that nitrogen limit values … will be significantly exceeded in 2010”.
Now, of course the Government may apply for a derogation to 2015, when these limits become mandatory. If we add 250,000 flights, we will certainly break the law by 2015. We will also surrender all possible claim to environmental leadership in Europe—pariah, not exemplar.
Finally, the Government may seek one Houdini-like escape from the cage of their own contradictions. How about mixed mode—the end of runway alternation? That could add 60,000 flights without permission and would mean a different way for planes to land at Heathrow. They would have to come in much lower over a longer approach, and they would do at 90-second intervals—I repeat: 90-second intervals—without a break throughout all the hours when flights are permitted. It would be a really cynical betrayal of trust and a betrayal of the environment.
The Government have explained the delay in their announcement to next year by the need to be seen to listen. They may have been so advised by their lawyers—I suspect that that is the case. However, we need not the appearance of listening but the evidence of new thought. There is still time for a troubled Government to change their mind, and they need to—for their own sake and ours.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s determination to give greater powers to local government and local communities in relation to the part of the Bill that deals with economic development and construction. Earlier, the Minister laid out very clearly for us the thinking and justification for this approach to the vital areas of our lives. It is particularly to be welcomed by those of us steeped in local council politics who have long railed against the stifling effect of centralised management, which often appears insensitive to, or even unaware of, local needs for local people.
However, of course, we, the same local council lobby, are equally aware that, if progress is to be made, the case for change has to be put powerfully and a consensus has to be reached. The Bill rightly focuses on the need for better delivery in economic development, and in the current climate that will be crucial, Equally, the determination to streamline construction contracts to provide real help for the construction industry in tough times is more than timely—and times, indeed, are unlikely to get any tougher than they are today.
All that is in the future and we must await with interest the details which will emerge in the weeks to come. But let us not ignore what has worked in the past. In fact, I urge the Government to review some significant successes, which could be used as blueprints within the new legislation. So, in the spirit of “local development past”, I ask the Ministers to cast their minds back. As part of my Christmas quiz, I ask them to identify the town that I am talking about. Here are the clues.
It was identified as one of the poorest towns in Britain in 2000, and it had 30 per cent unemployment less than 20 years ago. It had the most unfortunate label of being the largest town in Europe without a passenger railway station. It had a demoralised history of previously failed projects, one of which was a scheme to build something called “Wonderland”, which over time became known as “Wonderwhen”. It had fractured local government due to internal fighting within the ruling party, which at one memorable point, which I well remember, offered separate candidates in local elections.
The recriminations were so bitter that, at one stage, it was seriously thought that the only way forward was to change the very name of the town, so demoralised had it become. Nearly all the schools were failing, the civic centre was at the point of collapse and the swimming pool leaked more water through the roof than was available to those trying to swim below. The town centre was dreadful: there were more boarded-up shops than charity shops, and those certainly outnumbered recognisable high-street shops.
I know that noble Lords are all thinking hard, and I have heard whispers that one or two have already identified it. Of course, your Lordships will know that it is Corby. So, 10 years on, could it possibly be the same town that only last week was referred to in the FT, no less, as the town that has been rated the least likely in Britain to feel the credit crunch pain? What is more, the article continued that it was a town that launched an expensive marketing campaign, began work on a sparkling new railway station and embarked on an aggressive housebuilding programme aimed at City workers priced out of the capital. Oxford Economics identified as the secret of its success the proliferation of small and varied industries, manufacturing and distribution without undue reliance on financial services.
The town has built not only a new town centre but two new schools, with a recently opened city academy. Our academic achievements have been transformed, and developers are working hard to provide 22,000 new homes. Furthermore, a new railway station will soon be opened. I have not mentioned the splendid new 50-metre swimming pool—no leaks there of course—or the outstanding sporting facilities that are under construction.
So I ask the Ministers whether I can fairly say that Corby has achieved a remarkable transformation, all based on consensus, with local councils, local people, English Partnerships, regional development agencies and government putting in a huge investment of time and energy. The roll call includes John Prescott and my noble friends Lord Rooker and Lady Andrews. They are there with distinction, as is our former chief executive, Bob Lane, and our outstanding MP, Phil Hope.
So my request for this new legislation is that we draw on success, evaluate the formula and use the experience of one town which was written off in the 1980s but is now, phoenix-like, what I promised it would be in 2002. I promised that we would make Corby a town which would be a good place in which to work, play and bring up a family.
My Lords, before making my contribution to this debate, I wish to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on his achievements in his ministerial duties at Defra. He was to the Rural Payments Agency what Harry Redknapp is to Tottenham Hotspur football team; namely, a hard-working leader, who used his knowledge and drive to enable team members to function more effectively. His intervention made a difference for many farmers, but it is a pity that the RPA got into such a mess in the first place.
I remind the House of my family’s farming interests. This year’s gracious Speech is notable for its brevity, sombre tone and lack of reference to farming, agriculture or even obliquely to food—the staff of life. I have no doubt that the normal flood of statutory instruments will cover everything from nitrate-vulnerable zones to the abolition of certain pesticides, which we so direly need to produce good yields. All of these will make it much harder for farmers to produce the food that we need and will add to imports that are produced less stringently by farmers who are less regulated than they are in this country. My noble friend Lady Shephard spoke clearly on the agriculture scene as she sees it.
Farmers are of particular concern to me. Not only do abnormal weather patterns often stop them working, but they face the might of attempts by Brussels to deprive them of the right to use established farming products and techniques. Their elected Government are too disinterested to help, and climate change is causing additional problems for them in the migration of insects and organisms that threaten livestock. Will the Minister confirm the NFU’s plea for the suspension of livestock imports from countries affected by bluetongue, and whether it is being heeded?
In this country two groups in particular face ruin, which could greatly affect us all: dairy farmers produce our fresh milk; hill farmers are largely responsible for maintaining the landscapes that attract large numbers of tourists and lift the spirits of so many hard-working families from our towns and cities. The Government have been aware for years of the pressures placed on dairy farmers by supermarkets, which have used fresh milk as a pawn in the game of attracting customers to their malls. The graph of farm-gate milk prices over the past 10 years has been totally unstable. Dairy farmers have been heavily reliant on the banks to even out the troughs, and now their borrowing facilities are being refused precisely because their returns are so erratic.
On 6 November this year the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee slashed interest rates by a massive 1.5 per cent to stimulate the UK economy. That came in the wake of borrowing that the farmers have had to take on, which has risen to some £11 billion. That is a huge figure, which puts particular pressure on the tenanted sector.
Hill farmers, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred, face a different set of problems. They used to receive state funding linking the number of sheep and cattle they produced to the money they received. But the reform of the CAP has decoupled that support and has not substituted sufficient environmental payments to maintain their incomes. It is true that they are not as exposed to the banks as some lowland businesses but levels of income after expenses, which are already low, have been hit by steep increases in the price of animal feed, vets bills and slaughter costs. Some of the worst hit areas are likely to be those operating in the more remote wildernesses of the south-west, the Lake District and those above the moorland line. Their demise will lead very quickly to a takeover of gorse and bracken, and there will be resultant difficulties of access for the public. The dangers of dry weather wildfire will increase, with serious implications for CO2 levels and wildlife mortality.
