House of Lords
Tuesday, 24 February 2009.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.
Benefits: Winter Fuel Allowance
My Lords, winter fuel payments are paid to people aged 60 and over to help to mitigate the effects of cold weather during the winter months. There are no plans to alter the eligibility criteria for winter fuel payments this winter. This year, the winter fuel payment is £250 for households with someone aged between 60 and 79, and £400 for households with someone aged 80 and over.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer but, given the National Audit Office’s scathing report on the failure of the Government’s Warm Front programme to reach the poorest and most vulnerable of our people, I wonder whether he might like to look at this again. When are the Government really going to get it right on fuel poverty?
My Lords, fuel poverty is a significant issue for the Government. We are committed to tackling it and have already put in place a number of measures to help those vulnerable to it. Since 2000, the Government have spent £20 billion on benefits and programmes to help those vulnerable to fuel poverty. In addition to this help, in September 2008 the Government announced an extra £1 billion package to tackle fuel poverty; the proposed new package includes £910 million towards the national home energy saving programme.
My Lords, will the Government consider extending the eligibility of this scheme to those in receipt of the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance who are under 60? I declare an interest in that I receive the DLA, although unfortunately I am not under 60. There is a limit to the number of woolly jumpers that people can wear when the weather gets very cold and they have very limited mobility.
My Lords, as I explained, we have no plans to extend eligibility. We believe that the right way to support people who are disabled is through disability benefits, in particular the disability living allowance. At the moment, somebody on the highest rate of care component and the higher rate of mobility component would receive a benefit of something in excess of £113 per week. We believe that that is the right way. I should add that people who are disabled do not necessarily suffer the consequences of fluctuating weather conditions. For example, someone who is profoundly deaf will not necessarily have an extra need for support with their heating, compared with others.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that the Government have done their share towards combating fuel poverty and it is about time that some of the utility companies accepted their responsibility? Although energy prices have been falling, that has not been reflected in consumer prices at anything like the speed that the increases were when energy prices started rising.
My Lords, my noble friend is right that the energy companies need to do more, which is why the Government are engaged with them, particularly on data sharing, so that their efforts can be targeted on the most vulnerable. My noble friend is also right about energy prices. Domestic gas prices rose by 51 per cent in the year to September 2008 and domestic electricity prices rose by 31 per cent. While wholesale forward prices for gas and electricity have fallen by something like 40 per cent, that has not yet fed through into cuts to retail consumers, although some of the energy companies have at last announced some decreases.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the energy companies, particularly the gas and electricity suppliers to householders, are bombarding customers with various bits of literature? First, they have a self-read scheme, then they write and say that they do not have one and are going to do X, Y and Z instead. The documents are all in small type with lots of words and they go straight into the rubbish basket. What is Ofgem doing about making the companies more consumer friendly and making people who suffer from fuel poverty aware of what they can do and what they can get? I see that the noble Lord sitting beside the Minister is nodding in agreement.
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a relevant point, on which my noble friend was whispering in my ear. We are continuing to engage on the issue to make sure that the messages from the energy companies are clear and, importantly, targeted on the most vulnerable in particular.
My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the fuel poverty lobby, of which I am happy to be an office bearer, both in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, has been advocating a gold standard for the relief of the poorest consumers? At the moment, we are allowing a free market in poverty subsidy rather than properly addressing the issue. The Government really have to grasp the legislative nettle and create a gold standard for fuel poverty assistance for the poorest consumers. We cannot allow the matter to be left to companies, which often fail to meet the undertakings that they have given to the Government because there is a lack of definition in what is required. The Government should show leadership on the issue.
My Lords, I believe that we are showing leadership on the issue. We are continuing to engage with the energy companies. In the Pensions Act last year, we legislated on data sharing, which is an important component of making sure that we can share data on the most vulnerable so that the energy companies can play their part. As for what the Government are doing to play their part, in winter 2007-08 we made more than 12 million payments to more than 8.5 million households. In total, something like £2 billion was spent on winter fuel payments over the winter.
My Lords, the winter fuel allowance is not the only way of combating fuel poverty. There are also cold weather payments to certain recipients of benefit. As these depend on weather stations and their hinterland, is the Minister satisfied that the stations are in the right places?
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to say that cold weather payments are part of the support that is available. The Government have increased the allowance from £8.50 to £25 over the post-Christmas period. The Met Office advises that the network of 76 weather stations is sufficient to provide national coverage with a reasonable level of local sensitivity. Three main factors are taken into account in recommending links between postcodes and weather stations: the proximity of the station to the main centres of population; whether the weather station is reasonably representative of the local climatic conditions; and the speed and reliability with which information about temperatures can be obtained. These are reviewed on a routine basis and any representations made are taken into account. The noble Lord may be interested to know that, of the 76 stations, 61 have triggered cold weather payments during the current season. There has been a total of 156 triggers, rising from just one per area to as many as six.
Statute Law Database
My Lords, the statute law database is being updated in accordance with a priority list reflecting both specific requests and hits on legislation via the Office of Public Sector Information and statute law database websites. Those Acts likely to be affected by the equality Bill are unlikely to be up-to-date when the Bill is introduced. However, consolidated versions of the relevant legislation can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website free of charge. The Library also has access to commercial databases.
My Lords, perhaps the Minister would take this as a request in relation to the equality legislation and the statute law database. I thank him for his reply. In the light of the reported views of the Secretary of State for Business, can he confirm the commitment given in the discrimination law review that future equality legislation should involve no loss of protection for groups covered by equality legislation and should, indeed, enhance it where appropriate?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. The way to get the statute law database up to date on this more quickly is for him and others to use the website so that priority is gained. I point out to the House the huge progress that has been made under successive Governments to enable online access to legislation, which has been free to all users since December 2006. On the noble Lord’s other point, on the proposed equality Bill, I can confirm what he said.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is in the best interests of employers, trade unions, business enterprises and ordinary men and women that we should replace the present opaque, lumpish morass of anti-discrimination legislation with a single equality Act that is user-friendly? Does he also agree that we need to devise a scheme whereby employers and trade unions are rewarded, if there is a proper job evaluation scheme, with some transitional protection to enable equal pay to be brought about at last, all these years after the 1970 Act?
My Lords, we agree absolutely with what the noble Lord says about the need to change the morass that there has been in this field over a number of years. That is one of the main reasons for the Bill. On his second question, we are very much taking his expert views into consideration.
My Lords, when a statute is on the database and up to date, and it is amended by order or some other means, I gather that there is a considerable time lapse before the amendment is made. Would it be possible to flag the version on the database so that people know that they have to look for other information?
Yes, indeed, my Lords. There can be a time lag. Making sure that legislation is on the database in the best possible way is still a huge enterprise that we are involved in. A user can find out whether there are outstanding effects to be applied via a warning notice that appears—I have seen one myself this morning—on the “results within legislation” page, listing the years from which there are outstanding effects on that legislation. Users may then link through to the “tables of legislative effects” page, recording all outstanding effects for each of the years from 2002 to the present. It is actually much easier to do that than the way in which I describe it.
Economy: Arts and Culture
My Lords, the arts and culture sector has an important contribution to make towards economic recovery. The past 10 years have seen sustained government investment in culture and our cultural institutions have succeeded in attracting new audiences, often to new publicly-funded facilities. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with its sponsored bodies to help the cultural sector continue to function effectively and manage the risks which the present economic situation presents.
My Lords, given the recent critical success of the British film, TV and music industries and the enduring contribution made by our theatres, museums and art galleries to the vital tourism and leisure industries, will my noble friend study the art aspects of the economic recovery programmes of President Obama and, indeed, of President Roosevelt? Will he invest in the arts to create more jobs, increase consumer spending and cheer us up a bit?
My Lords, we certainly all take pride in recent successes, including the Oscar-winning British film, “Slumdog Millionaire”. Investment in the cultural industries produces rich pay-offs for the economy. We have seen significant investment in recent years, which shows itself in increased attendance at events throughout the United Kingdom, and in increased tourism, not necessarily in increased numbers of tourists—we all recognise the difficulties there—but in expenditure, which was up last year.
My Lords, as the noble Lord will readily appreciate, that is a difficult analysis but the percentage is certainly growing given our flourishing arts and culture in the United Kingdom and the great increase in attendance. Theatre attendance has increased not just in the London West End but right across the United Kingdom and the BBC is the biggest exporter of television services in the world. There is no doubt about the significance of this sector to the economy.
My Lords, we can all take pride in the successes of our creative industries, not least this week with the Oscars and London Fashion Week. However, before the Government get too self-congratulatory, perhaps the Minister can explain why the Home Office does not appear to share his and the DCMS’s enthusiasm for the creative industries. He will no doubt be aware of the outcry over the new, heavier visa restrictions on non-EU artists visiting this country for performances and exhibitions. Will he and the DCMS champion those artists and ensure that the Home Office changes those regulations?
My Lords, I never thought that the noble Lord would accuse me of being self-congratulatory on behalf of the Government but rather of purely producing accurate facts about government performance. He has highlighted an important issue with regard to immigration into this country and to people entering the country. I do not underestimate that aspect but the Question is about the contribution to the economy as a whole. The noble Lord will recognise that the issue he raises is relatively marginal in those terms.
My Lords, the arts and culture sector has had outstanding people who have contributed to this important development. Is it not important that the financial help that has been given is continued and, in certain circumstances, increased in order to retain the high standards that we have so far achieved and which we must continue?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. He has been a supporter of this strategy over the period in which the Government have invested heavily in culture and the arts—right from the very beginning of our determination to end charges for access to British museums, which year on year has meant an increase in attendance. I can respond positively to my noble friend and thank him for his contribution on these issues.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that apart from economic considerations the greatest contribution the Government can make is to enhance the morale of artists, performers, administrators and audiences by accentuating the positive and by not being defensive?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord because he has also been a great supporter of the arts and culture as well as being a distinguished former Secretary of State. Of course these are difficult economic times and it is right that the question of the extent to which the creative industries can contribute to the economy should be addressed. I accept his point that the arts and culture sector should be valued in its own right as well as for the contribution that it makes to the economy.
My Lords, without disagreeing in any sense with my noble friend’s point about the value of the arts for their own sake, is he aware that one of the highest grossing movies of all time, “Mamma Mia!” was directed by a British director, Phyllida Lloyd, and written by a British writer, Catherine Johnson, whose careers both started in the subsidised theatre in this country? The film grew out of a very successful British theatre musical. Does my noble friend accept that that small investment at the early stage in the careers of artists and institutions can produce a significant economic return in the long run?
My Lords, the House recognises my noble friend’s contribution to the arts. I thought last week that I would be citing “Mamma Mia!” in terms of the achievement of British films. I move to “Slumdog Millionaire” after eight Oscars. I am grateful to my noble friend for referring to “Mamma Mia!”, which is one of our more successful developments.
My Lords, I declare an interest as vice president of the Llangollen international music festival. I follow the question of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones on our worry about new immigration rules and the effect on choirs of children from overseas competing in the UK. How will those problems be overcome so that children will still be able to come not only to Llangollen but to other festivals?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that issue. I know how concerned he was about the visit of a choir from Uganda to this country. We all recognise the significance of Llangollen in world music. We have to address these issues; there is no intention to restrict those who can contribute to the country’s enjoyment and welfare by the arrangements we make for visas and entry to the United Kingdom. However, the noble Lord will also recognise that there will always be difficult cases, and he knows that there has been considerable sympathy for the case that he has put forward.
Energy: Renewable Gas
My Lords, the Government welcome National Grid’s recent report on renewable gas. Renewable gas is one of a number of low-carbon, renewable technologies that could help us meet our renewable energy targets. We will consider the report carefully in preparation for our forthcoming renewable energy strategy.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The report from National Grid estimates that up to half of domestic gas consumption could be met from renewable gas, which I understand is biomethane created by the anaerobic digestion or thermal gasification—I am not an expert on either of those—of biodegradable waste. When the Government look at this, will they make an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the use of domestic biodegradable waste and food as a means of manufacturing gas, and compare it with other means of using biodegradable domestic waste and food in a useful way?
My Lords, the short answer is yes. The noble Lord makes a very fair point. While we welcome the report from National Grid, it makes what can only be described as ambitious assumptions, such as that 48 per cent of residential gas demand could be met through the biomethane processes that the noble Lord mentioned. While this does have potential, I doubt whether one could reach the figure that the report suggests.
My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. The department continues to be in discussion with both Ofgem and the energy suppliers in relation to issues such as prepaid meters, the prices they charge and the issues raised in the first Oral Question today. I assure my noble friend that we will keep the matter very much in mind.
My Lords, the Government’s 2007 UK biomass strategy stated strongly that the most cost-effective energy use for biomass is through heat. However, throughout the Committee stage of the Energy Bill, now the Energy Act, the Government resisted the direct input of biogas into the national grid. Will they now reconsider that view?
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, we are preparing a strategy and we will certainly pick up that point. He might also have mentioned the Government’s decision, as legislation was going through, to introduce renewable heat incentives, which we hope will be introduced by 2011. We hope that this will add impetus in this area.
My Lords, although I accept that the target was ambitious and a much lower target would be valuable, do the Government not accept that the real problem with food and biodegradable waste from domestic premises is that there is no adequate system of collection at the moment; that this is the main area where recycling collections should be improved; and that this will require considerable investment and encouragement by the Government?
My Lords, local authorities too can play their part, and I hope that the landfill mechanism will provide that incentive. The noble Lord is right: although the waste that is collected by local authorities could be used in the way suggested by National Grid, it also has an important contribution to make in terms of recyclables. He is right to talk about food as well. All those matters need to be considered and that is why the ambitious goals that National Grid has set would be very difficult to realise. However, that does not mean that there are not substantive points in the report that we need to consider carefully, including the regulatory regime and access to the grid, which are very important.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, with the leave of the House, my noble friend Lord Bach will repeat a Statement made in the other place entitled “Freedom of Information Act 2000”. We will take the Statement immediately after the debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Soley.
Health: Disease Control (Intergovernmental Organisations Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in moving the Motion I want to draw attention to this report, which I think has been very well received not only in this country but in other parts of the world. It is one of a number of reports dealing with contagious diseases over a number of years. What is different about this one is that it deals essentially with the relationship between this Government and the intergovernmental organisations through which we work and which involve an enormous amount of British taxpayers’ money. A minimum of £450 million to £500 million goes into a number of these organisations, so that is an important part of the relationship.
The report is also an indication of how, as some of the other reports on contagious diseases have recently suggested, the world has changed. The development of transport and trade means that we no longer have any frontiers that will stop diseases. Before there was easy movement in trade and transport, diseases tended to stay within certain geographical areas. There were exceptions to that, of course, but diseases then were largely much more constrained. The modern world means that it is much easier for contagious diseases to spread, sometimes with quite catastrophic effects, and we have seen a number of warning signs.
The committee analysed four major diseases—malaria, TB, AIDS/HIV and influenza—not in detail, but to see how the intergovernmental organisations and other organisations involved were either preventing those diseases or responding to them once they happened. Although we were not involved in making judgments about other diseases, many other diseases came up during our inquiries, some of the most worrying of which were the emerging new diseases which we have yet to be alerted to. As I say, we simply used those four major diseases to highlight some aspects of the relationship within intergovernmental organisations.
I put on record my thanks to the clerk of the committee, Robert Preston, who has recently retired; indeed, he retired just after the report was completed, although I hope to conclude that there was no causal effect between the two actions. He served the House a long time and deserves our thanks for that. I also thank the other members of the staff and our excellent adviser, Sandra Mounier-Jack, who gave excellent advice. I also thank, most notably, all Members from all sides of the House who served on the committee.
Our inquiry discovered that the United Kingdom has a very good reputation around the world not only for the amount of finance that it puts into dealing with contagious diseases but for the professionalism with which we act through the Department for International Development and the people whom we place in the various medical bodies and intergovernmental organisations around the world. We received truly unsolicited praise. I think that every now and then we as a country have to give ourselves a pat on the back for how much we are doing, in work which is so well recognised around the world. Many of the witnesses told us, without any encouragement from me or other members of the committee, that they very much welcomed a parliamentary committee from another country coming and taking evidence from them. It had very rarely happened to any of them before and was a new experience. Yet one of them said to me in a private conversation afterwards, “I don’t think people in Britain realise just how much money is spent in these organisations and they ought to take a little more interest”. One of the messages from this is that we need to take more evidence from people in these positions around the world. They certainly welcomed it, and I think that we ought to do it a little more often.
Because of some of the recent alerts, such as SARS, and concerns about world health, there has in recent years been a dramatic increase in the funding of disease prevention and control. Alongside that, however, there has also been an increase in the number of organisations dealing with diseases. Those organisations can be split into five broad groups: intergovernmental organisations, national government organisations, public-private partnerships, non-governmental organisations, and private foundations such the Gates Foundation. It is worth noting that the Gates Foundation spends billions of pounds; it spends more than the core budget of the WHO. An enormous quantity of money is pouring into this area.
This explosion of organisations obviously creates a problem: what was referred to as the “institutional labyrinth” of organisations. There were so many that a diagram was produced for us which would remind you of a close-up photograph of the maze at Windsor. It was impossible to find your way through or to link all the organisations. The general view, and that of the Government, is that they are not well co-ordinated. That is not a criticism; it is not meant to say that the organisations are not doing their jobs properly. It is hardly surprising. With an increase in funding of the type that we have seen, and the increase in the number of organisations, it would be quite extraordinary if the co-ordination was as good as it should be. Given the nature and seriousness of intercommunicable diseases, it is important that we work hard on that. That was one of our recommendations and I will touch on it again.
One of the issues that we discussed was whether reorganisation should take place from the top down. In other words, should we try to impose a structure on this labyrinth? By and large, we felt that that would not work well, but other people felt that it might be the best way of doing it. However, we felt that an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary, approach was needed. We were aware that several organisations were increasingly working together and linking their practices much more effectively.
This is particularly important in the context of the current world economic crisis. It would be quite extraordinary if, as a result of the world economic crisis, countries generally did not try to squeeze some of the finances going into these areas. The efficient working of these organisations, and the co-operation between them, becomes a vital matter. It is also an important issue for the recipient countries. We discovered that each of the many organisations offering help to the neediest countries had its own accounting structures, administrative needs and so on. They were asking those countries to respond to them. There were many requests for a developing country to, in effect, duplicate the accountancy and administrative methods, putting a considerable burden on countries that were not well equipped to do this. One of our recommendations tries to deal with this matter.
Recommendation 210 says:
“The aim should be to secure alignment of donor input to disease control programmes within the national health programme of recipient countries”.
That is important because there is a problem in making sure that we do not deal with a disease without dealing with the needs of a health service structure within the developing country. We need to be able to do both. I shall return to this in a moment in the context of recommendation 192, that the Government should aim for a better balance between vertical and horizontal systems of healthcare. The vertical system, as the name implies, deals with one specific disease; for example, you would try to treat malaria in this way. An argument for a horizontal system would be trying to improve the health system of a country so that it can deal with malaria. However, if you try to put it as a question of either/or, it will not work. It is a matter of trying to get a better balance between the vertical and the horizontal. This is important. It must be recognised that if you put an enormous amount of money into one disease in one country, you may well take some of the professionals in that country—who will already be in short supply—out of the health system and into that particular disease treatment programme. That is not necessarily good for the health system.
On the other hand, one could argue—as some people did in giving evidence—that if you remove the impact that a major disease has on a country, you might improve the health system simply because you have alleviated the pressure on it. It is quite a complex argument, but the balance between the vertical and the horizontal is particularly important. We need both of them; we just need to get them in balance.
One of the other things to which our attention was drawn is the role of the World Bank. There was a general feeling that the World Bank could have done more and should do more in terms of the health infrastructure of a country. We tend to think of the World Bank as dealing with infrastructure such as dams, roads, railways and so on, but in fact the health structure in a country is now becoming critically important to the success or failure of that country and, as we have indicated, to the way in which disease is spread around the world.
Looking at the Government’s response to recommendation 193 on the World Bank, I am still a little unsure whether they wholly agree with it, partly agree with it or are just being a bit diplomatic about what they think about the World Bank. The Minister may be able to add to that in her response. We would really like to see the World Bank taking a greater interest in the health infrastructure of countries and investing in them accordingly.
Recommendation 201 emphasised the importance of the World Health Organisation, but the important area—I know that the Government agree with this, as did most people who gave evidence—is the need to reform the internal structure, as it is no longer good enough for the world that we live in and operate in. It is particularly important to get it right at the regional and country office levels. The general feeling is that the central organisation of the World Health Organisation is quite good, but because the regions are selected differently and are not necessarily directly accountable in the sense of having to have a system that responds to the WHO at the international level, the structure does not often work as well as it should do on a regional level. Therefore, there is a strong call for the regional and country offices to be restructured and made to fit in with an international structure that works.
That was one of the things that the SARS outbreak drew to the attention not just of the World Health Organisation but of many countries and regions, in that what we were doing was not really working as well as it needed to. I was pleased that the Government agreed with a number of the recommendations, particularly this one. They also share our view that the new director-general of the WHO, Dr Chan, is not only doing a very good job but is very alert to this problem. It is encouraging to hear the response of many of the witnesses, who also felt that she was the right person for the job.
Recommendation 194 stresses the importance of surveillance and response systems. This is where you get overtaken by the incredible acronyms of international organisations and where, if you are not careful, you can go mad. The best way is to read through them and try to remember what they stand for. Do not do that before you go to sleep because, contrary to popular opinion, it does not make you sleep; you just stay awake struggling with them. GOARN stands for the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network. For some bizarre reason, it took me longer to remember that one than most of the others, but it is important, because it is a system that is designed for early alert and response to the outbreak of disease. I do not know whether the Government are able to tell us any more on this since their response, but my understanding is that they intend to announce their strategy in July on how to make the alert and response system work better. That is one of the key preventive arguments; it is very important.
I wish to refer here to zoonoses, which is another learning curve. It is a fact that the majority of human diseases have come from animals. The word for that is zoonoses. I am sure that most noble Lords know that, but I did not know it at the time so it was educational for me. We had a good but also slightly frustrating session with the OIE, which is the World Organisation for Animal Health in Paris. I say frustrating because it came at the end of our day there and therefore the time got squeezed, which was a great pity. This organisation has a long and prestigious history going back far beyond the WHO. The director of that organisation, Dr Vallat, wrote to me that he was worried by our report, which, he felt, suggested that the WHO should, in effect, take over from the OIE the role of monitoring animal diseases. I have written back to him but I want to put it on the record that we are definitely not saying that. Indeed, the foreword of the report says that we want the WHO to take the lead in developing a strategy for dealing with disease outbreaks and problems around the world. That clearly does not mean either taking over or giving instructions to organisations, be it the OIE or any other.
Dr Vallat was also slightly worried about using the new legal structure for international health regulations. Both the Government here and other organisations and individuals felt this to be an important step forward. International health regulations impose a legal duty on countries to report on diseases. As with other areas of international life, this means the development of legal structures within what would previously have been treaty agreements or arrangements between countries. One of the problems the committee had with the OIE’s position was that its code was not enforceable. That led us to the recommendation that maybe there ought to be a legally enforceable system for animal health. We acknowledge the difficulties with that. One is that the veterinary services in many developing countries do not have the ability to do it. Another important one is that countries have an enormous investment in animal trade for export and import. Therefore, they will not always be willing to sign up to a legal requirement. So I understand the arguments on both sides. My own view and that of the committee was that if we could move towards a more legal structure in the long term that would be beneficial, although I am sure that the OIE would not necessarily agree, but that does not mean taking over from the OIE. It is a difficult area because so many diseases originate with animals; therefore animal welfare is a crucial factor in the spread of disease. We cannot do anything other than pay close attention to this.
A number of good things are happening in this area. One of the best is the global early warning and response system, or GLEWS, designed to pick up at the earliest stage animal health problems around the world. It links the OIE with the WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN—three of the most important organisations in trying to spot these diseases and deal with them. I want to say more about this but time and the other things I want to mention limit me to that. Zoonoses and developing alert and response systems in developing countries for diseases that cross over from animals to human beings is an important area, one that should trouble us and that we need to get right. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions.
There was some disagreement between the evidence given by the WHO and that of the OIE. I am sure that there have been one or two interesting telephone conversations between the two organisations, which I would have liked to listen in on, about who was saying what to whom. I think that has largely been resolved, but it indicates that between these very important and very good organisations there are bound to be areas of difficulty and disagreement. In the rapidly developing area of these diseases, it is important that we acknowledge that and move on.
We dealt with the drug availability issue. I do not have time to deal with it now, but I note that GlaxoSmithKline has just announced a plan to try to reduce drug pricing. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization—GAVI—has developed a 10 to 20-year finance programme to provide vaccines and immunisation over a long period, which guarantees a purchase volume and a purchase price for companies. The UK was a major driver in that.
We looked at the dangers of bioterrorism in some depth. I do not want to go into that in depth other than to say that the early-warning systems for a disease which is released deliberately and for one that occurs naturally are not different. We do not need to spend too much time on separate systems; the response should be the same.
The International Health Partnership, which, I know, the Minister in the House of Commons, Gillian Merron, sees as very important, encouraged close co-operation between the donor countries and the recipient countries. That is important, and we want to keep an eye on it. I know that the Government place a high priority on that. The Government’s response to this has been very positive, although we have some disagreement in one or two areas, including that of the OIE. I would like some clarification at some stage on the World Bank: are we saying very clearly that it ought to invest more in health infrastructure?
