House of Lords
Wednesday, 10 June 2009.
Prayers—read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.
My Lords, the National Offender Management Service is making savings across the range of its services to ensure that it can deliver its priorities to protect the public and to reduce reoffending effectively and within available resources. Plans to reduce costs in prisons include clearer specification of services, more streamlined HQ structures, reducing management costs in prison establishments and the increased use of competition for offender services. The significant investment in new prison places also creates future opportunities for more effective and efficient operations.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the Chief Inspector of Prisons has expressed considerable concern about Prison Service plans to save money by amalgamating Askham Grange women’s prison, a very good prison, with New Hall, a prison with many problems 30 miles away? Can he give the House more details of the further planned amalgamations of individual prisons into larger units and can he assure the House that these economies of scale will actually save money, rather than just lead to problems that in the end will cost more?
My Lords, experience from the first successful project to cluster prisons, involving the three prison establishments on the Isle of Sheppey—HMPs Elmley, Swaleside and Standford Hill—has shown that the approach can deliver savings and bring significant improvements to offender management. The Sheppey project delivered savings of more than £2 million, which was then reinvested to improve the delivery of additional programmes for offenders. As to the clustering of New Hall and Askham Grange that the noble Baroness asks about, there is close ongoing consultation and discussion with staff and stakeholders from both sides about the clustering changes that took effect from April this year. I can only say that so far no concerns have been raised in these early stages.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Prison Service has carried out a mapping exercise in high-security prisons to reduce staff numbers by half? Can he tell the House how this sits with government assurances made only on Monday during the Sonnex Statement that public safety is a high priority for this Government? Can he also tell the House what the ratio of staff to prisoner numbers in these high-security establishments was in 1997 compared with today?
My Lords, as to the noble Baroness’s first question, I assure her that no such mapping exercise of staffing levels in the high-security prison estate has been carried out. As part of its ongoing efficiency programme, the National Offender Management Service is continually monitoring staffing levels to ensure that every prison is resourced appropriately to operate safely and securely. As to the specific figures that she asked me for, I do not have them on me but I will write to her with them.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while we all want to see cost-effectiveness in the Prison Service, any economies that undermine or cut back the introduction of a prevailing culture of rehabilitation will inevitably result in a high cost for society in future as reoffending soars and we try to cope with all the problems that arise from the failure in the prison system?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Our priorities are always to protect the public and to reduce reoffending. That includes rehabilitation, which is a major part of our policy. But there are financial pressures on the system at present and we have to face up to that.
My Lords, the third sector offers a huge resource to offender management. In the light of the spending cuts, will the Government consider a review of the third sector so that, with a more strategic approach and comparatively small investment, the Prison Service could make much more of the voluntary sector, especially in the rehabilitation of offenders?
My Lords, the situation in the prison system worries me intensely, because it now has many of the problems that existed just before the Strangeways riots occurred. Does the Minister agree that the solution to the very real problem of dealing with that situation is for the money allocated to building new prisons to be diverted from that until the economy can justify it and, instead, for there to be a real focus on the need for rehabilitation and for punishing in the community those who can be safely punished in that way?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord for the part that he has played and his expertise in this field over many years. We all owe a huge amount to him. It is important that prisons are for those who have behaved in a particularly bad way. We do not want to send everyone to prison and it is vital that real, hard alternatives to prison are there, and we are setting those up. However, it is also important that we move with a new prison-building programme. One of the problems for life in prison is that there are now in the system cells and prisons that really ought to be closed down as soon as possible. That is why we are investing so much in future prison building.
My Lords, the Government announced some time ago that they were bringing in Titan prisons to save money. They then announced that they would have mini-Titans to save money. They are now bringing in Titans by the back door, from what the Minister said about the amalgamated Isle of Sheppey prison. Can the Government just tell us what they are up to?
My Lords, we are not bringing Titan prisons in by the back door. Prisons in the Isle of Wight and Isle of Sheppey clusters have retained their own separate perimeters. That is one major difference. They have not merged to become a single prison establishment. That is a second big difference. These efficiencies come from new approaches to sharing management and overheads on these neighbouring sites and by integrating the delivery of some of the regime activities and programmes for prisoners. Surely if that is what these savings are doing, they are worth while. The House has stressed on many occasions the importance of keeping prison programmes at a high level and covering all prisoners.
My Lords, the UK continues to make strong representations to the Kenyan Government and parliamentarians to push for key reforms that are critical to Kenya’s future stability. We are also working closely with Kofi Annan and other international partners, as well as with Kenyan civil society, on these issues. The Prime Minister wrote to President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga on 9 April this year to relay our concerns about the situation in Kenya and to encourage them to intensify their efforts to deliver these reforms urgently. Officials at our high commission in Nairobi continue to do the same.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although I had it in writing a month ago. I recognise that we are doing a lot for good governance and human rights in Kenya, but the Kenyan people deserve much more than that. They want the perpetrators of the crimes during the post-election violence—that is, the killers of more than 1,000 people—brought to justice in an international court, perhaps in Arusha. Will the Government put their weight behind that idea and behind the thorough investigation of the half-corrupt police service of Kenya, which is responsible for hundreds of those deaths?
My Lords, the noble Earl has identified accurately the deplorable situation in Kenya, where it is quite clear that the police have been responsible for a considerable number of deaths. As he knows, a report from the Waki Commission in 2008, which was subsequently backed up by the UN special rapporteur Professor Philip Alston, showed that these issues need to be examined closely, the perpetrators brought to justice and the police service reformed. The noble Earl will appreciate that the UK Government are firmly convinced of the necessity for action in this area, but it is for the Kenyan authorities to take this action.
My Lords, I was in Africa in the 1950s, and the problems mentioned by the noble Earl were apparent then. The imperial Government failed to solve them. Why does the noble Earl, or the Minister, think we can do anything now? The whole problem of tribal resentment was apparent then. Only if you reorganised the frontiers that emerged in the 19th century could you resolve it. Is it worth us even thinking that we can do anything?
My Lords, the noble Lord and the House will appreciate the fact that Kenya has moved on a great deal from the 1950s. It has some obvious things going for it, such as the economy and certain aspects of Kenyan life, but the noble Lord is right to identify the fact that the bonds of civil society, which guarantee justice and fair treatment by the authorities, particularly by their chief agents the police, leave a great deal to be desired. That is why these atrocities occur and why the British Government are indicating, together with world opinion, that we expect the Kenyans to carry out the necessary reforms. That is the obligation on Kenyan parliamentarians and government.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Kenyan Government at the moment are performing a splendid service to the international community by bringing almost 60 captured pirates to judicial account? Is he, however, also aware that if this becomes a much greater number, they are straining the judicial system of Kenya to almost unbearable limits? Can Her Majesty’s Government assure us that they are not only helping Kenya at the present time in this respect but are also looking at other countries to bear the brunt of bringing to justice pirates off the Somalian coast?
My Lords, the House will share my noble friend’s ambition that those responsibilities should be fairly shared, and we pay tribute to the work that has taken place in Kenya to somewhat reduce the international piracy that happens predominantly off the Somalian coast. My noble friend will recognise the difficulties of co-ordinated action on that; however, the Kenyans have been working to preserve stability on the high seas.
My Lords, the Minister will be well aware that one continuing problem in Kenya is endemic corruption. Is he aware that, last month, the speaker of their Parliament ordered one of their committees to inquire into the Anglo Leasing scandal, which has gone unresolved for six years? Can the Minister encourage the Serious Fraud Office in this country to make available to that committee the findings of its investigations?
My Lords, that is a precise suggestion, which I shall certainly take back to the department on that matter. The noble Lord has identified what is obviously the case; the reason why there are such acute problems in Kenyan civil society is a level of corruption that permeates almost every aspect of Kenyan life. It inevitably renders those without resources vulnerable, but gives those with resources the ability to distort both the economy and justice in Kenya to their own advantage. However, I will take the noble Lord’s suggestion back.
My Lords, to be fair, we really ought to move on.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will take to encourage the Government of Sudan to complete the demarcation of the internal north-south border in a way acceptable to all parties, in the light of the violence in the Upper Nile and Western Equatoria regions.
My Lords, demarcation of the north-south border is a critical component of the comprehensive peace agreement. We are seriously concerned at the delays to this work. The UK has provided technical assistance and is working with partners, including through the CPA’s Assessment and Evaluation Commission, to press the Government of National Unity urgently to complete demarcation. Recent months have seen a worrying escalation in violence in southern Sudan, and uncertainty over the border only adds to tensions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that senior figures in the southern Government have rejected the surprising results of the census published last month, based on the existing north-south demarcations, which state that the southern population makes up only just a fifth of the country’s total, rather than the expected one-third that many believe to be nearer the figure? If accepted, that outcome will result in the reduction of already seriously decreasing oil revenues being passed to the south, which will fuel resentment and the urge toward a return to armed conflict. What will Her Majesty’s Government be able to do to support that fragile comprehensive peace agreement? Does the Minister, for example, plan to see Salva Kiir, the President of the south, on his visit to London later this month?
My Lords, we are concerned about the features that the right reverend Prelate has identified. We were pleased that the census had completed its findings on 22 May and concerned about their rejection by the south, because the census is a crucial feature in both the distribution of resources and the decisions on the demarcation line. That subject is an absolutely crucial component in developing the comprehensive peace agreement. We are doing all that we can, and take every opportunity to further that peace agreement, but the right reverend Prelate is as well placed as anyone in the House to recognise how very difficult the situation is.
My Lords, the Minister will recall that 2 million people have died during the civil war in southern Sudan, along with 400,000 people who have died in Darfur. Does he agree that perhaps the most important part of the north-south comprehensive peace agreement is to secure the referendum in 2011, which will determine the future shape of southern Sudan? What are we doing to build critical mass in a vast region where there are only 20 secondary schools and only one in five has been able to take part in immunisation programmes?
My Lords, the first part of the noble Lord’s proposition rather precedes the second. Unless we have significant progress on the comprehensive peace agreement and, certainly, demarcation of the frontier, we have not got the basis for the effective development of the southern part. We will be able to give some support to civil society in due course, but the noble Lord will recognise that we and the international authorities, including the special envoy, Mr Gration, are bound to concentrate on the issues which are set to guarantee peace first and on the next stage only after that.
My Lords, why do we not hear from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and then from my noble friend?
My Lords, has the Assessment and Evaluation Commission of the CPA been asked for its opinion on whether it is feasible to conduct the demarcation while there is endemic violence all along the border, particularly in Western Equatoria with the LRA on the rampage? If access to the boundary is not feasible, would the Minister consider suggesting to the parties that demarcation by co-ordinates be considered, as was done by the Lauterpacht commission in the case of the boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea?
My Lords, that latter point may be considered in due course, but the comprehensive peace agreement envisages the parties reaching agreement with regard to the border. The noble Lord has accurately identified that the border is fraught with conflict and tensions at present. There is a great deal of movement across the border, which is creating substantial difficulty. The international community is doing what it can to support the comprehensive peace agreement, but the noble Lord knows how fragile that position is. I am not in a position therefore to be optimistic about the next constructive stage on this until we have had some progress in this crucial area.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is important before the proposed referendum in 2011 to agree not only the line of the border but the nature of the border and how open it will be to the nomadic peoples, trade and so on? Does he also agree that if the proposed referendum—if it were to take place—were to agree to separation, it is important that the international community helps both sides in preparing for the transition before that possible separation?