The current banking crisis is affecting both cereal and livestock farmers who have hitherto used the overdraft for financing seed and stock until they are paid some months later. I fear that this spring may reveal large numbers of farmers, particularly tenant farmers, who will struggle.
I turn to two things that the Minister said. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, reminded us that everybody should have fair and equal access. I was grateful to the Minister for his announcement of the U-turn on the Post Office card accounts. That will help many post offices in both rural and urban areas. I bring to the House another equally difficult problem, which is the future of GPs, particularly those who work from home. In rural areas money will be saved by revoking the power given to GPs to supply medicines to patients attending surgery from homes of more than one mile distant. That concession has been a boon to young mums and their sick children who rely on buses or neighbours with cars to take them to the doctor and to older citizens with difficulties in walking who cannot go the extra distance easily. The White Paper proposes changing the distance requirements for the establishment of dispensing practices. Currently the distance is from the patient’s house to the surgery, whereas I gather that in future it will be from the nearest surgery to the nearest community pharmacy. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify that, as clearly it could make a great difference to some GP practices.
I have two other pleas for the Minister. The first is on livestock diseases, the top one being TB. We have little control over some of the diseases coming in but bovine TB is rife. By the end of August we had already killed 25,677 cattle, and it is likely that that figure will rise to 40,000 at the end of this year. This has gone on for years but it is sadly getting way out of control. Will the Minister look at that issue?
Secondly, the Government need to enable skills, research and development in all aspects of business but particularly in agriculture. The research budget was heavily cut—45 per cent from 1986 to 1998—when 17 research establishments were closed, of which only two remain. My final plea is particularly with reference to the soil and soil science. If we are to produce the food that we all agree we need, the future success relies on good science. We very much look forward to the marine Bill, which will have its Second Reading next Monday.
My Lords, having listened to noble Lords’ speeches, I think that on reflection I could have spoken yesterday; none the less there are some matters of concern that I should be raising, so I shall do so today.
On 20 November a consultation paper was published on improving compliance with road safety laws. Despite the fall in the number of road deaths in statistics most recently published, we cannot be complacent because further reductions are possible and, indeed, preferable. Most people acknowledge that inappropriate speed, not wearing seat belts and drinking and driving continue to contribute to the number of deaths and injuries. It is interesting to note that 700 deaths involved speed, 565 were not wearing seat belts and 460 involved driving while under the influence of alcohol. All the available evidence concludes that a blood alcohol level in excess of 50mg per 100ml adversely affects the ability to drive safely. I very much hope that the Government will, at long last, take appropriate steps to reduce the limit from 70mg.
However, I am delighted to note that road blocks are being considered to catch and deter drink drivers. They would also enable the police to arrest drivers committing other offences that may not even be connected with driving or a motor vehicle. Random breath testing has been widely adopted in Australia and has helped reduce drink driving. I very much hope that road blocks will be set up frequently and will be operated at all times of the day, as the effects of alcohol on driving can be apparent for a long time into the following day. If the Government were to legislate for the immediate confiscation of the driving licence of people who fail an evidential breath test or who are high-risk offenders, it could well reduce the likelihood of such people driving before coming to court. Drivers should be required, as in many other countries, to have their driving licence with them at all times.
I am led to believe that groups of people, usually young people, going to have a drink frequently nominate someone who has consumed no alcohol to drive them home but then give that person class B or class C drugs to consume, thinking that they are not as bad as alcohol. In that case, the driver's ability to drive is affected by drugs, not alcohol. I am delighted to note that that is being investigated as part of the consultation.
The consultation also refers to remedial training and testing. That is to be praised because it is not being used effectively at the moment.
Intelligent speed adaptation is a system that can prevent drivers exceeding the speed limit. It is being developed and tested at the moment. I drove such a vehicle some years ago in its infancy. The speed limit can be exceeded by a certain action, but overriding the technology is noted within the system and can be downloaded, if required. Analysis of future accidents has concluded that there would be a minimum reduction of 10 per cent in fatal accidents, 6 per cent in serious injuries and 3 per cent in slight injuries if ISA were used. Those are considerable reductions in human and financial terms. What steps are being taken to produce a digital map showing every speed limit on every road in the country to enable this technology to be fully developed?
The Driving Standards Agency has a monopoly on driver training and controls the entry of instructors into the industry, the exit of instructors who fail to pass their check test and the standard of ability required for a member of the public to pass a driving test. In no other areas is it responsible—apart from its responsibility for statistics on accidents and fatalities on our roads. Within their first two years of motoring, people aged 16 to 29 are responsible for 42 per cent of fatalities on our roads. Should the DSA not concentrate its abilities on raising and controlling standards and let national associations issue certificates to train people to drive? Learning has always taken place before long-term retention by being able to read and research a topic with assistance from qualified individuals. Publishing the question bank does not encourage long-term retention and should therefore be abandoned so that candidates who wish to learn to drive study the whole syllabus and work through a series of workbooks to understand and gain long-term knowledge for safer driving. The DSA should channel its efforts towards the assessment of driving ability and let qualified instructors certify the manoeuvres prior to the driving test, thereby allowing more time in the driving test for examiners to assess driving ability.
When the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill passed through this House, I had two amendments accepted that were not, strictly speaking, to do with organised crime. With that in mind, I draw attention to a matter that could be included in the police and crime Bill rather than waiting until a more suitable Bill comes along. The Highways Agency has automatic number plate recognition cameras—ANPR—on the strategic network, but current legislation does not permit it to share data with the police. The agency’s system batches number plate readings, encrypts the data and sends them back every five minutes, and the information is automatically deleted after two weeks. Police systems send data back in a matter of seconds and they are stored for a year. Therefore, if data were shared, changes would have to be made. However, such changes would cost a fraction of the price of rebuilding and replicating the whole infrastructure. Until the end of 2010, the Highways Agency ANPR is contracted to Serco, which effectively owns the data. At the end of that contract, it could be appropriate for the ownership of the cameras to be transferred to the police, who could then provide the Highways Agency with the data it requires and have immediate access to the information for crime purposes. I ask the Minister whether due consideration from a financial and operational viewpoint could be given to adding a suitable amendment to the police and crime Bill? I forgot to declare my interest: I am involved in roads policing at the sharp end.
The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, has on more than one occasion brought to your Lordships’ attention the advantages of bringing forward our standard time by one hour so that we are at GMT plus one hour in the winter and GMT plus two hours in the summer. It is estimated that 100 lives would be saved every year by adopting this change. It would therefore be beneficial if it were applied for an experimental period so that drivers could experience the benefits of lighter evenings. At the least, a comprehensive study into the likely beneficial effects should be commissioned. Saving lives is important, and this proposal will not go away because it will save lives.
We all laugh and think how stupid it is that a tree has to be cut down in order to nullify the possibility of a conker falling on to somebody's head or that a gardener who has tended a flower bed in a village for many years has to have an assessment about the possibility of having an accident. However, a report by the Transport Committee in the other place drew attention to the fact that the vast majority of work-related deaths are not examined by the Health and Safety Executive purely because they occur on the roads. Why is the HSE not being required to be much more active in recording and investigating work-related road casualties rather than being the laughing stock of so many people?