The committee was set up as an ad hoc committee—there is a long history to that, but I do not wish to repeat it. The development of global systems is now so rapid, so important and uses so much money from taxpayers that this House will miss the great opportunity of playing a key role in looking at the way we spend money and how these international organisations develop, particularly, as they move increasingly into the area of legal requirements, as with the international health regulations. If we do not find an alternative to the existing committee, which will now come to an end, we may regret losing such an opportunity, given the House’s specialist membership, with so much knowledge of both disease and intergovernmental organisations.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate on Diseases Know No Frontiers, which results from the work of the committee so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who has pretty well done my job for me. The committee could have chosen a great many topics for its first inquiry into intergovernmental organisations and how we are making use of our membership of them. However, examining how IGOs are tackling the global spread of infectious diseases turned out to be a complex and worthwhile exercise. We took evidence from many dedicated and experienced witnesses, who enabled us to build up a picture of how things are at present and what most urgently needs to be done to contain future threats. Following the old maxim that prevention is better than cure, we believe that preventing the spread of disease is an important factor to be pursued. I should like to say a few words on prevention of each of the four diseases that we selected for special attention, but I shall concentrate a little more on HIV and pandemic influenza than on the other two.
With malaria, control is achieved through a combination of practical measures, such as the spraying of dwellings and the provision of insecticide-impregnated nets, which kill the carrier mosquito before she reaches her victim. Unsanitary, crowded living conditions and malnutrition create a breeding ground for tuberculosis, the second of our four diseases. Therefore, prevention is linked to improving poor socio-economic conditions.
Preventing the spread of HIV is largely dependent on changing lifestyles, including, for example, sexual relations and the use of contaminated needles. However, the balance between prevention and treatment has reached a Catch-22. The evidence suggests that effective treatment through the use of antiretroviral drugs could actually increase the prevalence of the disease unless it is accompanied by effective and sustained prevention measures. The will to change behaviour may be undermined by a sense that, with the effective antiretroviral treatments available, the disease is no longer such a threat and horror. Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said that,
“good therapy … makes people healthier but it certainly does not reduce, it increases, the prevalence of HIV overall … It also creates an ongoing need for funding drug therapy which can squeeze out funding for good prevention campaigns. What is vitally important is that both go hand in hand”.
In the case of pandemic influenza, prevention is largely dependent on surveillance so that the necessary steps can be taken to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly. In order to achieve comprehensive surveillance, rather than in richer countries only, an effective global alert and response system needs to be maintained to help to identify emerging infections and deal with them at source. We understand that the University of California is carrying out research into patterns of emerging infections with a view to developing risk-based forecasts of what the next pandemic might be and where it might appear. That research is still in its infancy.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine believes that global disease surveillance has improved markedly in the past decade. Dr Coker, reader in public health there, told us that,
“the SARS crisis forced a re-think globally on global surveillance and was really, in a sense, a dry run for pandemic flu”.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, drew our attention to GOARN; I am sure that noble Lords will remember what those initials stand for. However, it is worth emphasising the need to invest in basic health infrastructure to provide a firm foundation on which more specific disease control initiatives can be built. That is in our national interest as well as in the interest of other countries. The committee recommended that,
“the resources which are provided through organisations of which the UK is a member”,
“infectious disease surveillance and response systems up to an effective level”.
In their response, the Government stated that they are currently preparing their international pandemic influenza strategy, which details the direction and objectives of the UK’s international efforts on pandemic preparedness over the next three to five years.
I end by endorsing the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for consideration of the importance of the topics still in the pipeline that could relate to our membership of IGOs. There will be many more that will be relevant. It is to be hoped that this committee or one like it will be re-established so that the good work can continue.
My Lords, this new and, to my mind, very important committee had a good start with the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Soley and the services of our Clerk, Robert Preston, and his team. They succeeded in confining a potentially vast subject into a manageable space and enabled us to discover some alarming and relatively unknown areas of concern. They are not unknown to all; my right honourable friend the Prime Minister identified dealing with disease and global pandemics as an element in the national security strategy last March, one which required a global response. My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, wrote in the Times last June:
“The pandemic threat is not so serious just because of the possibility of a disease outbreak but because, in a world of people moving on this scale, a disease could be upon us long before we know it is even there … This is not a temporary state of affairs but a permanent one and an interdependent world is a world of shared destinies”.
One of the most striking things that I learned was the high proportion—it is three-quarters—of new infections which come from animals by jumping the species. This is not new knowledge; it was only new to me. Most of us know that most of our common, communicable diseases began when the human race went in for agriculture and close proximity to farmed animals. Your Lordships might think, therefore, that those organisations which were set up to deal with animal health and those for human health would be aligned to share information and control measures most efficaciously. That is not what we found, as our report shows in some detail, yet the danger is greater now that animals are moved so far and so often for farming, hunting, food, laboratory and pet trades and on an increasingly globalised scale. People penetrate into the depths of the forest and the jungle more than before, and use its products more exhaustively.
As my noble friend Lord Soley said, there is no set of international health regulations to deal with animal infections, and we recommended that there should be. I regret that the Government, in this case, did not agree with us. While there are, for instance, EU directives on some of these zoonotic diseases and some general directives for agriculture and food safety, there is none to oblige disease monitoring for nature and biodiversity. Some think that the UK does not match its DfID investment in research on avian flu with full enough assessment of all future risks posed by wildlife in general. Then there is the whole area of which animal viruses, among the myriad which infect animals, will make the jump and which will turn into lethal diseases. This science, too, is in its infancy, not least because the places where these jumps happen most often are the poorest countries, in the tropics, with fewest scientific resources to identify them.
When we looked at the management of serious infections that had reached humans, we did see change and progress. Rationalisation of the complex web of organisations was being addressed by the international health partnerships launched by this Government. We saw a recognition that help with specific treatment would not, on its own, solve the systemic problems of poor health infrastructure and lack of health education which had allowed disease to flourish in the first place. The problems which poor societies have in diagnosis, in data collection and in storage were well understood, and new kinds of organisation on the international scene, which brought in all stakeholders, were achieving results. In particular, there was recognition in the Global Fund, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation—GAVI—and others that representation from civil society was essential to achieving delivery of service and preventive education in poor countries. The arrival of a rights-based approach to health was able to break down barriers. Innovative funding mechanisms such as the International Finance Facility for Immunisation and advance market commitments, which this Government have done so much to develop and establish, have saved thousands of lives among those too poor to pay for medicine.
The word “poor” keeps cropping up in any discussion of the control of infectious diseases. It is no accident that their toll is so infinitely less in rich countries. The best way to stop the devastating mortality of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and the other life-threatening plagues is to eradicate the poverty, poor living conditions, malnutrition and lack of clean water which are the daily lot of those who die before their time in such large numbers. These, the non-health determinants of health, are now analysed by the WHO. They also need on-the-ground analysis by the local and national governments concerned. This is where the redistribution of resources, which is intrinsic to democratic politics, saves lives. Inequality breeds disease and early death.
Professor Sir Michael Marmot told us that if the WHO had health equity as a core value, it would be institutionally natural for the WHO to bring in the non-health causes of ill health such as education, poverty, trade, habitat and migration and to promote measures that alleviated their adverse effects. The new report of the WHO’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, which Professor Marmot chaired, bears eloquent witness to the relationship between social justice and health. However, in our output-driven funding habits, it is hard to measure the impact of any non-health measure on any particular disease, unlike, say, immunisation, so there is a disproportionate incentive towards vertical programmes rather than improvements of the whole system. We have made recommendations to improve the focus, as well as the accountability, of both international and national health organisations through UK action.
It is important, we thought, that the World Bank’s new strategy put health in the context of its overall strategy for poverty alleviation. Perhaps the clearest lesson from our seminars was that in devising mechanisms to protect our own populations from deadly diseases from distant places, we should remember that we will do this best if we join in removing their fundamental basis: the soil of poverty in which they flourish.
Finally, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, the UK contributes sizeably to the intergovernmental organisations that we have been considering and many others. This committee is the only formal parliamentary scrutiny of that expenditure, and your Lordships might think that the taxpayer has a right to see this work continue.
My Lords, as the first speaker who has not been a member of the committee, I congratulate it on a very good report that dissected the issues, drew out the key points, and finished quite rightly on the sobering note that a pandemic is likely at some point.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that the UK’s reputation in this field is very good indeed, and it is against that background that I make some comments about how more could be done. The first point that I was going to make was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. I therefore merely echo her remarks, with which I agree completely, about the non-health issues—the determinants of health—and the importance in that context of the World Bank playing a full role alongside the World Health Organisation and others.
Two points arise from the report and are crucial to the success in controlling the spread of communicable diseases; they are, if you like, about our vulnerability. The first point is about the UK’s interdepartmental collaboration. The report calls for more collaboration, the Government acknowledge it, and the big policy statement, Health is Global, is as good as any such broad policy document that I have ever seen on this.
How good are the Government in practice at using the strengths of the departments to reinforce each other? This is a universal issue. Three years ago, on behalf of the previous Prime Minister, I called a meeting of a number of countries to look at health and development globally. I found that every country sent two representatives—one from its equivalent of DfID and one from its equivalent of the Department of Health—apart from France, which sent three. It also sent someone from its Foreign Office. The fact that government is not totally joined up is not unique to the UK.
The important point is that the globalisation of health has implications. There is the potential for pandemics and a huge movement of staff. There is trade, drugs are sold all over the world, and above all there is an enormous movement of people around the world. We need to have a real understanding of the linkages between first-world health and development issues. The health service in the UK must act as a global player and in a global context, and when DfID deals with health it must do so with the best health knowledge available. I still do not think that I see this in practice. I know that there is good co-operation at the policy level, but is it happening in practice? The test question for the Minister is: when DfID is dealing with the development of a health system in a country, how often does it ask the Department of Health for help from its experts or ask for help from the best health experts in this country, or does it simply use its own parallel systems, processes and structures?
I am not asking this question naively. I understand that there is a difference in health issues in different countries and I absolutely recognise the expertise in DfID on the health issues in developing countries. But many things are the same in both poor and rich countries, one of which is health systems. If you are looking for support for health systems, you are more likely to find that expertise in the people who are running the health systems in, for example, this country. Another question is: how often does DfID make use of the Health Protection Agency, which is probably the best or the equal best of its kind in the world?
The parallel test question is: when the Department of Health or the Health Protection Agency is dealing with a problem originating outside this country, how often does it call on DfID for advice to make sure that it has a real understanding of what is happening in that country? This co-operation is getting better, but it is still a weak point. While I know about the relationship around health, I suspect that the same thing must be true in other areas, such as education.
My second point concerns staffing. There is a huge shortfall of health workers around the world, which is the vulnerability that underpins all others. We globally are as vulnerable as the most vulnerable point, and the most vulnerable point is likely to be in a poor country with poor health and social conditions, with very few health workers and with people who may not be able to recognise the problems as they arise. That is our big vulnerability.
I know that the UK and others are part of the innovative financing task force, which is co-chaired by the Prime Minister and the president of the World Bank. Again, I would ask the Minister for reassurances that in looking at its work, attention will be given not only to innovative funding for staffing, which is part of its terms of reference, but also to innovative approaches to staffing. My point is simple: staffing is not just about doctors and nurses. It is about all those public health professionals, public health local community workers and mid-level workers—they are called a number of names in different countries—who work in the most difficult conditions and are therefore most likely to see where the problems are. Therefore, the issue is not just about making sure that the UK supports innovative funding mechanisms in order to increase the levels of staffing in health services around the world but also about increasing the innovative structures. You do not want to have the same grades and types of staff as we have in the UK in many of these countries. We will miss an opportunity if we raise money to increase staffing, but do not use it to have the most impact on issues such as communicable diseases, which will tend to be at the most local level often with the staff who have had the least training.
Incidentally, in parenthesis, the UK has the most tremendous tradition of health education, and throughout the world it has played its part in the education of doctors, nurses and others. It has, I believe, a great opportunity, if the appropriate arrangements can be made, to support training and education internationally. That would be a very positive contribution to the globalisation of health education and would help to support poor people globally.
In summary, this excellent report has laid out the ground very well and has expressed our vulnerabilities. I believe that these two areas require more attention and more action.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to thank my noble friend Lord Soley for having initiated and having led this inquiry in a most efficient and charming manner. We finally got to grips with what is really an enormously complex subject. Before I turn to the topic of the report itself, let me reflect that today we are going through another global pandemic, a financial one. If only there were as many institutions around the world talking to each other about disease control as there are talking about financial problems, the situation might not be as bad as this. I can put it no more strongly than that. As my noble friend said, while in the report we concentrated on four major diseases, many others are no less important. We just did not have the time to deal with them. In poor countries especially, these other diseases are just as important as the four we looked at. We were also as much concerned with globalisation on the health front as with the role played by intergovernmental organisations in combating global diseases.
I want to make some points that have not yet been made because the report has been welcomed by my noble friend Lord Soley and others. We thought that we would encounter a jungle out there of overlapping jurisdictions all interfering with each other in trying to deal with the problems of the four global diseases, but instead we found a much greater degree of clarity among the people involved, especially those at the WHO. They know what they are doing and have ways of co-ordinating with other players in the field, so that while from the outside it may look messy, it is not as untidy as we thought it would be.
On the nature of structures, there is a contrast between vertical and horizontal health issues. In my view, the vertical structures are not in a sense co-ordinated enough because we have institutions such as the WHO, to which DfID contributes in a vital way, and many other similar organisations. Poor countries find themselves receiving visits from unco-ordinated groups from different nations, each bringing its own agenda and each wanting a return from the recipient country on the buck it has given. We were told that in countries such as Tanzania and Malawi, officials in the health ministries have to host as many as 340 delegations a year. I do not know when they find the time to do any proper work. We ought to worry about whether there is a way of co-ordinating this stuff so that fewer delegations visit individual countries, and those that do do not just push their own little angle. Rather they should ask about outcomes on the ground as a result of donations and worry less about whether a particular country’s dollars have resulted in a particular cure. The question should be: has a cure been achieved? Given the fragility of staffing levels in terms of both organisation and health needs in poor countries, devising some sort of co-ordinating mechanism would make a tremendous contribution. This requires on the part of taxpayers in the rich countries a bit of trust so that, although we do not quite know where the DfID dollar has actually gone, we can take it that its dollar has been properly utilised and that outcomes will show how that has been the case. The global structure needs to become slightly more co-ordinated and less nationalistic and protectionist over individual donations and the return on them.
I turn now to one or two other problems. In the case of pandemic flu, we face a problem that is not unknown in international relations: countries are often unwilling to share evidence of the occurrence of an outbreak. That happened famously in Indonesia. Countries are very often afraid of the economic impact it will have on investment, business and tourism if they admit to a problem. Again, we have to find mechanisms of compensating countries which are honest and come up with a warning that will benefit all of us. We have to tell them that if there are problems and if costs are incurred, the World Bank or some other agency such as the International Monetary Fund will compensate them, but the importance for the world at large is that they share this information and share it as quickly as possible.
Problems of sovereignty in terms of both the recipient and donor countries often get in the way of efficiently tackling the problems of disease. The matter may not be the specific responsibility of a particular government department but one about which the global leadership should think carefully what to do.
One of the lessons we would obviously like to learn from what we have done is the tremendous importance not only of the need for more resources at the vertical structures but also, as my noble friend Lady Whitaker said, of the horizontal parts of the health problem, which is the general problem of tackling poverty. It is extremely important, at a time when we are all feeling rather hard up in terms of the financial meltdown, that the global leadership—the G8 especially, and the G20—does not resile from the task of keeping up international aid so that the flow of international resources which is most needed by the poorest countries continues. Yes, we are slightly worse off, maybe by 10 per cent or 15 per cent, but even so we are still 20 to 30 times better off than those people who are really at the front line of suffering from some of these diseases. It behoves us not to fall back but to keep our commitment to helping tackle health problems in the poorest countries as far as possible.
My Lords, it is a true delight to take part in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soley, the committee and the staff with whom he worked for producing a really excellent and interesting report. I thank him for the informative and engaging way in which he introduced a very complex report examining quite deep-seated issues. It is a very timely analysis of a really complex set of organisations with overlapping roles, multiple areas of expertise and fragmented funding streams. That is a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.
When I read the report, it was not apparent to me why a committee of your Lordships' House should have produced it. I am very glad that it did, because it brought to the subject a detachment which made its findings all the more pertinent. From looking on the web, I know that the reaction around the world has been very appreciative, and I congratulate the committee on that.
The report is timely for two reasons. To echo a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in the current financial economic situation, it is clear that there will be an ever growing need to demonstrate the efficacy and efficiency of international aid programmes. I also think that we have a golden hour in which to engage with the new US Administration in a spirit of partnership which was perhaps not possible with the previous Administration. The US Administration and their policies are one of the biggest factors in the international health scene. In addition, we have the forthcoming G8 summit. For reasons that I shall make clear later on, we have at the end of 2009 the important UN conference on climate change.
Recent events since the report was produced have demonstrated how important it is. In December 2008, cholera infected 80,000 people in Zimbabwe. As far as we know, approximately 4,000 of them died. Of that outbreak, the WHO said:
“Given the outbreak’s dynamic, in the context of a dilapidated water and sanitation infrastructure and a weak health system, the practical implementation of control measures remains a challenge”.
That was a very diplomatic way of describing a desperately sad and avoidable situation. It brought home to me the need to implement fully these international health regulations and to extend them to any disease, wherever it comes from, so that there is a global public health surveillance system, with state parties having an obligation to prevent or control the spread of disease, but in which civil society can report the true incidence of disease if a Government fail to do so. That is a tremendously important point.
I read this report in conjunction with the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It announced in 2007 that projected climate change- related exposures are likely to affect the health of millions of people. Climate change will affect infectious diseases in two ways. There will be an increased risk of water- and food-borne disease, and there will be changes in vector-borne diseases. The IPCC predicted an increase in diarrhoeal disease in any place where water or food becomes contaminated—for example, after flooding—and where warmer weather leads to food poisoning due to problems with food storage. It is not possible to overestimate the extent to which climate change will have an impact on health.
Only last month in the British Medical Journal, Anthony McMichael of the Australian National University estimated that climate change could lead to an additional 20 million to 70 million people living in malarial regions in sub-Saharan Africa. He drew the clear lesson that:
“Poverty cannot be eliminated while environmental degradation exacerbates malnutrition, disease and injury … Infectious diseases cannot be stabilised in circumstances of climatic instability, refugee flows and impoverishment”.
Further, he said:
“This requires bold and far sighted policy decisions at national and international levels”,
and greater carbon emission cuts than those proposed a decade ago. To everything the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, you have to add this extra dimension of the health impact of climate change.
I have one slight criticism of the report. In concentrating on the big three infectious diseases—HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria—the report did what in a way the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said it did. It tended to overlook what are called the neglected tropical diseases. I understand why the committee did that. Those diseases are less likely to have an impact in Britain, and that was the remit of the committee.
None the less, those neglected tropical diseases afflict an estimated 1.1 billion of the 2.7 billion people who live on less than two US dollars a day. The burden of such diseases on those people is perhaps greater than on others. In neglecting to follow those, we did perhaps miss something. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that, as part of his campaign—which I wholeheartedly support—to have a standing committee of the nature of his, its next report could look at those neglected tropical diseases and the work of international government organisations on them.
Having given a slight brickbat, I want to give a bouquet. The report and its recommendations about TRIPS helped to build up some of the pressure which resulted last week in that announcement from GlaxoSmithKline. I am the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson. I happen not to make a habit of congratulating drug companies, but this time we should. It was an extraordinary statement, and I add to what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said. GSK said that it would cut prices for all drugs in the 50 least developed countries to no more than 25 per cent of UK and US levels, and less if possible. It will put any chemicals or processes over which it has intellectual property rights that are relevant to finding drugs for neglected diseases into a patent pool so that they can be explored by other researchers. It will reinvest 20 per cent of any profits it makes in the least developed countries into hospitals, clinics and staff. It will invite scientists from other companies, NGOs or Governments to join the hunt for tropical disease treatments at its dedicated institute in Spain.
Campaigners from charity organisations have understandably expressed regret that that does not include the HIV medicines. Nevertheless, they realise that it is a tremendous step forward. It will alter dramatically the whole architecture of that complex relationship of intergovernmental organisations, NGOs and private companies. I hope that there will be a compensating change on the part of other private companies, and on the part of Governments as they seek to move forward to the next stage—just as they did when the Gates Foundation came along to make its contribution.
The issue of vertical and horizontal health programmes is one of the most interesting parts of the whole report. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said about not being able to have either a horizontal or vertical approach; that will not work, and it is a question of finding a balance. I wondered whether the Government, working with countries with which they have particularly close relationships and the NGOs and IGOs working in them, might find two countries in which it was possible to come up with models reflecting a different type of balance between them. The sticking point seems to be that national Governments do not know quite how to come up with a model that is effective for them. There are no models to which they can go.
One of the most striking pieces of testimony in the report was that of Professor Borriello about zoonomic diseases. The interesting thing he talked about was that the UK’s panel for newly emerging infections includes medical and veterinary staff, and people involved in food science. Given that 75 per cent of emerging diseases are zoonomic, I ask the Government whether we can work on that model in conjunction with a low-income country to see whether the model could be adapted to its situation, whereby it could come up with a structure enabling those with knowledge in veterinary science, food science and health to work together. It is not a matter of us exporting our models intact, because they will not necessarily be applicable, but we can take the points of models that work and enable people to adopt them. That is an important point.
I end by echoing some of the points of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. We have in this country a wealth of experience that we would do well to export. I would go further than the noble Lord and include Defra as well as some of the other departments. We should look upon this not solely as an act of generosity on our part. I well remember, during the outbreak of foot and mouth, a colleague in the Commons, Ed Davey of Kingston, had tremendous trouble getting a refugee who was a qualified vet from Iran—a nation where foot and mouth is endemic and every vet knows exactly what it is—fast-tracked into being able to work with those dealing with the emergency here. We have a lot to receive as well as to give from such partnerships.
The four nations of the United Kingdom work jointly but in slightly different ways via the Health Protection Agency and others. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, is right: during the next few years of austerity and hardship it will be extremely difficult politically to maintain our level of international development aid. It will require courage on the part of the Government to do that and the provision of a great deal of information—this report is a welcome addition to that—to dispel some of the myths about our expenditure on international aid, to enable people to see that it constitutes investment in the health of the world, and that we are part of that world just like anybody else. If one major task needs to be carried out above all else, it is to improve co-ordination and governance, to which the committee referred. This report is an excellent basis on which to start. I very much look forward to hearing the noble Baroness’s reply to the points noble Lords have made.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for introducing the report so comprehensively and charmingly. There is a lot of worry about how a flu pandemic should be handled. Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College has described a very useful computer model to test a number of strategies to limit the spread of the disease. As there is no vaccine, they suggest anti-viral prophylaxis in order to reduce the risk of infection among approximately 20,000 people in the vicinity of the initial cluster of flu victims. He estimated that a stockpile of 3 million doses of anti-viral treatments could be needed to eliminate an outbreak. The question that springs to mind is—I have already indicated this to the noble Baroness—has the Department of Health such quantities of anti-virals available?
The report contains criticisms of the WHO, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. Many of us have had experience of this organisation and have found some aspects of it rather unsatisfactory. No doubt this tends to colour our judgment. It is right therefore to stress, as did the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that the present director-general, Dr Margaret Chan, has brought a very welcome breath of fresh air to Geneva, and that things have changed very much for the better in the past few years.
The report records complaints about excessive bureaucracy in the WHO headquarters but the director-general's programme of reform of the management structure has been much admired. Others have criticised what they describe as the disconnect between the headquarters in Geneva and the regional offices, especially the regional office in Africa (AFRO). Uniquely within the United Nations system, the six regional directors are elected and naturally tend to feel responsible to the countries that elected them, as well as to the WHO. In practice this federal system has worked well during the past year or so in spite of past difficulties. The director-general meets the regional directors at least three times a year; two are whole-day meetings and the third is a retreat for several days.
Concerns have been expressed that the regional governance of the WHO could get in the way of a co-ordinated and effective approach to disease outbreaks. The revised international health regulations that were adopted by all WHO member states in 2005 make it clear that authority lies with the director-general. When a serious outbreak of a disease occurs, the director-general herself does the risk assessment, has the final say and advises on any action to be taken.
There have also been recent developments in building greater coherence among the main organisations working in global health. The heads of four United Nations oganisations, UNICEF, UNFEA, UNAIDS and WHO, and the four financing organisations, the World Bank, the Gates foundation, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the GAVI Alliance, now meet every six months to align their work more closely. The last meeting was just three weeks ago. It is worth pointing out that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has the largest health budget in the world. It is an international financing institution investing the world’s money to save lives. To date it has committed $14.9 billion in 140 countries to support large-scale prevention and care programmes against these three diseases. Two million have been treated for HIV/AIDS, 4.6 million for tuberculosis and 70 million bed nets have been distributed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned, the Gates foundation contributes more than the whole of the WHO budget. There was a feeling that the WHO was becoming rather uneasy about that. But, again the director-general has made it clear that she does not regard that as a problem. There was some controversy over the WHO announcements about leprosy some years ago but that was based on a misunderstanding over technical terms. The WHO had earlier stated that its goal was to reduce the prevalence of leprosy to less than 1 in 10,000. Its policy of recommending that the duration of treatment should be reduced from two years to one year thereby halved the prevalence which gave the impression that the WHO was claiming that it had solved the problem.
The subject of prevention, especially HIV/AIDS, is dealt with in paragraphs 47 to 49, which emphasise that prevention means changing behaviour. As my noble friend Lady Eccles stated, changing behaviour is much more difficult than treatment. What is so disturbing is that the AIDS epidemic involves more and more women worldwide, with 17.7 million women being HIV positive, which is more than ever before. In sub-Saharan Africa they constitute two-thirds of people living with HIV/AIDS. In South Africa young women are four times as likely to be HIV infected than young men.