My Lords, as ever, my noble friend is constructive on these matters. Substantial preparations will be needed for the referendum and for developments thereafter. But he will forgive me if my brief concentrates overwhelmingly on the immediate issue here and now, which is how to make the comprehensive peace agreement stick in circumstances where he has rightly identified the factors that make the issue so very difficult. It is bound to be the case that we and the international community concentrate on that issue at present.
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government endorse European Union calls for an independent inquiry into allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. An inquiry would play an important role in the post-conflict reconciliation process.
We welcome the joint statement by the United Nations Secretary-General and President Rajapaksa underlining the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government of Sri Lanka have agreed to take measures to address those grievances.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. What has happened in Sri Lanka can only be described as a human tragedy. Over 300,000 Tamils were trapped in an area subjected to heavy bombardment, and it is expected that about 20,000 Tamils were killed and over 200,000 Tamils are now in refugee camps. There are perhaps breaches of the Geneva Convention. I am pleased to hear that we are pressing for an independent inquiry, but I would like to ensure that there is transparency and accountability. The second point is—
Noble Lords: Question!
My Lords, that latter point is of great importance. Our immediate concern is for the safety of some 270,000 civilians who fled the fighting and are now being held in camps. We are somewhat encouraged by the fact that the President of Sri Lanka seems to recognise that it is now time to win the peace. He has made gestures of reconciliation. There is no doubt that identifying the nature of the action of the armed forces with regard to the position against the Tamils will need investigation, but we must all hope that the Government set out on the task of reconciliation after such a disastrous series of events.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, lamentable though it was, it was not possible to set up an inquiry? The highest priority now is to give the United Nations and its humanitarian agencies proper access to the camps where the Tamils have taken refuge and seek in that way to ensure that the refugees come under pressure neither from former terrorists nor from members of the Government’s security forces? Will he say what undertakings the Secretary-General of the United Nations received about that access and what progress has been made?
My Lords, not a great deal. I have to tell the House that the noble Lord is right in saying that this is an important objective for the international community. He will also fully appreciate that the United Nations has its difficulties with regard to the Human Rights Council. He knows that there are divisions there that inhibit aspects with regard to an inquiry and therefore that the international community is not as one on how progress should be made in Sri Lanka. The point that the noble Lord has made should commend itself to all people of good will towards Sri Lanka.
My Lords, has the Minister seen the statement made to my honourable friend Ed Davey by the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, which is quoted on the High Commission website, that the Government of Sri Lanka wish to create a new Sri Lanka,
“based on values of liberal and inclusive democracy with an unprecedented reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation process”?
Given that welcome statement and following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, can the Government urge the Sri Lankan Government to give immediate full access to the international bodies, both to the IDP camps and to be able to carry out a full investigation of recent events?
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness has reinforced and reiterated the constructive and hopeful words of the President of Sri Lanka about the future. She is right: words need to be translated into action, and that action needs to support the very large number of displaced persons who are in these camps in the most horrendous circumstances. We have not yet been able to secure the necessary action to give the international authorities an opportunity to be constructive.
My Lords, will the Minister accept my congratulations on his remarkable skill in being able to answer almost every Question on almost every subject from the Front Bench these days? It is most impressive and a model for us all.
If we are pushing for an inquiry—obviously the Sri Lankan Government are reluctant—can we make sure that it will be balanced and will really look at the atrocities, or alleged atrocities, on both sides? Can we explain to the Sri Lankans, possibly with the help of the Chinese, who have been very influential in this matter, that it will benefit the future of their country greatly to conduct this inquiry, providing that it is fair and balanced?
My Lords, I applaud the noble Lord’s comments about the role of the Chinese, who are significant in this area, not least by dint of their significant investment into Sri Lanka in recent years. If we are to get full international action, we need Chinese co-operation rather than blockage in the international sphere. I agree entirely, as do the Government, that atrocities were carried out on both sides; in fact, there have been two decades of appalling behaviour in Sri Lanka. We all know the nature of the terrorism on the Tamil side over the past years. Sri Lanka is now at a point where reconciliation needs truth and care about the past. The noble Lord’s point is therefore very well taken.
Registered Foreign Lawyers Order 2009
Legal Services Act 2007 (Registered European Lawyers) Order 2009
Probate Services (Approved Bodies) Order 2009
Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Order 2009
Motion to Refer to Grand Committee
That the draft orders be referred to a Grand Committee.
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill
Order of Consideration Motion
That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 39, Schedule 1, Clauses 40 to 57, Schedule 2, Clause 58, Schedule 3, Clauses 59 to 79, Schedule 4, Clauses 80 to 85, Schedule 5, Clauses 86 to 120, Schedule 6, Clause 121, Schedule 7, Clause 122, Schedule 8, Clauses 123 and 124, Schedule 9, Clauses 125 to 166, Schedule 10, Clause 168, Schedule 11, Clauses 169 to 184, Clauses 167 and 185, Schedule 12, Clauses 186 to 196, Schedule 13, Clauses 197 and 198, Schedule 14, Clauses 199 to 220, Schedule 15, Clauses 221 to 258, Schedule 16, Clauses 259 to 262.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House will now make a Statement entitled “Constitutional Renewal Bill”. I would like to put forward two propositions in relation to the Statement. First, it may be for the convenience of the House if the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, makes a contribution immediately after the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, and before my noble friend replies.
Secondly, the Companion tells us that the period of questions and answers for Back-Bench Members should not exceed 20 minutes. I anticipate that a number of noble Lords will wish to ask my noble friend questions because of the importance to this House of the issues covered in the Statement. If, at the end of the 20-minute period, a significant number of noble Lords still wish to intervene, I suggest that we make a maximum of a further 10 minutes available on this special occasion.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Government’s proposal to invite the House to agree further democratic reform, including legislation, before the House rises for the summer, on the conduct of MPs.
The past few months have shown us that the public require, as an urgent imperative, higher standards of financial conduct from all people in public life and an end to the abuses of the past. There is no more pressing task for this Parliament than to respond to this public demand. I believe that the vast majority of Members of Parliament enter public life so that they can serve the public interest. I believe also that the vast majority of MPs work hard for their constituents and demonstrate by their service that they are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give. However, all of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and battered and that the reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change.
At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues that affect their lives, on fighting back against recession and on keeping people in their jobs and homes, the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics. We cannot move our country forward unless we break with the old practices and the old ways. Each of us has a part to play in the hard task of regaining the country’s trust, not for the sake of our different parties but for the sake of our common democracy. Without this trust, there can be no legitimacy and, without legitimacy, none of us can do the job that our constituents have sent us here to do. We must reflect on what has happened, redress the abuses, make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again and make sure that the public see us as individual MPs, accountable to our constituents. It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove that we have learnt and that we have changed.
First, we need transparency. All MPs’ past and future expenses should and will be published on the internet. Claims submitted by MPs from all sides of the House over the past four years must be scrutinised by the independently led panel. This will ensure repayment where it is necessary and lead to discipline where there have been inappropriate claims. Mr Speaker, I know that you are working urgently to conclude the reassessment process. We must now publish the past four years’ receipts and start and conclude the scrutiny process as quickly as possible. This House has already agreed to restrict expenses further to those needed for parliamentary duties alone, to cut the costs for housing, to require all spending to be receipted and to ensure that incomes from second jobs are fully accounted for. All parties have committed themselves to accept the further recommendations of the independent Kelly committee once they are received later this year, provided that these proposals meet the tests of increased transparency, accountability and reduced costs for the taxpayer.
These steps to sort out the expenses crisis are necessary, but we all know that they are not sufficient. We need to go further. At its first meeting yesterday, the Government’s democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the summer adjournment on two issues that have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion.
First, we propose that the House of Commons and subsequently the House of Lords move from the old system of self-regulation to independent statutory regulation. This will mean the immediate creation of a new parliamentary standards authority with delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, where the Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves. The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, oversee the new allowances system following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members’ Interests, disallow claims, require repayment and allow firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity. I welcome the cross-party support for this proposal, which will be contained in a Bill that we will introduce very soon. The whole House will also agree, as part of this process, that the new regulator should scrutinise efficiency and value for money in Parliament’s expenditure, and ensure, as suggested to Sir Christopher Kelly, that Parliament costs less.
Secondly, the House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all MPs, clarifying their role in relation to their constituents and to Parliament and detailing what the electorate can expect and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed and the options available to sanction. These measures will be included in a short, self-standing Bill on the conduct of Members in the Commons, which will be introduced and debated before the summer adjournment. This will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are upset, but it will be only the first stage of our legislation on the constitution.
The current system of sanctions for misconduct by Members is not fit for purpose. It does not give the public the confidence that they need that wrongdoing will be dealt with in an appropriate way. The last person to be expelled from this House was 55 years ago, in 1954, and it remains the case that Members can be sentenced to prison for up to a year without being required to give up their parliamentary seat. The sanctions available against financial misconduct or corruption have not been updated to meet the needs of the times. This is not a modern and accountable system that puts the interests of constituents first. It needs to change. There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including, potentially, the options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct identified by the new independent regulator and the House itself.
The House of Lords needs to be reformed, too. Following a meeting of the House Committee of the House of Lords, and at its request, I have today written to the Senior Salaries Review Body to ask it to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords to increase its accountability, enhance its transparency and reduce its cost. For the first time, there will also be legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of Peers in the House of Lords.
We must also take forward urgent modernisation of the procedures of the House of Commons, so I am happy to give the Government’s support to a proposal from my right honourable friend the chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee that we will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising Members from all sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms, including making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-government business in the House and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate.
Given the vital role that transparency has played in sweeping away the discredited system of allowances and holding power to account, I believe that we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information. As a next step, the Justice Secretary will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies that need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability. This is the public’s money. They should know how it is spent.
I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information and as our response to the Dacre review, we shall progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents. As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material and there will be protection of Royal Family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years to 20 years. So that government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, I have asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the world wide web, to help us to drive the opening up of access to government data in the web over the coming months.
In the last 12 years, we have created the devolved Administrations, ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords and introduced the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act. But just as through recent changes we are removing ancient royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament, so, to establish and renew its legitimacy and status, Parliament itself must now become more accountable to the people. Democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone; this is part of the lesson of the last month. Rather, it must principally be led by our engagement with the public. It cannot be top-down. That is part of the lesson of the last month. The public want to be, and should be, part of the solution, so we must build a process that engages citizens themselves—people of all parties and none, of all faiths and no faith, from every background and every part of the country.
Over the coming weeks, the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on five major issues. First, we will move forward with reform of the House of Lords. The Government’s White Paper, published last July, and for which there is backing from other parties, committed us to an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House of Lords. We must now take the next steps as we complete this reform. The Government will come forward with published proposals for the final stages of House of Lords reform before the summer break, including the next steps that we can take to resolve the position of the remaining hereditary Peers and other outstanding issues.