My Lords, as a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I declare an interest and welcome the thrust of the Government's proposals for the equality Bill, on which I shall concentrate my remarks. I stress that in this context equality does not mean sameness. It means that there must be fairness to enable everyone to celebrate their differences and fulfil their potential without being blocked or hindered by attributes over which they have no control, such as race or disability. If the new legislation succeeds, everyone in our diverse society will know that it is there for us, if and when we need it.
However, the legislation needs to go beyond traditional approaches to equality. The current economic climate means that reducing economic inequality is more important than ever. We must protect the most marginalised people in our society, who are liable to carry the heaviest burden during an economic downturn. While recognising the pressures on businesses at present and that they need space to enable them to recover, they must do so in a way that maintains an approach that embraces the ethos of fairness. In this respect, I welcome the fact that the Bill will include a ban on age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services but, even now, I hope that the Government will ensure that that is in the Bill or, if it is not, that regulations are brought in swiftly. Otherwise, the Bill will be greatly weakened.
In respect of the proposed public-sector duty, I am delighted that the Government propose to streamline the three existing separate duties into a single equality duty. I hope that the legislation will apply that duty to any and all organisations that deliver public services and/or are substantially funded from the public purse, and that they will be required to act proactively to implement the new requirements. The new duty should provide for more citizen involvement to enable individuals to be active in holding public authorities to account. However, just as it is important for the new legislation to recognise the economic circumstances in which we live, it is also important to ensure that the new duty is feasible and not unduly burdensome on smaller public-sector organisations that are under enormous pressure to deliver cost efficiencies. However, that must not be allowed to be an excuse for not implementing the requirements of the new law. I hope we will monitor progress on that and will keep it at the forefront of our minds.
Applying the duty to all organisations that provide a public service and/or receive substantial public funding should help address the vexed questions around the responsibilities of private-sector organisations that provide long-term care. I very much hope that the new law will also address the position of carers, who play a vital part in our society but who are frequently unjustly discriminated against. The ban on associated discrimination, together with this legislation, should improve their situation quite a lot. The commission is also looking for the legislation to strengthen the role of inspectorates to monitor the requirements of the law, following the excellent example of Northern Ireland.
On positive action, the concept of allowing employers in all sectors to select a candidate from an underrepresented group in a tie-break is absolutely right. Indeed, I may go further and say that they should be required to take such action, but I believe that this is as far as one should go in this direction. I would be opposed to any requirement compelling employers to employ someone who was not the best candidate, merely because of an imbalance in the employee profile. The Children’s Society makes a very good point when it suggests that schools are an ideal place to promote awareness of equality policies. Perhaps the new law should build in a requirement to include equalities as a subject in the national curriculum. That would really be positive action.
Perhaps the most important change which the Government propose relates to transparency. Some public sector organisations publish clear information about their progress on important equality issues, and I pay particular tribute to the Greater London Authority and its constituent organisations in this regard. Such transparency allows the proper monitoring of progress as well as the identification of best practice. Procurement can indeed be used as an effective lever to deliver public policy on equalities in the private sector. There is further scope to ensure compliance by requiring private sector organisations, of a size to be determined, to share meaningful statistical information on gender differences in pay and employment with employees, managers and shareholders. Firms should be compelled to explain any pay gap and the actions being taken to address it.
Religion and belief need to be treated with the utmost respect, but in some ways differently from the other strands or domains that come under the remit of the Bill. In this, I agree with noble Lord, Lord Lester. The thresholds for incitement to hatred and harassment need to be higher because of the possible effect on freedom of speech. Religion and belief are also the only domain in which one person’s belief can be totally opposed to that of another person, particularly regarding sexual orientation and gender. We must also be mindful if someone abandons their religion or belief and is still subject to discrimination or hatred. This has evolved into a form of ethnic or racial hatred, for which the full force of the law must apply.
As a nation, particularly today, we can be proud that 60 years ago, after the horrors of World War Two, this country, led by Sir Winston Churchill, was party to establishing the human rights convention. We need to ensure that the high ideals in this convention are fully integral to life in the UK today. As Eleanor Roosevelt, another of its founders, emphasised, human rights must apply not only to government or at the top level of society but in the smallest of places, such as the hospital ward and the care home, where respect for a person’s dignity must be upheld.
The proposed equality Bill will build on what has already been achieved, and by putting new powers together with existing legislation in a single Act, it will make policy and the law easier to understand, implement and enforce. It must focus on outcomes, with measures that will enable its success to be measured against the real changes achieved in communities, public services and beyond.
I end by quoting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the bedrock on which the equality legislation is built and which underlies all its messages:
“Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible … In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others”.
That is the true meaning of equality in a democratic society.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on successfully embracing all the topics that form this debate. I shall concentrate on local government, localism, and measures to strengthen and enhance more effective co-ordination and collaboration at a local level. These are all part of the ethos of the Co-operative movement, in which I declare an interest, which is registered.
Incredibly, it will be 70 years ago next year since I began to work for the Co-operative movement. At that time, there were 1,000 separate co-operative societies, which meant that there were 1,000 separate management committees, education committees and very many political committees. They were all little pockets of democratic working, but by virtue of the economic changes over the past 70 years, those 1,000 separate co-ops are now down to fewer than 30. They are bigger and, one hopes, more efficient, more profitable and more responsive to the needs of their people.
I simply say to the Minister that she should not be disheartened by the negative reception to her many policies and initiatives from some parts of the House. I say unto her, “Be not dismayed. Lift up your heart. Tomorrow is another day”. Ambition, in my book, is a laudable trait. It is easier to do nothing in the midst of the crisis that we have, so the Government should be congratulated on not being put off and persuaded to do nothing. A range of problems has to be solved, and we are looking tonight for a way in which they can be solved.
Almost 50 years ago, I was the leader of a local authority and chairman of housing. I remember the 1960s and 1970s, when the most depressing thing that we had to do as councillors or Members of Parliament was to listen with sympathy to the housing problems that were brought to our surgeries. Some people had houses that needed improvement. Others lived in part of a house, but had bad relations with their landlord. Some people did not have a house at all and lived with their relations. As leader of the council, I invited and received Bob Mellish, the then housing Minister, and Evelyn Dennington, the then GLC chair of housing. They came to the council chamber of Enfield Council and inspired us to help people with their problems. This Government recognise the need not merely to leave people to get on with what they can, but also the need for leadership and strategy. The Minister has laid out the mechanisms of how that can be achieved, which will come before us in a Bill.
Housing is the greatest challenge facing many people. A well built, warm house is the bedrock of a good family relationship. It makes me cry, as I did more than once when I left my surgery having listened to such tales, to find that there are families—a man, a woman and three or four children—living in abject despair. The Minister should not hold back on anything that can improve the housing situation.
I have wondered whether there has been any progress on the community land trust, a matter which I successfully raised. It received approbation from all around the House and from the then Minister. In essence, noble Lords should know that the community land trust separates the cost of the land from the cost of the house. If a house costs £300,000, much of that value is in the land. There are councils, individuals, trusts or industries, for example, which are willing to offer land at advantageous prices to the community, provided that the houses built on it remain part of the community and that the land does not become part of a sale.