As president of the Mildmay centre, I was involved in the establishment of the first hospice in Europe for those dying of HIV/AIDS and later the first in Africa, just outside Kampala, with enormous help from the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, who guided us into concentrating on outpatient work and teaching. In the Mildmay centre in Uganda it was not unusual to see 100 children in a day all with AIDS, all orphans, a third of them with tuberculosis and many with malaria and the most terrible shingles and lice that I have ever seen because their immune systems were so depleted. However, I was very impressed with the HIV/AIDS prevention programme set up by the President Museveni of Uganda which reduced the incidence from 31 per cent to 5 per cent among pregnant women. Those are hard, reliable data. The ABC programme—abstinence or postponement, be faithful and condoms—has also been successful in other African countries. The WHO advocates a policy that is comprehensive and inclusive, and embraces the ABC policy, which is also supported by our Government. The Leader of your Lordships’ House stated that the Government subscribe to the successful campaigns of ABC, but not one to the exclusion of others—it is important to stress that. It is of interest that many teenagers are choosing abstinence or postponement as a safer policy. Tragically, teenage girls in many countries have no power to refuse, and face physical abuse and even death if they do not comply. In approaching the difficult subject of prevention, we need to be open to many different approaches, especially as there are such diverse cultures worldwide.
About 40 per cent of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. More than 500 million people become severely ill with malaria every year, and 1 million people die. Twenty per cent of all childhood deaths in Africa are from malaria. The Conservatives are committed to spending half a billion pounds a year tackling malaria, until the millennium development goal has been met. We will work with African countries to abolish tariffs on anti-mosquito bed nets in sub-Saharan Africa. We will establish a fund, worth £5 million a year to begin with, to help fund international placements for British health workers and support links between the NHS and health systems in poorer countries. There are many who already give generously of their time and expertise in developing countries, and we need to give them more encouragement and make it easier for them to have leave of absence from their work here. Working on Mercy ships in west African countries for most of my holidays, I have been so impressed with healthcare workers who volunteer for periods of anything between two weeks and 22 years.
The Conservatives will abandon what we believe are Labour’s plans to cut staff numbers at DfID, and we will rapidly increase its budget. British aid will be properly scrutinised for effectiveness, and results will be linked directly to independently audited evidence of real progress in these poor countries. We also plan to establish an anti-corruption hotline on the front page of the DfID website. All DfID programmes will have a designated anti-fraud officer who could be approached, anonymously if necessary, by anyone who suspects corruption. Their e-mail address and phone number would be published on the relevant pages of the DfID website, both in English and local languages. We will also consider giving some aid money directly to poor people as aid vouchers, redeemable for development services of any kind from an aid agency or supplier of choice.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned that animal welfare is very important in the food chain, and spoke about outbreaks of infection. That reminds me of the widespread distribution of the virulent campylobacter organism, which affects 70 per cent of chickens in the United Kingdom. The chickens are killed by being stretched by the neck and feet, upside down, on a conveyor belt. They are then electrocuted, which makes the muscles contract, emptying the contents of their alimentary tract. As they are upside down, the campylobacter is sprayed all over them. They are then put in a big vat, where they become campylobacter soup. When the chickens are chopped up and put into polythene bags, they are infected with campylobacter. This is all right provided the chickens are adequately cooked. However, if they are chopped up on a board that is then used to prepare a salad, you can understand how the infection takes hold.
This report has inevitably focused on developing countries and we are often critical of the widespread infections there. However, we in the United Kingdom are not always paragons of virtue.
My Lords, it is with great humility that I answer this debate. As I read the committee’s report and evidence over the past week, I realised what a very important contribution its work has made on this vital issue. I am not surprised that this was the first subject that the committee tackled. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Soley on a truly excellent and comprehensive report and on securing this debate today. I agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about the welcome that the report has received across the world.
My noble friend has offered me the opportunity not only to place on the record the Government’s thanks for the committee’s work but to update the House on developments since its report. I am pleased to say that progress has been made even since its publication in July. As noble Lords will know, the Government published Health is Global, the UK’s global health strategy, in September 2008. This strategy, along with the 2007 DfID health strategy, sets the framework for our work on global health between now and 2013. Health is Global highlights the links between domestic health and health beyond our shores, as well as the role of a variety of players, including intergovernmental organisations, in improving both. It includes commitments to work for better health security, including tackling infectious disease, and more effective international organisations that can help get the job done.
Since the launch of Health is Global we have seen the start of the most serious global economic crisis in decades—referred to by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Desai. Finding innovative and sustainable solutions to global health challenges remains as pressing a concern as ever. Indeed, I echo my noble friend Lord Desai’s remark that this is an economic pandemic. After last year’s food and fuel crises, we now face a huge challenge to maintain the fight against global poverty. Impacts on health will vary greatly by country and context, but past downturns show common patterns. The impact on the poor will be especially serious: nutritional standards are likely to fall, as will the ability to spend on private healthcare. Given their importance in channelling resources, intergovernmental organisations will be crucial to our response.
I also agree with my noble friend about the need for coordination and for our Government and other Governments to maintain support levels in this field. It is self-evident that many health risks today require international collective action. Let us consider, for example, the threat of a worldwide influenza pandemic, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, and other noble Lords.
In October 2008 the Government launched a new international pandemic influenza preparedness strategy, which aims to reduce the risk of a global pandemic through co-ordinated action at national and international level, action designed to enhance our collective ability to prevent, detect and respond to a pandemic. At the heart of this strategy are issues that the committee’s report highlighted. We recognise the need to improve infectious disease surveillance and response systems in developing nations. This is why, in addition to our share of the substantial contributions made by the European Commission, the UK has already committed more than £35 million towards the international effort to tackle avian and pandemic influenza. Much of this funding is channelled through international organisations and is being used for a wide variety of activities, including strengthening national public health surveillance systems, enhancing outbreak containment and virus eradication in animals, improving non-medical responses to pandemic flu, and strengthening health system capacity. We are also playing a leading role in developing the WHO global pandemic influenza action plan, which will increase the availability of vaccines for a pandemic, including for developing countries.
It is also vital to encourage engagement and research across veterinary and human health sectors globally, in support of what is known as a “One World, One Health” approach. A number of UN system agencies and the World Bank have launched a strategic framework, Contributing to One World, One Health. This applies the lessons learnt from avian influenza to emerging infectious diseases at the animal, human and ecosystems interface. The UK has played an active role in developing this framework and will participate in discussions to be held next month in Winnipeg, hosted by the Canadian Government. These discussions will decide which diseases should be addressed and how the strategy should be implemented. The challenge will be to apply the benefits gained in our experience of avian and pandemic influenza planning to a broader range of infectious diseases, while not losing the focus on pandemic planning.
The role and co-ordination of the work of the intergovernmental organisations is key to all this, as the report points out many times. Our view remains that there is evidence of strong liaison between the various international bodies in disease surveillance at the animal-human interface. However, global co-ordination in pandemic preparedness planning more generally could be improved. The UK’s international strategy on pandemic influenza commits us to bringing together the key international organisations working on pandemic flu preparedness in order to promote improved co-ordination and synergy. I hope this will confirm to my noble friends Lord Soley and Lady Whitaker that the Government take this very seriously indeed. We will host this meeting in June.
In June the Government published a new AIDS strategy, which underlines the UK’s commitment to continued global leadership on AIDS, and to the goal of universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010. Achieving universal access is a global commitment. Responsibility for making progress towards it lies with national Governments, supported by effective partnerships of bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as civil society and the private sector. International agencies have played a key role in recent successes on AIDS, as already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, but it bears repetition. For example, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has played a key role in a 20-fold increase in funding, from $485 million in 1997 to $10 billion in 2007, and has helped AIDS treatment increase from 100,000 people in 2001 to 3 million in 2008. There have been challenges too, but the AIDS response has helped to sharpen focus on approaches that can help. The noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, and the noble Lord, Lord McColl, quite rightly also drew our attention to the need for changes in people’s behaviour and the impact of HIV and AIDS on women and children.
The UK Government played a key role in the launch of the multi-stakeholder global malaria action plan in September. I do not apologise for using all these terms and acronyms because this report, as everybody has mentioned, is absolutely full of such terms. The UK contribution, which was announced by the Prime Minister, includes 20 million bed nets by 2010; increased funding for research and development of up to £5 million by 2010; and £40 million over two years for the affordable medicines facility to increase access to the latest and best malarial drugs. This ambitious programme needs active and co-ordinated participation by intergovernmental organisations if it is to succeed.
The committee rightly recommended that we continue to promote integrated strategies for combating TB and HIV. This Government are committed to tackling HIV and TB co-infection and recognise the need to upscale efforts to deliver universal access to TB and HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services by 2015, as well as to increase investment and facilitate research to promote the development of better tools for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of TB. DfID’s AIDS strategy supports the integration of HIV and AIDS and DfID has made a significant commitment to spend £6 billion over seven years to 2015 to strengthen health systems and services. This includes the integration of HIV and TB services.
All this must be set in the context of progress against the health-related millennium development goals. In July 2007 the United Nations Secretary-General and the Prime Minister launched the MDG “Call to Action”, encouraging the international community to accelerate progress to reach the millennium development goals. The subsequent United Nations high-level event in September 2008 saw countries, charities, foundations and businesses pledge $16 billion to help reach the goals. I am very happy to hear from the noble Lord, Lord McColl, of his party’s support for all this activity. I add one small partisan point: I welcome the turnabout of the Conservative Party in its policy on international aid, but it is slightly rich to suggest that this Government, with their record, will be reducing their commitment in any way.
We are keen to track the implementation of the actions announced at the high-level event and to maintain the momentum and focus that the event produced to get the MDGs on track. We also want to support the resolution already proposed by the UN Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly on the MDG review summit in 2010. The high-level event also saw the launch of the Taskforce on Innovative International Financing for Health Systems, co-chaired by the Prime Minister and the president of the World Bank. The task force will explore new sources of finance to help developing countries achieve the health MDGs.
International organisations are at the heart of the response to the challenges of protecting UK health and of meeting the MDGs. But, as the report made clear, the very complexity and fragmentation of the international health architecture makes it hard for Governments, especially those in the developing world, to use these resources as effectively as possible; this is the labyrinth referred to by my noble friend. The Government are committed to help to deliver a more rational, effective and efficient health architecture, better at protecting the health of England and helping developing countries to achieve the MDGs.
In the global health strategy we commit to working with the WHO and other UN agencies to consolidate existing funding flows to the UN so that we have fewer and more effective agreements, to supporting consolidated UN country programmes in developing countries, to providing incentives to UN organisations to work together and to setting these organisations stretching targets that deliver results and value for money.
I will give three examples of how we are putting this commitment into practice. First, the International Health Partnership was launched by the Prime Minister in September 2007. It seeks to build stronger health systems by applying the Paris principles on aid effectiveness to the health sector. The International Health Partnership will play a vital role in bringing agencies together. From the developing country perspective, it is the organising framework to ensure the most effective and sustainable allocation of resources, both domestic and external.
Secondly, there is the UK WHO institutional strategy. We have now finalised our institutional strategy on the WHO; it sets out how we will work with the organisation between now and 2013. The document is on the Department of Health website. This joint strategy, which was agreed between the WHO and three government departments—the Department of Health, DfID and the FCO—takes on board many of the recommendations in the report.
For example, the strategy commits us to streamlining some of the funding that we allocate for the WHO in line with performance against agreed priorities. It sets specific indicators and targets for delivery to improve the monitoring of the agency’s performance. As part of this process, DfID is making additional funds available on a performance-related basis to the WHO at 10.3 per cent of baseline funding this year and 18.7 per cent next year. The UK gave $358 million to the WHO in 2006-07, which makes us the organisation’s second largest donor. The institutional strategy is key to holding the organisation to account for that funding and improving its performance.
The third example is our support for the WHO’s work on partnerships. A number of global health partnerships are hosted by the WHO, and it is involved in many others. This year’s World Health Assembly will consider a report on the WHO’s approach to these, including the criteria to help the organisation to decide whether to get involved in new partnerships and, if so, what the organisation’s involvement should be. We are pleased that the WHO is looking at this complex area, and we will work closely with it to get this right.
I shall now address some of the specific questions raised by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Soley talked about vertical versus horizontal health system strengthening programmes. I thought that he explained it with great eloquence. It was new to me when I read the report, and I found it very interesting indeed. We agree with my noble friend that both vertical and horizontal support are essential; it is not a question of either/or. The World Bank has an important role to play in both, and we agree with the committee that the bank needs to invest in health infrastructure in collaboration with other players in the health field. That is our approach to the World Bank on this issue.
My noble friends Lord Soley and Lady Whitaker and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised the issue of surveillance for human disease and what the OIE does in it regard. I have already said that we think the system works quite well, although we continue to push generally for improved surveillance in countries and for co-ordination internationally.
My noble friends Lady Whitaker and Lord Desai both mentioned the work of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health led by Sir Michael Marmot. The UK is very active in this area. Late last year it hosted a global conference opened by the Prime Minister in order to take this work forward. I am pleased to say that we sponsored a resolution at the recent executive board meeting of WHO member states and we are determined to see progress in this area.
The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, raised two main issues which I am pleased to be able to respond to. I thank him for his comments on using UK expertise to support health systems in developing countries. His own report in this area has been very influential. The implementation of this report’s recommendations, now being taken forward by DfID and the Department of Health, is a great example of cross-government work. The noble Lord will have direct experience of the need for this. On our global health strategy, which he mentioned, we have a commitment for the Health Protection Agency to also develop its international role along the lines he suggested. We agree with his point on innovative staffing. The key is to get the most appropriate workforce where it is needed.
My noble friend Lord Desai called for more co-ordination. His remarks echo those of most noble Lords: this is a great challenge. He also mentioned the issue of the sovereignty of resources getting in the way of preparedness. The WHO is currently taking forward an intergovernmental process to improve the system for sharing influenza viruses with more equitable access to benefits such as vaccines. The UK strongly calls for all countries to share their influenza viruses, so to speak, to enable risk assessment and to transfer this to the manufacturers of vaccines for viruses.
I agree with the analysis made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, of the links between climate change and health issues. She is absolutely right. She asked what we were doing to support developing countries integrating the animal and human surveillance systems. So far we have pledged £35 million to help developing countries do this, £20 million from DfID over three years channelled through multilateral agencies, such as the WHO. I have a list here of about seven other acronyms, but you get the gist. We will reprioritise DfID’s country aid programme if we are requested to do so. We aim to determine how best to contribute to improving an animal and human surveillance system for the HPAI in vulnerable areas of the world. We want to continue working with partners on virus-sharing and better distribution of benefits, and to consider further funding once the strategic framework has been agreed in Canada at the conference I referred to.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McColl, for his specific question about the quantities of antiviral available to eliminate an outbreak of flu pandemic. The UK will have enough antiviral available to treat 50 per cent of its population by the end of next month. A 50 per cent attack rate is, noble Lords will appreciate, the worst-case scenario for the next pandemic based on previous pandemics this century. The World Health Organisation has an antiviral stockpile donated by manufacturers amounting to 5 million treatment courses which can be used to contain the pandemic wherever it started, so it can be got to wherever it is needed. I think the noble Lord won the prize for the yuck factor in this debate with his very eloquent and informed description of the treatment of chickens.
As we might have anticipated, a debate led by my noble friend, with contributions from distinguished colleagues around the House, is one of the highest quality. It has taken forward the thinking on this vital issue, and I hope that my noble friend recognises from this response how seriously the Government take the issue and how grateful we are for the committee’s work. I thank all noble Lords for their excellent contributions today.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part for their constructive and very supportive comments. I thank the Minister for clarifying the Government’s position on the World Bank and investment in health infrastructure and for indicating the importance which the Government attach to moving forward on the animal health/human health issue, which is so important. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McColl, for building on the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, about prevention. He gave some figures concerning Africa of which I was not aware. I found them very useful. Like my noble friend on the Front Bench, I was struck by his comments on the treatment of chickens when they are slaughtered. For a while I thought he would do for chickens what Edwina Currie, when MP and a Minister, did for eggs with her comment on salmonella. Fortunately, he navigated those narrows quite well and he has given people like me a culinary lesson, which I shall bear in mind: I should be more careful when using a chopping board for chicken and vegetables.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, mentioned other diseases. The issue is how we look at intergovernmental organisations. She is absolutely right about the need to look at other diseases, but we had to take an example to fit into the key question for a committee of this type about how we use intergovernmental organisations. I am beginning to think that if we continue with such a committee in the future we may need to find a title which suggests the UK's expenditure on intergovernmental organisations. That is the key. If you end up looking too much at the disease as opposed to the intergovernmental organisation itself, you will do what many other committees could do either in the House of Commons or here, and I am anxious to avoid that. The noble Baroness’s comments are well made. I beg to move.
Freedom of Information Act 2000
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the use of the ministerial veto under Section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act in respect of minutes of two Cabinet meetings in March 2003 relating to Iraq.
I need first to set out some background. The FoI Act has profoundly changed the relationship between citizens, and their elected representatives and the media on the one hand, and the Government and public authorities on the other. It has, as intended, made the Executive far more open and accountable. The Act provides a regime for freedom of information which is one of the most open and rigorous in the world. It was the subject of almost three years’ intensive debate, by which the original scheme was much improved and strengthened. As initially proposed, decisions of the Information Commissioner would in law have been heavily persuasive, but not binding on Ministers. This reflected the regimes in other countries, such as in Canada. In the event, that scheme was replaced by a much tougher one.
There was, however, a key balancing measure written into the Act, and accepted by Parliament. This was to provide in Section 53, that in specific circumstances Ministers—and certain others—could override a decision of the commissioner or tribunal requiring the release of information if they believed on reasonable grounds that the decision to withhold the information was in accordance with the requirements of the Act. At the time of the passage of the Bill, Ministers in both Houses provided reassurance about the use of this veto. It would not be commonplace. Undertakings were also given that, although Section 53 required a certificate by a single Cabinet Minister or law officer, any use of the veto would be subject to prior Cabinet consideration.
The Act came into force on 1 January 2005. From then until September 2008, in approximately 78,000 cases where the requested information was held by government departments, it has been released in full. Before the Act, some of it would not have been released for 30 years. Since 2006, the Information Commissioner has dealt with more than 1,500 cases involving government departments, and the Information Tribunal has dealt with more than 50 such cases, but no Section 53 veto has been used to date.
In December 2006, the Cabinet Office received a freedom of information request for Cabinet minutes and records relating to meetings it held between 7 and 17 March 2003 where the Attorney General’s legal advice concerning military action against Iraq was considered and discussed. There were two meetings of Cabinet within that period; on 13 and 17 March. The Cabinet Office refused the request, citing the Act’s exemptions for information relating to policy development and ministerial communications. In keeping with its statutory obligations, the Cabinet Office had considered the public interest in releasing the information, but found twice, on balance, that there was greater public interest in withholding it.
The applicant duly exercised his right to ask the Information Commissioner to investigate the handling of his request. In February 2008, the commissioner reasoned, for the first time, that Cabinet minutes—these ones—should be released. The Cabinet Office appealed the commissioner’s decision to the Information Tribunal. On 27 January 2009, the tribunal published its decision. The tribunal was unanimous in deciding that the informal notes of the Cabinet meetings should be withheld, but by a majority of two to one, it decided that the public interest balance fell in favour of release of the minutes. It therefore upheld the decision of the commissioner ordering information to be disclosed, subject to some minor redactions.
Following that decision, and having taken the view of Cabinet, I have today issued a certificate under Section 53 of the Act in an appropriate form and consistent with the Act, the effect of which is that these Cabinet minutes will not now be disclosed. The conclusion I have reached rests on the assessment of the public interest in disclosure and non-disclosure. I have laid a copy of that certificate and a detailed statement of the reasons for my decision in the Libraries of both Houses. My decision was made in accordance with the Government’s policy criteria, which are annexed to my statement of reasons. Copies of all these documents have been sent to the requester and are available in the Vote Office.
To permit the commissioner’s and tribunal’s view of the public interest to prevail would, in my judgment, risk serious damage to Cabinet government, an essential principle of British parliamentary democracy. That eventuality is not in the public interest. Cabinet is the pinnacle of the decision-making machinery of government. It is the forum in which debates on the issues of greatest significance and complexity are conducted. Whether the nation was to take military action was indisputably of the utmost seriousness. However, I disagree with the reasoning of the majority of the tribunal. In its decision, it refers to the momentous nature of the decision taken, the public interest in understanding the approach taken to that decision and in the accountability of those who took the decision. It then says:
‘In the view of the majority the questions and concerns that remain about the quite exceptional circumstances of the two relevant meetings create a very strong case in favour of the formal records being disclosed’.
But in my judgment, that analysis is not correct. The convention of Cabinet confidentiality and the public interest in its maintenance are especially crucial when the issues at hand are of the greatest importance and sensitivity. Indeed, the minority view of the tribunal that the minutes should be withheld was formulated on this basis. It stated:
‘The minority view seeks to reach the decision most likely to support continued confidence that Cabinets can explore difficult issues in full and in private’.
‘publication would, in the minority view, be more likely than not to drive substantive collective discussion or airing of disagreement into informal channels and away from the record. This would over time damage the ability of historians and any inquiries, if constituted, to reconstruct and understand the process Cabinet followed in any particular instance. And it would not be conducive to good government’.
Responsibility for Cabinet decisions is with the Government as a whole, not with individual Ministers: that remains the first principle of the ministerial code. The conventions of Cabinet confidentiality and collective responsibility do not exist as a convenience to Ministers. They are crucial to the accountability of the Executive to Parliament and the people. The concomitant of collective responsibility is that debate is conducted confidentially. Confidentiality serves to promote thorough decision-making. Disclosure of the Cabinet minutes in this case jeopardises that space for thought and debate at precisely the point where it has its greatest utility. In short, the damage that disclosure of minutes in this instance would do far outweighs any corresponding public interest in their disclosure.
What the minutes principally record are the deliberations of Cabinet in reaching its decisions. The actual decision, which was made at the later Cabinet on 17 March, was made public straightaway. I, as Foreign Secretary, conveyed it to the House in an oral Statement, accurately and immediately, within three hours of it being made. In that statement, Mr Speaker, I recounted the recent history leading up to that decision, and I brought to the House’s attention the information which had that day been made available to the House in order to inform the following day of debate.
Despite the powers under the royal prerogative, we put the use of force to a substantive vote. In opening that debate, our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, spelt out in considerable detail the reasons for the Cabinet’s decision. The debate ranged across the history of non-compliance of Saddam’s regime, the negotiating history of the two UN resolutions in the run-up to military action, our discussions with allies, and much else besides. I ended that debate by fully setting out the factors the Government and Parliament had considered and should bear in mind in voting on the substantive Motion before them.
The Government subsequently released the Attorney-General’s legal advice. Furthermore, on 25 May 2006 a full disclosure statement was published by the then Attorney-General, which set out in considerable detail the considerations taken into account as the Attorney reached his opinion on the legality of military action. A number of inquiries have been conducted. There was the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly, and the Butler Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction. Both those inquiries published detailed reports on aspects of the decision to take military action, and we have acted on their recommendations. There has yet been more scrutiny of the decision by Parliament itself. The Intelligence and Security Committee published its report, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Select Committees have investigated the matter on a number of occasions.
In summary, the decision to take military action has been examined with a fine-tooth comb; we have been held to account for it in this House and elsewhere. We have done much to meet the public interest in openness and accountability, but the duty to advance that interest further cannot supplant the public interest in maintaining the integrity of our system of Government. This decision to exercise the veto has been subject to much thought, and it will doubtless—and rightly so—be the object of much scrutiny. I have not taken it lightly: it is a necessary decision to protect the public interest in effective Cabinet government.
Shortly after he became Prime Minister, my right honourable friend established a high-level inquiry into the 30-year rule, under the chairmanship of Mr Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail. That report, published last month, proposed a reduction from 30 to 15 years. I have already told the House that the Government favour a substantial reduction in the 30-year rule. In that context, the report also recommended we consider protection under the Act for certain categories of information. There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our system of democratic government. This tension is recognised in the fundamental framework of the FoI Act, and that Act, and much else that we have done, stand testament to the far greater openness and accountability secured under this Government. I commend my Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, first, I thank the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State for Justice for making his Statement available before this afternoon’s debate.
There are a number of political reasons why the right honourable gentleman should be embarrassed at having to make this Statement today. In particular, if he was going to exercise his veto, why did he wait to do so until after the appeal process was completed? It makes his action appear to be a flagrant breach of due process. Why did he not make it clear at the outset that he found the request for the minutes constitutionally unacceptable, or have the Government made up their mind on such a crucial constitutional issue only today? Did they remain in doubt about this matter until the very last minute?
Moreover, in the right honourable gentleman’s Statement, he makes much of protecting the public interest in Cabinet secrecy. Yet the Government exhibited no compunction about releasing Conservative Cabinet documents on the ERM when it suited them.
Constitutionally, however, the Government are right to issue the veto. In its decision, the tribunal states that it is,
“the exceptional circumstances of the two relevant meetings that create a very strong case in favour of the formal records being disclosed”.
With great respect, the opposite is the case; the more crucial a matter is to the national interest, and the more potentially divisive the strongly held views on either side of the argument, the more important it is to retain the principle of the secrecy of Cabinet deliberations.
If this were not so, it would be virtually impossible to maintain the constitutional convention of collective Cabinet responsibility for its decisions. Collective Cabinet responsibility is, as your Lordships well know, crucial to our system of government in Parliament. Without it, day-to-day executive decision-making would simply break down. In a constitutional system in which there is no separation of powers between legislature and executive, this consequence would be inevitable.
I add this; the more momentous a decision, the more important it is for members of the Cabinet to engage in exchanges of the utmost candour. The knowledge that their deliberations would quickly be made public could prove to be profoundly inhibiting to freedom of expression in that context. Alternatively, decision-making could be driven even further from the Cabinet table and rapidly towards more informal avenues of communication, such as those exposed so alarmingly by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his admirable report.