Secondly, setting out the rights that people can expect but also the responsibilities that come with those rights as a British citizen is a fundamental step in balancing power between government, Parliament and the people. It is to some people extraordinary that in Britain we still have a largely unwritten constitution. I personally favour a written constitution but I recognise that changing this would represent an historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. Therefore, such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and ultimately the drafting of such a constitution should be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves.
The third issue is the devolution of power and engagement of people themselves in their local communities. The House will be aware of the proposals for the completion of devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Next week, the Calman commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the United Kingdom. The Government’s 2006 Act permits further devolution in Wales, on which there are discussions. My right honourable friend the Communities and Local Government Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress this next level of devolution in England. So we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people.
Fourthly, last year we published our review of the electoral system. There is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe that the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account. We should be prepared to propose change only if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both government and Parliament and by enhancing the level and quality of public representation and public engagement. We will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.
Fifthly, we will set out proposals for increasing public engagement in politics. To improve electoral registration, we will consider how we increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. On receipt of the youth commission report, and having heard from young people themselves, we will set out the steps that we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics, including whether to give further consideration to the voting age.
As we come forward with proposals, in each case the Government will look to consult widely. All proposed reforms will be underpinned by cross-party discussions. Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures, including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform. I expect this to conclude in time to shape the Government’s forward legislative programme and to feed into the Queen’s Speech.
In the midst of all the rancour and recrimination, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us stand together, because on this, at least, I think that we all agree: Britain deserves a political system equal to the hopes and character of our people. Let us differ on policy—that is inevitable—but let us stand together for integrity and democracy. That is now more essential than ever. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement. It seems that we will be busy in the final year of this Government. The Statement spoke of renewal, but last week the Labour Party had the opportunity to show the British people that it heard their crushing verdict on the performance and style of this Government, and their call for change. Sadly, the Government failed the test. Today, we get the same old verbiage from the same old bunker.
Much of the Statement concerned the other place. We all want to see that great House revived, and my right honourable friend David Cameron has set out a major programme of reform that must include more power for Back-Benchers. If anyone thinks that the power of the Whips in the other place is lessened, they should contemplate the events of last weekend.
We need a smaller House of Commons, and if we want an electoral system that is fairer, should we not ensure that each constituency has equal worth? Some constituencies have twice as many voters as others. Should we not ask the Boundary Commission immediately to begin work to redraw boundaries to make them the same size?
We are at war, and in the throes of an unprecedented recession, hearing daily news of lost jobs and homes. The first thing this Prime Minister comes forward with is a plan to clog up Parliament with constitutional Bills. I wonder whether the loyal party workers who saw the Labour Party beaten into second place in Wales and sixth place in Cornwall are throwing their caps in the air for that. The reaction of the Prime Minister to this defeat simply reinforces the truth that it is not a relaunch within Number 10 that we need, but a removal van at its gates. The greatest renewal this Parliament could have would be a general election, and until we in the political class trust the people, the people will never trust us.
My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has accepted the need in the House of Commons for the new supervisory body that the Prime Minister proposes, but are there not still serious questions to answer? How will this body relate to the two Houses if that is what happens? How will it recognise the differences between a House that is paid and representative and one that is not? To whom will this body ultimately be accountable? The Statement says that the regulator will,
“apply firm and appropriate sanctions".
What if a Peer or an MP objects? Will he be able to challenge the regulator in the courts? Surely, there is one thing on which we can all agree: we do not want the judiciary determining questions that are matters for Parliament.
I listened in disbelief to the remarks of the Prime Minister after his Statement in another place. He said, and I noted his words:
“The House of Lords has to face up to the fact its disciplinary procedures are not good enough”.
Does the Prime Minister know anything about your Lordships' House? Is he aware of the swift and exemplary action recently taken to suspend two Labour Peers following a thorough investigation by a committee of your Lordships' House, a decision by the Committee for Privileges and a unanimous vote of this House? Can the noble Baroness tell the House precisely what in those procedures her right honourable friend considers is not good enough? Can she say, for example, what would have happened if the sentence recommended had been proposed not by your Lordships' Committee for Privileges, but by the new super-regulator? Could that have led to months of debate in the courts? If she cannot say where your Lordships’ disciplinary procedures are not good enough, perhaps she will take back to the Prime Minister the profound distaste that we have for such sweeping, disparaging comments on your Lordships' House?
The Statement referred to the Prime Minister's concern that Peers and MPs could be sentenced to up to a year in prison and not be excluded from your Lordships' House. There is a respected Member of your Lordships' House who was sentenced for offences that are not even crimes today. Is the Prime Minister aware of that? Can the noble Baroness give a firm assurance that no proposal for retrospective action will be laid before either House?
This set of proposals is emerging from something called the National Council for Democratic Renewal. Can the noble Baroness confirm that it is in fact just another set of Cabinet Ministers? How can democratic renewal come out of a private cabal in a dying Government clinging to office? Why were these plans not put out to cross-party discussion?
Since we have not been asked to the party, can I suggest a piece of renewal that needs no permission from the Prime Minister? We now have two Secretaries of State in this House, one of them now widely regarded as the real Prime Minister. What about a fortnightly Question Time to enable each of them to be held publicly to account in this Chamber as their counterparts are in another place?
My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has made clear our opposition to proportional representation. We have held that view whatever our electoral fortunes through some of the darkest days of our party. Forgive me if I am a little cynical when I see a Prime Minister who has just won 15 per cent of the popular vote rushing forward with a carrot to a party that has just won 13 per cent of it. It is worthy of note that the Conservative Party at last week's elections won as many votes as the Labour and Liberal parties combined. If the noble Baroness thinks that chumming up to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will stop the electorate ditching this Government, then she is riding for a fall. Just when the contemptible BNP has won success in a national election for the first time via PR, that is the last time I would be peddling this solution to the country’s needs. We have had far too much messing about with the electoral system in these last 10 years. It has not reduced disillusion. It has not increased turnout. It has simply spread confusion, and now enabled extremists to make an advance. It was not an alternative vote that the public called for in last week's elections—it was an alternative Government.
Finally, I must turn to the question—tossed into this reheated constitutional custard—of House of Lords reform. I have never made any secret of the fact that I support full reform. But change to a House of Parliament cannot just be thrown into a Statement as an afterthought by a Prime Minister in trouble. We have been here before.
When Mr Blair was in trouble he suddenly blurted out that he was abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor. Look where that got us: years of confusion and division; tens of millions wasted on an unwanted Supreme Court building; and the loss of the Law Lords which will be so keenly felt by this House in months to come. What are we going to get now another Prime Minister in trouble has blurted out that the remedy to problems in the House of Commons is to kick the House of Lords again?
Up until now, at the Dispatch Box, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, have given a firm commitment that the Government were opposed to piecemeal reform and that change to this House could only come in the context of a major Government reform Bill. Does that commitment still stand? Or does the commitment—that change in composition would come only with stage 2 reform— stand repudiated this afternoon by this Government?
The integrity of that commitment has been the basis of the successful operation of this House for a decade. The noble Baroness should be under no illusion about the seriousness with which its abandonment would be viewed by many in this House.
The Prime Minister talks of publishing proposals for the final stages of Lords reform before the summer break. Is he aware that your Lordships’ House has not had a chance to debate the White Paper published by the Government last year, nor even to have a say in it. Is that not an outrageous way to treat this House? Will the noble Baroness set out in her reply—she must have discussed this with her colleagues—a precise timetable for the proposals on Lords reform announced by the Prime Minister. When will we debate the White Paper? What will reform consist of? Will it be the 80:20 House referred to? When will the plans be presented—and in what form? If reform of this House is intended, this is the worst way and the worst time to go about it. Your Lordships who work so hard for this country and this Parliament surely deserve far better than this Prime Ministerial face-saving Statement.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as he deftly has to square official conservative policy with the opinions that he knows are held behind him. He so often reminds me of the man on his deathbed who was asked to renounce the devil and all his works and who said, “This is no time to be making new enemies”. His response will have made no new enemies behind him, but the problem with this Statement is that it offers more committees, more reviews and more delay. Yet the groundwork on most of the issues has already been done. I have mentioned before the groundbreaking work done by the Power inquiry under the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.
The time is now for action, not for words. We on these Benches welcome, as did my colleague in the other place, Nick Clegg, the setting up of the parliamentary standards authority. And we will co-operate fully in any machinery to ensure that this House is fully involved in defining its powers and responsibilities. I associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said about the fact that it is important that the responsibilities of this House are fully consulted with this House and are not simply an afterthought from the other place.
Is the Leader of the House aware that we on these Benches agree that this House must move with urgency on matters of composition, finance and discipline? In the spirit of action not words, will the Government adopt the proposals made by my noble friend Lord Oakeshott on tax exiles sitting in this House and by my right honourable and noble friend Lord Steel on immediate reform of this House? The Government’s constitutional renewal Bill will be the “Constitutional Renewal (No. 2) Bill”. The original Bill is that already put before this House by my noble friend Lord Tyler, so I invite the Leader of the House to plunder that Bill for good ideas for the government Bill when we get it.
If they want more ideas on freedom of information, I suggest that the Government look at the White Paper produced by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, which was so radical and far-sighted that it cost him his job in the Cabinet. If they want to reform party funding, let them implement the Hayden Phillips recommendations. If they want to fulfil their pledge on a Civil Service Bill, not mentioned by the Prime Minister, let them consult the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, or the draft Bill produced by the Public Administration Committee in another place. If they want to look at electoral reform, let them look at the Jenkins report. All the building blocks are there ready to be assembled.
What is not there is all the time that the Prime Minister seems to think he has. He talked about putting these proposals in the next Queen's Speech, which means November. Is the Leader of the House aware that the Parliament Act 1911 was introduced into the Commons on 21 February of that year and cleared the Lords on 10 August, 173 days later? I often wonder what it was about 10 August that made their Lordships give up, but give up they did. This Parliament still has over 300 days left to fulfil commitments that were not only in the Government's previous manifesto, but were actually in their 1997 manifesto, including of course the commitment to reform this House. The lesson of history is that constitutional reform is advanced not by everlasting searches for cosy consensus, but by radical Governments willing to show vision and leadership.
The Government have 300 days to rescue their reputation for reform. If they go in the right direction, they will have our support from these Benches every step of the way. As a stock token of that commitment, I invite the Leader of the House to come to the Liberal Democratic debate day tomorrow, when a galaxy of talent from these Benches will provide further constructive proposals for action.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement on constitutional renewal. There have been endless debates, a Green Paper, a White Paper and a cross-party taskforce specifically set up to try to achieve consensus on several aspects of Lords reform, including the composition of this House. The Statement is extremely welcome if it heralds reforms that will add to the efficient working of your Lordships' House.
It is particularly welcome that the Prime Minister, following the initiative that the House of Lords has already taken, has written to the SSRB requesting that it undertakes an independent review of financial support of Members. However, there are one or two small discrepancies between the letter sent by the Lord Speaker and the Prime Minister's Statement. The Lord Speaker's letter to the Prime Minister about the forthcoming SSRB review certainly refers to value for money. However, the Prime Minister’s Statement refers on page 3 to ensuring “that Parliament costs less” and on page 4 to the House of Lords costing less. Is this not a way of prejudging the outcome of the SSRB review? I would be interested to know if the Statement indicates that such smaller interim reforms, on which there is a wide degree of consensus—such as the freedom of Peers to take retirement, paving the way to a much smaller House; statutory status for the Appointments Commission; and the possible ending of hereditary Peers’ by-elections—will be covered in the forthcoming Bill, which is due to be announced before the Summer Recess.