I will not land the Minister with a need for answers because it is early days. Among the many weapons in her and her colleagues’ hands is the community land trust, which is fully supported by the co-operative movement. She knows very well David Rodgers, the chief executive of CDS Co-operatives, who has played a major part. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, pointing out that many areas wanted to start a community land trust. The Minister, a friend who I respect very much, knows that we made a major step forward when the Government produced a legal definition of a land trust, but there is more work to be done. I hope very much that we will hear something from her, if not tonight then at some other time, because this is urgent and real.
In many places, credit unions are inspired by local councils. They do all that the Minister has said in her speech today is the intention of the Government. They are small businesses, which are local, democratic, encourage thrift, foster local pride, are an alternative for many people who need small loans at sensible interest rates and produce joint workings.
In conclusion, I welcome the comments in the Minister’s speech and the proposed Bills to strengthen consumer rights, which are near to the heart of the Co-operative movement, tenants’ rights and participation. A lot has been done. The regional development agencies, a child of this Government, have done a major job of work. Perhaps noble Lords can see that I am wearing a One NorthEast badge. It is a regional planning authority, which has done a marvellous job, but needs perhaps national support and a network that may not be present now. I congratulate the Government on their initiatives and the Minister can count on my support and participation.
My Lords, I am sorry that I was unable to be here for the opening speech. I am afraid that my best laid plans were disrupted due to a change in a timetable, and I have conveyed my apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, through the Whips’ Office. I shall confine my comments to the question of equality because in the 21st century we need equality legislation that is for everyone and that helps to promote social cohesion and inclusion. The Government have indicated that they will introduce a Bill to promote equality, fight discrimination and introduce transparency to the workplace in order to redress the difference in pay between men and women. My hope is that the new legislation will enable us to move towards a world where equality is more than a collection of different strands and various groups, and that it will make a real difference to achieving equality and fairness. That demands legislation which is clear, comprehensive, effective, practical, easy to implement and, above all, user friendly. It demands legislation that encourages a proactive, non-adversarial approach and avoids unnecessary bureaucratic requirements, and which is designed to deal with some of the underlying fundamental issues and barriers, thus leading to a real step change.
Any new legislation must be assessed against these criteria because, despite our longstanding anti-discrimination legislation, we have made little progress. This is mainly due to a lack of clear articulation about the legal and policy framework, an absence of accessible guidance and confusion about the law. We should take this opportunity to ensure that the legislation is not only clear and easy to implement, but is backed by effective support and guidance, as well as a strong policy framework. On the specifics, I will confine my comments to five areas: constitutional equality guarantee, public sector duty, procurement, equal pay and positive action.
First, I urge the Government to include a constitutional equality guarantee in the Bill to confirm that everyone is equal before the law and that everyone has equal protection under and benefit from the law. The premise of robust and meaningful equality legislation is that all laws, proceedings and acts of public authorities must respect the right to equality, with safeguards to protect people against the violation of that right.
Secondly, while I support the Government’s proposal to extend the public sector duty to cover age, sexual orientation and gender reassignment, I have strong reservations about extending it to religion. Discrimination on the grounds of religion is unlawful, and that is absolutely right, but extending the public duty to religion would be divisive and deviates from the objective of promoting cohesion and inclusion. I therefore urge caution. This issue has been debated in the House and the arguments about freedom of speech have been well rehearsed. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, referred to them.
Thirdly, public sector procurement offers a powerful means of leveraging equality in the private sector. All those wishing to provide services to public authorities should be able to demonstrate that they have taken the necessary steps to ensure equal treatment in employment and service delivery. I recognise that this is a complex area and that the current legal and policy framework is far from clear about how to take into account equality objectives in procurement decisions. Such a provision in law must therefore be backed by clear advice, guidance and an understanding of how equality can be essential to improving quality.
Fourthly, we all know that despite legislation, the gender pay gap has persisted. The Government’s intention to bring equal pay within the scope of the legislation is welcome, but further work is needed on relevant comparators. It is also important that multiple discrimination is taken into account when determining appropriate comparators to use in equal pay cases. For example, if an employee is female and from an ethnic minority, it may be that the manifestation of discrimination is dissimilar from both a white female colleague and a black male colleague. The law should reflect the multifarious nature of discrimination. Furthermore, this is an area which is ripe for a more proactive approach, where positive action should be encouraged. Employers should be required to conduct pay audits, develop pay equity plans, and actively address the question of pay rather than rely on individuals to take action.
Fifthly, the provisions to allow positive action are welcome, but these areas of the law can cause confusion and ambivalence if they are not absolutely clear about what is permissible and how the provisions should work in practice. It is important that the legislation provides a clear understanding of how these things will work in practice.
In conclusion, I will say that a single equality law is long overdue, but we must ensure that we get it right in the light of very long experience. All the contributions to the debate have urged simplicity and practicality in this regard. We all know that the law alone is not sufficient; it provides the framework. It must be backed by an effective, independent and bold Equality and Human Rights Commission and a clear policy framework from the Government. We need to get all three components right. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, apologise for not being here at the start of the debate today. I wish to address my remarks to the section of the Queen’s Speech which states:
“My Government will bring forward measures to protect the environment for future generations”.
In that regard, I welcome the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and look forward to contributing to the debate on it. On protecting the environment, noble Lords will be aware that the Government commitment is to reducing CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. It is a long way away but 80 per cent is a challenging figure and I congratulate the Government on producing it. Some noble Lords will no doubt be around to see it; I am sure I will not be, but there we are.
Transport is a major source of CO2 pollution and the Government’s response to the Eddington and Stern reports, which are the bedrock of much of their transport policy at the moment, states:
“The Eddington study highlighted transport’s pivotal role in supporting the UK’s future economic success. It recommended a number of reforms to the planning, funding and delivery of transport interventions to maximise sustainable returns from investment, as well as recognising the need to improve the environmental performance of transport”.
I wish to review how the Government are implementing the intentions behind these promises.
Other noble Lords have referred to the problem of the growth in air traffic and it is worth reminding ourselves that, on current forecasts, the UK air passenger numbers will rise from 180 million to 475 million—much more than a doubling—by 2030, which is only 20 years away. This will trigger great increases in aviation fuel emissions, as will happen if permission is given for the third runway at Heathrow. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recently warned that this kind of expansion will see aviation fuel account for almost all of the nation’s permitted carbon outputs by 2050. No one else will be allowed these emissions; there will have to be a balance. It is an extraordinary idea that only the aviation industry will then be allowed to do it. I do not believe that the case has been made for the third runway or for any other kind of air transport expansion. It is also the case that if the third runway goes ahead, the pollution on the ground around Heathrow will exceed EU limits.
That deals with air; what about roads? The Government policy in the gracious Speech of protecting the environment for future generations will not have been helped by the announcement made by my right honourable friend Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Transport, on 25 November as part of his autumn Statement. He quite rightly wishes to contribute to job creation and said that in the transport field he is going ahead with £1 billion of new road construction, particularly connecting airports and ports. I immediately thought, “What is he doing for rail?”, which is much more environmentally friendly and has lower CO2 emissions. What the Government were doing for rail comprised 200 new passenger coaches which were already in the programme but were being brought forward, and a widening of the North London line after the Olympics had finished, which is four years away.
Why should we build roads to increase emissions when railway building could reduce them? I have been inquiring into that. Some people have said, “Well, all the road schemes are already prepared and waiting for someone to sign the cheque. The Highways Agency and local authorities have a big bank of schemes which can be used as soon as the money comes off a tree or something, like it did in November”.