With respect, those who are seeking to make public the contents of these minutes are aiming at the wrong target; for they are likely to reveal very little, especially as the texts of the two advices of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, are now in the public realm. It is much more important that we focus on the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, about the realities of Cabinet government today. His report refers, for example, to:
“wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally”;
“Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee”;
“The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions”.
I emphasise that what I have said does not mean that the decision to go to war should not be intimately scrutinised. Indeed, there is now an unanswerable case for an inquiry. When are the Government going to announce it?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for giving it to us in advance. Liberal Democrats do not believe that the Secretary of State’s decision in this case is right. We do not believe that it is in the public interest or that it has been made for the right reasons. The Statement recognises the very fine balance to be struck between openness and the public interest, but it goes on fatally to undermine that balance by wilfully ignoring the very mechanism that has been set up to maintain it.
It is not a trivial mechanism. First, there is a very considered, highly reasoned opinion by the Information Commissioner, which allows for a reduction. Incidentally, the Statement ignores the judgments of the Information Commissioner and the tribunal even more strongly, which suggested that reductions were definitely needed. The Statement also ignores the fact that the record of what was said at Cabinet contains only what was said and not by whom it was said. It remains anonymous.
Following the Information Commissioner’s decision, the Cabinet Office appealed and the appeal went to the tribunal, which was right in this case because it was a very serious decision. The tribunal’s reasoned opinion is exemplary in exploring the balance and difficulties. Paragraph 52 is of particular importance in debating the convention and the damage that can result from publication of the decisions that are being made in the Cabinet. It is not a decision that the tribunal took lightly. Paragraph 55 addresses the question raised by the Cabinet on whether a pattern would develop if this information was released. There seems to be no justification for thinking that a pattern would develop. Does this fear justify the straight veto by the Secretary of State? After all, he could have taken this to a High Court appeal, but he might have lost the argument.
Paragraph 60 of the tribunal’s discussion makes a clear case for the fact that it is not as much about who said what to whom, as about what was not discussed. Paragraph 60 refers to the Ministerial Code being broken. The issue was whether enough was said by anyone to anyone else, which brings the entire concept of Cabinet government into question.
Paragraph 72 addresses the passage of time. What have the Government to fear by this now? They have resisted the public inquiry for which we have continued to call. They have said that that would affect the morale of troops or strategic decisions, but that was a couple of years ago. Time has passed since then. It was also not lost on the other place that in this case the Government are both judge and jury. The Secretary of State now, as the Ministry of Justice Minister, was then the Foreign Secretary, which places him in an invidious position to make the veto.
The Statement refers to the use of the Freedom of Information Act in other countries. Are the Government aware that Australia is about to expunge the veto because it believes that it so compromises the Freedom of Information Act as to make it meaningless? The Statement does not recognise, we believe, that this case is truly exceptional. The decision to go to war was highly controversial. Some 1.5 million people bothered to march about the issue. We do not think that this would pave the way for every Cabinet decision being called into question. This was an exceptional case.
Finally, this is not a new issue. On 15 December 1932, Lloyd George asked for the minutes of discussions on the American debt question to be put into the public domain. The discussion about balance has carried on for decade after decade. The Government made a good first move in introducing the Freedom of Information Act, but they have now fatally compromised it by using the veto in such an inappropriate way.
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their contributions, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the members of his party for their support for the decision taken. It is absolutely consistent with everything they said during the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill as it then was. The noble Lord made a number of telling points, and he will not be surprised to hear that I agree completely with his analysis of the importance in difficult and serious cases of absolutely maintaining the principle of collective responsibility. Once that is allowed to go, our system of government would have to be altered irrevocably. He is right to make the point, which is precisely what lies behind the decision of my right honourable friend.
Having praised the noble Lord, I should just gently chide him for saying that somehow or other the decision should have been taken well before this stage. There is a distinct procedure—some would call it due process—which means that any complainant who chooses to do so under the Act can first go to the commissioner and, after the decision of the commissioner has been made, it can be properly appealed to the tribunal. All this is set out precisely in the legislation. I would argue that the appropriate moment for the Cabinet to consider the position is once the tribunal has reached its view. It has of course done that here following an undertaking we gave when the Bill was passed, and the relevant Cabinet Minister has made the decision.
The argument used by the noble Lord about the importance of keeping the confidentiality of Cabinet minutes sacrosanct in this particular case is the answer to the argument put by the noble Baroness. Is she really saying that the risk that would be run to collective Cabinet responsibility if we were to say that these minutes should be published is a risk worth taking? I hope that the majority view in this House would be strongly against such a point of view.
The noble Baroness also mentioned the High Court. We could take the case to the High Court, but only on a matter of law. This was not a matter of law. The reasoning was set out both by the majority and the minority of the tribunal, and for that reason we feel that it would have been inappropriate to take the matter to the High Court; it is not a proper matter for law.
As the Bill went through its stages in both Houses before it became an Act, this issue was discussed at great length. Indeed, there are noble Lords in the Chamber today who will remember the discussions around it. This provision was put into the legislation after much debate for a purpose, which was that it was felt that it might be necessary to use it in various circumstances. It was also made absolutely clear that this course would not be taken easily or frequently.
The statement of Her Majesty's Government’s policy that is attached to the document of my right honourable friend that is in the Library says:
“The exercise of the veto would involve two analytical steps. It must first be considered whether the public interest in withholding information outweighs the public interest in disclosure. Only if this test is satisfied can it then be considered whether the instant case warrants exercise of the veto. The Government will not routinely agree the use of the executive override simply because it considers the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure”.
The case has to be exceptional. We feel that this case is exceptional and that we have taken the right decision.
My Lords, there is a need for the maximum information about the reasons for the Iraq war. I think that the Minister has forgotten my noble friend’s question about an inquiry into Iraq. Are there any circumstances in which this Government will set up a general inquiry into the Iraq war in this Parliament or are they going back on the commitment, which was pretty inadequate in any event, which they previously gave?
Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister a question arising directly from the Statement. He mentioned the 30-year rule review committee, to which I gave evidence. Does the Statement mean that the Government have accepted the proposal to reduce the limit of publication on Cabinet proceedings from 30 years to 15? That is certainly the implication of the Statement, at any rate.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me that I had not replied regarding the inquiry. The inquiry is a slightly different issue from the one raised today, but I am not exactly surprised to hear it mentioned. The best thing that I can do is remind the House of what the Prime Minister said in December: this is a matter to consider once our troops have come home. My own view is that that is a very strong argument. It would be the wrong time to hold an inquiry while our troops are still risking their lives in Iraq. Once they come home, the matter should be considered.
We welcome the review on the 30-year rule. We agree in principle that there should be a substantial reduction of the 30-year rule, phased in over time. The change would result in earlier public access to large numbers of official documents and would give the public a more detailed understanding of how Governments have handled more recent events. The caveat is that we need to look at the recommendations in detail and consider the practical implications carefully before providing a detailed response by the summer.
My Lords, I, too, support the Government’s decision. Can the Minister please give us a clear undertaking that none of the withheld information from the two meetings is already in the public domain as a result of memoirs or diaries published by former Ministers or political officials? Further, can he please give us a clear undertaking that the necessary legal action will be taken against any former Minister who refers to these two meetings in memoirs or diaries to be published in the near future?
My Lords, I think that I can say that the memoirs that have appeared so far do not breach the concern that we have and the reason that we have issued this veto. There are strong rules about memoirs, which the noble Lord will know from his distinguished time in government. Ministers are constantly reminded that they have to keep to those rules.
My Lords, on page 3 of the Statement there are references to the role of the Cabinet Office. It says:
“The Cabinet Office refused the request”,
“the Cabinet Office had considered”,
“The Cabinet Office appealed”.
The Cabinet Office is an institution. Who made the decision? The Cabinet Office has no collective voice. It is responsible, if anything, to the Prime Minister of the day. If the Cabinet Office is responsible to a Minister, or collectively to the Cabinet, has let identity independence?
My Lords, as I understand the procedure, the complainant would make his application to the relevant government department, which in this case was considered to be the Cabinet Office. It refused the application. It was then asked to reconsider it. As I understand it, independent people within the Cabinet Office are then, under the Act, obliged to look at the case again to see whether the first officials were right or wrong in refusing it. That process took place here before the claimant went, as he was entitled to, to the commissioner. The Cabinet Office, as I understand it, is a department of state in the Government. It has Ministers who are members of that department.
My Lords, I voted in favour of the Freedom of Information Act as an MP, but I knew at the time that it would be an absolute gift to opposition political parties and opposition groups of one type or another. That is why I fear for its survival in this form if there were to be a Conservative Government in future. It is a good Act, but does my noble friend agree that the danger has always been that if you go too far with it you drive decision-making underground. If you do that, you end up hollowing out the institutions where these decisions are supposed to take place. One of the areas of the Act that needs review is whether we should make the law much clearer that private conversations should be encouraged in some areas rather than pushed outside such institutions as the Cabinet.
I make a final point. Even if the appeal had been run, all it would have done is led to an argument between lawyers about whether the Attorney-General got it right or wrong. That is actually not the key issue about Iraq.
My Lords, I agree very much with what my noble friend says. Indeed, it follows what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, was arguing a few minutes ago: once what happens in Cabinet becomes public knowledge, decisions will eventually be made elsewhere in private and will not be so accountable.
My Lords, given what my noble friend has just said and what the Statement makes very clear about the principle of Cabinet confidentiality and collective responsibility, there seems to be—perhaps my noble friend could reflect on this—a degree of agreement between the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and my right honourable friend in another place that actually a decision should be taken not to reveal Cabinet minutes at all. I very much regret the fact that Conservative Party minutes were revealed. That was a wrong decision. I hope that we have learnt something by this exercise. It seems to me that the Conservative and the government Front Benches—the Liberal Democrats take a different view—are saying that, as a matter of principle, collective responsibility would be undermined by such revelations and we should simply take a decision to amend the Freedom of Information Act accordingly.
Some reflection should be given to what the noble Lord, Lord Ryder, said about revelations made by Ministers and officials. It is no good dealing with a self-denying ordinance or codes of conduct over this: they are simply put on one side. There should be an absolutely clear ruling that those who have had the privilege of being involved in such discussions in Cabinet, and those who have heard such discussions taking place, do not reveal what has been said. That absolutely undermines that collective responsibility which both sides of the House have paid so much attention to.
My Lords, following the question of my noble friend Lord Rodgers, do I understand that the decisions of the Cabinet Office are made as a matter of process by civil servants and not by a Minister? Is no single person accountable? Is it then left until late in the day, as has happened today, for a Minister—the Lord Chancellor—to step in and put a block on decisions to which he was party? There should be some ministerial accountability, and decisions should be taken at ministerial level both on freedom of information requests and the publication of memoirs, to which the noble Baroness referred a moment ago.
My Lords, not every request is decided by a Minister, but with a request of this seriousness, of course—as I understand it, there is ministerial responsibility for dealing with some requests. Other requests are dealt with by officials. A huge number of requests are made, many of which are of course granted readily and easily. I talked about the 78,000 figure a few minutes ago.
My Lords, is it not a great pity, not that the Government have come to this decision—which I believe to be correct—but that they have taken so long to avail themselves of this procedure of issuing a certificate under Section 53 of the Act? After all, if one looks at the grounds on page 1 of the statement of reasons, it says,
“disclosure of this information would be … contrary to the public interest, and … damaging to the doctrine of collective responsibility”.
With each of those reasons I of course agree. However, turning the page, I see under the heading “Analysis” the words:
“First, I am satisfied that at the time of the request in December 2006, the balance of the public interest in this case fell in favour of non-disclosure”.
Will the Minister come back to the question with which my noble friend Lord Kingsland opened his speech? Why has it taken so long? In answer to another question, the Minister has this afternoon implied that due process required that the matter should be appealed by the Cabinet Office to the information tribunal. Unless I am completely mistaken, due process in Section 53 lays down that there should be a statement to the commissioner within 20 working days of a decision notice, setting out the opinion of the Secretary of State that there are reasonable grounds for issuing a certificate. Can the Minister think about those points and assist us further?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. The point is that freedom of information applications are made under a scheme. The Government would have been even more heavily criticised than they have been today if they had stepped in at an earlier stage and vetoed this claim before due process had been gone through.
What happened was what ought to have happened. The claimant makes his claim. It is refused. The claimant then goes to where he is entitled to go: to the commissioner. Then, after the commissioner rules, the Cabinet Office is entitled to appeal, which it does. When that decision is reached is the proper moment for the Government to consider whether they will use exceptionally—this will be an exceptional not a commonplace use—their right to veto under Section 53. That is precisely what they have done. The noble and learned Lord makes a good point; namely, that it is surprising that it has not been used up until now. However, that reflects the fact that the Government will not use this power for the sake of using it and will consider it very carefully. The Cabinet will be consulted before that step is taken.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I support the Government’s decision in this case. Further to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, does the Minister agree with me that until firm lines are drawn in this matter—if necessary, by amending the Freedom of Information Act—those taking part in important discussions in government will always feel inhibited about being candid because they will be uncertain whether what they say will be revealed under the Freedom of Information Act? Therefore, it is necessary to draw clear lines in this matter.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has huge practical experience in this field. I hear the very strong arguments that have been put on all sides of the House regarding this matter and the possible need to reform the Act. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not commit the Government to any such course this afternoon but I promise to take back to the department the strong feelings of noble Lords who are very experienced in this field.
Energy: Renewables (Economic Affairs Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
Relevant document: 4th report from the Economic Affairs Committee.
My Lords, I am very pleased to introduce the debate. I should emphasise at the outset that our report was entitled The Economics of Renewable Energy. We stuck to our last. We did not enter the debate about climate change or how to respond to it, a subject that had already been covered in an earlier report. We took as a given the Government's wish to reduce carbon emissions.
By the time we began our inquiry the European Union was committed to a binding target that 20 per cent of its energy consumption should be from renewable sources by 2020. To meet this target the European Commission proposed that 15 per cent of Britain's energy should come from renewables by that date. The Government seemed ready to accept this proposal, which represented a huge increase from the 1.8 per cent of energy that comes from renewables today.
We should bear in mind that about two-fifths of the UK's energy use is in transport, two-fifths in heat and only one-fifth in electricity. But the Government expect much of the increase in renewable energy needed to meet their target to come from the smallest sector, that of power generation. So in order to produce 15 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020, we will need by then to produce around 34 per cent of our electricity from renewables, compared to about 6 per cent today.
Our report does not set out to contest these targets; it aims instead to examine their economic implications. How much would it cost to achieve them and how would the effort affect security of energy supply given that the economic costs of inadequate supply could be formidable? Would focusing on European Union targets divert resources from other, perhaps more promising, means of reducing carbon emissions in energy production? These are the main issues our report addresses.
The committee began to hear evidence in its inquiry in the spring of 2008. Since then the economic background has changed radically. Then global economic growth was strong and the price of oil was rising through $140 a barrel. Now there is recession and the price of oil is scarcely $40 a barrel. The price of carbon, as evidenced by the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme, has collapsed and finance for infrastructure projects is very much harder to come by. These changes reaffirm the committee's concerns. Those centre on the affordability and practicability of the EU target for a near tenfold increase in 10 years in Britain's share of energy from renewable sources and, in particular, on the Government's plans for the vastly increased use of intermittent wind power for electricity generation.
Recent changes strengthen our report's main conclusions. Renewable energy costs significantly more than energy from other sources, conventional or nuclear. The intermittent nature of most renewable power suggests that it should be regarded largely as additional capacity to that which will need to be provided in any event by more reliable means. It does not of itself offer an adequate solution to the urgent need to replace old conventional and nuclear generating plant with sufficient capacity to meet demand. A focus on wind power for electricity risks blinding us to other ways of reducing carbon emissions that might prove more economic and effective—for example, a much greater emphasis on renewable heat.
Let me expand a little on those conclusions. Costs were a prime concern of our inquiry from the outset in view of the scale of investment needed, not least in wind farms, to meet EU targets. There are several elements, not all obvious from the outset. First, there are the capital and running costs of the turbines, higher offshore than onshore. Then there is the cost of integrating the turbines and their intermittent output into the national electricity grid. Then there is the cost of reserve, non-intermittent generating plant to meet demand when the wind turbines are inactive. This reserve plant is indispensable as little electricity can be stored. It will have to be very substantial indeed as the capacity credit of wind turbines—that is, the share of their output capacity which can be relied upon—is very low. Other forms of renewable power generation tend to be even more expensive than wind although less unpredictably intermittent.
We are clear that the full costs of wind generation, though declining over time, remain significantly higher than those of conventional or nuclear generation. We are also clear that no significant investment in wind power would occur without government financial support. Our report includes an estimate of the cost of moving in line with the Government's targets from 6 per cent to 34 per cent in the share of electricity generated from renewable sources. We concluded that the extra annual cost in 2020 would be £6.8 billion, an increase of 38 per cent. In terms of the average household bill, that would mean an extra £80 a year.
As regards security of electricity supply, building, commissioning and integrating by 2020 the large numbers of wind turbines and other renewable sources needed to meet the Government's targets will be a major undertaking, especially for offshore wind and tidal projects. Furthermore, as we have seen, a great deal of reserve conventional plant will be needed to allow for the intermittent nature of renewable power generation. To make matters even more demanding, by 2020 about one-third of the UK’s stock of conventional and nuclear electricity generating capacity falls due for replacement. All this represents a huge financial and engineering challenge for the industry. It is by no means clear that it is achievable in the time available, particularly under current economic conditions. There is no need to spell out the potentially grave economic and other consequences if we fall short and end up with insufficient capacity to meet demand.
Furthermore, in what a number of our witnesses felt was the unlikely event that the Government's target is met, we would then be dependent on intermittent renewables for our electricity supply to a degree quite unprecedented anywhere else in Europe. We would move into uncharted waters.
I now turn from the 20 per cent of energy consumption represented by electricity to the wider picture. We normally prefer our debates to generate more light than heat, but I hope that this debate helps to generate a good deal more heat from renewable sources as an alternative means of reducing carbon emissions. As we have seen, EU targets and the relatively ready availability of wind turbines have concentrated efforts at compliance on electricity generation. But the dash for wind should not pre-empt reductions in carbon emissions across the remaining four-fifths of the United Kingdom’s energy spectrum. Renewable heat sources, in particular, could make a significant contribution more cheaply and our report recommends that the Government should put at least as much emphasis on exploiting renewable heat as on renewable electricity generation. The report also suggests that the Government should keep their eye on the longer term and substantially increase the resources applied to research and development across renewables as a whole.
We also need to bear in mind that renewable energy sources are by no means the only way to reduce carbon emissions while ensuring security of supply. Low-carbon sources of energy can also play an important part, as can energy efficiency. The most reliable and lowest cost low-carbon alternative to renewable electricity is nuclear power and we should not lose sight of conventional fossil-fuel generation with carbon capture and storage as and when it becomes available.
Noble Lords will have seen that the Government’s response to the committee’s report has been published. They express agreement with many of our conclusions, though in most cases in somewhat general terms. Can the Minister tell us specifically when the Government’s renewable energy strategy will emerge? In the mean time, will he update the House on a number of important aspects which have evolved over recent months? First, what is the current position on EU targets and in particular of the 15 per cent renewables target proposed for the UK? Does it still stand? Do the Government still think that it is achievable?
Secondly, what is the impact on targets of the current economic turmoil, including the collapse of the price of carbon in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme? In recent months there have been many press reports of potential investors walking away from wind farm projects or demanding more government subsidy to go ahead. Do the Government plan to commit more resources to meeting their targets or to relax them? Thirdly, what can the Minister tell us about the performance of those wind turbines already in operation during the recent prolonged period of cold weather? Specifically, what proportion of wind turbines’ output capacity does recent experience suggest that we can rely on when we need it at times of peak demand? What does that indicate for security of supply when in 2020 more than a third of our electricity supply is expected to come from intermittent, renewable sources?
Since the Government agree with the committee that we cannot consider renewable energy in isolation from the rest of the UK energy system, can the Minister assure us that commitment to specific renewable energy targets will in no way detract from other, potentially more economic, means of meeting the objective of reducing carbon emissions?
Before I close, I want to thank our specialist adviser to our inquiry, Professor Richard Green of Birmingham University. I commend the committee’s report to the House.
My Lords, as a member of the committee that produced the report, I begin by paying tribute to our wonderful chairman. the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, for the excellent way in which he led us through a minefield. He has just given an outstanding survey of our recommendations.
I shall concentrate on one issue—scientific research and development. Science has produced climate change and ultimately science will have to conquer climate change. Every year the urgency of this task becomes more apparent. Only the other day we learnt how greenhouse gas emissions from China and India had exceeded their forecast levels. There is no way in which we can preserve our way of life unless we rise to this challenge. We are now told that this requires an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, compared with 1990 levels by 2050, which is only 40 years ahead. That cannot be achieved without a major programme of basic scientific advance. It is completely unlikely that that can be done by incremental development and installation of any of the existing renewable technologies that were treated in our report.
When our way of life was threatened by fascism we had the Manhattan project. When we feared Russian domination of space there was the Apollo programme. Both programmes involved many of the best minds of their generation. How can we possibly rise to the present challenge without a similar concerted scientific effort? In 2005, when the Economic Affairs Committee previously considered climate change, we reported that the international energy authority estimated that solar energy, biomass and carbon sequestration could be made competitive with oil and gas at a one-off cost of some 1 per cent of annual world GDP. We recommended consideration of a major international programme along those lines. That was four years ago. So what is the present position in this country? How much are we spending? Paragraph 90 of our report states:
“Research council spending on renewable energy projects has risen … to £30 million”,
which is 1 per cent of the total spend. We are spending 1 per cent of our research effort on what by most consent is the greatest problem facing humanity.
We were given that information by Research Councils UK. In its evidence there was not even a nod to the fact that this is one of the greatest problems facing mankind. This is simply an inadequate response from the scientific community and, ultimately, from the Government who can give that community its priorities. It is certainly not a response that inspires the brightest minds of a generation. Unless something is done it will not attract that kind of effort. We surely need something more serious.
Obviously, the ideal would be an internationally co-ordinated effort of the kind that was discussed in our 2005 report. Following that report, in a speech in this House our current chairman suggested an international programme of research that could be funded by a carbon tax. That is still a very interesting suggestion linking the use of different energy sources to their development. To secure agreement on anything of that sort would take a long time but in the mean time we can surely rethink our own national effort.
One interesting suggestion in our report is an annual international prize awarded by our Government and possibly others for the most important discovery contributing to the development of renewable energy. But the key issue for Britain is the size of our research effort. Here, as elsewhere, money tells. There are a lot of words in the Government’s reply to our urging a reconsideration of research priorities, as we do in our current report. But there are no promises; there is something that amounts almost to complacency.
The single fact—the one that I started with—remains. The Government are spending 1 per cent of their scientific research budget on the world’s most pressing problem. That is simply not coming up to the mark. I urge the Minister to press his colleagues to adopt a new style of leadership in this area and a step-change in funding.
My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Layard, in paying tribute to our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, who conducted this inquiry with great charm and diligence. He has given today an exemplary summary of what was in our report. I say “our report”, but I have to make it clear that I am no longer a member of the committee, having been rotated off. This was the last inquiry to which I was party, and so I thought that I might say a few words today.
It was a great privilege to be a member of the Economic Affairs Committee of this House. During my time, a number of reports were produced. I will name simply three: the one on the economics of climate change, to which both noble Lords have already referred; the one on the economic impact of immigration; and the one before the House today. It is the sort of thing that the House does particularly well, and I hope that everyone here, and others too, will read the report that we are debating.
I will focus my remarks on one section of the Government’s reply that causes me great concern. By way of preamble, I will allude to a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Layard, who kept referring to climate change as the greatest problem facing mankind. Well, he is entitled to his opinion, but he may like to know that the most thorough survey of climate scientists on this issue—they ought to have some knowledge and understanding of the matter—was published in 2007 and conducted by Hans von Storch, professor of meteorology at Hamburg University. He asked climate scientists to identify the greatest threat facing mankind over the next 100 years. I wonder how many noble Lords can guess how many scientists answered that the greatest threat was climate change or global warming. It was only 8 per cent.
I return to the Government’s reply, and the passage that gives me such concern. In paragraph 6 on page 5, the Government say, after accepting that there are massive costs in trying to decarbonise the economy, in particular through wind power, which is about the most expensive way that anybody could ever devise:
“It is also however important to recognise what these costs are paying for: a reduction in the risk of catastrophic climate change and dangerous energy insecurity. The Stern Review showed that the damage caused by global climate change could cost five times more than the cost of actions to stabilise global emissions by 2050”.
That is what they wrote, and every single thing is demonstrably unfounded. For a policy to be based on assumptions that are clearly incorrect in the view of the majority of people who know something about the subject is irresponsible.
I will take the statement bit by bit, starting with the,
“reduction in the risk of catastrophic climate change”.
There is no scientific basis for the view that there will be catastrophic climate change. Mike Hulme, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said a little while back that,
“to state that climate change will be ‘catastrophic’ hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science”.
Those are the words of Professor Hulme of the Tyndall centre, which believes in the conventional wisdom of global warming, but says there is no scientific basis for talking of catastrophe. Nor, incidentally, does the IPCC believe in that. That is the first thing that the Government have said that is wholly false and misleading, and no basis for public policy.
The second claim is that this policy is needed to remove dangerous energy insecurity. There is only one serious threat to our energy security in this country at present, and that is the Government’s reluctance to allow the building of new coal-fired power stations. Coal is abundant in this country and throughout the world. There will be no energy security while the building of coal-fired power stations is forbidden. This policy is a cause of the insecurity, not an answer to it.