Finally, the Statement refers to the backing from other parties in both Houses, as well as from the Cross Benches, for the proposals put forward in the White Paper of last July, particularly on the 80:20 aspect. There are many Back-Benchers and Cross-Benchers in this House and the other House who did not back the proposals for an elected House of Lords. Does the Statement therefore indicate that such major reforms might be set aside for later consideration?
My Lords, I am grateful for all the comments made; I think that is the best way of putting it. This is certainly an interesting debate on the Statement. First, I will deal with the election issue, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, because I am sure that we will deal with this on many occasions. I know how strongly the noble Lord and many of his colleagues feel about the need for an election. However, I, my colleagues and the Government believe that our duty to the public now is to get out there, safeguard those jobs and ensure that people can get through this recession. That is what we are doing and what we will continue to do.
The noble Lord asked about the size of the House of Commons and put forward the proposals that have been put forward by his right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition. It is quite right that we keep the size of the House of Commons under review; it is our duty to do so. However, we must maintain the link between Members of Parliament and the public, and we must ensure that the public are properly represented. We believe that the House of Commons, as it stands at this moment, is the right size.
The noble Lord said that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is clogging up Parliament with Bills. In the Statement that I have just repeated, there was reference to only one Bill, and that is a Bill on which I think we are all agreed. It is the Bill that will introduce the parliamentary regulatory body for the House of Commons. I took heed of the view expressed in the House two or three weeks ago that there should be proper consultation with this House before the body takes responsibility for this House. That is precisely what is happening. I promise that I will keep all Members of this House involved in discussions pertaining to the remit of that body over the House, but that is for a later stage.
There are, of course, still questions to be answered about the body and its relationship to the House of Commons. The noble Lord asked about privilege, and so on. These are issues that must be dealt with at the other end, but we will engage fully in discussions on those issues. The noble Lord also asked if my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was properly aware of the robust action that we have taken in this House in respect of Peers who have failed in their duty of honour to the House. He is aware of that; I heard what he said in response to questions on the Statement today. Of course, there is still much more to be done. It was acknowledged by the Privileges Committee of this House when we discussed these issues that expulsion of noble Lords, for example, was not something that we could do in this House alone. It would require legislation. That is the sort of thing that my right honourable friend is thinking about.
In response to the various comments made about reform of the House of Lords, we have not yet discussed the White Paper, but we have had many debates on the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. The views of the House are clear. The Statement mentions proposals. We are talking here about fulfilling a commitment that has been made by my noble friend Lord Hunt on many occasions. That is, we should bring forward draft clauses and proposals for discussion. That is exactly what we are doing. I would have thought that many Members of this House would have been pleased that we are fulfilling this commitment.
Electoral reform is not a carrot. I am dismayed, as are all those on the Benches behind me, the whole of the Government and my party. I am ashamed of the election turnout last week, and the sort of vote that we got. However, electoral reform is right and proper. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out, it is now 11 years since his noble friend the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead put forward his review. It is time to discuss these issues and we should not be frightened of doing so.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the Power report. Yes, it will be taken into consideration. He talked about the Oakeshott proposals. As the House will know, we have great sympathy with the issues raised in the Oakeshott Bill. They are complex, and we are looking at how they could be best addressed.
I currently think that the constitutional renewal Bill—if I may call it that; the number two Bill which will deal with the main body of constitutional reform issues—will include many elements pertaining to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. It is recognised that House of Lords reform, even if proposals come forward quite soon, will take quite a long time to enact. We will therefore still see some of those things in the constitutional renewal Bill, along with elements to deal with the Civil Service and so on.
In answer to the question about value for money, we are all in favour of that. If noble Lords look at the Prime Minister’s letter to Mr Bill Cockburn of the SSRB, they will find that he says:
“I would ask that you pay particular attention to the need for transparency and accountability, the need to obtain value for money and the desirability of reducing costs to the taxpayer”.
I am sure that we would agree that the reduction of costs is desirable. Of course, it is not the main thing, but we should all pay heed to value for money.
The Government have been radical in addressing constitutional reform over the past 12 years. There is still a long way to go. We want to engage with the people in this House and the people of this country in taking that agenda forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for her Statement, repeated from the other place. Many of us on these Benches and around the country are aware of the problem of all that is going on being seen as simply a party issue. Many people out there are aware of what has been happening, but do not see it in terms of the either/or of ordinary party politics. These are questions of much wider interest. Will the noble Baroness accept that the public are bound to see this sudden rush of proposals as sheer displacement activity to distract attention from recent events which have happened on all sides of the political spectrum?
Many of us believe that we urgently need reform. However, suddenly to rush through a programme in this way cannot be the right way to do it. It is like somebody who, under the guise of so-called visionary leadership, decides to cut down all the old oak trees in the great park, only then to discover a few months later that the topsoil has all blown away. There is currently a real danger of us losing some of the political topsoil, and I hope that that will be taken into account.
Will the noble Baroness agree, while we of course need regulation and discipline to replace the indiscipline that has gone on in so many areas of public life, that regulation by itself is not enough? We have been drowning in regulation these many years, with the forms that we all fill in and all kinds of things that have come out of our overgenerous Home Office for many years past. We urgently need, not regulation, but character. The Government have talked about character. I look forward to seeing the development of character, values and virtues in a way which regulation by itself simply will not do.
Finally, does the noble Baroness agree that, although we have had many proposals and interesting suggestions over the years, there is still an enormous amount of confusion around in terms of legitimacy on the one hand and accountability on the other? These words are waved around as though we all knew what they meant. Again and again, however, when you poke your finger at them, it goes straight through the paper and we are left with puzzles continuing. We urgently need that sort of debate about the nature of government and constitutions, and we will simply not have it if we have a programme rushed ahead as a way of distracting attention from other events.
My Lords, the Statement that I repeated is not about displacement. This Government are focused on the economy and getting people back to work, and things are happening. It is clear that things such as the reduction in VAT are having an impact.
My Lords, it is true—look at the figures. I understand the concerns expressed by the right reverend Prelate. However, we are not rushing through a programme. What we are doing is debating many of these issues, and taking the debate outside to the people.
Nearly two years ago, when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister became Prime Minister, he said that the constitution was something that he wished to discuss. He started the process with the governance White Paper, and introduced the White Paper on House of Lords reform. What we are doing is taking these things forward. However, it has become clear over the past few months that the public are even more disengaged from politicians than we thought they were. We have to bridge that gap, and it is important that we discuss these things.
The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that individual responsibility and individual character cannot be determined or fashioned by regulation. There is a place for regulation: it is terribly important. However, we as individuals have to be responsible for what we do and say: the same goes for every parliamentarian.
My Lords, does the Leader of the House accept that the core of the message that she read out is that fundamental reform is required to restore the trust of the people in our parliamentary democracy; and that if that trust is to be restored, it must be accepted that the myth propagated by the Opposition Front Bench that the present voting system produces strong government has not been borne out by the events of the past few weeks?
Secondly, does she agree that if the legitimacy of Parliament is to be secured, and trust in our parliamentary democracy reinstated, we need to take action on our electoral system before the next election, which could condemn the country to a do-nothing Government?
Finally, does she accept that, if we cannot go the whole way—we probably cannot in the 300-plus days that are left—one way to meet the hunger of the people would be to arrange the next election with a system that allows at least 50 per cent of the electors in each constituency to decide who is going to be their MP? That could be done without altering boundaries after a long Boundary Commission study, but by the votes of this House and by presenting the case that I have suggested for something to be done with the immediate crisis of our constitution in mind.
My Lords, I believe that reform is necessary to restore trust in our democracy. As the noble Lord says, that is precisely what the Statement is about. In respect of the voting system, I hear what he says and I know what he and many other noble Lords feel. I am sure that, if there were to be a change in our electoral system, many people might feel that that would be an excellent way to restore trust in our democracy and the link with the people. However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear today, either in the Statement or in questions afterwards, that no action will be taken on that before the election, because any change to our electoral system—even the type of change that the noble Lord referred to—would require a referendum. Therefore, there will be no change before the next election.
My Lords, on the voting system, did my noble friend notice the hugely important statement by the Prime Minister:
“I still believe the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account”?
If it is true that maintaining the link between the MP and the constituency is fundamental, does my noble friend agree that any move towards proportional representation will severely diminish, not enhance, our democracy? Further, having seen the evidence last weekend of proportional representation in action—it led, as many of us knew it would, to the growth of extremist parties and did nothing for turnout, which was lamentable under PR—can she acknowledge that it is necessary to have a debate about the electoral system, but the electoral system in Europe, with a view to returning to first past the post?
My Lords, I am well aware of the very trenchant views that my noble friend expresses, and I have noted the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. Retaining that link between the elected Member and the constituency is absolutely fundamental, but it is important to debate these issues. I believe that there are systems which allow for some form of proportional representation and ensuring that the link with constituencies is maintained. I am probably speaking from ignorance but there are many things out there to be debated. There are many systems in many parts of the world, and I think that they are worth looking at. It is certainly a debate worth having.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness realise that her Statement has caused a lot of concern? Does she recognise that all this started not only because of freedom of information but because a disk was hawked around Fleet Street and bought for, I understand, £300,000 by the Daily Telegraph, which then besmirched everyone’s characters? These accusations have never been proven and a lot of good, honourable people in another place have had their characters assassinated. Is that not therefore a bad atmosphere in which to create this great change? Why should you want to have a new quango on top of Members of Parliament? Members of Parliament have always been elected and they then decide things. Is someone now to sit on top of them and tell them that they should have decided something different? That would be terrible. Why should the Government introduce reform of the House of Lords into this? It has nothing to do with the House of Lords; these problems occurred in the House of Commons. They were problems so great that Members of the House of Commons were running around like headless chickens, and they shot the Speaker too. That is no atmosphere in which to reform Parliament. With the greatest respect, the Government are burnt toast. Under these conditions, it is not right to try to reform Parliament on the scale suggested by the noble Baroness, is it?
My Lords, of course I understand the concern that has been expressed by the noble Earl and around this Chamber. These are very serious issues for Parliament, for the public and, indeed, for us as Members of this House. I deplore the actions of the Daily Telegraph and I deplore the way in which good Members of Parliament, who are in the majority, have had their characters assassinated, as the noble Earl said. However, I believe that the events of the past few weeks, which arose as a consequence of the actions of the Daily Telegraph, have demonstrated that the systems in place are no longer adequate. That is why it is necessary to act in this way. I think that the actions that have been taken in respect of a new parliamentary standards authority will help to restore trust between the people and their representatives.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify those matters which affect this House on which there will be action during this Parliament and those which are simply up for discussion? Am I correct in saying that the legislation will include the capacity to expel Members from this House for disciplinary offences, as well as an end to hereditary by-elections? May I pursue the question put by the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers—what has happened to the answer that I was given a few weeks ago about the proposal to allow Members to resign or retire from the House? Is that going to be included in the legislation? If these three things are, the noble Baroness will recognise that they are also in the Bill I presented, which has already had a Second Reading and was overwhelmingly supported in the House. I am willing to make her a free offer: why does she not take over the Bill and get on with it?