I have also been inquiring why there were no rail schemes in that situation. It is difficult, as is usual with the railways, to know whose fault it is, if anyone’s. The Rail Regulator rejected a number of schemes in November as either not being quite ready or not having value for money, but I suspect some of the roads come under that category as well. They include the Kemble-Stroud doubling, the East Midland resignalling, some electrification and of course Skipton-Colne, which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about earlier. I am a member of that organisation too. There are probably many other schemes that could have been given the go-ahead if they had been prepared—or were they prepared? I do not know the answer, but it is pretty extraordinary that between the Department for Transport, Network Rail and, sometimes, promoters, there is not a bank of schemes that are ready to go when the money becomes available from either the private sector or the Government, or from allowing Network Rail to spend some more money.
I invite noble Lords to compare that situation with France where, I suggest, the economic climate is much the same. President Sarkozy has recently announced the construction of four high-speed lines concurrently. He is going to go through what they call “fast-track planning”. In France planning is pretty fast anyway, so I do not know what fast-track planning will be; it might be rather quicker than even the lovely Planning Bill, which my noble friend Lady Andrews piloted so successfully in the previous Session, will allow. Should we not be comparing the reaction of France—build four TGV lines quickly to create jobs, improve accessibility and generally improve the economy—with the reaction here, when we are spending £1 billion on motorways, airport links and port links but nothing on railways? I hope my noble friend can give me some comfort that I have got it wrong and that there is a big stash of rail projects that I do not know about, ready to be announced after Christmas. I fear, though, that he may not be able to, and I hope that he can reflect on how we can get this done better next time.
My Lords, this has been quite a long debate—although slightly shorter than I thought it would be at the beginning—about an eclectic group of subjects. The most optimistic speech was from the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, about the equality Bill. Equality is an area I believe in, obviously—at least I hope that is obvious—but not one that I often participate in when it comes to the legislative process, so this was a great opportunity to hear more about the Bill and the optimism around it as well as practical examples of how communities and different faiths and beliefs can be brought together. That was excellent.
I was also pleased to hear the contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I look forward to those fantastic female priests out in the country joining us on the Benches as bishops before the House is reformed, but we will see—that is not up to us so much.
I was slightly surprised that only two Conservative Back-Benchers contributed to the debate today.
My Lords, I do apologise. Still, I was surprised that there were not more.
My noble friend Lord Greaves was right that, as the Marine and Coastal Access Bill has its Second Reading on Monday, we should probably not go into detail about it now. I will, however, say: thank goodness that at last it has landed here in Parliament and we can get on with that important work. I think there will be broad consensus across the House. There is a huge task there with regard to marine management as well as the renewables programme and everything that will be required to put that in place, particularly in the waters of England and Wales.
It was quite interesting that, on climate change, the gracious Speech stated that,
“my Government will work towards European action on economic stability, on climate change, on energy, enlargement and security”.
I suppose that that is in a way quite right, because we are at a critical moment in climate change. The Poznán meeting on climate change is taking place at the moment. It leads up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009, which will really show whether Kyoto will survive or die. If it is to survive, which I presume all of us here hope, as it is the only game in town despite its many difficulties, the European Council must tomorrow make sure—I know that the Government and the French presidency will lead on this—that that climate change deal does not unravel. We can understand the difficulties of Poland—perhaps less so those of Italy—and the east European countries in meeting that. If Europe does not stick together and lead that process, there is absolutely no chance for the rest of the world, even though the United States might now come in more positively. We are on the cusp of taking that process through to Copenhagen next year.
In the past month, we have had the carbon budgets arrive in the United Kingdom. That is after the Climate Change, Energy and Planning Bills became Acts. That area of work has been done. The boxes have been ticked. One could almost take it from the Queen’s Speech, although I know that it is not meant in that way, that that is it, that we can now leave it to Europe and Copenhagen to sort it all out, and that we have done our bit. However, we all know that the real action starts now.
The global policy responses to climate change and Kyoto have had little effect as yet. We are approaching 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is to be compared with 270 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. If business continues as usual, we will be up to 750 parts per million and a rise in temperature well beyond two degrees. We have a number of problems ahead of us: a predicted growth in population from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050; an increase in transport, with 1 billion more cars expected on the road, mainly in India and China, by 2030; and rising energy intensity. Even with all the actions and more that we are talking about being taken and working globally—not business as usual—we will still have carbon emissions in 2030 at 25 per cent above what they are now. That is the scale of the challenge.
We in the United Kingdom congratulate ourselves on having already met our Kyoto targets for greenhouse gases by their being some 12.5 per cent less than in 1990. However, if you look at it in a different way and include aviation and shipping, and look at carbon consumption rather than carbon production by the UK economy, you will see that we have gone up by something like 19 per cent and have understated our figures by 37 per cent. That is the size of the problem that we still have here.
When I look at the gracious Speech, I think, “That’s fine. We’ve got the targets right. We’ve got the committee there that’s going to start to look at making the necessary tough decisions for us”. I congratulate the committee on its work so far, but what are the challenges for the year ahead? Why are we still allowing the construction of buildings that use oil heating? We should just say that that should not be allowed to happen. In our membership of the EU Council of Ministers, why are we not being far more insistent that car emission regulations should not be diluted? Why are we allowing it to happen? Why do we not have standards of carbon emissions for power stations? They produce a large proportion of our total carbon emissions. Why are we waiting until 2016 for domestic housing stock to be carbon neutral when we have the technology now? Why are we putting £10 million into anaerobic digestion demonstrations here when we know that they already work in Germany? Why do we not just transfer the technology and get on with it? I do not understand.
A number of noble Lords mentioned Heathrow. I was not one of those who objected to the third runway. I thought we should get the carbon price right. We should get the market perfect and let the market decide about the investments. But when you look at the figures and what is happening in terms of the challenges faced by the UK, the European Union and the globe, you see that we have to start making tough investment decisions. Such decisions embed carbon into our economy well into the future. The marginal cost of operating air out of those facilities goes down immediately. Once the infrastructure is in place, you use it and maximise its capacity. I am a convert. Having been sceptical of my own party's position, I have come to the conclusion that you have to make difficult decisions, not just to show leadership, but because you are stuck with power stations and other types of infrastructure for 50 or maybe 100 years.
I would ask another thing, not in terms of infrastructure but in a more personal way. With so many more millions of people now in energy poverty, at a time when energy prices are now going down on the wholesale and commodity markets, why are we not being far tougher on our energy companies and on the way that social tariffs are implemented?
In terms of carbon budgets, I would like to bring to the Minister's attention that the committee lays down that there need to be clear strategies to achieve emissions reductions in aviation and shipping. What will the Government do about that? It also says, although not as strongly as I would like, that:
“Conventional coal-fired power generation should only be built on the expectation that it will be retrofitted with CCS equipment by the early 2020s”.
I think that it should happen before that, but at least it is being laid down by the committee. We are now at a point where we not only have to set ourselves targets, but Europe and the United Kingdom have to continue our leadership. We also have to persuade others and deliver decisions, not just about markets and mechanisms; we must take some tough decisions about regulations as well.