The Government’s reply says:
“The Stern review showed that the damage caused by global climate change could cost five times more than the cost of actions to stabilise global emissions by 2050”.
The Stern review showed nothing of the sort: it merely asserted it. This has now been examined by leading energy economists and environmental economists on both sides of the Atlantic. These are people of considerable eminence: Professor Helm at Oxford, Professor Nordhaus at Yale, Professor Tol, Professor Weitzman of Harvard. Every one has said that the Stern review’s economics is profoundly flawed and utterly mistaken. That is the state of opinion among leading economists who have studied this. It is understandable that the Government like their own man—he was their man at the time—but for them to take this economic analysis, which has been widely discredited and totally shredded, and say, “This is the basis for an extremely expensive policy that is going to do great damage to the people of this country if it is carried through” and ignore completely all the other economic wisdom on this subject from people far more eminent than the noble Lord, Lord Stern, is grotesquely irresponsible.
Of course, the Stern review is somewhat all over the place. The Minister may not be aware that the review says at one point:
“The lesson here is to avoid doing too much, too fast, and to pace the flow of mitigation appropriately. For example, great uncertainty remains as to the costs of very deep reductions. Digging down to emissions reductions of 60-80% or more relative to baseline will require progress in reducing emissions from industrial processes, aviation and a number of areas where it is presently hard to envisage cost-effective approaches”.
That comes from the Stern review. Of course, the noble Lord says different things now, just as when he actually produced the review, he said that the costs would be 1 per cent of GDP. That was completely rubbished by Professor Helm in particular, but also by most of these other economists, so he popped up a little later and said, “Well, maybe it is 2 per cent”. That is a 100 per cent difference in a short time.
It is true that the Stern review has a gift given to few of us—certainly not given to me. The review tells us confidently what is likely to happen 100 years, 200 years, 300 years, and at one point 1,000 years hence. I confess to noble Lords that I do not know what is going to happen 1,000 years hence; I do not know what is going to happen 300 years hence; I do not know what is going to happen 200 years hence; and—do not tell anybody—I do not actually know what is going to happen 100 years hence. What I do know is that the current certainty is based on the same computer models as the financial services industry relied on to tell it with certainty the risks it was taking in the current financial circumstances, and we know where that led. It does great discredit to the Government. They are not taking the issue seriously. They are taking it gravely but, intellectually, they are not taking it seriously at all. They should address themselves to it and it gives me great concern that they are not.
I do not want to detain the House but I do want to mention one other aspect. The noble Lord, Lord Vallance, said that we will have to look at the issue again in the light of the very different circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is especially true in the developing world, particularly in China and India, where, everyone agrees, emissions will rise fastest. They are certainly in no position now, if they ever were, to take on the economic costs of the proposed carbon emissions cuts. The idea of an international agreement is therefore completely useless: it will not happen. A different approach is necessary as this is unreasonable, unworkable, unrealistic.
Another point is causing me considerable concern. We are going through a very serious world recession because of the banking crisis. It is far worse than anything since the 1930s, although in my judgment it is not as bad as the 1930s, nor will it be. However, it will be the worst recession since the war. At a time of world recession there is always a great impulse to protection. That is the great danger now, because it will make things infinitely worse if countries resort to protection. All the normal protectionist impulses are there, but there is also a new one. The leaders of the steel and other big industries in America got together with organised labour—the AFL-CIO—to say that tariffs must be put up against imports from countries not prepared to cut back sharply on their carbon emissions. Let us call them tariffs against China and India. The same song is being sung by President Sarkozy in France and by a number of people in the European Commission in Brussels. It is very dangerous indeed.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister for an undertaking: that the United Kingdom will vote against and if necessary veto any European proposals of this kind for tariff barriers, protectionist measures, border equalisation taxes—whatever you like to call them—against trade with China, India and other parts of the developing world.
My Lords, I add my compliments to the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, and the members and the staff of the Economic Affairs Committee on their report. Like the committee I will not try to tackle the question of the validity of global warming. But I would say, quite apart from that, that I feel that there are very serious matters—economic and environmental—that justify the investigation of alternative forms of energy in any case.
This is a broad-ranging report that is realistic about the costs and difficulties that will be encountered if we are to meet our goals in implementing renewable energy generation. I think that the volume of evidence accompanying the report is in effect an encyclopaedia on energy matters which will be valuable for several years, especially as the committee made the wise decision to tackle the renewable generation of heat and transportation as well as electricity.
As an engineer, it was also not only a pleasure but a relief to find within a report on a matter dominated by engineering that the recommendations were based largely on numbers rather than words and that there was recognition of the uncertainty and risk involved with many of the estimates. Finally, it was gratifying to find that the conclusions were largely in line with conclusions drawn by the majority of engineers with whom I have been in contact for many years.
Five years ago, for example, the Royal Academy of Engineering—I declare my interest as president of the academy at that time—produced a report entitled The Cost of Generating Electricity which drew similar conclusions to this report, pointing out that the low-cost, low-carbon option was nuclear fission and that the cost of wind, wave, marine and biomass and especially offshore wind were high compared with the nuclear or fossil fuel options, and that this would mean that their adoption would be expensive to the consumer. The year before the academy report was published, I said in a Times interview that,
“government plans to generate 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 were unrealistic and investment in nuclear power was critical if shortages were to be avoided”.
My statement and the conclusions of the academy report were strongly contested at the time by advisers to government, and regrettably it took them several years to change their minds and come up with a strategy that will in fact reduce carbon dioxide and at the same time keep the lights on.
That brings me to the major point that I wish to make today—that we have to get on with this task without further delay and stop the endless debate, with one government report and consultation following another, all of which seem merely an excuse for procrastination. It is unfortunate that we have made some foolish decisions, such as the selling of Westinghouse, but we still have residual engineering expertise in most areas of power generation and we should as soon as possible specialise in selected areas and develop world-competitive industrial capabilities in renewable energy generation and of course in nuclear power. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will address the subject of skills, as he has so constructively pursued this issue for many years.
When it comes to timescales, there are some depressing statements in the report, such as paragraph 176, which says that the earliest a nuclear station could be built is 2017 to 2020. This conclusion was based on evidence given by the then Minister of State for Energy, Mr Malcolm Wicks, who said:
“The most optimistic scenario I have seen is that there possibly could be one”—
nuclear power plant—
“up and running by 2017 and then some others talk about 2018”.
However, he went on to say:
“I guess I am just being a little bit more cautious when I said 2020”.
Why must this take so long? Why is it that we seem to take so much longer to complete projects than other countries? It does not seem to matter whether it is a runway at Heathrow that is going to take us twice as long to build as other countries take to build an entirely new airport or, in this instance, eight to 11 years to build a nuclear power station, when there are nuclear power stations available today. The report correctly emphasises the detrimental role that our planning processes play in achieving our aims on schedule, but falls short of recommending serious revision of these processes. If we are to survive as a vibrant world economy we are going to have to speed up. If the major delays are a result of our planning regulation, then let us be more ambitious in our reform of these regulations. We need dramatically to speed up the process, perhaps by the introduction of parallelism. Processes that again and again deliver too little too late almost guarantee that we will fall behind. Perhaps the Minister will be encouraging in his reply and tell us that the changes that are in the pipeline will in fact greatly reduce the time that it takes to complete the planning process.
Rather than spending the majority of our time—let alone the mind-numbing sums of taxpayers’ money which make every sum mentioned in this report seem trivial—on propping up our ill-managed banks, we should rapidly launch some infrastructure projects that will secure the nation’s future. There are renewable energy projects of all sizes that would be appropriate, and future generations would thank us for pursuing them, rather than wondering with dismay how we stumbled into blackouts and failed to meet our goals for reducing carbon dioxide.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the Government and the Leader of the House for holding this debate so soon after our report was finished and the government response received, and for not having it on a Friday. I hope that this will set a precedent for future debates on Select Committee reports. I congratulate our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, not only on the admirable way in which he chaired our committee, but for giving a very good summary of our recommendations today.
As we can see from the government response, there is general agreement between the Government and the committee on several recommendations. I do not intend to focus on those because we are already in agreement. I want to focus on one point, which relates to the 2020 target and the various recommendations that we make about that in paragraphs 236, 238 and 258. This is where the Government’s response is weakest; indeed, it is very weak. Some of our witnesses would say that it simply is not credible. The noble Lord, Lord Vallance, has already referred to this, but I will develop it a little further. In so doing, I declare two interests as chairman of British Energy pension funds and as questioning some small-scale wind farm projects in Norfolk. I do not think that either of these will bear on my argument.
There are, as we know, two targets. The 2050 target is long-term and much technical development will be possible in that time. However, it is unlikely, in practice, to be effective by 2020. Solar power, low-carbon technology, carbon capture and storage, tidal energy and, of course, nuclear power will make a much more significant contribution in that period. We have covered this in the report. There is time to gain the benefits of the R&D, to make investments and to adjust to technological developments between 2020 and 2050. The target of 15 per cent renewable energy by 2020 is much more immediate. It is an arbitrary date, so we have set ourselves an arbitrary target, which most of our witnesses thought, at best, very challenging, and at worst, unachievable. I will first elaborate more fully on why that is so and turn then to the consequences.
I will make five points. First, the Government admit in their response that the 2020 target is “extremely challenging” in paragraph 5 on page 5; involves “difficult trade-offs and costs” on page 6; “challenging” on page 8; and “ambitious” on page 17. The Government’s explanations as to how these challenges will be overcome in each of these different sections of the response falls far short of being reassuring.
Secondly, there is the reliance on wind farms. I quote briefly from our report:
“The technical challenges and costs of backup generation on a scale large enough to balance an electricity system with a high proportion of intermittent renewable generation are still uncertain. Whereas the highest share of intermittent renewable electricity now being generated in Europe is 15% in Denmark, the UK is expected to reach a share of some 30-40 %”—
by 2020. The Government’s response was:
“Not all of this will come from intermittent sources”.
That was all. There was no answer to our main point. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to these two points. First, can he quantify what “not all of this” means? Does it mean that a very high proportion will still have to come from wind farms? Secondly, will he now deal with the point that the government response did not? How will a share of 30 to 40 per cent—or even 30 per cent—be achieved when no other EU Government, however dedicated, and with better support and planning systems with which to achieve it, is anywhere near that figure, nor intending to be so?
I have recently been reading the Government’s document, Community benefits from wind power. It makes clear that, as regards the achievements of wind power and wind farms on a much greater scale in some European countries, there are really no lessons to be learnt from them about community benefits here because their systems are so different. If I were in the Government, I would harbour serious doubts about the ability of the wind farm industry to deliver targets on this scale. Onshore, how much will a host of often very small-scale wind farms, dotted around the country, be able to contribute to this massive objective? I suspect that by far the largest contribution will have to come from offshore wind farms, where the scale issues and links to the grid are more achievable. Even here, as we have seen from the serious doubts of some major companies about investing in these major projects, the question mark over achievability by 2020 looks very large indeed. There are also problems about the limits on the supply abilities of the industry to meet these targets.
Thirdly, on a separate point about wind farms, in our report—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, referred to this—we refer to the intermittent nature of wind turbines and some other renewable generators meaning that they can replace only a little of the capacity of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants if security of supply is to be maintained. That is why we drew attention to the point that investment in renewable generation capacity will therefore be in addition to, rather than a replacement for, the massive investment in fossil fuel and nuclear plants required to replace the many power stations scheduled for closure by 2020. The Government’s response was that the scale of investment and the timescale within which it is needed is, of course, “challenging”. The subsequent paragraphs in the report, about how the challenge is to be met, were, frankly, a fudge.
Fourthly, there is the question of affordability, which the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, and my noble friend Lord Lawson have already referred to. I was going to ask how much input the Treasury had into the Government’s response. Then I spotted what I suspect that input is. Twice in the response, the “extremely challenging” references had been added to. In one case,
“particularly in the current global economic conditions”—
was added, and in the other,
“particularly given the current investment climate”—
was added. Much of our discussion took place last year before the full impact of the credit crunch and the global situation was evident, so it was not taken into account at that stage. Looking ahead over the next few years, what are the implications of getting sufficient private capital investment? There are even more implications for the Government in the impact of the public investment required to encourage wind farms. In the current and foreseeable economic situation, these seem simply not to be affordable.
Finally, a considerable proportion of our current electricity generation will have to be replaced from 2017 anyway. New nuclear plants will be the key in the period up to 2020 and for some time thereafter. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Broers, about this. With the best will in the world, starting late as we are, new nuclear plants will not have contributed much by 2020.
All of these points led us to a conclusion that was, perhaps, not as specific as some of us would have liked, but is nevertheless clear. We should be flexible on the arbitrary 2020 target date, renegotiating it if necessary. Professor Helm pointed out that we should have a credible renewables target, which there is a reasonable prospect of achieving. He was certainly not alone in that. There are consequences to setting, but not achieving, a target of 2020 and depending on wind as the major source. Not only is our credibility is at stake, but the loss of face from failure, because the target was too ambitious, would also be evident. Not only is there a potentially a much higher cost because of the short-term balancing costs to meet intermittency—with the estimates put to us varying between £500 million and £1.4 billion—which will also have an impact, but above all there is the high risk that, as BP put it, because the timescale for the targets is short,
“investment would be skewed to those technologies which work today as opposed to those technologies which might be right for the longer term”.
That is why, in paragraph 258, we are also concerned that determination to meet the target may lead to an over-emphasis on promoting short-term options simply because they are available, rather than because they offer the most effective and economical means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions over the longer term. In their response, the Government did not address that point, related to the 2020 target, which is crucial in our report. I hope that the Minister can address it tonight.
My Lords, although I think this is an extremely valuable report, I am probably the first to say that I am quite disappointed with its contents. If you read it in one respect, it seems to be saying that it is an either/or situation; you either have renewables or you have nuclear. I do not feel that that is the situation at all. The report talks about having a broad base and a mix, but a large number of the conclusions talk about the need for nuclear. Indeed, I was interested that the previous speaker talked about paragraph 258, which states:
“We are also concerned that determination to meet the target may lead to an over-emphasis on promoting short-term options”.
I was not certain what the report was trying to indicate by that, because it does not specify what the short-term options are. If it just means wind, I wish it would have just said that and said that nuclear is a good thing, because that is how I read that section.
The report goes through many of the issues in some depth, and there is great value in it. However, I was quite surprised, given that it is a report by the Economic Affairs Committee, that it suggests that if we go towards our renewables target it will add an extra £80 to every bill in the country by 2020. That is a fantastically accurate prediction, considering that there has been a massive swing in domestic and other energy bills over the past three years, which has gone far beyond £80 one way or the other. I agree that there will be a cost supplement for promoting a renewables strategy. However, I was rather disappointed that the report did not talk about the problems that we are facing with energy security. By 2020, we might be looking at as much as 80 per cent of our gas being imported from abroad. That will have a massive implication for the fluctuation in prices. We only have to go back over the past two or three years to work out what happened when the interconnectors were not supplying gas from the continent in the way that they should have and the spot price of gas was going up and down massively. Therefore, rather than increase bills, there will be a cost, but this might reduce how markets can go up and down, especially if we are so reliant on gas, as it looks like we will be.
Much was made in previous speeches of the fact that prices are changing and the report needs to be rewritten in the light of the recession or the depression. I am not sure whether we are in a recession or depression; it seems to change on a regular basis. This will change the economics of the issues of renewable energy. I went to a seminar on wind turbines, where there was great concern that large numbers of projects would have to be cancelled because the cost of the steel for the wind turbines had shot up so much—because there was such demand for steel—that the turbines were becoming unaffordable. Now, there has been a massive decrease in the cost of steel. Although there has been a lack of credit, which is quite badly affecting the wind turbine industry and the prospects of many wind turbine farms, there is an issue about variations in cost, which could make wind cheaper rather than more expensive.
One of the problems that the recession has brought has been a collapse in the carbon price as companies do not use up their carbon allowance. To raise finance, many of them are selling off the excess credits. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, has shown that he is a climate sceptic. I am an ETS sceptic of the highest order. I do not believe that the European Emissions Trading Scheme will lead to a regulation of the carbon markets. The recent collapse in the carbon price shows the fragility of that system. I very much hope that, although the Government are putting a great deal of faith in this, it will be a wake-up call to the problems that are affecting carbon.
I go back to the nuclear argument. I do not think that anyone in this House who has listened to me speak on this subject many times before would be surprised that I am sceptical about the arguments being made about nuclear. Obviously, many environmentalists are moving towards the building of nuclear power stations as a low-carbon option. However, my real concern is that it is not a silver bullet that will suddenly solve our needs, because of the timescale. During a Question yesterday, the Minister talked about the first nuclear power station coming on in 2018 and then nuclear power stations coming online in the 2020s and probably into the 2030s. To build up the level of generation that we need from these power stations, we are talking decades, because we start from such a low basis. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, will probably mention that even if we had the skills base in this country to manage such a massive expansion of the nuclear fleet, we do not have the companies any more.
I am also sceptical about the prices given for each of the different renewables, which includes some figures on nuclear. I have seen a large number of these figures over the past few years, and they have changed quite considerably year on year. However, some of the figures around nuclear that are given in the report are rather optimistic, considering that we still have not come up with a suitable geological storage area. We have not even decided on the site, and we have certainly not decided when the building is going to happen, which could be 20 years from now. To generate figures concerning how much that will cost would affect those figures quite considerably.
Many noble Lords have talked about wind farms. I always find it amazing that there has been such a shift over the years. A few years ago, nuclear was seen as very dangerous indeed. Now, it seems that nuclear is about as safe as you can get, and you could have your lunch off a nuclear reactor. However, if you happen to be walking across a moor and see a wind turbine, your head will suddenly explode through the affront to your sensibilities about wind turbines. I know that a lot of people do not like wind turbines. However, the surveys that have been done of people who live near wind turbines show that the majority of the population actually like them. I personally enjoy seeing them. I was passing over the border at Tow Law, where there is a wind farm. There was great opposition saying that it was going to spoil the countryside. However, I noticed that they have built a car park so that people can park and watch the wind turbines. It has almost become a tourist attraction in its own right.
Different people have different views. It has become incredibly difficult to build wind turbines. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, mentioned the problem of how long it will take to get nuclear power stations through the planning process. Similarly, wind farm costs have been directly affected by the problems with the planning process. Every single wind turbine that is talked about always attracts attention. I speak from personal experience. I tried to put up a small, 6.8 kilowatt, 30-foot wind turbine tower that you would not be able to see from more than 200 metres away, and I received a letter of complaint from someone in Leeds. I found that quite incredible. This was someone who had no idea what I was doing, but because I wanted to put up a wind turbine in a national park, they objected. That is the problem that wind turbines have.
We should realise that it is much cheaper to locate wind turbines onshore. We are looking offshore because of planning constraints, but there is much greater reliability offshore. This is an area that I am particularly concerned about. It is mentioned in the report as energy storage. We should be looking at large-scale energy storage so that the power from wind turbines can be stored and used in a much more effective way. To find out that only £1.2 million is being invested in energy storage, a technology that we will need in the future if we are to expand into renewables, is a massive disappointment.
Another disappointment in the report was the omission of biomethane and biogas as a form of renewable gas which is going to be a major source of renewables in the future. Germany has 3,500 anaerobic digestion plants. I declare an interest in that I have just become the chairman of the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association. Our stated aim is to try and build 1,000 plants over the next 10 years.
The report states that there will be a massive cost in renewables. Nobody should underestimate the cost but we should not underestimate either the cost that is going to have to be pumped into the energy sector. We have underinvested in plants over the last few years. There is going to be a massive investment in all areas of generation and a massive investment needed in the transmission network, which has not been looked at in this report. It was only mentioned once in the White Paper and was left out of the two White Papers before that. We should not forget that we are now signed up to reducing by 2050 the amount of carbon dioxide we are emitting into the atmosphere by 80 per cent. The cost is going to be massive, as is the behavioural change needed, so we cannot look at the economics as being business as usual. This report highlights that to achieve that we are going to have to make massive changes.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the publicly funded Living with Environmental Change research programme, which includes research on adaptation to a changing climate and climate mitigation. I think the whole House will wish to thank the noble lord, Lord Vallance, for introducing this authoritative report. The analysis of the economics of renewable energy, particularly the warnings about the cost of generating and transmitting electricity from geographically remote wind turbines, is something which we should take great care to notice.
In paragraph 253 the committee calls on the Government to look afresh at the United Kingdom’s research effort into renewables and to consider,
“what more could be done, in a global context, to promote more, and more focussed, research across a range of technologies leading to new, effective and economical ways to reduce carbon emissions”.
It is this recommendation that I would like to explore further. I agree with evidence from BP, quoted in paragraph 223, which draws attention to the risk that, because the timescale of existing targets for renewable energy is so short, investment will be skewed to technologies that work today as opposed to those which might be right for the longer term.
There are pointers throughout the report on where more, and more focused, research might best be deployed. The figures for the percentage of final energy consumption are fundamental to this discussion: heat accounts for 42 per cent, transport 39 per cent and electricity only 19 per cent. So any technology which delivers competitively priced heat and transport fuels from renewable sources, provided it is not intermittent, ticks a lot of boxes. Biomass has the potential to meet these energy needs, though at present we are short of biomass feedstock. As the report notes in paragraph 40, landfill gas is currently the largest source of biomass generation, but this is already fully exploited. Indeed, it may well be declining; one hopes it is. The report says that any growth in biomass generation will likely come from burning more waste or from energy crops. Quite frankly, using more land for growing energy crops at a time of increasing food insecurity seems unwise. That leaves burning waste as the only option for increased biomass-derived energy.
In so far as waste is derived from crop residues and non-food plant matter, there is no obstacle imposed to using these materials as energy sources. However, when we look at materials which have been labelled as waste in the waste hierarchy, we make great difficulties in this country when a company seeks to convert these waste streams into a fuel. The report mentions—particularly in Appendix 6, where it looks at new technologies—second-generation biofuels, which are manufactured from residues such as straw, wood, mowings, whole plants not suitable for food, and any other biological waste. However, the report notes in paragraph 169 that this technology is still emerging and not yet available on a commercial scale. The report uses the word “emerging” advisedly because emerging it is. Second-generation biofuels are being produced in pilot plants in north America and elsewhere, and without a doubt they will eventually be scaled up. We in this country need to follow this technology closely. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Layard, that massive sums of money are spent on this in the United States. Let us not try to compete against them but make sure that we benefit from the research which they are investing so heavily in. We need to encourage its application at the right time in the United Kingdom. The city of Chicago has concluded that a significant proportion of its own energy requirements will one day be met from its urban waste using this technology. Let us hope they are right.
Meanwhile we also have to use existing biomass technologies. We have been very slow to develop wood-chip boilers for combined heat and power even though in this country we have extensive woodlands close to centres of population. The management of these woods, of great importance for wildlife, would greatly benefit from a new income stream. I farm and own woods in the south-east of England, which is the most extensively wooded region of England, yet most of the privately owned woodlands can only be described as either derelict or at least no longer productive. As the report notes, we could achieve the same carbon savings from renewable heat for about a third of the cost of the same carbon savings from renewable electricity. The Forestry Commission has advocated the wider use of wood-chip boilers for district heating schemes and the use of domestic wood-burning stoves. I only wish that the Forestry Commission would set a better example by heating all its premises from wood chips and encourage the rest of Government to look more carefully at these district heating schemes.
The Treasury has proved obstinate over many years by discouraging the production of fuels from waste oil, whether cooking oil or hazardous waste oils such as engine oils, metal-working oils, greases and the like, by charging a higher duty on waste oils used for fuel than waste oil which is cleaned up for re-use. The argument the Treasury advances consistently, and in my view wrongly, is that the European Union waste directives require it to give preference to the regeneration of waste oil above combustion. Regeneration is not an economic proposition in most cases, while refining and then burning would be economic were it not for the present prohibitive duties. Nor is the respective carbon footprint of the two processes taken into consideration. Treating and then combustion will certainly have the lesser carbon footprint. The Government have the right under the EU directives to reduce the rate of duty and they should exercise this power.
Used cooking oils, like hazardous oils, can be refined to produce a clean carbon-neutral fuel. When this came before the Court of Appeal in July 2007 it recommended that Defra and the Environment Agency needed to provide guidance as to what recycling had to be done by the producers to ensure that used oil had been converted into a distinct marketable product which could be classified as a fuel. To my knowledge, at least one company at present wants to start mass producing electricity and heat from used cooking oil but cannot do so until Defra and the Environment Agency produce this long awaited guidance. The Environment Agency can then tell them whether their product meets the guidance and can be classified as a fuel. I hope the Minister can tell the House tonight whether this guidance is going to be issued and, if so, when.
Waste oils are only a small potential contributor to renewable feedstock for energy. But the fact that the Treasury has consistently chosen to interpret the EU waste directives in a way which is inconsistent with other member states and which puts a modest but helpful industry at a grave disadvantage demonstrates a failure to understand just how important it is to encourage all such sources of renewable energy. If we are to rely so heavily on intermittent wind, we need all other available sources of renewable energy.
My Lords, I first read this report during the Christmas Recess. I thought then that it was quite admirable. It deals with the whole gamut of renewable energy issues comprehensively, succinctly and objectively. It focuses mainly, and in my view rightly, on wind energy and, with great authority, it deals not only with the perennial issues of back-up and intermittency but also with a point that tends to be ignored: the cost of grid connections and the problems that arise from that. The report also disposes of what I call the Danish canard: the fact that the Danes are applauded by everyone for achieving an admirable 15 per cent of their electricity supply from wind, while ignoring the fact that, for back-up, they rely on being part of the much wider Nordic electricity supply system, which relies on hydro and nuclear.