My Lords, I am always up for free offers; I spend a lot of time in supermarkets. I hoped that I had responded to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. As I understand it, the larger constitutional renewal Bill will still include elements of the noble Lord’s Bill. That Bill will be published in the not-too-distant future and as soon as I am able to inform noble Lords of its exact contents, I will do so.
My Lords, will we have an opportunity in the House of Lords to consider the special parliamentary commission? I am concerned about the membership of this House on that committee, as well as that of the House of Commons. Will we have an opportunity before the summer adjournment to consider the proposed Bill in so far as it affects this House? Finally, when the Government claim that there is all-party support for an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House, what is the evidence for that?
My Lords, forgive me, but I do not recognise the committee to which the noble Lord refers so I cannot say whether there will be representatives of the House of Lords. Whether there will be a debate on the issues is up to the business managers and usual channels. The 80 per cent and 100 per cent refer to the vote which took place in the House of Commons last year.
My Lords, how does the suggestion of a written constitution lie with questions of reform of the House of Lords? It is obvious that, if there is constitutional reform on a grand scale in the shape of a written constitution for the first time, questions must arise about the position in that constitution of both Houses of Parliament.
My second question is in relation to the authority that is proposed in respect of the House of Commons. As I understand it, a committee is sitting at the moment on the reform of the allowance system in the House of Commons and it is hoped that a good, transparent, effective and reasonably cost-effective system will be proposed by Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee. If that is the case, it removes a considerable part of the difficulty that has affected the House of Commons in recent months. If, in addition to that, the expenses of the Members of the House of Commons are immediately made public, perhaps the problems that have existed will disappear. Is it right for this Parliament—with the problems that it has had, in particular this House of Commons—to take upon itself, prior to a general election, to conclude that those to be elected as MPs in the future will not be worthy of trust without the supervision of this body? I believe that may be seriously underestimating the electorate, who are capable of taking a pretty serious account of the matters that the right reverend Prelate referred to of character and conduct when it comes to electing Members of Parliament.
Thirdly, has any consideration been given to the relationship between this new body, if it comes into existence, and the existing Parliament? At the moment, Parliament enjoys a very special position in our constitution in that the ordinary courts of justice do not interfere with Parliament on the basis that it is supreme. This new body will apparently have disciplinary powers over Members of Parliament. If so, there must be a considerable question as to how its status will lie with the ordinary courts.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord first raised the issue of a written constitution. The Government propose that the UK could move towards a written constitution but only after extensive public engagement and the appointment of a commission. Therefore, we are talking about something that is clearly not immediate. These things necessitate a great deal of reflection, but it is right to start the discussions about these things now. Of course, a written constitution would have to have proper regard for Parliament and its two Houses.
The noble and learned Lord then talked about Sir Christopher Kelly publishing expenses on the internet. It is absolutely correct that whatever Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee comes up with, including the publication of expenses, will help to restore trust in parliamentarians. However, as I mentioned earlier, the days of self-regulation are gone and an independent regulator is necessary. That is not to say that MPs are not worthy of trust. They are, but it is something that the electorate expect these days, because no other similar body is self-regulated. This is also important for MPs themselves. We all have friends and colleagues in the other place who have been under the most enormous pressure and are having the most terrible time at the moment. They might well feel comforted by the fact that there is an independent regulator.
The point about the relationship between the new body, the courts and Parliament is extremely important. I am afraid that I have no answers at this stage, but it is being very carefully considered.
My Lords, I have a question for my noble friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about the Statement on House of Lords reform. I have a letter from the Lord Speaker on behalf of the House Committee to the Prime Minister yesterday. It mentions,
“review options for the system of financial support for Members of the House of Lords”.
Transparency and accountability are clearly stated in the Statement on the reform of the House of Lords, but I also recall it being said in this House not so very long ago that House of Commons expenses cost this country £100 million a year and House of Lords expenses £17 million a year. Indeed, we have been told that it is the most inexpensive legislative body in the world. What does “reduce cost” mean?
My Lords, I readily acknowledge that this House does a remarkable job for a very small amount of money. We personify value for money in many ways, but it is right that the Prime Minister writes to the SSRB about the desirability of reducing costs to the taxpayer. That is what the taxpayer expects, so it is right that this body should take these things into account when it considers all these issues.
My Lords, we have yet to hear from the Cross Benches. May we hear from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, please?
My Lords, I do not want to be Cassandra in this situation, but we have an immediate problem of public trust, which I do not believe will be given back to Parliament on the basis of a juggernaut of constitutional reform. We need to address the immediate issues first and take a proper length of time over consideration of the wider issues that divide us.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness. That is why we are addressing the most important issue that has helped to destroy the trust between public and Parliament—expenses. It is precisely why a Bill shall be introduced shortly on the introduction of a parliamentary standards authority for the House of Commons. The other issues mentioned in the Statement are very much secondary, if I might put it like that. They are issues for debate that will be coming along later. We are addressing the key issue first.
My Lords, does the Leader of the House recognise that, in laying great stress on the urgency of restoring legitimacy to Parliament, she has to look at some of the issues that are part of this Statement now rather than putting them into the long grass? For example, does the Cabinet recognise that not one MP enjoys the majority of his or her constituents’ support? Does that not raise great questions about the legitimacy of the present House of Commons? Does it not also deal with the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who thinks that the constituency connection is so important, when more than half the constituents in any one constituency do not support their Member? In that case, if the next general election is fought on exactly the same discredited system, surely we are back where we started.
My Lords, every Member of Parliament has been elected with a majority in his or her constituency. Therefore, I believe that those Members of Parliament are entirely legitimate. That is not to say that we should not be reflecting, looking at or debating different electoral systems, which is what the Prime Minister has undertaken to do. However, he has also said that there will be no change before the next election.
My Lords, might I remind my noble friend that, when some of us did some detailed research on the alternative vote some 20 years ago, in 1989, we found that it threw up freak results where third-placed candidates were awarded the seat on the basis of the 50 per cent threshold? That consideration drove the Plant commission, which was then established by the Labour Party, to recommend the supplementary vote, which avoids that problem. May I alert my noble friend to the need, before we start talking of the alternative vote as a way forward, for people to do a little homework?
My Lords, if we are to start messing around with the composition of both Houses of Parliament, we ought to consider that Parliament was invented to control the Government or Executive. It would be worth the noble Baroness telling us, if she knows, how many members of the Government, and their PPSs, are in the other place at the moment—it is well over 100—and how many are here, and to consider whether that number should be not reduced and capped, in parallel with the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde of a proper Question Time in this House.
My Lords, I agree that the Executive must be controlled by Parliament; that is the duty of Parliament. Forgive me, but while I cannot say how many Ministers there are—although I shall certainly come back to the noble Lord—it is interesting to think about the number of Ministers in both Houses and to reflect whether there should be so many. That should be thrown into the argument. The noble Lord raised one other thing to which I wanted to respond, but I cannot quite recall what it was. Could he tell me?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, rightly spoke about a far-reaching crisis of trust. This is not just about the Daily Telegraph and expenses; it runs much deeper in the sense that much of the public think that Parliament is no longer as effective as they believe it should be. Given the Prime Minister’s perfectly correct frequent references to the need to involve the public and to recognise that this reform must rest on the people and not simply on the political class, will the House consider two things? First, will it consider the introduction to this debate of a number of organisations and figures that have a great deal to contribute, and make it clear that they will be included in a discussion? Secondly, and more radically, will it put those proposals on the internet so that the public may be encouraged to give their own messages, responses and views in such a way that the Government and other parties can take those into account in reaching their recommendations?
My Lords, I completely agree that there is a crisis of trust. I do not think that it is a new crisis; it is one that has been developing over a number of years and one to which none of us has paid enough heed. I also agree that we have to include the public. The Government will work with a lot of organisations and figures, and I will bring the names to this House as soon as I can. I am sure that suggestions would be welcome. It is an excellent idea to put things on the internet and to seek the views of the public. I will take this back and I think that it will be acted on.
My Lords, I reiterate my long-standing support for the implication in the Statement that we will at last have a way of setting the expenses, allowances and, in the case of the House of Commons, salaries independently of the two Houses. With the best will in the world, the House of Commons—I do not think that it has happened here so much—has often tried to amend recommendations on the Floor, which is one of the things that have gone wrong. It is not the failure of character of Members of either House in total; it is a failure of character of a small number of people of both parties. But, above all, it is a failure of the system. The independent approach is the critically important way forward. As my noble friend has said, we are—if you will pardon the phrase—very cheap to run. Not only are we very cheap to run, but we do not have a salary, which is why, in a sense, the public need to have confidence in a system of independently assessing our allowances.
Finally, perhaps I may remind my noble friend of something that I suspect she knows. With the election of a new Speaker in the House of Commons and the fact that we have a Speaker here now, and given what the Government are saying about the reform of this House, it is very important that both Houses are advised and, in some cases, educated about the role of each House. There is a strong case for the two Speakers to be able to enhance and protect the role of this House, as long as we give our Speaker some flexibility in discussing the proposals that eventually come forth. They will be more influential in many cases than party leaders.
My Lords, I completely agree with the point about independence, which is why I am delighted that the Lord Speaker, as chair of the House Committee, has ensured that the SSRB will look at our system of expenses. Of course, both Houses of Parliament need to be much better educated about the other House. In that, I would include Ministers, as it is exasperating when one’s colleagues do not have enough information about what goes on in the other House. The Speaker of each House has a role to play in ensuring that the other House is better informed.
Saving Gateway Accounts Bill
Clause 4 : Requirements relating to accounts
1: Clause 4, page 3, line 28, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under subsection (2)(a) may not prescribe a period of less than 12 months.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to start our Report stage consideration of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill. In speaking to Amendment 1, I shall speak also to Amendments 3 and 4, which relate to the maturity period of the saving gateway account—in other words, how long each account will last. As noble Lords will know, we intend to set the maturity period at two years or 24 months. I think that noble Lords will agree that it is appropriate for regulations rather than primary legislation to set the maturity period. These amendments will continue to allow regulations to do that but will prevent them from setting a maturity period of less than 12 months. That is a response to the arguments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in Grand Committee. I have carefully considered what she said and I agree that a maturity period of less than 12 months would not encourage saving. It would not be long enough for saving gateway account holders to develop a strong savings habit. I therefore cannot foresee a situation in which a maturity period of less than 12 months would be desirable. Amendment 1 will remove that flexibility. Amendments 3 and 4 will then make some consequential drafting changes to the rest of the clause. I beg to move.
Amendment 1 agreed.
2: Clause 4, page 3, line 28, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations may not require an account provider to pay interest on a Saving Gateway account.”
My Lords, in moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments 5, 6 and 8 in this group. These are repeat amendments of those that we debated in Grand Committee. They concern areas in the saving gateway scheme that caused particular concern to the British Bankers’ Association. There have been continuing discussions since Committee stage between the Government and the BBA. The Minister in another place subsequently wrote to colleagues in another place and I am grateful to him for copying that letter to me. Those discussions have not resulted in government amendments, so I have tabled my amendments again largely as a vehicle to ensure that the commitments that the Government have made to the British Bankers’ Association in connection with the topics covered by the amendments are clearly on the record.