This has been an interesting debate. I thank noble Lords for having educated me on equality in local government, an area that I hope we all now agree should be subject to subsidiarity. From these Benches we look forward to contributing to the Government’s programme and improving the legislation to a large degree in what might be a rather less hectic Session than last year.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as a farmer and grower and this evening I should like to declare my membership of the National Farmers’ Union. The NFU is 100 years old today and I am sure that the whole House will join in sending congratulations to this organisation, which continues to play such an important role in the life of our country.
The speeches in this debate have been of a consistently high standard. It has been a good debate on a gracious Speech more than usually lacking in substance. There are only 14 Bills in total, and only three deriving from subjects that we have discussed today. It is good to note that two of them are already under way here as Lords starters. They will surely receive the House’s customary scrutiny. The gracious Speech would have been enhanced and given substance if some of the missing ingredients were included. Where, for example, is the heritage protection Bill? I hope the Minister will explain why that Bill, trailed in the Government’s draft legislative programme, has been taken off the agenda.
I am further disappointed by the absence from the Queen’s Speech of a draft floods and water Bill. What reason is there for it not appearing in the Queen’s Speech? The Bill, arising from the recommendation of the Pitt report, was first promised for late autumn. Why is it missing now? The Bill is vital if the Government are to address the issues and strategic weaknesses in flood prevention revealed by those July floods 18 months ago, as well as to provide a renewed focus on that ever-important strategic resource, water. What are those victims of the floods to make of the Government’s delay? What is the message to those families—5 per cent of the total—still not back in their homes 18 months on? There were still 1,045 families out of their homes on 17 November; 118 of these families are housed in caravans.
I thank the Minister for presenting the Government’s programme. The noble Baroness put a fine gloss on it all. My noble friend Lady Warsi exposed the real substance of the Government’s Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. The Minister may think that regional development agencies are local democracy in action, but that is not what they think where I come from. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, speaking with the authority that his experience gives him, told the House what it was all about. Development is about personal initiative, and partnership is about personal connections, not interaction between bodies and structures. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, showed the vision which has been lacking from the Government on local government. Unless the Government are prepared to trust people and let go, local government will continue to be about control and systems, and less about people and real empowerment. My reading of the Bill is that it means all change and no change. That is, business as usual: plenty of bodies and plenty of meetings, but no real effective action.
The Minister majored on housing. I am surprised by that, given the Government’s record. Where are the 3 million houses promised by the Prime Minister? Housebuilding fell by a quarter last year. What happened to the social homebuy project? It should have helped 10,000 people by now. It has so far helped 235. What has become of the eco-town project? Only one appears to remain on the list. How many zero-carbon houses have been built? I can save the Minister the need to look up the answer; the answer is only 15. It will not do to blame the current economic situation. Until the autumn both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were boasting of the strength of the economy. These are not policies abandoned; these are policies which never got off the ground. The Government are in denial if they believe otherwise.
I turn now to the equality Bill. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, in a characteristically thoughtful speech, pointed out the considerable challenges that face the drafters of the equality Bill. However, anything that tidies up the current extensive equality legislation is welcome. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, is wrong to say that the Opposition do not support the objectives of the Bill. However, we consider it a primary duty of the Opposition to ensure that legislation is practical and correctly constructed to fulfil the aspirations of its architects.
My Lords, we are unequivocally so, and I shall elaborate on that. I am sorry if the noble Lord misunderstood what my noble friend said in her introduction.
The noble Lord is right to point out the need to ensure that extensive bureaucracy is to be avoided. The noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, who is not currently in his place, was also concerned about the impact of the Bill. The noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Hornsey, Lady Greengross and Lady Prashar, while welcoming the Bill, were determined to ensure that it achieved its objectives; that is our position, too. As the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, said, no one can doubt my noble friend Lady Warsi’s commitment on this.
A number of noble Lords were looking for a transport Bill that was not there. I am far from sure that the Government know what they want to do on this. Their messages appear confused. Where do they stand on Heathrow’s third runway? What are they to say to satisfy the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Berkeley, on the railways?
I am pleased that we have a Marine and Coastal Access Bill. We have argued for it. It has finally arrived after a long delay. “Dithering” is the word that comes to mind. New measures for marine conservation were announced in 2001. In 2002, Safeguarding our Seas was jointly published by the Government and devolved regions. In 2004, the Defra five-year plan strategy included marine issues. In 2005, the state of the seas report was issued. In 2006, comments were requested for the strategic direction of a marine Bill. In 2007, the White Paper draft Bill was produced. Well, it is here now; all 314 clauses, with 91 pages of schedules. We start the Second Reading of that Bill on Monday, and I do not propose to start debating the issues. I am sure that little divides us on the principles of the Bill, but it is full of the sort of detail in which the devil lies and I shall seek to search it out.
Although it is not within the scope of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, was right to raise the issues of fish discards. I assure her that she has the Opposition’s support in seeking to end the current system.
On agriculture, my noble friend Lady Shephard talked of the global crisis for food security. Policies and initiatives in agriculture of course lie in Brussels. The absence of any substantive reform of the CAP means that there is no chance of legislation in this area. What has become of the Government’s bid to reform the CAP? The answer is that it is nowhere. “For what did we give up our rebate?”, I ask. I remember that debate, only a few months ago in this House, looking forward to the CAP health check. How disappointed all those who participated in that debate must be at the outcome of those discussions. No reform of the CAP is in prospect. Without reform, the CAP will be unable to meet the demands of a hungry world. How right my noble friend was to point out that the priority should be to optimise agricultural production in this country.
My noble friend Lord Selborne rightly reminded the House of the need to optimise our agricultural resources while safeguarding the natural world. We do not achieve that by implementing the pesticides regulations currently proposed in Brussels. They could have a catastrophic effect on the food security agenda, and destroy at a stroke the localism food agenda. My noble friend drew attention to the debate that he has initiated, which I think will be held in January, on scientific research and agriculture. How right my noble friend Lady Byford was to point out how vulnerable our livestock industry has become. It is widely thought by many working and living in the countryside that this Government know little and care less about the welfare of rural Britain. If that is a false impression, I challenge the Government to provide evidence to the contrary through the deeds they perform.
The gracious Speech has been widely interpreted as indicating an early general election. If that is so, it may be the last of this Labour Government. Whatever the context in which the Government present their legislation, they can be confident that the Opposition will scrutinise with energetic thoroughness the miscellany of Bills identified in the gracious Speech.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, which has ranged widely, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, remarked. I have learnt a lot from the contributions. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that I am not, alas, in a position to comment on the date of the next election. However, we are very confident that our programme is good. I have no doubt that noble Lords will ensure that legislation in this House receives the considerable scrutiny that it deserves. Although some noble Lords referred to measures that they would have liked to see included in the programme, there is no question that they do not believe that what is included is important legislation. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that my understanding is that the financial privilege question is subject to discussion in the usual channels. I support that.