I re-read the report during the recent break with renewed admiration. I was also able to obtain a copy of the Government’s response, which was published just eight days ago, in the middle of the Recess—that is cutting things fine. Be that as it may, I found that, although it was cautious and defensive, it was more helpful than is often the case with government responses, which so often are rather dismissive.
Like the committee, I shall concentrate mainly on wind energy and economic issues, but I also want to touch on environmental and social aspects. It is clear from the report that few, indeed probably none, of the expert witnesses thought that the target of 15 per cent by 2020 was feasible—in some cases, remotely feasible. The committee’s comments at paragraphs 228 to 231 are notable. One might add that they are also notable for their restraint. I quote paragraph 229:
“We are also concerned that determination to meet the target may lead to an over-emphasis on promoting short-term options, simply because they are available”.
The next paragraph reads:
“We have a particular concern over the prospective role of wind generated … electricity”.
It goes on in the same vein. Wind is unreliable and the true cost remains significantly higher than that of conventional or nuclear generation, even before allowing for the support costs. There are also the environmental costs and impact of wind farms.
The Government’s response is notable. They believe that the measures set out in the consultation document have the potential—the Government’s word—to meet the target. Any department which has to rely on the word “potential” is clearly not very confident of meeting its target, but at least it is frank. I do not mind much whether the target is achieved, but I am concerned about the considerable consequences. I am concerned about the inevitable pressures applied to allow planning permissions against the wishes of local, rural communities. Here I totally disagree with almost everything which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said. I see he is not in his place.
We all know what is going on. In a way, it is an age-old case of town versus country. My concern is not so much with the threat to national parks or to areas of outstanding natural beauty, although goodness knows the wind farm companies, given half a chance, would try to build right up to the edge of national parks. They have very little appreciation of landscape values and the scenery surrounding the parks; the Lake District National Park is already partially ringed by wind farms and there are new threats on the horizon. The more insidious threat is to ordinary, rural England. We need to bear in mind that the new generation of turbines are 350 feet tall, taller than Victoria Tower; moreover, we are told that they are likely to get bigger still. I suggest that most people who think that wind farms look quite nice on the horizon are looking at quite small turbines.
The Select Committee put its finger on the issue. Bearing in mind that it was mainly concerned with the economics, this is pretty strong stuff. Paragraph 254 states:
“We recognise that power companies need a streamlined planning system to approve or reject projects more quickly. But local and national concerns about environmental degradation must also be addressed. It is important to ensure that the planning system adequately assesses the costs to local communities and the balance between national priorities and local decision-making. The Government should also examine how far local communities share in the economic benefits created by wind farm deployment and other renewable projects”.
Since the report was published, we have had the Planning Act and the new processes that go with it. The Government rightly draw attention to that in their lengthy reply. There will be national policy statements, and one presumes that those will be reviewed by this House. We have the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will then, I presume, take over on a case-by-case basis. Local authorities are statutory consultees, as indeed are the national parks authorities and, I think, Natural England. That is important. It would be very helpful if at some stage the Government set out in detail how they see this process being worked out. What, for example, will be the timetable, or perhaps timetables? Also important is what happens in the mean time. When will we start and what will it all look like? There are many consequential questions; for example, the Government’s response states that it is common in the UK for wind farm developers to provide community payments. Is that to a local authority or to individuals? If to the latter, is the recipient selected according to proximity? Those are all interesting and important questions.
I could go on. For example, I would like to explore offshore wind farms, touched on by a number of speakers. I have the impression that the Government hope that they will be less controversial. They may be right, but will they help to fill the gap? Perhaps they may, but one has the impression that there are serious financing problems and very little real experience.
In the end, one cannot help agreeing with the final paragraph of the report, the gist or underlying sense of which is that the overwhelming concentration on wind is not the right way forward. We seek, at considerable and unnecessary expense, to cure one form of environmental damage by inflicting on ourselves or on one part of the community an alternative form of environmental damage. That is not very sensible.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, and to the committee for an extremely readable report full of wisdom. The chairman is to be congratulated, in particular, on producing a unanimous report, notwithstanding that one member of the committee is my noble friend Lord Lawson, whose trenchant views were eloquently put to the House an hour or so ago.
The noble Lord, Lord Broers, said that I should talk about skills, a subject in which I am extremely interested. I want to ask why people are not standing up and shouting to young people and those losing their job that there are jobs in the energy industry, with training available, and they will be for life. People could use this opportunity to change their careers and recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said the other day, that there should be less financial engineering and more real engineering. I hope that bodies such as the Nuclear Industry Association—the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, is not in his place—will shout out to the whole population that here are jobs for life and people should be looking at them.
My noble friend Lord Macgregor and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, emphasised the near impossibility of achieving the target of 15 per cent of all energy from renewables by 2020. Indeed, so incredible is this target that the former Chief Scientific Adviser was moved to suggest that possibly the heads of state, late at night towards the end of their deliberations, had muddled energy and electricity. I checked that out, and I was told that the heads of state knew exactly what they were doing. However, even with 15 per cent as opposed to 20 per cent, they have produced a figure that is frankly incredible for this country, except for one thing. From the Dispatch Box about three years ago, the former Minister for science, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, firmly said that in his view nuclear power should be regarded as a renewable source. Of course, the French are happy to agree the 20 per cent figure because they have already got all that nuclear, and I do not suppose they worry about it. Why cannot the Government take that decision and recognise nuclear power? I asked the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, about it afterwards, and he asked why, as there is 1,000 years’ worth of nuclear fuel in the earth, it should not be regarded as a renewable source.
This has been an interesting debate. My noble friend Lord Selborne emphasised the figure that comes out of the report. One of its strongest recommendations is that we should look to renewables other than or in addition to wind. The Government seem to have got totally hooked on the proposition that only windmills are an appropriate renewable source. That cannot be right, and I support those who have been arguing that there must be more research into this.
At this stage in the debate I shall confine myself to a few specific points. First, we are promised the Government’s response to the consultation on renewables. When are they going to produce their national planning statement on energy? It is provided for under the Planning Act, which we passed at the end of the previous Session. Everything is hanging fire. There are constant complaints about the planning system holding things up, and the new planning system in the Act depends on these national planning statements.
Secondly, there is an extraordinary discrepancy between the committee’s estimate of what the policy will cost by 2020 and the Government’s estimate. The committee estimates that the cost will be £6.8 billion by 2020, which is £80 per annum for the average household. In their response, the Government disagree and say that it will be £2 billion to £2.5 billion. That is an astonishing discrepancy. The committee heard a mass of evidence from which it deduced its figures, and the Government produced their own figures. This ought to be cleared up. We cannot go on with that sort of discrepancy. In previous debates, I have drawn attention to the estimate by Ofgem that all the environmental costs borne by the energy industries are passed on to the consumer, including the cost of the Emissions Trading Scheme, renewables obligations certificates and other environmental measures. Last year, Ofgem gave the figure of about £79 for the average household. I shall make a suggestion and hope that the Government will take it up: as Ofgem is already involved in doing this work, could it not be asked to produce a report and try to find out why the committee came to a figure more than three times higher than the Government are prepared to concede? Ofgem should do it. It is qualified and ought to be asked.
Thirdly, there are issues about access to the grid. Offshore wind seems to be happening. The other day I was looking at an offshore wind farm being built just off the coast of east Essex. Access and connections to the grid have emerged as being among the most serious obstacles to generation from offshore wind. Paragraph 201 of the report criticises Ofgem’s use of competitive tenders as leading to,
“a piecemeal approach to building the networks of wires and cables required to connect offshore wind farms to the electricity grid”.
In their response, the Government broadly agree with that and set out what they are doing to secure a more co-ordinated approach. However, I am told that there is a nearly unanimous view across the industry among licensees, generators and manufacturers that the Ofgem approach, now supported by DECC, is,
“complex, fragmented and likely to lead to inefficient outcomes”.
There should be a more strategic approach to planning the offshore grid for round 3 developments. That would enable a more effective way of connecting offshore wind farms to the grid. When are the Government going to recognise that view of industry, respond to it and implement what it wants?
At paragraph 242, the report recommends organising the queue for attachment to the grid more successfully. The Government broadly welcome that. However, there is another view. A briefing I have had states that there should be a “connect and manage” arrangement, which means,
“obliging the national grid to provide commercially firm grid access within four years of generators making a committed connection application”.
In addition to putting the unlikely applications to the back of the queue, which is one suggestion, there would be other advantages to having a firm way of getting this. The briefing continues:
“Commercially firm grid access means that, so long as a physical link to the transmission system can be put in place, generators will have full export rights. Such an arrangement would significantly improve the investability and bankability of generation developments and significantly reduce the uncertainty associated with transmission investment decisions”.
There is a lot of sense in that. I hope the Government will be prepared to look at that again and that the Minister will be able to give us an answer.
My next point is perhaps more controversial. It is about the committee’s recommendation in paragraph 243:
“We consider that the current system of Transmission Use of System charges sends broadly appropriate signals of the costs of locating generators at different points on the system”.
The Government’s response is even shorter:
“The Government welcomes the Committee’s support for the current system of Transmission Use of System charges”.
I am told that this statement about sending broadly appropriate signals is significantly challenged by a number of major and minor operators in the system. Transmission charges in Scotland, for instance, remain high, volatile and unpredictable, yet generators in the south of Great Britain receive a payment from the National Grid while those in the north face a large charge. That seems pretty odd to me.
We should have a uniform charge for each unit of energy exported on to the grid. Again, I am told that this approach would result in predictable transmission charges providing certainty to developers of new generation projects. Of course, there would be winners and losers, but it should be perfectly possible for the grid eventually to have the same revenue. Total revenue recovered from the generators would not change, but be more evenly distributed. It is completely illogical that it presently costs £22 per kilowatt in transmission charges for generation located in the north of Scotland whereas generators south of London are paid £8 per kilowatt. It means that an 800-megawatt plant in north Scotland pays £17.6 million a year, while one in Southampton would receive £6.4 million a year.
I am told that the Government have been getting arguments on this from both sides, and have not yet made up their mind. I hope that is true. There seems considerable merit to me in this scheme of a unified unit charge for attachment to the grid, and I hope that the Government can come to a clear decision in the not too distant future. Is the system to be changed in that direction, or not? I do not necessarily expect an answer from the Minister tonight, but I put the question as something which the Government have to decide.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to express my gratitude both to the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, for his wonderful summing-up of this report and, indeed, to all the members of the Select Committee on Economic Affairs. I would like to express a slightly different reaction from most others, because I feel great sympathy for everybody involved in this report.
The report is directed largely at the 2020 situation, and inevitably at the electricity generation problem, because that is the one immediately to hand. However, that is essentially a tactical issue; when this report was being written nobody was thinking about our strategic target, which had not been defined. The Government had an aspiration for 2050, but we now have a Climate Change Committee, a Climate Change Act and a target. That target is not particularly directed at the electricity generating industry but at the whole economy, and will undoubtedly have a huge general effect on industry. Of course, it must include road transport—indeed, all transport—and take in the whole heating sector, and so on. That will require a very different approach from the one the committee inevitably had to work towards in this report.
I do not remember much about my military career, but one of the fundamentals of life was that you always had to have a clear strategy before trying to work out what your tactics were, which is the reason for my sympathy. That said, the report contains a great deal of useful information. I have picked up on one immediate figure from page 12 of the report, which illustrates energy flows in the United Kingdom. I have never seen them set out quite as clearly and admirably before, and it enables me to direct one point straight at the Minister. At the bottom of that figure is a wonderful amount of energy:
“Lost in power stations & network, used by the energy industry”.
Most of that is waste heat: I sometimes think that we in this Palace produce a great deal of that, but most of ours is not recoverable while most of that ought to be. I have touched on this subject before, but we are doing absolutely nothing to try to sort out our energy problems if we do not sort that one out.
If we finish up with nuclear power stations surrounded by acres of glass, or something like that, because horticulture is the only use that people can find for that heat—it is not easy to convey heat to conurbations from coastal areas—so be it. However, we need to recognise the implications of what we are about, and we need a totally different public attitude because the problems that we face are, despite what my noble friend Lord Lawson says, very great. It will take a major effort, and I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Layard, who was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, and others. Up until now, the approach has been both inadequate and really unsatisfactory. That said, although this is no excuse for the Government, there has been a reason for prevarication in that there has been no clear strategic ambition, without which it has been extremely difficult to deal with these issues.
I would like to repeat something that was said to me more than a decade ago by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who, sadly, nowadays we see rather less in his place than we used to. We served together on the Science and Technology Committee, and one day he remarked to me that mankind only has one source of energy, which is nuclear, but we had a choice. The choice was between having a nuclear power station here and having one 98 million miles away. It was a long time before I had worked out the implications of what he said, but one of them is clearly that all of the fossil fuels we use are in fact a form of solar energy, stored over geological time. The process that produced those fuels locked underground large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, producing the atmosphere that enabled mankind eventually to develop.
Today, we are happily pouring that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere again, and whether we produce conditions where we can continue to survive remains to be seen, yet changes are going on despite what my noble friend Lord Lawson says. The polar ice caps, both Arctic and Antarctic, are retreating. Glaciers in places such as the Alps and the Himalayas are retreating. The salinity of the ocean around the Antarctic is changing, so plankton populations are diminishing. We do not know what effect these changes will have, and my noble friend may well argue that they are random, will have no long-term effect and may be reversed.
My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend wishes the House to have an accurate picture of what is happening, so I have to suggest to him that he is slightly out of date. Sea ice levels are now at their highest since satellite records first began many years ago. The Antarctic’s shelf ice has been increasing substantially, and no increase in the temperature of the planet, which is meant to be at the bottom of all this, has been recorded by the Met Office or anyone else for the whole of this century so far. Indeed, the World Meteorological Organisation has recently reported that 2008 was the coldest year this century. My noble friend might do well to update himself, if I may say so with great respect.
My Lords, my noble friend is probably quite correct to say that 2008 was the coldest year of this century, but I remind him that this century is only nine years old. I am not going to bandy figures about, because there are figures and figures, and people work one way or another. I merely remind the House that for a very long time there was a section of people in a different industry—on a much narrower subject— who believed that there was no linkage between smoking and lung cancer. Regrettably, my noble friend will increasingly find himself in that position as time advances.
It took me some time to realise the exact implications, which I have spelt out, of what my noble friend Lord Flowers said. We have to do things, and we are setting about doing something that has not been achieved before. It is possible to pull off the internet in graphic form the carbon emissions of every major economy in the world. They are most interesting. Except in times of major international conflict or major economic collapse, there have been no reductions in gas emissions in any country except for one, which we should bear in mind. The one country that actually achieved a reduction was France. The reduction occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, when France moved from coal for electricity generation to nuclear. Every country in the world—we are now dealing with a global problem—now has to set about bringing about that change. It was not going to be easy, and it is still not going to be easy, but, despite what my noble friend says, we must ask whether we can afford to risk not doing it. Given the enormous pool of international science from a very great proportion of all the nations of the world, which have agreed on this programme, the evidence, despite what my noble friend says, is that we cannot afford to take that risk.
We need a much more decisive period now. The Government need to think about the strategy rather than the tactics. Frankly, we will have to tell the European Commission that as far as the United Kingdom is concerned—other countries may also take this view—the 2020 targets are not that significant. However, we can meet them only if we are absolutely clear that we can and will make the effort to meet the 2050 targets.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Vallance and his committee for this report. I do not want to sound as though I am damning it with faint praise, but I found the appendices particularly useful and will refer to them many times. The one on Denmark is often used out of ignorance for one argument or another, as are the various comparative renewable technologies and where they stand today.
Professor Dieter Helm has been mentioned a couple of times. He is certainly one of my heroes in this area. I have read some of his other papers, and the one that I remember most was the one that said that the cost to the global economy of the measures that we need will be much higher than the Stern report suggested. That is true, and is something that I think we all understand. Stern’s assumptions may have been optimistic. We all realise that the cost will probably be more than that, but we all realise what the cost will be if we do nothing. That is always the comparison.
Professor Helm also pointed out very strongly that none of the policy decisions and actions that have been taken by national Governments has so far had any effect on carbon emissions to date. One of his other very strong messages was that we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope when we look at carbon emissions by nation; we should really look at carbon consumption. This is one of his main arguments in the academic press in other areas.
In an answer to a question asked by the chairman of the committee, Professor Helm says:
“We certainly have a serious responsibility to address climate change, and we are responsible for quite a lot of the past emissions that are up there in the atmosphere, so I would not in any way want to belittle the need for the UK to make its contribution”.
Although Professor Helm has some very important things to say, and although there are some very important lessons to be learnt from what he says, he understands that climate change can be addressed by policy decisions, even if he does not particularly like those decisions. We must remember this area behind the report. We cannot ignore it. The whole raison d’être of renewables is the climate change agenda. We cannot get away from that. We cannot look at renewables without seeing that agenda and, to a lesser degree, the agenda of energy security. Clearly the energy security challenge could be met completely by a coal-based solution rather than a renewables solution, but if we believe that climate change is an issue, renewables can contribute as well. We cannot have a scenario in which renewables are not an essential part of the answer to the climate change challenge. The follow-on from that is that if renewables are part of the solution, some people will see nuclear as also being part of it, and others will see carbon capture and storage.
The big area which the report does not address—quite understandably, as it is not within its remit, which it makes clear—is energy savings. Only through those combinations do we as a nation state, let alone the rest of the world, have a chance of meeting the sort of targets that we are setting. We on these Benches are very sceptical about nuclear, but even if you believe in nuclear it is not the whole answer, if only because it provides a completely baseload solution. You also need a variable input. Renewables can be intermittent. Wind power is certainly intermittent, but the National Grid has told me that intermittency of up to the low 20 per cents is not a great issue in terms of the instability of the national grid and the electricity supply. We are nowhere near that at the moment, although by the time we reach the 2020 targets we could be if the other technologies do not come in. It is certainly not a reason for stopping investment at the moment.
The big tragedy about renewables is that we are left with pretty much only one technology that we can drive forward at present. That is certainly how it appears to be, although that is more and more disputable in certain ways. There could be all sorts of other areas. I particularly congratulate the report and my noble friend Lord Vallance on having stressed the whole area of heat, where there is clearly an important need to increase our renewable technology, and as a proportion of renewable energy as a total.
Earlier today we discussed the possibility of biogas going straight into the national grid. To give National Grid plc its due, it referred to it as the “stretch option” and it is probably about as stretched as elastic could ever get. But it shows, under a regime where we decide that these types of measures are necessary, what could be achieved. There are other technologies. Unfortunately, hydroelectric, which would also give some storage ability in terms of electricity, is somewhere near its capacity, but we also have geothermal, which we have talked about, and heat-pump technology. All these have to be a major part of meeting these targets.
One of the main problems is diversity and a problem that has been mentioned by noble Lords, particularly at the minute, is the cost of carbon. The report specifically goes through the different types of renewable technology and other energy technologies, and states their cost per unit of electricity. Clearly, those costs do not take into account the carbon. Carbon emission is not free. It is a pollutant and it has to be costed into the price of any of those technologies. The one technology that it was not able to cost, quite rightly because it has not been commercially achieved yet, was that of carbon capture and storage with coal generation. So we do not have the complete picture. But looking at these different technologies without a reasonable price of carbon gives only a very limited picture.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister how the Government are thinking about the cost of carbon. As my noble friend Lord Redesdale said, we have an EU ETS sceptic. To a large degree I am much less so, but at the moment it is hard to look at the EU ETS and see how that will help to drive forward investment by commercial businesses in terms of low-carbon technologies. It is taking away that incentive of a stable carbon price. Probably, this is where the Government rightly disagree with a number of their European partners. But we have given away all those carbon permits for free. They have an actual value, so when there is a liquidity crisis in the economy and it looks as though those permits will not be needed for a considerable time, what does any finance director say? He says, “Sell the assets I don’t particularly need or I won’t need for a long time ahead that have got liquidity value. Get those out”. And there will be a fall in the carbon price. The knock-on effect would be that all other boards of directors and people looking forward to investment would not see the right price signals in terms of future low-carbon technology investment.
What lessons come out of this report? I believe it is that renewables are essential and have to be part of the solution, but that we need a number of different renewables than we have at the minute. It will be very tough to meet the 15 per cent target. The whole difficulty has been a lack of research and development, as the noble Lord, Lord Layard, said, in the distant past. We need to continue to ramp up that investment. We are suffering now from a lack of investment in the past because of low energy prices, particularly the low price of oil over the past two decades prior to two or three years ago.
We need to decarbonise our electricity supply because, ultimately, it gives us not just the electricity proportion that we have now, but also much greater flexibility. It could substitute for transport fuels in the future and other forms of energy consumption. It is relatively portable, or it can be. We need to invest much more in heat technologies. I also believe that we should not give up on biofuels, which are increasingly contentious. That will be a part of the future, not just in second or third generation, because biogas gives us an opportunity to move forward in terms of those fuels. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, spoke about the use of waste oils, which is very important. Biodiesel can be very effectively produced from those waste products. Can we make sure that the fiscal regime works for that?
We need research and development, but we need to increase our multinational collaboration in this area, despite all the difficulties that there might be with intellectual property and so on. We have to find a way to do that. We need to make sure that we have a much better indicator of the price of carbon, maybe through taxation rather than just cap and trade systems. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, summed up the whole matter: we have to get on with this agenda. Stern was absolutely right, although we may have to adjust the figures. But it is clear that the earlier we find effective solutions to the problem of emissions, the easier, or less difficult, it will be. We need to get on with it, which is why we need wind power, an existing technology. We certainly need to bring all those others on board to make sure that we have a full range of instruments to fight this challenge in the future.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, and members of the Select Committee on Economic Affairs for its report, The Economics of Renewable Energy. The Clerk and Professor Richard Green too should be congratulated on producing such an accessible report on a subject that is still shrouded in mystery for most people. I would commend it to anyone who wants a better understanding of the renewable energy choices we face, particularly as it is written in plain English and was encouraged no doubt by the long number of years that the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, spent in business. His speech was a pleasure to listen to.
We on these Benches agree with the committee’s main recommendations to the Government to give a firm lead in low-carbon alternatives to renewable power generation, to emphasise and promote the opportunities for renewables, and to consider how to promote more focused research into new, effective and economical ways to reduce carbon emissions. We agree to encourage research into energy storage with a view to mitigating the disadvantage of intermittency in the types of renewable generation likely to prevail in the United Kingdom. We also agree with reviewing the UK’s research effort and I agree most strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Layard, on this point.
Overall, my party is more supportive of renewables than this report is, but we are also alive to the risks that are highlighted within it. We recently launched our low-carbon economy green paper, which sets out how we propose to rebuild the British economy on the back of the new high-tech green industries, intelligent energy generation and transport, and energy efficiency in our homes, schools and businesses. This also is a very good read. It is written in plain English and I commend it to your Lordships as an exciting read for the future, although my noble friend Lord Lawson, my distinguished friend, may be uncertain of that for himself.
A lot of interesting questions have been posed from all sides of the House in the wake of this splendid report. My knowledgeable noble friend Lord Jenkin seems to come up with new ideas every time he talks about energy and climate change, which is quite amazing, and even the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has given me some interesting thoughts, for which I thank him. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to the many questions that have been put to him, and obviously he will write if he cannot answer. However, I should like to add my voice to just a few points.
According to BERR, the cost of meeting the new renewable energy target is estimated at £100 billion. If the current downturn only lasts until 2010, we will have a 10-year period in which to increase renewables from 5 per cent to 35 per cent, so my question is this: will the financing be found by the Government in the current climate? Unlike some sources of electricity generation such as wind, which have intermittency issues, there is no such problem with renewable heat. The report recommends that the Government should place at least as much emphasis on encouraging the use and development of renewable heat as on renewable electricity generation, so again I would be interested in the steps the Government’s department is taking to expand the renewable heat sector.
The technical challenges and costs of back-up generation on a scale large enough to balance an electricity system with a high proportion of intermittent renewable generation are, as we have heard, very high. The committee has recommended that the Government should ensure that further work is carried out to clarify the costs and encourage the development of technical solutions to deal with intermittency. What research is currently being undertaken to look at these problems? The committee also hoped that the work of the Energy Technologies Institute will yield technological advances and lower costs. We join with the noble Lord, Lord Layard, in all of this. What is the Minister’s response to the suggestion that the Government should consider offering a substantial annual prize for the best contribution to renewable energy development? It seems such a fine idea.
The committee was not persuaded that advances in renewables technology would be made in time to assist with the UK’s generating requirements up to 2020. How is the Minister’s department going to respond to the recommendation that the Government, as a matter of urgency, should encourage more research, development and demonstration in energy storage technologies?
As the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, said, the committee’s prime objective in this report was to look at the Government’s wish to reduce carbon emissions, not whether or how far it would be necessary to do so. In this respect, the report has done its job. The Government set out their policy objectives in their 2006 Energy White Paper, which BERR states are to,
“put ourselves on a path to cutting CO2 emissions by some 60% by about 2050”.
That has since been superseded by their commitment to an 80 per cent reduction target by 2050 in the Climate Change Act 2008. The Government have also set out their policy to maintain the reliability of energy suppliers, to promote competitive markets in the UK and beyond, thus helping to raise the rate of sustainable economic growth and improve our productivity. Finally, they seek to ensure that every home is adequately and affordably heated. These are fine targets, but I have to say that they set a high hurdle for the next Government to clear. We welcome the report.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to respond on behalf of the Government to this debate. It has been a fine discussion, and that is because the report itself is excellent. I want to add my tribute to those of other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, who so brilliantly chaired the committee. I pay tribute also to the other members and, indeed, to their advisers and clerks. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, wondered whether this debate and the Government’s response were cutting it too fine. All I can say is that normally the Government are chided for taking too long to respond to reports, and I think that there is a real advantage in a quick response and in holding this debate. As a Government, we are still in the process of making decisions on our renewable energy strategy, and this report is an excellent example of where I hope the Government, in giving a robust response, can thus inform the production of the strategy. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, that the strategy is due to be published in the spring of this year. I am relatively new to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which itself is as new as I am to this brief, so I cannot say what the definition of “spring” is. However, we need and we want to get on with this, and again the debate is helpful to that end.