It has been clear that, while there is good will towards the saving gateway scheme among potential providers—principally the banks, the building societies and the Post Office—there has been great concern about the cost of operating saving gateway accounts. Suffice it to say that it would not be difficult for a potential account provider to conclude that participation was not economic.
One issue is that the draft regulations allowed complete freedom to account holders to transfer their accounts to other providers, which potentially imposed significant costs on account providers. While we would normally support the freedom to transfer, we could see that the cost implications were so considerable that transferability might kill off the scheme. My Amendments 5 and 6 allow transferability in only limited circumstances.
The draft regulations were satisfactory in two other respects—in not requiring the payment of interest and in not requiring statements to be sent more frequently than six-monthly. These matters are crucial to the economics of participation in the scheme. The BBA wanted to see them dealt with in the Bill, because regulations can be changed by the Government pretty much at will, subject only to the inconvenience of pushing through statutory instruments. Hence the economics of saving gateway accounts could be wrecked at the stroke of a pen. Amendment 2 deals with interest and Amendment 9 deals with statement frequency.
As the Minister pointed out in Grand Committee, my Amendment 5, dealing with transfers, did not quite do the trick technically. I have not chosen to table a more perfect version for today, since the purpose of my tabling these amendments is to give the Minister an opportunity to place the Government’s position on the record. I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the explanation of the intention behind the amendments. I must, of course, be cautious if I am to respond positively to suggestions for improvements of legislation coming from the Opposition Benches even if I am then to be accused of being rather slow on the uptake. But in a number of points to be debated this afternoon, the Government have shown a real willingness to listen with good and respectful attention to comments from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches and to incorporate the best of those in our proposals.
As I said previously, we have no intention of requiring account holders to pay interest or of requiring statements to be issued more frequently than six-monthly. The Economic Secretary also confirmed in a letter last month to the British Bankers’ Association, which was copied to noble Lords who had contributed to the Bill’s passage, that account providers will not be required to allow account holders to transfer their accounts other than in certain circumstances where they are unable to operate the accounts to maturity. As with the payment of interest and statement frequency, we do not intend to change our position on transferability. But on all three issues I believe that the Bill should provide the flexibility for changes to be made in the future by regulations, rather than by the requirement for primary legislation. After all, there has been a range of reviews on all these questions. I also believe that detailed points such as the frequency of statements and the exact circumstances in which transfers should take place are more suitable for secondary legislation in any case.
Having said that, I appreciate the noble Baroness’s argument that we should not leave potential saving gateway providers wondering whether these characteristics of the scheme might change. I am therefore very happy to put on record our commitment that these features will not be changed without full consultation, including with account providers. We have discussed this with the British Bankers’ Association, which said that it provides the reassurances that it requires. I hope that it will also provide the noble Baroness with the reassurance that is sought and that she will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for placing on the record the assurances that have been given in private to the British Bankers’ Association. It is important that those who choose to start providing saving gateway accounts are given an opportunity to make full representations in consultation if the Government decide to change the economic framework within which saving gateway accounts are operated. I hope that the Government do indeed adhere to that commitment. On that basis, I am pleased to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 and 4
3: Clause 4, page 3, line 29, after “Regulations” insert “under subsection (2)(c)”
4: Clause 4, page 3, line 32, leave out “subsection (3)” and insert “this section”
Amendments 3 and 4 agreed.
Clause 7 : Transfers
Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.
Clause 8 : Maturity payments
7: Clause 8, page 4, line 36, after “pence)” insert “not exceeding 100 pence”
My Lords, Amendment 7 would amend Clause 8 so that the maturity payment may be at the rate of no more than 100p. One of the features of the Bill is that it contains very little in the way of detail of the saving gateway scheme and is one long regulation-making power. There are some very long draft regulations which easily outweigh the Bill itself. The maturity payment is one such example. Clause 8 says that there will be a maturity payment of a number of pence for each eligible pound which has been saved but the number of pence is to be specified in regulations.
The draft regulations give effect to the Government’s decision that the maturity rate should be 50p, giving a 50 per cent matching rate. We have no problems with that matching rate, but it remains wholly within the Government’s power, subject only to the minor irritation of an affirmative order, to raise that to whatever amount they choose.
The rationale for the Bill is about promoting a habit of saving. Allowing the maturity payment to be whatever amount the Government choose is tantamount to allowing them to abandon the underlying principle of promoting savings and using the provisions of the Bill to be a conduit for additional benefit payments. There should be a quite separate mechanism for determining benefit payments.
We believe that this Bill should be confined to savings, and accordingly Amendment 7 proposes that a cap on the maturity payments should be set at 100p, that is, that the matching rate should not exceed 100 per cent. We understand that the Government wish to preserve flexibility. That is a conventional way in which Governments approach the drafting of Bills, but the Minister gave no substantive reason for having unfettered flexibility in this area in Grand Committee. My amendment gives him a second chance of explaining that rationale, if there is one. I will take some convincing that a so-called saving scheme could be turned into a benefit scheme merely by order. I beg to move.
My Lords, this amendment would prevent regulations from setting a match rate of higher than £1 from the Government for every £1 saved by account holders. As noble Lords may know, we intend to set a match rate of 50p for each £1 saved, so this amendment would allow some flexibility for increasing the match rate. However, the amendment would limit that flexibility, and I am not convinced that there is a good reason to do so.
Of course, too high a match rate would not represent good value for money for the taxpayer. It would depart from the concept of encouraging saving. However, it is important that we are able to respond to any lessons we learn from the operation of the national saving gateway scheme. We should bear in mind that there are matched savings schemes elsewhere in the world that have match rates of higher than £1 for £1. Although those schemes tend to prescribe a fixed end use for the funds saved, for instance home purchase or to evidence commitment to education, they are still about saving, so it is conceivable that a Government in the future may want to set a match rate, in certain circumstances, higher than £1 for £1. Although that is not our intention, and the noble Baroness has indicated that it would not be hers either, I am not convinced that we should take this option away.
I also remind the House that any change to the match rate would be subject to the affirmative procedure, and therefore not unfettered as described, which means that Parliament would have the chance to scrutinise any change. I hope, in those circumstances, that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, the Minister disappoints me. I invited him to give a rationale for having this very wide, if marginally fettered, flexibility. He responded that I had not given a good reason to restrict flexibility. It is not done that way round. It is for the Government to justify why they should have their flexibility. The Minister referred to some schemes going beyond 100 per cent, but only in very restricted cases where there was a specified purpose for the saving, which is not what this saving gateway account is currently drafted as, and nor could it be turned into such an account, given the powers in the Bill. I continue to believe that we should restrict the Bill to something that resembles saving, and I have thought hard about whether or not to seek the opinion of the House on that. However, since the powers in this Bill may not be exercised by the current Government for very much longer, and we have yet to see what the outcome of the next election might be, I have decided to trust the British electorate, and entrust the powers to a sensible Government, and on that basis I withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Clause 9 : Statements etc.
Amendment 8 not moved.
Clause 10 : Account ceasing to be Saving Gateway account
9: Clause 10, page 5, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) An account shall cease to be a Saving Gateway account if it is assigned or charged or is the subject of an agreement to assign or charge.”
My Lords, the amendment would add an additional subsection to Clause 10, which deals with accounts ceasing to be saving gateway accounts. This new subsection says that if an account is assigned or charged or is subject to an agreement to be assigned or charged, it ceases to be a saving gateway account. Importantly, that means that the account would no longer qualify for a maturity payment. The amendment is similar to one that I tabled in Grand Committee and seeks to deal with the possibility that a saving gateway account holder could use eligibility for a maturity payment as a source of profit without even waiting for the two-year maturity period. That would not be compatible with the scheme being designed as a pathway to a savings habit.
For example, if I qualify for a voucher to open a saving gateway account, I might make an arrangement with a lender to borrow the £20 a month to put in the account on the basis that we would share the maturity payment, which would represent a jolly good rate of return to each of us. If such an arrangement exists informally, there is little we can do about it, but if the account was formally transferred or charged by the account holder we could, with my amendment, prevent the maturity payment from accruing. Similarly, if a saving gateway account holder has saved the maximum for, say, 18 months, thus qualifying for a matching payment of £225 if held for the full two years, that person might want to cash in early. He could borrow from one of the people whom the Minister graphically described in Grand Committee as,
“scoundrels operating in the margin in the unbanked community”.—[Official Report, 1/4/09; col. GC363.]
Those people would be using the accounts as security. I am sure that the Minister would not want to encourage that.
I know that the Minister agrees with these sentiments and that the Treasury has looked further at the regulations. I invite him to set out how the Government intend to tackle the problem, because I think that he has accepted that it is a problem area, and whether the Government’s proposals will achieve the results that I seek to achieve with my amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns in this area and, since our debate on this matter in Grand Committee, we have considered this issue carefully. While we do not anticipate that the situations referred to in the noble Baroness’s amendment will be common, we have decided to strengthen the draft regulations to provide a stronger and broader defence should such cases arise. We now intend to provide in regulations that a saving gateway account can be held only by the person who applied for the account and made the necessary declaration of eligibility at account opening. That is covered by draft Regulation 10(1)(a). We intend that regulations shall also provide that the account must be in the beneficial ownership of the account holder, and not held on behalf of any other person.
The effect of these provisions would be that should the person sell, transfer, assign or otherwise allow a charge over their account, it would cease to be a saving gateway account, and any right to a maturity payment would be lost. We intend that draft regulations should provide that an account provider shall have no right of charge, set off or other security against amounts held in a saving gateway account. That is covered by draft Regulation 10(2)(g). We therefore intend to achieve the effect of the noble Baroness’s amendment in regulations. We think that detailed provisions of this kind are most appropriate for regulations, where they can be updated and strengthened where necessary in response to learnings and developments, without the need for primary legislation.
In view of that confirmation, I hope that the noble Baroness will seek leave to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining how the Government intend to strengthen the draft regulations to meet the points raised by the amendment that I tabled. The only point that I would leave with the Minister is that it is important to ensure that the information provided to saving gateway account holders when they open accounts makes it clear to them that they are not to use the accounts in this way. That should be clear at the outset.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
10: Before Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The Treasury will each year lay a report before Parliament setting out information about the operation of Saving Gateway accounts.
(2) The report must contain information for the year about—
(a) the number of people who were eligible persons,(b) the number of people to whom notices of eligibility were issued, (c) the number of Saving Gateway accounts opened,(d) the number of Saving Gateway accounts closed prior to maturity,(e) the number of Saving Gateway accounts in respect of which maturity payments were made and the aggregate amount of those payments,(f) the number of approved account providers.(3) The first report will cover the period from the date that the first Saving Gateway accounts may be opened to the following 31 March and subsequent reports will cover successive periods of 12 months.”