I will not respond directly to the interesting comments made about Scottish democracy. That is for another day. However, the debate about local democracy is very important. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, spoke eloquently about active citizens and the role of social entrepreneurs. Of course, we aspire to joined-up government. There is no doubt that his work in Bromley-by-Bow is inspirational. We very much want to learn from his experience. I say on behalf of my noble friend that we are very keen to engage with him to learn lessons that will help to inform future policy.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that the prospect of the Government pleading their cause to local authorities to raise tax must have featured in his dreams. Of course, I understand the benefit of local democracy. I became involved in politics through becoming a local councillor in Oxford and then in Birmingham. I well understand the hugely important leadership role that local government can play. In the present difficult financial conditions, that leadership role becomes ever more important. I believe that noble Lords very much endorsed that approach. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the public look for consistency. Governments have a right to set some kind of performance framework within which local authorities will operate. We have tried to get the balance right. The various pieces of legislation that my noble friend has taken through the House in recent years indicate that considerable progress has been made in shifting power and influence from central government. I shall not list the changes that have occurred but I believe that they are a visible sign of the Government’s wish to do that.
The freedoms and flexibilities review, currently linked to the comprehensive performance assessment results, when the comprehensive area assessment is introduced in April 2009, will be another opportunity for us to take forward the debate about the key partnership we want to see between central government, local government and local communities.
I totally disagree with the party opposite and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in their views on regional development agencies. They are simply wrong. My experience in the West Midlands with Advantage West Midlands is that RDAs play a critical role in partnership with local government, businesses and all the other key sectors in ensuring an appropriate strategy of putting together support which could not come from individual local authorities. My noble friend Lord Smith was right when he stressed that RDAs are not seeking to dictate what happens but to work in partnership with local government. The new government structure that will result from this legislation is the way to ensure that partnership approach. I noted his comments about late payments in the Audit Commission and I will ensure the commission is informed. I also noted the comments by my noble friend Lady Billingham about the fantastic story of Corby. It has been a remarkable transformation and clearly there is much that we can learn from that uplifting experience.
We have had some very interesting contributions on equality. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, spoke of fears she has come across of what she described as “a lowest common denominator approach” in bringing the various pieces of legislation together in a new Act. The Government have no such intention. In many ways this is a far more ambitious and broader piece of work than simply pulling together a single piece of equality legislation because it brings together in one place all the existing, rather piecemeal elements of discrimination law.
It does more than that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, suggested. We are looking for streamlined legislation that will simplify and standardise the law as far as possible. It is our contention that simpler law should lead to simpler guidance produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and that simpler guidance should lead to better understanding. I agree with noble Lords who say that we need effective and practical legislation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, whom I enjoyed working with at the Ministry of Justice, about the need for clear, consistent standards and a regulatory framework to achieve widespread change. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, spoke of the challenges of the current economic crisis, and I endorse her point that legislation should be fit for purpose for years to come and people should be fairly treated. That is the Government’s aim. She raised the question about guidance on positive action. It will be very important that we get that right and we look to the commission to produce clear guidance, particularly on what is and is not allowed under positive action.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made a notable intervention on age discrimination. The Government are committed to banning age discrimination against adults aged 18 or over in the provision of goods, facilities and services and the exercise of public functions. This is one of the areas where protection has been missing and which the equality Bill will put right. Of course that is not the end of the story; much needs to be done. The noble Baroness has done the House a great service by bringing to our attention many of the problems. Action on Elder Abuse, for instance, has detailed a number of areas where we need to see decisive action taken forward.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is concerned that the Bill is too long. I accept that 320 clauses is a considerable length, but it will be a good deal shorter than the combined size of all nine major pieces of discrimination law that it will replace. Frankly, it will also allow your Lordships a great deal of opportunity to ensure scrutiny of those 320 clauses.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting him. I made a point that he has not dealt with, about the Equality and Human Rights Commission being a Whitehall orphan Annie, in that no department has yet taken responsibility for it. The reason that matters is that, although the commission has a brilliant chief executive in Nicola Brewer, in its early days the commission needs a lot of Whitehall support until it grows into the body that we all hope and expect it to be. Will the Minister try to produce a situation in which the Justice Secretary, or another appropriate Minister, becomes the guardian of the commission ministerially and gives it the support that Nicola Brewer and her staff deserve?
My Lords, I was coming to that. The noble Lord is absolutely right about the need for appropriate support and proper departmental responsibility. I certainly understand that, and I will take that back. We set up the Government Equalities Office precisely to co-ordinate a strategy on equality issues. The office is responsible, among other things, for sponsorship of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I understand that the noble Lord wants to be assured that there is strong departmental support across Whitehall. Of course that is our intention, and I will certainly ensure that the appropriate Ministers consider that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that the Government should be an exemplar in this area. There clearly is more that can be done and ought to be done, and we will be very keen to pursue it. We have looked carefully at the case for equal pay audits, which was included in our consultation last year. We do not think that it makes sense to require them in all situations. There are a variety of factors that cause unequal pay. Equal pay audits can be a useful means for a business organisation to review its pay structures for fairness, but we are not persuaded that they should be used in every situation. I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, in her place, because I well understand her interest and concern in this area.
My noble friend Lord Parekh made the point about equal pay for ethnic minorities. That is already covered. If someone is being paid less because they are from an ethnic minority, they have a claim for race discrimination. My advice is that there is no need for a BME equivalent of the Equal Pay Act. On the question that he raised about the policies of banks, I will pass that to the Treasury for its consideration.
My noble friend Lord Parekh asked whether procurement was likely to be effective. We have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas, Lady Greengross and Lady Prashar, that using procurement could be a very effective way of dealing with these matters. Public sector procurement is over £170 billion a year. It is quite right to use the leverage that we have in these areas, and we are working hard to see how that can be done effectively. I understand the point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about ensuring that regulation on equalities will not unduly burden small organisations in the third sector. I very much sympathise with that point. Equally, given the number of organisations and small businesses, it is absolutely right that they should be covered by the law and we should expect them to operate the law as it is laid down.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark was worried that religious beliefs and rights might be less equal. Of course that is a very important point on which noble Lords will wish to have extensive debate. It is important to strike the right balance between conflicting rights—for example, protection on the grounds of religion or belief and protection on the grounds of sexual orientation. We think we have it right with existing domestic legislation. We are very sensitive to those issues and will listen with great care to the debate in your Lordships’ House.
It was fascinating to hear of the outstanding work of my noble friend Lord Mitchell and that of his fellow parliamentarians. My wife is Jewish and she teaches at a sixth form college with over 90 per cent Muslim students. I very much empathise with the points he raised and I am sure that noble Lords would welcome the opportunity of a debate in the future so that we can learn more about this outstanding work.
The right reverend Prelate made a point about the way legislation is undertaken, complaining about the problem of late amendments introduced by the Government, which then create order-making powers. I understand that, but I pray in aid the Energy Bill, when the Government decided to introduce feed-in tariffs and heat incentives as a result of debate in Parliament. Inevitably, they were brought in at a late stage and the provisions involved order-making powers because it was not possible to undertake detailed work. I accept that amendments should not be brought willy-nilly at a late stage, but sometimes it is in response to the debates in Parliament. That is how scrutiny ought to work.
My noble friend Lord Graham emphasised how important housing is, particularly in the current economic climate. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, my noble friend Lady Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Whitty all emphasised the real challenge that we face. Of course we understand the critical pressures in the housing market as a result of reduced credit and a loss of confidence. I want to reassure noble Lords that we remain committed to our long-term housing supply goals and the targets to increase housing supply and respond to long-term demand. We are increasingly emphasising the role of affordable housing, including homes for social rent and low-cost home ownership. I very much accept the point made by my noble friend Lady Jones about the private rented sector. She knows of the independent review on this headed by Julie Rugg of the University of York. We are very carefully considering the recommendations made in this regard.