I agree absolutely with my noble friend Lord Layard about the contribution of science and research to these very important matters. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, was right to press us to engage in the scientific arena and ensure that the money we are able to put into it is as focused as possible. I take his point that given the scale of investment in other countries, along with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about international co-operation, we have to make sure that the precious resources we spend on science and research are well directed. But there has been progress. The latest figure for UK public sector spending on energy technology research, development and demonstration is £151 million. I know that noble Lords will say that we should be spending much more, and I have some sympathy with that view. We should also acknowledge the work of the research councils in supporting a very wide range of areas that have the potential to develop or improve energy technologies.
This is the second time I have debated this matter with the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, whose essential message to us today was to ignore climate change and go for coal. I could trade comments from various international organisations on climate change, but I shall desist doing so today. On the Stern report, he is right—
My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has misinterpreted my position. It is not that we should ignore global warming—if it happens—it is not happening at the moment, but it might, who knows? Unlike the Stern report, I do not know what will happen in the next 100 years. If it does happen, we shall adapt to it, as mankind has always adapted to fluctuations in the temperature of the planet.
My Lords, I knew that I should not have provoked the noble Lord. The difference between us is that the Government believe, along with many distinguished scientists, that we should do everything we can to mitigate the impact of climate change and adapt to it. I do not disagree with him about that. He also made a pretty powerful argument for coal, and I should like to come back to that point in a moment.
I know that the Stern report has come in for criticism, and there is no harm in that. Since decisions have to be taken in the light of work like the Stern report, it is very important that such work is seen to be subject to robust critique and analysis. But I think that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, is right to say that whether or not the figures are exactly right, what is not in doubt is that the broad direction in which Stern is pushing us is the right one.
We have committed ourselves to tough targets: the 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases set out in the Climate Change Act which was passed in your Lordships’ House only a few weeks ago and the target that we have set within the EU target for 2020. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, that the position is still that our proposed share of the EU target is 15 per cent. The directive implementing these targets was agreed by the Council in December 2008 and is expected to receive formal agreement in February 2009. Strictly speaking, we can still call them proposed or likely targets, but we are pretty convinced that they are the targets we will have to achieve. I understand why there is some scepticism from noble Lords and in the report about whether we will do so. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that we were quite clear what we were signing up to as, I think, were other heads of state. The fact is that we will have to go for it.
Of course we are all concerned about the credit crunch and the economic situation. Of course we all know that at the moment investment decisions and access to finance are proving very difficult. And of course I cannot stand at this Dispatch Box and say with absolute clarity what I think the long-term impact on renewable investment in particular will be, given the current financial situation. However, just as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, advocated that young people should look at the energy sector as a good place of employment in the future—I share his views on that—evidence suggests that the fundamentals of the UK energy market are good and that there is broad confidence in the package of support we are putting together for renewables and the stable regulatory framework that we have in place.
I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, was right to point out that alongside the undoubted pressures we face, a low-carbon economy does not mean a low-growth economy; it can mean many jobs and investment in this country. It is important to take advantage of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, must be the world’s greatest living expert on the EU emissions trading system and on carbon price. He put his points very clearly indeed. The EU allowance price has seen a considerable drop over the past year, falling from a high of €29 to a current low of €10. We are all concerned about the impact of reduction in carbon pricing. However, the noble Lord knows that the EU ETS cap has been set and will be reduced from 2012 onwards. We expect firms making long-term decisions to do so on the basis of a rise in carbon price as the EU ETS cap will be reduced. We will have to look at these matters very carefully because we want this system to work, effectively.
Let me come to the question of wind, which excites your Lordships' House. I have discovered that in debates on the various Acts that have gone through the House in the past three or four months. It is true that we are looking to wind to provide an important proportion of the renewable energy that we will need to deliver over the next 10 or so years. We understand that wind power is intermittent and will require back-up generation to smooth the effects of its variable generation. There is no argument about that. Equally, it is a proven, efficient and, I believe, cost-effective way of generating carbon-free power. Although the amount of energy produced by renewables at the moment is very small and has to increase considerably over the next 10 years, even our existing offshore wind farms, where the UK plays a leadership role, generate enough energy to power more than 340,000 homes.
I understand the point of the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, about the output from wind turbines during the recent extended period of low pressure. I accept that wind power is a variable resource, but the chances of having no wind generation across the UK simultaneously are pretty low. In fact, wind turbines work around 80 per cent of the time, although not at full output. The effects of intermittency can be mitigated through a range of options, such as geographic dispersion, increasing use of energy storage and back-up generation. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, National Grid has concluded that the costs of 20 per cent wind penetration are low.
Wind is important but it is not the only element of renewable energy. I am particularly interested in marine technology. Other technologies have been mentioned today, such as biomass, biogas, solar heat and heat pumps. They all have a contribution to make. Some are nearer to market than others and some need a great deal of support. A range of various government policies and strategies will seek to do that. We are not relying on wind to deliver the whole target. The estimate I have is that biomass for heat and electricity sectors could provide about 30 per cent of the target.
At Questions today we debated the report which looked at the contribution of gasification and biomethane to the National Grid. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, described it as a stretching target—actually, it is an impossible target. But there is no doubt that the report contains some very important matters that we need to take forward. Incidentally, it is also a way of providing income to the farming community. I shall put on my Defra hat for a moment and say that that is very welcome.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, spoke about waste oils. The Environment Agency has consulted on a draft protocol; I understand that it is hoping to publish a post-consultation draft shortly. If I can find out some more information, I shall write to the noble Earl. I understand the issue, but it is not particularly easy to resolve.
My Lords, that point is well taken and I will make sure that the agency is informed.
I fully accept the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Teverson, about heat and its potential, and the transport sector. All this provides challenges to the grid. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raised a number of important points about the transmission access review. There is no doubt that the connection of a significant increase in renewable generation sets an unprecedented challenge for our electricity networks. We put a package of measures together in last year’s transmission access review, which will help inform the renewables energy strategy.
On the question of offshore wind which, again, is a point well taken, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem are leading a project to put a new regulatory regime in place.
I understand entirely the points the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raised. These are matters of very urgent debate. I am very happy again to feed his views in to that debate. I cannot really say more than that, but I am very well aware of the issues under discussion now.
We had a very good discussion about the potential of nuclear energy. With the noble Lord, Lord Broers, we took part in a debate on these matters only three or four weeks ago. I echo his comments very much. We hope that the passage of the Planning, the Energy and the Climate Change Acts will allow a much more rational and, I hope, speedier path to making the decisions that have to be made. He is surely right about the contribution that engineers in particular and scientists in general can make. We are very committed to doing that. I again echo the point the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, made about the huge potential for young people, and not just young people, to go into the energy sector. There are an enormous number of jobs with great potential. One of the reasons we have to encourage young people to be interested in physics, chemistry, engineering subjects and maths subjects is because we have to grow people to go into these jobs, and we wish to do that.
As regards the timetable for the national planning statements so that the Infrastructure Planning Commission can get on with its work, I am glad to say that we expect to publish draft national policy statements later this year for consultation. They will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny this autumn. We hope that they will be ready by spring 2010. We know that we need to get on with this.
Coal of course has an important role to play. In relation to that, we believe that carbon capture and storage has great potential. That is why we are one of the first countries committed to supporting commercial scale demonstration and one of the first countries to put in place a national regulatory regime for the storage of carbon dioxide. This is a very important area for UK plc in terms of what we can do in this country, but also in terms of our export potential from what we learn from the pilot demonstration.
This has been a very high-quality debate indeed and will be very helpful to the Government in terms of our renewable energy strategy. Noble Lords have raised a number of very important matters. I finish by saying that I am well aware that the 2020 targets for renewables are very tough. We face some critical decisions about energy in the short, medium and long term. The Department of Energy and Climate Change was created to enable government to do that. We are determined to do that.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, for his marvellous opening speech tonight, for the excellence of the report that he and his committee have produced, and say how much I welcome the opportunity of further debate with noble Lords on matters that are of the utmost importance.
My Lords, the cost, sustainability and security of supply of energy affect us all. In prosperity or recession, energy is vital to the economy, to our standard of living and to our well-being. That is why the Economic Affairs Committee decided to inquire into the far-reaching changes of the nation’s energy mix implied by the Government’s adherence to the European Union targets for renewable energy.
The House has made it quite clear in the debate that it too recognises the importance of getting our energy policy right. I am gratified by the degree of interest shown on all sides and by the impressive combination of experience and wisdom brought to bear by noble Lords in the course of the debate.
I should like to thank the Minister, both for the content and the courtesy of his response. We look forward to the emergence of the Government’s renewable energy strategy in the spring—may it be an early spring. Meanwhile, I take the opportunity once more to commend to the House the report of the Economic Affairs Committee.
Human Rights: Religious Belief
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, 60 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, millions of people around the world still suffer because of their beliefs and the expression of those beliefs. Article 18 is often half-heartedly supported by national Governments, and, at the United Nations, it is one of the least-developed freedoms in terms of international human rights mechanisms, and is currently being contested through anti-defamation resolutions.
The subject is so vast that I cannot do justice to it. I am therefore extremely grateful to all noble Lords speaking in the debate, who will address issues that I cannot include.
Paul Marshall, in the definitive book Religious Freedom in the World highlights the extent of violations of this freedom. He says:
“Some—the Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadis in Pakistan, Buddhists in China-Tibet, Falun Gong in China, Christians in Saudi Arabia—are now among the most intensely persecuted, but there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs.
Atheists and agnostics can also suffer from religious persecution… violations of religious freedom are massive, widespread and, in many parts of the world, intensifying”.
I briefly highlight a few examples.
I refer, first, to Nigeria, because of the urgency of the situation there. In Bauchi state the Christian community were attacked last weekend. At least 12 people were killed, more than 1,500 were displaced, and 14 churches, eight vicarages, one mosque and numerous Christian homes were destroyed. At least one person was killed yesterday, and, with disturbing reports of,
“armed men gathering in the bush”,
further attacks are feared. There have been many such outbreaks of orchestrated violence since the introduction of Sharia law in 12 northern and central states, causing an estimated 60,000 deaths and much destruction.
Last July I visited a town in Bauchi state where eight churches had recently been destroyed. In Kano city, the authorities bulldozed a Roman Catholic Church the week we were there. Last November, Jos suffered a series of well-planned and co-ordinated attacks by Islamist extremists. Will Her Majesty’s Government urge the Government of Nigeria to fulfil their constitutional responsibility to protect all their citizens?
In Burma, the SPDC military regime is notorious for its brutal suppression of Buddhist monks and systematic oppression of non-Buddhists. Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and suffer systematic discrimination; mosques and madrassas have been demolished and, to quote a Rohingya leader,
“We are a people at the brink of extermination”.
Christians also suffer. Last month more than 100 house churches were forced to close, and pastors were threatened with imprisonment, while in the Chin state, Christians have been forced to destroy crosses and churches and to build Buddhist pagodas in their place. Will Her Majesty’s Government make strong representations to the SPDC concerning religious persecution in Burma today?
In Sudan, the Government's attempt in 1983 to introduce Sharia law throughout this religiously diverse country led to the outbreak of civil war. Subsequently, the Islamist National Islamic Front regime, the NIF, seized power in 1989 and explicitly declared jihad against the predominantly Christian and animist African tribes of southern Sudan and the religiously diverse people of the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile. I visited these war-torn areas 30 times. I witnessed the use by the NIF of aerial bombardment of civilian targets, massacres, torture, rape and scorched earth policies, resulting in 2 million dead, 4 million displaced and thousands taken into slavery.
In 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement, CPA, was signed, but the National Congress Party's policies in Darfur still include forcible Arabisation of African peoples and lands, and the imposition of its extremist form of Islam. Will Her Majesty’s Government do more to impress upon the Government of northern Sudan their responsibility to ensure the safety of all their citizens?
In India, the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, which caused such massive suffering, is widely believed to have been Islamist-inspired. Previous outbreaks of violence include massacres in Gujarat in 2002 when up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, perished and, subsequently, in 2008, attacks on Christians in Orissa state by Hindu fundamentalists with more than 50,000 people displaced, 70 confirmed dead—some burnt alive—252 Christian places of worship and some 4,000 Christians’ homes destroyed. Christians continue to be threatened with forced conversion to Hinduism if they return to their villages. During a visit in October, we met many of the thousands of Christians still living in appalling conditions in overcrowded camps. Will Her Majesty’s Government urge the Indian Government to ensure that the state Government bring to justice those responsible for the violence, provide all help needed to enable people to return to their homes and, in the mean time, ensure adequate health care and food in the camps?
In North Korea, given the obligatory personality cult of the political leadership, there has been harsh repression of religion. Buddhist temples and other places of worship have been eliminated and defectors testify to public executions of Christians and their harsh treatment in prison camps, where many perish. Three weeks ago, my noble friend Lord Alton and I visited North Korea. We concluded that it is better to build bridges than walls and recommended, inter alia, that the time has come for the United States to normalise relations with North Korea. We welcomed educational exchanges with Britain. However, we also emphasised concerns over human rights violations, including religious persecution.
We visited the Roman Catholic church in Pyongyang and expressed our concern that there is still no Catholic priest in North Korea. We were slightly more encouraged by the beautiful new Russian Orthodox cathedral, with two priests who had studied in Moscow. We were pleased to see that the Protestant church at Bongsu has been enlarged since I worshipped there five years ago and that there is now a seminary with 10 students, which has academic links to Kim Il-sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences, allowing academic exchange between secular and theological institutions.
In Egypt, there are serious concerns over human rights violations of non-Muslims. Muslim converts to Christianity are regularly detained without charges and tortured. The Egyptian state continues to prohibit changes in the religion section of national ID cards, with dire consequences for the Baha’is and Muslim-background Christians with regard to marriage, education and even the custody rights of their own children. Throughout 2007 to 2009, incidents of violence against the 10 million-strong Coptic community increased, often resulting in serious injury and material damage. The historical Abu Fana monastery has been attacked 15 times since 2004, and those responsible were not brought to justice. The Copts are still treated as second-class, or “dhimmi”, citizens, with limited access to their civic and political rights. Even here, in Britain, there is concern over pressures in some communities to inhibit freedom to choose and change religion—in particular, over reported cases of intimidation of British Muslims who wish to leave Islam and/or convert to another faith.
The final issue that I wish to raise is the worrying resolution, adopted by the UN General Assembly for a fourth consecutive year, entitled “Combating defamation of religions”. This calls on national Governments to legislate for the protection of religion from defamation. It is sponsored by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and seeks to criminalise any criticism of Islam, with specific reference to human rights abuses and terrorism. It is widely seen as a device to protect Islamic states from any criticisms of violations of human rights. In an interim report, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief highlights concerns that:
“The lack of an objective definition of the term ‘defamation of religions’ makes the whole concept open to abuse”,
“attempts to protect religions from ‘defamation’ are really seeking to protect religion from critical evaluation and aim to stifle religious dissent”.
I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will continue to resist these proposals.
In conclusion, many people argue that freedom of religion and belief should be given greater weight in British foreign policy. Unlike the US State Department, which has an entire department dedicated to freedom of religion and belief, the Foreign Office has only one person in its human rights team responsible for this issue, along with other human rights concerns. I therefore ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will give serious consideration to responding positively to this proposal, perhaps by the appointment of a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief.
We who have freedom surely have an obligation to use our freedom on behalf of those who are denied it. It is my hope that this debate may make some contribution, however small, to highlighting these issues and the need to respond more effectively to those suffering for their beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be. William Wilberforce’s words when introducing legislation to end the slave trade apply to violations of religious freedom today:
“We can no longer plead ignorance. We cannot turn aside”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for allowing us this opportunity to debate this important issue, and for her informative if sombre introduction.
The continual violence committed in the name of religion is indeed tragic. So too are the conflicts between communities of different faiths, or between different sects of the same faith. Most recently, Shia and Sunni Muslims have clashed in Iraq and Pakistan, Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Muslims and Christians in Africa—as the noble Baroness described in such dreadful detail—and, of course, in Gaza, Jews and Muslims are at war yet again.
However, behind the headlines of battles and terror bombings, there are countless individual stories of oppression, fear and misery as a result of religious intolerance. It is to some of these less dramatic issues that I wish to draw your Lordships’ attention, particularly the intolerance suffered in many societies by those with no religious belief.
I speak as a humanist, with no hostility to those with beliefs in higher powers, a spiritual longing seemingly as old as humanity itself. Indeed, in a previous life as a broadcaster, my experience included responsibility for religious programming, on which I worked amicably with religious advisers over many years. At present, I am chairman of the Humanist All-Party Parliamentary Group, which has a membership among MPs and Peers of over 100—including, incidentally, a few Christian and Hindu humanists, as well as many apostates from other faiths.
As noble Lords will know, the non-religious now make up a significant proportion of the UK population. Most of these non-believers lead good and responsible lives with commitments to human rights and democracy. We humanists have a long history of work for a more open, inclusive, just and tolerant society. Progressive people of all faiths and none are, of course, natural allies in campaigns for social justice, freedom of speech and tolerance of diversity. Given the Minister’s distinguished service in his previous role with the United Nations, he may be pleased to hear that British humanists are impressed by the work done by the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
Note the rapporteur’s remit: religion or belief. That clearly encompasses the belief that there are no gods. The UN rapporteur notes that, in many cases, societal pressures mean that the non-religious cannot openly express their beliefs. There is also concern about official intolerance expressed through policies on education and equality, and on blasphemy. While the UK finally abolished blasphemy laws last year, sadly, in Pakistan, it is punishable by death. Those who reject religion face particular dangers. These so-called apostates can have marriages annulled and their children taken away. In many Islamic countries, apostasy is indeed still punishable by death.
The UN rapporteur, Asma Jehangir, has been diligent and impartial in the annual reports to the General Assembly, entitled Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, British humanists have been particularly concerned about the decisions being taken by the UN’s Human Rights Council, which seems increasingly to be dominated by undemocratic political and religious interests. The HRC recently amended the mandate of the UN’s rapporteur on freedom of expression to impose serious restrictions on “freedom of expression and belief”. This amendment was imposed by an alliance of Islamic Governments backed, significantly, by China, Russia and Cuba. Can the Minister confirm whether our concern is shared by the UK Government, and whether they are taking any concerted action with other democratic states to ensure that no state guilty of systematic violations of human rights should serve on the Human Rights Council?
Still on the Minister’s patch, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a Freedom of Religion Panel, with a membership of more than 60 non-governmental organisations, including representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian groups. This panel advises the FCO on matters such as commemorating the 25th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. “Religion or belief” is the phrase deliberately crafted to include the non-religious. I am told that there is still no place on this FCO panel for humanist organisations that would certainly command much wider support among British citizens than many minority religions. We come in peace. Will the Minister encourage the FCO to bring the British Humanist Association on board?
Tragically, in recent years, violence perpetrated for supposedly religious reasons has become a major concern for many countries. Here in the UK we had our own sectarian tragedy for 30 years in Northern Ireland. I readily recognise that many of the conflicts that the men of violence attempt to validate by calling upon their religion are actually based on deeper social, ethnic or economic tensions. That may also be true of some problems here in Britain. But in attempting to resolve these social problems I suggest to the Minister, and to your Lordships of all faiths and none, that British humanists will be your tolerant allies in the struggle against intolerance of all kinds.
My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this important debate. She is one of the best examples of a parliamentarian who takes these matters very seriously and, in the best traditions of Proverbs, speaks up for the voiceless around the world. Unlike some who articulate on these issues, she bases her assessments on personal experience, having visited many of these very dangerous, repressed places and having heard from people first hand. That adds great credibility to what she does in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is also active in this area.
Faced with such distinguished experience, I considered how I could contribute to the debate. I decided to go back to first principles and look again at the UN declaration that we are discussing. Given that it is just over 60 years old, it might be worth reconsidering some of its articles. We are specifically concerned in this debate with Article 18. It states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
Its meaning is pretty explicit. However, Article 18 is just one measure in the declaration, which has many supporting clauses. Article 1 states:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Those are wonderful, exciting aspirations. Anyone who has the privilege of visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York—the Minister obviously has far more experience of this than I—will, like me, be very moved by the wonderful mosaic of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Golden Rule”, which shows all the nations coming together and the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourselves”. That kind of mutuality was at the core of the Founding Fathers’ philosophy.
Article 2 reads:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion”.
Article 7 says:
“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.
Article 16 says:
“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family”.
Article 19 says:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference”.
Article 26 says:
“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”.
In going through that long list I do not seek to test the patience of the House but to indicate that religious freedom is not an add-on that a bureaucrat has gold-plated into the declaration in the irritating way that we sometimes see in other worthy declarations and documents. The right to religious conscience is fundamental to the whole concept of human rights. It is the most sensitive flower in the field of human freedom. When it is trampled, all other freedoms and all other equalities automatically and consequentially go by the board too. We draw so much of what we call human rights from our belief in religious freedom. It is critical to underline the importance of that concept. That is implicit in the preamble to the declaration. It states:
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.
That preamble is very important because it reminds us that religious freedom is part of the process of preventing conflict. Indeed, much civil conflict has at its root a conflict about religious freedom. Therefore, if one tackles and upholds that, one also improves the possibility of reducing conflict. Conflict is a major cause of poverty and other forms of oppression. Here we can be positive about that aspect of human rights.
As if that were not clear enough, in 1981 the international community came back to the issue with the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief, which states:
“Considering that religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed”.
According to the Guinness Book of Records—I did not research it but saw this information on a website, so it needs to be corroborated—the UN declaration is the most translated document in humanity. Wycliffe Bible translators may argue with that, but the UDHR has been translated into 300 different languages. The original signatories to that fine declaration included Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Burma and Pakistan. They willingly signed up to it as a core principle that they seek to uphold.
The Government need to take that a bit more seriously than they are doing at the moment. That is not meant personally as I know that the Minister has a distinguished track record and I would not want to take away from that. But the Foreign Office sometimes appears a little embarrassed about religion, especially the Christian faith. The 2007 annual human rights report is 216 pages long, but only three pages refer to religion. Compare that to the declaration. Using the great search engine now available on pdf’s latest package, if one searches for the word “religion” the first mention in the report is on page 51. The whole front section is about policy goals. The Government could do a lot more to promote religious freedom. The idea about the Council on Religious Freedom, which already exists, is clearly a good one, but it meets “irregularly”—I think that was the term used in another place. I am not sure what irregularly means. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how often it meets, what its agenda is and how its work is being pushed forward. I also like the idea of introducing a special envoy to give a real focus to the efforts of this country in upholding religious freedom around the world. Without embarrassing anybody in particular, I would say that there are some worthy candidates in this Chamber who have proved their eligibility for such a position over many years.
Religious freedom is fundamental to many other human rights. We have to take it seriously; we should not be embarrassed about it but should uphold it along with others and build the infrastructure necessary to make it possible.
My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to discuss this subject again. I also, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald said, come in peace, but I declare an interest as a Methodist minister so I am not entirely unbiased.
History is scarred with instances of persecution and intolerance. Every generation has looked at others and said, “They are different from us, so they are people to be afeared and oppressed”. In New Testament times—we can go back even further if need be—there was new teaching in Galilee. That of course met with opposition. It was a threat to traditional religion and the stability of Roman rule. The Crucifixion can be regarded as much as a political act as a religious one. It stoked up the hostility of both sections of the community. It is when there is a mingling of politics and religion that we sometimes get the greatest measure of intolerance and it is often difficult to find who is responsible. Was it political or religious first? You have to try to fathom where the real truth lies.
Some cruelties such as the Inquisition, pogroms suffered by Jewish people, direct persecution and the crusades to a large extent were aimed at conversion from one faith to another or even just to eliminate people of another faith, as we know happened in Hitler’s Germany. We look at that and sometimes have to admit that the church has been unhelpful and the cause in many ways of wars, disputes and suffering. For that, we all share a great feeling of sadness and a conviction that this should not have happened. However, we cannot say that all wars start with the church. The two major dictators of our time were Stalin and Hitler. One was anti-Semitic and caused the massive Holocaust in Europe. The other was an atheist, and we saw the terrible consequences of his atheism in Russia and other parts of Europe. So here we face not religious causes, but political, territorial and tribal ones. People are trampled and destroyed regardless of any faith they might or might not hold. Pastor Niemöller—I will not repeat his whole quotation—instances the destruction of trade unionists, Gypsies and homosexuals as well as Jewish people. Whatever their faith and status, they were to be trampled upon and destroyed.
I remember hearing, some years ago, about the Christian Falange invading Lebanon. I felt so ashamed until I realised that it was not really a church or a Christian body at all, but merely a tribal label. Labels are so often given in an indiscriminate way. I have written here, “Politics can give religion a bad name”. Personal ambition—the hunger of certain individuals for power—and the urge for tribal revenge can also have disastrous results. Some people say that God is the problem, but I say that it is the people who think that they are God who are the problem.
There are many things that cause these persecutions. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon states that religions are,
“all considered by the people equally true, by the philosophers equally false, and by the magistrates equally useful”.
The label can disguise so much else.
We are talking not only about the situation as it is, but how we can be an instrument of healing. What can we do? Three years ago, I suggested in this Chamber that we should encourage a global federation of faiths, similar to the United Nations in the political sphere. We would establish an institution to bring together the faiths of the world, so that they could discuss their problems and disputes on a permanent basis. I still think that that might be worth considering: it might not be the answer, but it might be a direction in which to go.