My Lords, Amendment 10 would insert a new clause before Clause 11 setting out a requirement for annual information flows to Parliament. We will later come to a government amendment that will require an independent review of the saving gateway account scheme, but this does not report for seven years. In the mean time, Parliament will need to vote each year a significant amount of public money to fund this scheme. The Government’s estimates are for £100 million in the first three years, falling to £60 million a year after that. There is no provision in this Bill for any information on the progress of the scheme to support that.
The Minister in the other place and the noble Lord have made vague promises of information being made available to Parliament, but there has been nothing concrete. We have been invited to trust HMRC to do the right thing on the basis that it is good at providing information on ISAs and on child trust funds. I am not convinced that HMRC’s history justifies that confidence. It certainly has provided regular information, but it has been like getting blood out of a stone to get any further information, whether by Written Question or otherwise. It seems that HMRC decides on the information that it wants to provide and gears up to do that; if it does not align with what parliamentary or other users want, that is tough. If we had our time again with the ISA or trust fund legislation, I suspect that we would be taking the same approach as I am taking with Amendment 10.
While HMRC has responsibility for the saving gateway scheme under this Bill, in practice information about eligibility will be held by the Department for Work and Pensions and not by HMRC. In Grand Committee, I argued—admittedly unsuccessfully—that DWP should be in the lead, rather than HMRC. I will wager that, if information provision is left to HMRC, it will not give any information that could be relevant, such as analyses of take-up or eligibility by benefit type. One of the things that we know for sure about HMRC is that it cannot see beyond its own backyard. That is why my amendment would place the information requirement on the Treasury rather than on HMRC, so that a wider base of information could be addressed.
That is the background to the approach of Amendment 10, which specifies what information, as a minimum, Parliament should receive on an annual basis. This covers information about eligibility and take-up, about maturity payments and early closure of accounts and about the universe of account providers. This is clearly not all the information that could be provided and there is clearly no bar to further information. It does, however, set down a basic data set, which should not be onerous for the Treasury to collect. I hope that the Minister now sees the logic for a minimum information requirement to be hard-wired into this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I spotted the noble Baroness’s amendment in Committee and I spot the substance of it now. The question as to whether the amendment goes on the face of the Bill or whether we have an assurance from the Minister to the effect that the substance of the amendment will be covered is of secondary importance. I hope very much that the Minister is able to give us an assurance that every aspect of the amendment that the noble Baroness has put on the Marshalled List today will be covered by any report produced on a regular basis by HMRC.
My Lords, there is a good deal of weight behind this amendment. First, the suggestion that the Treasury should issue this report is appropriate, given the origins of this Bill and the wide context in which the Treasury placed its initial proposals. I wonder also whether, if this idea finds any favour, we could consider not merely communicating this to Parliament but also providing the bare headings of information to the holders of saving gateway accounts. The purpose is, after all, to educate them in principles of financial management, which is an education that they have not previously undergone. It seems to me that other kinds of savings schemes for wealthier people are informative. Perhaps that principle could be extended to the holders of these accounts.
My Lords, as I indicated in our debate on this matter in Committee, I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of publishing data about the operation of the scheme. I also indicated in that debate that we wished to consider carefully the data that should be published and the frequency of publication. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to set out further details of the approach that we propose to take in this area.
I am happy to confirm on the record that HMRC will be publishing data on the saving gateway at least annually, in a similar way to how it currently publishes data on ISAs and child trust funds. This will include data for the relevant period on the number of notices of eligibility issued; the number of accounts opened, closed and reaching maturity; the net balances held in accounts that have reached their 12th month of operation; the match payments earned on these accounts during their first year of operation; the net balance held in accounts that have reached maturity; the total amount paid out by HMRC in match payments; and the number of match payments made.
I can also confirm to noble Lords that HMRC will be publishing details of providers that are approved to offer saving gateway accounts. This information will be sent to each eligible person alongside his or her notice of eligibility and will be available on the HMRC website. Further consideration will be given to whether any additional information will be collected or published by HMRC in order to inform the evaluation of the operation of the scheme.
While I am more than happy to put this commitment on the record, I remind noble Lords that detailed information is published on ISAs and child trust funds without any statutory requirement. It remains my view that it is not necessary for a provision on annual reporting to be placed in the Bill and I hope that this commitment provides the noble Baroness with sufficient assurance that detailed data on the operation of the saving gateway will be published regularly.
I note the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and my noble friend Lord Morgan. I will consider my noble friend’s point, although, at first blush, I suggest that the type of information that will be published is unlikely to be material in helping people to understand how to manage their savings, investments and personal financial affairs. However, before I close that option down, I will reflect further on it. The fact that we will be publishing details of saving gateway account providers on the notice of eligibility and on the website will be enormously helpful to those who are eligible.
I note the noble Baroness’s comments on the competence of HMRC. In some way, I feel that she gave me a get-out-of-jail-free card earlier by suggesting that in all respects of this legislation she would be working on the assumption that there would be a change of Government and that therefore, even if there were deficiencies, they would, no doubt, be remediated instantly under the wise and informed guidance of the noble Baroness and her colleagues. However, I would not stoop to suggest such cheap politics. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment in the light of the statement that I have placed on the record.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Morgan, for their support for my amendment. I am grateful for that. I also thank the Minister for placing on the record what the Government expect HMRC to publish on an at least annual basis. What the Minister said was all right in so far as it went. The issue, which I raised in my opening remarks, is whether HMRC is willing or able to publish information that is not in its own bailiwick. There clearly is a crossover between information that is held by DWP and information that is held by HMRC. There may well be issues about the nature of eligible persons and whether we can track relevant information about take-up by eligible persons, which would require HMRC to go outside. It was to this that I alluded. I hope that the current Government or any future wise Government will bear in mind the need to provide relevant information to Parliament and not simply information that happens to be available to the information provider—in this case, HMRC. The Minister has offered more than half a loaf, for which I am grateful, and on that basis I will not pursue my concerns further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
Clause 12 : Recovery of Payments by HMRC
11: Clause 12, page 6, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations made under this section may make provision for an account holder to account to the Commissioners in respect of amounts paid due to an error or mistake by an officer of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs only if the account holder materially contributed to the error or mistake.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 11, I shall also speak to Amendment 12. Both amendments relate to Clause 12 of the Bill, which deals with HMRC’s powers in relation to the recovery of amounts that have been incorrectly paid. As usual with this Bill, all is to be specified in regulations.
Amendment 11 deals with the position of account holders. It is common ground between these Benches and the Government that HMRC must have powers that allow it to protect the public finances. My amendment would ensure that the full range of HMRC powers is modified when HMRC is dealing with the consequences of one of its own errors or mistakes. It would limit the power of recovery in such a case only where the account holder materially contributed to the error or mistake.
The wording in Amendment 11 is taken from the guidance to which HMRC works in the case of tax credits. For ordinary taxpayers, the HMRC can throw the full weight of its powers, which are increasing with every Finance Act, at a taxpayer who ends up underpaying even through no fault of his own.
When the tax credit scheme was introduced with such disastrous effect by HMRC, it initially responded in its customary heavy-handed way. HMRC was set up to collect taxes and has none of the culture that is necessary for dealing with benefit recipients, which is what most tax credit money in fact involves. One of the outcomes of the outcry over the way in which HMRC dealt with the problem of billions of pounds of overpayments was the guidance that severely limits the ability to recover overpaid tax where this is due to HMRC’s error or mistake. It is this that I am trying to replicate for the saving gateway accounts.
Much has been written and researched about the lack of financial capability across a large swathe of the population. The Government are taking some action on this, but it will remain the fact that the poorest in our society, including those on the benefits or tax credits that will passport them to the saving gateway scheme, have limited or no financial education, experience or even literacy. What is blindingly obvious in financial terms to those who sit in your Lordships’ House, even those without financial credentials, is quite likely to be incomprehensible, or at least confusing, to those on benefits.
When HMRC makes a mistake in a saving gateway account, it cannot be presumed that the beneficiary of that mistake ought to have spotted and responded to it. HMRC should not be allowed to throw the book at such people. This softening of HMRC’s powers is, in my view, the right thing to do, even if it results in some loss of public money. In any individual case the loss of public money is likely to be small. It is HMRC that should be penalised, through loss of bonuses and the like, not the saving gateway account holder. In Grand Committee, the Minister seemed unconcerned at the plight of these benefit recipients getting on the wrong side of an HMRC error or mistake. I hope that the Minister has had a chance to reflect further on that.
Amendment 12 deals with account providers. The regulations deal with overpayments but, as I pointed out in Grand Committee, the wording of the draft regulations seemed to imply that HMRC could pursue an account provider that had assets even if the provider had already paid money over to the account holder. Furthermore, the draft regulations provide for joint and several liability. That seems to give HMRC carte blanche to pursue the deepest pocket available, which is inevitably that of the account provider, whatever the detail of the recovery rules set out in Regulation 20.
My amendment would ensure that HMRC cannot proceed against an account provider if in good faith the money has already been paid over to the account holder or someone else entitled to the money. I understand that the Treasury has looked again at the regulations in this regard and that some changes are being proposed, and I look forward to the Minister setting that out for the record. I beg to move.
My Lords, I know from our debate at Grand Committee that these matters are of concern to the noble Baroness, and I hope that I can allay some of those concerns with my response.
Amendment 12 concerns cases in which a provider has been paid an amount by HMRC in respect of an account where it is later necessary for HMRC to recoup that payment. We listened carefully to the points made at Grand Committee and said that we would look again at the published draft regulations on this point. I can confirm that we now intend that regulations will only require a provider to account to HMRC for such payments to the extent that the provider still has assets relating to the account, or assets directly or indirectly representing any of the payment, in its possession or control.
I trust that that reassures the noble Baroness that we intend to achieve by regulations the outcome that is being sought through this amendment. I should explain to noble Lords that we believe that it is appropriate for this matter to be addressed alongside other provisions on HMRC collection and recovery in regulations, rather than in the Bill.
Turning to Amendment 11, I should point out to the noble Baroness that Clause 12 already contains flexibility for the outcome that is being sought through the saving gateway regulations. It is therefore not necessary for the achievement of the noble Baroness’s objective for there to be any further provision in the Bill. However, I am of course happy to address the issues that have been raised.
The noble Baroness cites HMRC’s approach to tax credit overpayments made in error, and suggests that a similar approach may be desirable in relation to the saving gateway. We have considered that carefully, but do not believe that this would be either appropriate or necessary. First, the saving gateway is very different from tax credits. As noble Lords will be aware, tax credits is a flexible system designed to be responsive to people’s changes in circumstances. Regular payments are made directly from HMRC to claimants, and it was always anticipated that there would be a need within the tax credit system for end-of-year adjustments. This necessitated a tailored HMRC policy for recovering overpayments.
The saving gateway is very different. It will not reflect changes of individual circumstances and there will be no need for an end-of-year adjustment process. Once an account has been opened, a change to the account holder’s circumstances will not make any difference to their entitlement or payments under the scheme. That means that overpayments will not be a normal part of the saving gateway system in the same way that they can be for tax credits. There will also only ever be a one-off maturity payment made to an account holder once the account matures, and that will be paid through the account provider.
There is also an in-built safeguard with the saving gateway system that should prevent payments made in error by HMRC reaching account holders. Payments by HMRC under the scheme, including any made in error, will be made to an account provider only on the basis of a claim made by that provider. It is reasonable to expect that an account provider will check the payments that they receive from HMRC against the claim that they have made and discuss any incorrect or unexpected payments with HMRC, rather than simply pass an incorrect amount on to a customer.