Noble Lords will know of the action that the Government have taken on the issues of mortgages and the fear of repossession during the downturn. We will continue to work very closely with the lenders in this area to ensure that the problems that have been identified are dealt with effectively.
We had a very interesting debate on transport matters. My noble friend Lord Soley asked where the integrated transport system was. I was a member of Oxford City Council in 1973 when we introduced the integrated transport policy. I am as committed as anyone to integration. That is what the Government are seeking to do on transport.
We have heard trenchant remarks on either side of the debate about Heathrow. I am not going to comment, because my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced that he will take a decision in January 2009. We have had a huge number of responses to the consultation. Of course I understand the issues and the tensions. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that, whatever the decision, it will be a tough one to make, and all these matters will be very carefully considered.
My noble friend Lord Adonis is currently very much looking at the issues surrounding rail, and I shall ensure that the trenchant comments that we have received are passed on to him with enthusiasm. I very much understand the point that was made about rail schemes that are in the back pocket and ready to come forward. I, too, am not sure exactly where one can point the finger, but my experience is that the railway industry can be pretty slow at responding, even when money becomes available for local schemes. That is my experience in Birmingham, where we have been able to open some tracks with a huge passenger response but we could do so much more. I would not ignore the role of the regional development agencies in getting people to work together. Alas, I cannot as yet report progress to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, concerning the Colne-Skipton line, but I am aware of the issue.
The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, raised the question of road safety. He made some very important points about the need to continue to improve road safety and the need for digital maps. He is right to draw that to our attention, and we are seeking to do more to improve our record in this important area.
On energy and climate change, there is no question but that we hope that the current talks in Poznan and the Heads of State meeting in Europe this week will lead to a successful conclusion. That is absolutely critical. Our negotiations in Copenhagen follow on from Kyoto. These are critical decisions. I believe that the decision that this House and another place made during the passage of the Climate Change Bill to go for an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was very important in helping to get the right international agreement. However, no one should be under any illusion about the challenge of achieving such international agreement.
With regard to microgeneration—a subject raised by many noble Lords—the feed-in tariffs introduced in the Energy Bill are very important. In relation to nuclear, there is the proposed takeover of British Energy by EDF, which is subject to the Brussels competition authorities. Part of the takeover bid contains proposals to build new nuclear, and I think that that enjoys general support in your Lordships’ House.
The question of fairness of pricing was raised by my noble friend Lord Whitty and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. There must be fairness: it is wrong that poor people find themselves adversely affected by the tariff system. My noble friend knows that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made that clear to the energy companies. In answer to the question raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, last night my right honourable friend gave a speech in which he talked about the interrelationship between markets and the role of government. I will send him a copy of that speech, as I think he will find that it denotes an important emphasis on getting that balance right and making clear the role of government in this area.
I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for his work on living with environmental change. I very much agree with him. I recently attended an international conference in Brazil on biofuels. The second generation is very important and this has to be undertaken in a sustainable way. We have to deal with the issue of indirect land use, which is causing much angst among many people. I also very much agree with the noble Earl about innovation, and I wonder whether marine technology is an area to emphasise. Where the UK is currently in the lead on technology, we must do everything that we can to encourage the sector to make the most of it.
It is very appropriate to come to the question of farming in the last few minutes of the debate. Like other noble Lords, I pay great tribute to the NFU on its 100th anniversary. It is a tremendous organisation which wisely relocated its headquarters to Warwickshire. It is to be commended on that.
Of course the Government understand the importance of the food and fisheries sector. Who could not understand its importance to the economy, its importance to employers and its importance because of the high quality of the food it produces. Our role is to do everything we can to support the sector. Of course, I well understand the points raised by both noble Baronesses about some of the pressures on the industry at present. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned the dairy sector and went on to talk about the issue of credit available to farmers at the moment. We are all too aware of the pressures on the sector.
On bluetongue and an import ban, an Oral Question will be asked next week, but we do not think that the imposition of a ban on imports is the right approach. The noble Baroness will know that the Commission has been looking at developing an approach and we are clearly looking at that carefully. We re-emphasise the importance of the vaccine programme for next year and we are clearly learning some of the lessons. We must also look at the current rules to see whether they are adequate. We will then take forward further discussions in Europe on that matter. I suspect that it is rather late for us to engage in a detailed debate on bovine TB, but I reassure the noble Baroness that of course the Government take that disease seriously and that we are committed to tackling it using all available measures. She will know that there is a group from which we seek advice. We are guided by the science and will continue to be ever alert.
On food security, the Government are not at all complacent. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has issued a Written Statement today on food security following a discussion paper that he produced in July this year. The interesting point that I take from that Written Statement is that most of those who have responded to the discussion paper have agreed that we should not base our food security policy on the pursuit of self-sufficiency. The debate has really shifted to a broader discussion of the complex factors that contribute to our food security. We announced the membership today of the council of food policy advisers. They will be asked to advise on what may be necessary in future to ensure that we have a secure and sustainable food system in the UK. What is not in doubt is the role and contribution that our farming sector has to make to that and its enormous value to our nation.
On the CAP health check, we would have wished to have made further progress. We did not support the final deal because we wished that further progress had been made. We continue to look to longer-term reform of the CAP. Our vision is to see the elimination of Pillar 1 of the CAP altogether with payments to farmers targeted at specific public bands such as environment enhancement through Pillar 2.
On the question of fisheries, I well understand the question of discarding and the challenge of mixed fishing. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, asked me to ensure that my colleague understood her points. I certainly undertake to do so. No one can be in any doubt about the difficulties of negotiations in Europe on this matter or the pressure on the fishing industry in this country.
I thought we would spend considerable time on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, but noble Lords are anticipating our Second Reading debate next Monday. This Bill has received a great deal of attention. The only criticism has been that it has taken us too long to produce it.
I have to say to the Benches opposite that they normally accuse us of producing too much legislation. When we produce a Queen’s Speech that is well ordered and not over-full, we are criticised for all sorts of motivations. That is completely wrong because this is a well ordered legislative programme. It is true that we do not have a Bill in relation to floods and water, but that is not because we are complacent. We will be responding to the Pitt report shortly, and we are taking measures now, short of legislation, to ensure that we are well prepared for future floods.
My noble friend Lord Graham, who has been a doyen of the Co-operative movement for so many years, was right when he talked about the value of co-operation and credit unions. I assure him that the Government will not be put off by the doubters and dissenters whom we heard in this debate.
However, in general, we have had a constructive debate, for which I thank all noble Lords. We know that we face formidable challenges, but this Government have shown their ability to recognise the global nature of the challenge and have ensured global co-operation. This Government have shown their ability to lead our nation by taking decisive action and have the vision and determination to get us through. I commend the humble Address to your Lordships.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.
Broads Authority Bill
Committed to Committee
The Bill was brought from the Commons; the declaration of the agent having been deposited in accordance with Private Business Standing Order 150A (Suspension of Bills). The Bill was read a first time. It was then deemed to have been read a second time and committed to a Select Committee.
House adjourned at 9.52 pm.