We in the UK are a multicultural society. In such a society, we have to come to terms with people who are different from us. Often we misunderstand and are suspicious; sometimes we are ignorant. I know that a forum of faiths in the UK would be something that we in this Parliament could instigate: people of various faiths being welcomed together on a regular basis. I look around this Chamber and remember that there was a youth parliament here a year or so ago. The Chamber was occupied not by Peers, but by young people. To establish a forum of faiths in the UK, it would need to be prestigious; something that people could have confidence in and say, “This is held in high regard”. I do not know what the answer would be to the suggestion that occasionally this Chamber might be filled with people of different denominations and faiths, to give them a boost, and a conviction that this is something critical that we are all deeply concerned about.
By adopting those suggestions, this Parliament and country could give a hands-on lead to global understanding. I am certain that other countries would welcome our initiative. It could be part of Britain’s enhanced role in the 21st century.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, not only for securing the debate, but also for her distinguished tenacity in this matter over many years.
One striking feature of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the indivisibility of this right to freedom. It follows that those who profess a particular faith may not claim a right that does not apply to others, and also that those whose beliefs are commonly described as “religious” may not claim a right that does not apply equally to those who disown religious faith—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord MacDonald, for what he said about that—and vice versa.
Obviously, no freedoms can be unlimited, and it may be that one of the more interesting background questions to this debate is what happens when freedoms come into conflict. However, that appears not to be the main point of the debate. I want to draw attention to a few issues and suggest a warning.
Last year I had the privilege at the Lambeth Conference of sitting at the feet of Samson Das, the Bishop of Cuttack in Orissa state, who was able to testify at first hand to the sufferings of the individuals, congregations and institutions in his diocese. The noble Baroness has already said enough about the numbers of those involved and the details of their sufferings, so I do not need to repeat any of that now. However, it does of course concentrate the mind wonderfully to spend time with those directly involved.
Bishop Das’s description of an appalling situation could, tragically, be told of many parts of the world and in relation to an enormous number of conflicts, in many of which the borderline between religious differences and cultural or ethnic tensions is not always very easy to distinguish. The very fact of that difficulty suggests that, without in any way trying to minimise those wider issues, we need to identify and acknowledge the particularly religious elements involved in such aggression.
It would, I suppose, be unrealistic not to mention in this debate the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East. In places where different faiths have coexisted for centuries we see the rapid attrition of the Christian church in its ancestral homelands. In Iraq, Christians have suffered extreme deprivation, sometimes due to sheer religious hatred, sometimes just caught in the cross-fire, sometimes because, amazingly and quite wrongly, they are regarded as representatives of a western faith. So we cannot disown our own particular responsibility and the pressure on Christians in some parts of the world.
Of course, persecution does not always take a violent form; there are sometimes perfectly legitimate attempts to persecute minorities or other people based on legitimate rule of law. Just across the border from Iraq, in south-east Turkey, a part of the world that I know particularly well, court cases are alleging the theft of land from local villages by monasteries in Tur Abdin which have stood there since the late fourth century. There is a certain degree of ridiculousness about some of this, but that does not actually affect the sufferings of those Syriac villagers and others who are suffering so greatly.
The last issue I want to draw attention to is closer to home and also reinforces the point that not all persecution is necessarily bloody. The suspension of Caroline Petrie, a community nurse, for offering to pray with a patient, not surprisingly led to incredulity. But as well as incredulity this was also an occasion for some interesting examples of social cohesion. A spokesman for a local Muslim forum in Sussex, in my own diocese, observed:
“This is crazy. These people need their heads testing. Someone from the goodness of their heart does a good deed and people punish her … We should make every effort to bring peace, calmness and above all hope to our patients. This is a christian country and a majority of the patients believe in God. This was a kind and charitable gesture and we should praise the nurse”.
End of Muslim quote. It is a welcome sign of how faith communities can hold together in the face of a growing hostility to faith. One might even say, if one wanted to be naughty, that it is a sign of diversity and equality in action. Of course I welcome Mrs Petrie’s reported return to work.
I finish by drawing attention to one particular aspect of the situation which is addressed directly by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and I am very grateful to the noble Lord who quoted Article 18 in its entirety. The right upheld in Article 18 is not only about freedom of faith and freedom to change one's faith, it is also about the right to hold and practise one's faith in public. This freedom is curtailed not just by communal hostility but, in many cases, by public authorities in many parts of the world today. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take strenuous steps to make sure that that does not happen here.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Cox mentioned in her opening speech, three weeks ago we travelled together to North Korea. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the All-Party British-North Korea Parliamentary Group. In supporting the many specific points that she has made today, especially the desirability of the appointment of a special envoy with a mandate to uphold the right to freedom of belief enshrined in Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, I want to use my time today to reinforce her observations about North Korea.
Five years ago, after our first visit, my noble friend and I established the all-party group. Since then we have held numerous witness sessions, where we have heard first-hand accounts from escapees. We initiated what we described as a process of constructive critical engagement, and argued that the six-party talks aimed at resolving security questions also needed simultaneously to engage North Korea on human rights and humanitarian issues. It is a country where, the UN special rapporteur, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, estimates, 400,000 people have been killed by the regime and 200,000 people are currently detained in prison camps, many because of their religious beliefs.
Critical engagement in confronting human rights abuses was the approach used in eastern Europe after the passing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. That led, in turn, to the creation of Andrei Sakharov’s Moscow Helsinki Group. Anatoly Dobrynin said:
“The Helsinki Accords gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement … people who lived under these systems—at least the more courageous—could claim official permission to say what they thought”.
In the report of our most recent visit, Carpe Diem—Seizing the Moment for Change in North Korea, which will be published on Thursday and a copy of which I will place in the Library, my noble friend and I argue that we now need “Helsinki with a Korean face” and that there is an historic opportunity to end the technical state of war that still exists between North Korea and the United States. That, in turn, could usher in an era of more fundamental change, especially the promotion of religious and political freedom.
Our visit was timely because there has been a recent deterioration in relations between South Korea and North Korea. The north has been threatening to launch a new Taepodong-2 missile, which is said to have the ability to reach the coast of the United States. Some analysts believe that the north might do this to assess the resolve of President Barack Obama. There are, perhaps, echoes here of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which tested another new American president, John F. Kennedy.
Although Hillary Clinton did not go to North Korea last week, America’s new Secretary of State visited the region to assess the situation for herself. In advance of Mrs Clinton’s regional sweep, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam—whom my noble friend and I met when we first visited North Korea five years ago—said that North Korea is ready to,
“develop relations with countries that are friendly toward us”.
This view was confirmed to us throughout our visit by senior officials in the DPRK. The American State Department would do well to recognise the significance of these remarks. A decade ago Her Majesty’s Government established a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang. I pay particular tribute to our ambassador Peter Hughes and his admirable staff, who do a magnificent job. It is time for the Americans to do the same. William Perry, a former US Secretary of State for Defence, said in 2003:
“We should never negotiate from fear, but we should never fear to negotiate”.
I first became interested in North Korea after I met Yoo Sang-joon, a North Korean Christian who had escaped from the DPRK and whom I met here at Westminster. His story was harrowing and disturbing. He described how he had seen his wife and all but one of his children shot dead by Kim Jong-Il’s militia. He subsequently escaped across the border to China with his one remaining son. The boy died en route. Yoo Sang-joon became an Asian Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Yoo Sang-joon bravely re-entered North Korea and helped many people to flee across the border. This led to his arrest in China in 2007. As a result of international pressure, the Chinese, I am glad to say, agreed to repatriate him to Seoul, rather than to the north where he would have been executed.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether we raised the continued repatriation of North Koreans in the recent UK-Chinese dialogue on human rights. If we continue to repatriate, we should be clear about the consequences for those who are returned to North Korea. Among the witnesses who have given evidence at our sessions in the Moses Room over the last few years was Jeon Young-Ok, who was aged 40. She said:
“I was put in a camp where I saw and experienced unimaginable things … The women were forced to strip. A group of us were thrown just one blanket and we were forced to pull it from one another as we tried to hide our shame … I didn’t want to live. They tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed into it”.
During our visit to North Korea, my noble friend and I continually raised the case of 26-year-old Shin Dong-Hyok, who spent the first 23 years of his life in North Korea’s political prison camp 14, where he was born. In his Moses Room evidence, he described how he saw his mother and brother executed, and was himself tortured. Twelve days ago, I felt privileged to share a platform with him at South Korea’s National Assembly. Cases such as these should be raised at every opportunity and should not be eclipsed by security issues.
Although, as my noble friend has said, we saw some glimmers of hope during our visit, there is still a long way to travel in permitting freedom of expression, belief and worship. What does North Korea lose as a consequence? By denying pastoral access to the Catholic Church—no priest has been allowed in for 55 years—the DPRK is preventing the Korean Church from providing help, development investment, and support for the poor and needy, which has led to phenomenal social provision in the South. Religious freedom leads to voluntary social endeavour on a huge scale. But, of course, dictatorships tend to be fearful of those institutions that they cannot control.
Last week, Korean Catholics were mourning the death of their first cardinal, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan. During the 1970s and 1980s, when South Korea was a military dictatorship, Cardinal Kim became known as an outspoken defender of human rights. He literally refused to allow troops to seize pro-democracy students sheltering in his Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. Former President Kim Dae-jung, a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that Kim’s had been a voice in the wilderness,
“for our people groaning under dictatorship”.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is a South Korean national, called him,
“the conscience of an era”.
The Korean Church has been steeped in suffering. Pope John Paul II described it as,
“a community unique in the history of the Church”.
It is unique because the Korean Church was not founded by missionaries. In the eighteenth century, some young Korean intellectuals encountered Christianity in China and brought their faith back to Korea. As the church was planted, between 8,000 and 10,000 martyrs died, so Korean Christians are no strangers to suffering. This story is brilliantly documented by the former Anglican Bishop of Korea, Canon Richard Rutt, in his Catholic Truth Society pamphlet The Martyrs of Korea.
Cardinal Nicholas Cheong, who now leads the Korean Church, told me during talks in Seoul that he remains ready and willing to devote resources and personnel to help the north. I hope that, as a harbinger of the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which must surely come, we will see the silent dioceses of the north given voices once more. What better signal could the north give to the world that it wants peace, security and a prosperous future? It would also be a significant move in the direction of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of belief for all.
As always, all of us in this House remain indebted to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues today.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in opening the debate, gave a long list of examples of religious persecution, discrimination and disadvantage, and the list could have been a great deal longer. I was talking to an Israeli diplomat this morning, who reminded me that part of the reason for the rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s party is that there is no such institution as civil marriage in Israel. You can have a Muslim marriage or a Jewish marriage, but if you want to have a civil marriage you must leave Israel and come back with a certificate from another country.
Many of us will remember the battle in Greece only a few years ago about whether you could not have an ID card which listed your religion. We ourselves have a history of discrimination that is not so ancient. Not so long ago, I attended the wedding, in northern Denmark, between a Dane and an Italian, one of whom was one of my former students. The fuss we had over the potential presence of a Roman Catholic priest in a Lutheran church at the beginning of the 21st century showed that there are still many shadows of the past, even in our supposedly tolerant European society. We recognise that we are not talking simply about discrimination by one religion against another, but discrimination by the orthodox against those whom they regard as heretics within each faith; against Ahmadiyya, Alevis and Shias within Islam and against particular forms of Protestantism or Catholicism in different countries.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, emphasised the importance of religious dissent. That is what we should be hanging on to. We support the principle of dissent, religious and political, and I hope we all accept that religious freedom does not exist alone in a society. British history shows that religious freedom is only possible in a political system and a society in which wider freedoms of thought and of expression, political expression in particular, are allowed. I declare an interest as an Anglican brought up in the middle of the Church of England, much influenced by Bishop John Robinson, John Habgood and others, with doubting Thomas as my favourite saint and that wonderful expression from the Epistles:
“For now we see as through a glass darkly”.
I assumed naively as a child that the Anglican principle was that we could none of us be entirely sure what God thought on anything so we had better not insist on laying down the rule too tightly towards others. I have since discovered that there are plenty of people in the Anglican Church who still want to lay down the law on others and who use quite ancient prejudices against women in the chancel, for example, to express their reactionary views through religion.
I was interested and slightly shocked to read William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal two or three years ago and the extent to which it was an aggressive Anglican attempt to convert the Muslims of Delhi that did a great deal to provoke the Indian mutiny in reaction to Christian intolerant evangelism. What should our response be? As a Liberal Christian, I naturally emphasise tolerance and acceptance of dialogue within our shared condition of human uncertainty. We should preach tolerance, practise tolerance, expect tolerance from others and oppose fundamentalism in all religions including our own.
We should also recognise how often religion has been used and is still used as a cover for other aims—racial, tribal and political. The Chinese Communist Party has this desperate fear of any autonomous communities, of all forms of free thinking, which thus leads to the persecution, not just of Catholics, Baptists and Buddhists, but also of the Falun Gong—anything which sets up as an autonomous group within the state. Population pressures in Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere also foment what appears to be religious conflict. That is partly what is happening in Nigeria, where the doubling and trebling of populations leads to people choosing which out-group they fight against. Sadly, that has been true in central Africa and there is clearly also an element of it in Sudan. In Indonesia, where there has been Christian violence against Muslims, that has partly been local Christians against Muslim immigrants being settled in their islands.
The fundamentalism of the Vatican on the issue of population growth has not helped in this regard. I regard the coalition between the Vatican and fundamentalist Muslim countries at the last UN population conference as one of the more shameful aspects of organised Christian religion that we have seen in recent years and I worry that there is some tendency in the Vatican at present to a retreat towards what can only be described as Christian fundamentalism.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno that political and religious persecution go together, but hatred of outsiders, the persecution of scapegoat minorities, the extent to which we choose to define how everyone else should believe—the “we” being those in power—is clearly something against which we all have to fight. I know this is an extremely sensitive issue at present but there are those such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands who express as religious motivation what seems to many of us to be racial hatred.
If, for a couple of months, I were to pick bits out of the Bible—the Book of Revelations and the Old Testament together—to demonstrate that Christianity is an intolerant religion, I could probably make a 17-minute film which would be fairly persuasive. We can pick and choose but, if we are to promote tolerance, we have to behave responsibly within our own traditions of religion.
I oppose the singling out of religion from other forms of persecution of belief, whether political or secular, and I mistrust the motivation of the Bush Administration, which set up a separate department on religious discrimination within the State Department. I do not support such a proposal. Having spent some years in the United States as a young man, I am conscious of the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic groups of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States and indeed of the anti-rationalist and the anti-modernist groups of Protestant fundamentalism. I rejoice that that sort of reactionary fundamentalism now appears to be on the decline again within much of the United States.
For similar reasons, I question the appointment of a British special envoy. It is, of course, a paradox in the United States, a state which is secular according to its constitution, that such a strongly religious dimension of its foreign policy should have been pursued by the last Republican Administration, whereas Britain, with the established Church, has recently been a good deal more secular. I celebrate our more mature acceptance in this country. We are a nation of religious diversity and of political tolerance. We talk now about Britain's churches and Britain’s faiths.
As a boy, I sang at the Coronation in 1953, which was an extensively and exclusively Protestant affair. The only non-Church of England priest to take part in the service was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Fifty years later, at the anniversary service, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster read the first lesson and I could see the Orthodox Archbishop standing beside him, alongside a representative of the Salvation Army. Under the lantern, listening to them, were representatives of what the service programme called “Britain’s other faiths”: Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Jain. If noble Lords ask me to define the main tenets of the Jain faith, I am not sure I could do that very well. The British task is to defend and to promote freedom of belief throughout the world, of political and religious belief and of dissent in all its forms.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important matter. I want to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Bates and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester said about the important, sometimes dangerous work undertaken by the noble Baroness in this area. I include in that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, particularly for the incredible work he has done to try to improve matters for the poor, suffering people living in North Korea.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, the range of religious freedom and freedom of belief is so vast that it is difficult to do justice to them all. Together with other noble Lords she has given some appalling examples which clearly show that the problem of religious persecution is very much in existence. The noble Lord, Lord MacDonald, as a distinguished humanist, gave the House examples of problems faced by those with no religious belief.
Religious persecution can be seen in many different walks of life; it is a long way from a nurse's offer to pray for a patient to the question of how to ensure the safety of the Jewish community in Britain, but both cases are rooted in questions of how faith and daily life should interact. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the individual's right to freedom of religion and religious practice. But there are other articles: protecting the freedom of expression, and the right to be protected from attacks on one's honour and reputation, for example.
Finding a path through the multitude of rights and responsibilities, some conflicting and all liable to a multiplicity of definitions, is not easy, but as hard as it is to lay out a clear set of limits as to how far each right can be taken, it is not hard to see when such limits have been drawn incorrectly. One of the great dangers of defining religious rights is inconsistency. It is unsurprising that the feeling that some faiths are more liable to persecution than others, whether justified or not, has grown when the Government have failed to apply their own legislation consistently.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent Geert Wilders case. Freedom of religion should not be used as a shield for those wishing to spread hatred and intolerance. We support the denial of entry to those who do so, but what credibility can this Government claim in this matter when a Dutch MP is banned, but those who publicly proclaim anti-Semitism, homophobia and suicide attacks continue to enter or remain in this country? Can the Minister inform the House whether the Government have learnt anything from recent events? It is clear that these decisions are made very much on a case-by-case basis with a great deal of confusion surrounding the criteria on which the final judgment rests.
Religious persecution, of course, goes beyond high-profile banning orders. It is sadly part of the day-to-day life of many and, according to the Home Secretary, is set to affect many more as the recession starts to bite. Certain communities are already suffering from disproportionate economic disadvantages, which can only get worse as unemployment figures rise. As economic isolation grows, so too does cultural isolation, further increasing the possibility of religiously motivated attacks as links between different communities break down. The isolation of many communities in this country is a problem that can and should be addressed but, instead, the Government's refusal to address long-running social and cultural problems for fear of causing offence has exacerbated it. To allow divisive and harmful cultural practices to continue because of claims that they are somehow fundamental to a religion is to misapply Article 18 in the most dangerous way. Religious freedoms should never be allowed to be used as an excuse to perpetuate the inequality of women or the practice of democracy; the Government should instead be seeking to encourage social cohesion and a broad acceptance of the civic values that underlie this country.
In the mean time, more must be done to protect those particularly at threat from religiously motivated attacks. Recent events in Israel and Gaza have led to a sharp increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. I look forward to hearing from the Minister the Government's response to the recommendations made in the report to the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism.
Contributions to this debate have accepted that there is a problem with religious persecution that is not fading away. The Government must do more not only to ensure that their actions do not spark resentment of unfair treatment but to protect the public from those who encourage religious hatred.
My Lords, let me join those of your Lordships who have spoken this evening in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, not just for bringing this subject before us, but for her lifetime commitment as an advocate of these issues—and a frequent traveller of astonishing proportions in directly going to bear personal witness to issues of religious discrimination and the oppression of religious freedom around the world. In doing that, she is very much part of a British tradition with that great concern for religious freedom that has, for many centuries, preoccupied us as a country here and abroad.
During the Lambeth Conference organised last year by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, I recall being privileged to lunch with an extraordinary group of religious leaders—including the Archbishop of Sudan, the Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and bishops covering north and southern Africa—and to hear their extraordinary stories of maintaining the freedom of all their congregations against threats that were political, economic and social in character. They were convinced of the need not just to protect the freedoms of their own congregations but those of other religions, understanding that only when all religions are free is any religion free.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I must identify myself as a liberal Anglican, and in that sense I, too, perhaps put the greatest value on that ultimate sense of Britain as a nation of dissenters. I suppose that that also allows me to identify with the Methodists and others here. In that sense, we cannot be entirely blind to problems in our own society. This, after all, is an old issue: I said to my 12 year-old son today that I would be debating religious freedom tonight. He is at the Oratory, a Catholic boys’ school in London where, he immediately told me, they were all signing a petition at present on why a Catholic could not marry a monarch.
We all still have traces in our societies of such issues to address. However, there has been a bipartisan commitment over many years that this Government seek to pursue the promotion of religious freedom and belief—or the right not to believe, as we heard earlier—with all the tools that we have. This includes both our bilateral activities and our efforts to ensure that religion and belief remain high on multilateral agendas. As Ministers, we raise the issue when we travel to countries of concern and with visitors from those countries when they see us here. That includes, for example, the many countries which still penalise blasphemy and use that offence to harass religious minorities; in some jurisdictions, the punishment for it still involves corporal punishment or even the death penalty. That can never be condoned. The Foreign Office is producing guidelines for our posts on how to promote freedom of religion or belief, and to combat violations of it. Those will be published in March.
Multilaterally—and I stress that it is so often multilateral channels that offer us a much more forceful way to make our case—we, together with our EU partners, are making full use of the new universal periodic review mechanism at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to raise the issues of religious freedom. That is one of the few public fora where we can engage with countries that otherwise are reluctant to engage. So, when the DPRK is examined in December, we will raise those issues. In that case, we have concerning evidence about the persecution of believers in those Potemkin-like churches in Pyongyang. We also maintain regular dialogue with representatives of religious groups whose members frequently suffer violations of their rights, such as the Baha’is, the Ahmadiyyas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian groups. We encourage NGOs and others to draw violations to our attention, and we have a stakeholder group on freedom of religion that meets FCO officials to enhance co-operation in this work.
I turn to the points that have been raised tonight. Apostasy is a difficult issue, especially when it concerns Islam, as several Islamic countries prohibit and punish apostasy. In some countries, it is even punishable by death. In others, apostates are charged with other offences such as blasphemy, defaming Islam or insulting their country. However, this does not deter us from making representations to promote the freedom of individuals to change their religion, nor from promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been quoted tonight and is a formidable article of an extraordinary document. We strongly believe that people have the right to practise their beliefs as well as to change their religion if they so wish. Some of the countries in which we have made this case are Eritrea, China, Mauritania, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan, among others.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, talked about Nigeria. In Nigeria’s recent universal periodic review, the UK raised the issue of economic, social and cultural rights. We also recommended that Nigeria should take further steps to address discrimination against minority and vulnerable groups. Last week, I met a remarkable Muslim leader from northern Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto, who agreed with me, and indeed volunteered the point, that those who are responsible for the intercommunal violence last year needed to be held to account and brought to justice, and that only if that sort of impunity was brought to an end would these problems be resolved.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also raised the case of Burma. I reassure her that our ambassador in Rangoon frequently presses the Burmese authorities to end human rights abuses. We condemn the marginalisation or persecution of any community based on its religious beliefs. Although it makes the abuses no less serious, the persecution of religious minority groups by the Burmese authorities is often based in reality on their ethnicity and a perceived threat to security rather than solely on their faith.
Sudan was also mentioned. We have reminded the Government of Sudan of their responsibility to maintain order, to protect the deployment of UNAMID, which is so important in Darfur, and to allow full access for humanitarian assistance. More critically, we must ensure the effective implementation of the north-south agreement, the CPA, because it was from that agreement that the release of those in the south from the violent persecution of those in the north finally came. Ensuring that the steps laid out in that agreement are fully honoured and lead to elections and a referendum that allows the people of the south to choose whether they wish to remain in Sudan is the critical political track to solving this issue.
As to India, the noble Baroness will be aware that through the EU delegation, which visited Orissa state in December, and through the EU-India human rights dialogue, which will take place later this month, we will continue to press our concerns about what happened in Orissa. I have raised this issue directly with the high commissioner here and with officials in India.
Equally, in the case of Egypt, former Minister Kim Howells raised the issue of religious freedom directly with the Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament about a year ago. On 11 March last year, our embassy in Cairo met the Egyptian Deputy Minister for Human Rights, and again there was a discussion of the freedom of religion and Egypt’s wider commitment under these conventions.
As regards the DPRK, North Korea, there is no freedom of religion. While I am delighted to hear perhaps the first green shoot—a term that a politician uses carefully—of some freedom, when it comes to the orthodox church, our view remains that those churches are primarily limited showcases for outsiders and that nothing close to freedom of religion is operating across the country as a whole. We will work closely with NGOs, including Christian NGOs, in the run-up to the Human Rights Council review of the DPRK this year.
Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we perhaps do not lobby as specifically on religious persecution as we should. Our main concerns have been the use of labour camps, torture, the absence of any freedom of speech and certainly the absence of any right to organise or to come together as groups of any kind in North Korea. I acknowledge that the 2008 EU-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution on human rights specifically mentioned freedom of religion. Recently, we lobbied on human rights more generally when the director of our Asia-specific department met a delegation here of the Workers’ Party of Korea. We raised religious freedoms during the visit of that delegation. On China and returnees to North Korea, we are as concerned as the noble Lord about the status of North Korean border crossers to China. We raised that issue most recently at the UK-China human rights dialogue in January of this year.
We are all aware that the defamation of religions, which has come up in several forms, is difficult. We have to find our way, because, as we saw just recently with the visit of the Dutch MP, who has been referred to, we must protect a person’s right to criticise the religion of other people, but we have to take care when it crosses the barrier, not any more into freedom of speech, but to incitement of violence and a potential racial prejudice. Since July 2005, 270 people have been excluded from entering the UK on the suspicion of being a threat to national security or of fostering extremism. There is a clear test—the incitement test—which the Home Secretary uses in making that determination. It is notable that a Dutch court has recently ordered that Mr Wilders should be prosecuted for making statements about Muslims.
In closing, perhaps I may say that the duty of this Chamber and the role that this Chamber can play goes much broader than the UK alone. A debate like this is heard everywhere around the world by those religious minorities who feel oppressed and feel that their case has been forgotten. To everyone who has participated tonight, let us hope that we have lit one more candle in this long quest for religious freedom for all.
House adjourned at 9.14 pm.