Furthermore, because HMRC will not make payments under the saving gateway until the relevant account has matured, any HMRC errors could—and, we hope, will—be picked up and addressed during the lifetime of the account, before any maturity payment has been made by HMRC. My first argument is that the saving gateway is very different from tax credits and that overpayments to account holders under the saving gateway should be very rare. This reflects the current experience of the child trust fund. Secondly, we do not believe that people can legitimately expect to retain taxpayers’ money that has been wrongly paid to them under the saving gateway, even where they have not materially contributed to the error. It is right that HMRC should be able to recover public funds where appropriate to prevent individuals obtaining a windfall at the taxpayer’s expense. In this respect, the saving gateway is closer to the child trust fund—where one-off payments are made through an account provider and there is no requirement for any adjustments once a payment has been made—than it is to tax credits.
Under the child trust fund system, HMRC seeks recovery of any payments that have been made incorrectly without there being any specific procedures relating to official error. For these reasons, HMRC should have the right to recover overpaid amounts in the circumstances that the noble Baroness outlined. It is important to remember that, in each case, HMRC will consider the facts and circumstances to assess whether it is appropriate to take recovery action. There will, for example, be issues of cost and proportionality to consider. The maximum single payment made to an individual under the saving gateway is £300. In using its powers of recovery, HMRC is guided by value-for-money considerations, so where the cost of pursuing a debt would likely outweigh the debt collected, or the debt is unlikely to be collected due to the individual’s circumstances, HMRC may take the view that it would not be appropriate, in such circumstances, to pursue recovery of such amounts. If HMRC were to decide to recover the amount, it would allow time to pay where this is justified and will have arrangements in place to deal with financial hardship.
In conclusion, I know that the noble Baroness is concerned to avoid a repetition of some of the problems that arose in the early days of tax credits. I hope that I have assured her that these problems should not arise from the saving gateway, which is a very different system in structure and character. If I have not managed to reassure the noble Baroness on this matter, I point out again that, should the Government choose to adopt the course that the noble Baroness advocates, there is already sufficient flexibility in the Bill to support that. The amendment is, therefore, unnecessary. In the light of this explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation and for stating clearly how the Government intend to respond to the issues that I raised in connection with Amendment 12. On Amendment 11, which concerns account holders, the Minister said that child trust funds are different from tax credits, which of course they are. The difference is not that there happen to be end-of-year adjustments for tax credits and that it is an annual payment. That is not the important issue. The important issue is that the recipients are fundamentally the same and they are not financially very clever. They do not have the expertise that many others have; that, indeed, is what was found before. While some of the errors that led to problems in child trust funds were in relation to end-of-year adjustments, some were not. Some were HMRC putting in the wrong figures in the first place, which resulted in overpayment. To some extent, therefore, the two can be placed on all fours.
Of course, we do not yet know whether the child trust fund system will result in a lot of problems. While HMRC has paid money into child trust fund accounts, we will not know whether there will be problems with recovery from individuals until those child trust fund accounts mature, which relatively few have—probably only in the case of disabled children or those who have already died—so we have no evidence from that yet.
I take the Minister’s point that the Bill is sufficiently wide to allow a change to be made at a later stage if problems emerge. I hope that the Government will be more vigilant than they were when tax credits came out, and stand ready to use that power if it should ever prove necessary. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Amendment 12 not moved.
Clause 16 : Transfer of funds on account ceasing to be Saving Gateway account
13: Clause 16, page 7, line 16, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations may make provision about the transfer of funds from an account when it ceases to be a Saving Gateway account if the account holder has not given instructions to the account provider as to the disposition of the funds.”
My Lords, Amendment 13 would add a new subsection to Clause 16. Clause 16 in effect allows saving gateway accounts to be transferred to an ISA on maturity, which is a fine and sensible home for the product of a saving gateway account. But there is nothing else in the Bill about what will happen to a saving gateway account post-maturity. It ceases to be a saving gateway account at that stage and therefore has to be transferred to another account.
It is not unduly cynical to say that banks do not routinely help their customers to hold their funds in the most suitable accounts or in the ones which offer the highest yield for the customers’ preferred notice period. Anyone who has cash on deposit has to be vigilant in watching how banks vary their rates and terms. I do not know about building societies, but I have no reason to think that they are any different.
If banks do not help their regular customers to maximise their returns from cash held on deposit, it is hardly likely that they will do so for saving gateway accounts with their rather marginal economics. In Grand Committee, the Minister said that the Government expected that account providers would,
“want to help their customers access the option most suitable to their needs”.—[Official Report, 21/4/09; col. GC 371.]
That represents the triumph of hope over experience.
The Minister in the other place also talked about wanting to establish a competitive marketplace which would include rollover arrangements. We are far from convinced that there will be any real competition in the saving gateway market. But even if we are wrong on that, it is unlikely that account holders, with their lack of financial sophistication, will be able to differentiate at the outset between those account providers which offer a good default account at the end of the maturity period and those which do not. In any event, the banks are rather good at changing their terms and conditions when it suits them, and so what looks good when a saving gateway account is opened may be pretty unattractive two years later.
A likely scenario is that the money will be transferred to a low-interest account or, even worse, to a current account which does not pay interest. The Government should have some responsibility to protect account holders when the saving gateway period comes to an end. As far as I am aware, there is no provision in the Bill which would allow the Government to specify a default rollover provision, such as into the provider’s highest-rate instant-access deposit account. There appears to be no relevant regulation-making power.
I do not advocate that the initial regulations should include requirements for funds at the end of the maturity period. It may well be that account providers behave impeccably. But I advocate the Government having the regulation-making power in reserve to use if it transpires that account holders need some protection. That is all that my amendment does and I hope that the Minister will agree that it would be desirable for the Bill to contain this reserve power. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, the amendment relates to the maturity of saving gateway accounts, and it may be helpful if I remind noble Lords of what will happen at that point. Our key principle is that savers should be able to choose what happens to their money. There is no defined purpose that the account balance or the maturity payment must be used for, and there is no defined product for it to move into. Account holders will be able to spend their money, continue to save it, or spend some and save some.
However, we want to make it easy for people to continue to save if they choose to—which the pilots suggest many will. Therefore, providers will put in place default rollover accounts, and if an account holder does not make an active decision about what they want to happen to their savings, their money will be transferred into one of these accounts. The amendment raises the question of whether the characteristics of the default rollover accounts should be regulated, or whether the Government should at least have the reserve power to regulate them in future. The noble Baroness spoke about this in Grand Committee. I have also looked closely at the thoughtful comments made on the subject by Mr Mark Hoban in the other place.
We believe that there are certain desirable characteristics for these accounts. They should be interest-bearing and cash-based, and allow account holders access to their money. We have carefully considered the option of regulating the accounts. However, we have decided against this for four principal reasons. First, we believe that providers will want to be fair to their customers and put in place appropriate options, and that regulation therefore will not be necessary. The noble Baroness may say that this is a triumph of hope over experience. When I listen to the noble Baroness castigating the banks, I often think that she and I should swap parties. I have considerable confidence in the fact that banks can be relied upon to behave towards their retail customers in a fair manner, consistent with competitive conditions; whereas the noble Baroness brings considerable scepticism to that conclusion. By nature I have a sunny disposition and am inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt.
We believe that providers will want to be fair to their customers and put in place appropriate options. That view was supported by the representatives of the potential account providers from whom the Public Bill Committee heard in the other place during evidence sessions. I realise that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, would point out that this argument is only against regulating now, and not against taking a reserve power in case it is required. However, the remaining three reasons that I will offer are arguments against regulating at any point.
The second argument is that regulation simply would not achieve a great deal. I suspect that all noble Lords will agree that default rollover accounts should be interest-bearing. However, even if we were to regulate for that, I do not believe that it would be appropriate for the Government to set a minimum interest rate, which would imply a judgment on what level of interest it was right for saving accounts to pay. Even if accounts were required to be interest-bearing, providers could still pay derisory interest rates if they chose to do so. I remind noble Lords that when the Conservative Party was last in government, interest rates reached 17 per cent as a consequence of the extraordinarily high rate of inflation.
My Lords, on reflection, I think that it applied for about as long as the credibility of the economic policy then being pursued by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick—in other words, not very long at all. However, the very fact that interest rates had to be moved from, I believe, 15 to 17 per cent in one day, having gone to 15 per cent only that morning, will remind the House of the chaotic conditions of economic management that prevailed at that time.
Perhaps I may get back to the point that I was making. The fact is that, if we had been contemplating this legislation at that time and had decided that we wanted to specify a very low rate of interest, we might well have concluded that that rate of interest should be 3 or 4 per cent—an unbelievably low rate compared with the 15 or 17 per cent then prevailing. Of course, that would have proven to be a very foolish decision in the light of the fact that interest rates are now at their lowest level for 350 years. Therefore, there is a very real danger in seeking to specify what that rate of interest should be. That leads me to the conclusion that we could not simply specify a rate of interest because, if the noble Baroness is correct in her warnings to the House that we should be cautious in our dealings with banks because of their mendacity and their capacity to pull the wool over the eyes of their customers, we would have to find something that avoided this being satisfied by complying with a requirement to pay a rate of interest of 0.0001 per cent per annum. I think that that exposes the very practical problem that would arise in specifying a rate of interest.
The point is compounded by the third reason that I want to put forward. There are, in any case, constraints on the Government’s ability to regulate in this area. In particular, once a saving gateway account has matured, any new account that the account holder has with his provider will be a normal commercial arrangement. Using regulations to set certain boundaries for it would amount to a significant interference with the right of both the account provider and the account holder to enter into the sort of contractual relationship that exists between any provider of a savings account and their customers in the formal banking sector. For this reason, we believe that it will be possible to regulate the default rollover account only at the point of transfer, when the saving gateway account rolls over into it, and not beyond that. In theory, therefore, the characteristics of the default rollover account could change completely the following day.
My main argument therefore is that, even if we were to regulate for default rollover accounts, we would still be forced to rely on providers to put in place appropriate options. Even if we required them to pay interest, they could choose what rate to pay, and even if we required certain characteristics to be in place at the point of transfer, they could choose to change them after that point. As I said, therefore, I do not believe that regulation could achieve a great deal, and I think it is better to put our trust in providers and to use our more informal influence to suggest, perhaps through guidelines, the sorts of default rollover accounts that we would like to see put in place.
My fourth and final point is that, even if this were not the case and we felt that we could regulate these accounts effectively, there is an argument that we should not do so. One thing that we hope the saving gateway will achieve is a greater level of financial capability among account holders, as my noble friend Lord Morgan observed earlier, and an increased ability to manage their finances and make financial decisions. Regulating for what should happen at the end of their accounts could be at odds with that, although of course we will want to ensure that account holders are able to get any support and guidance that they need.
In conclusion, therefore, I am not convinced that regulation of default rollover accounts is necessary because I believe that account providers will put appropriate options in place. If we are to support people in making their own financial decisions, I am not convinced that it is desirable to insert regulation at this point. I am not convinced that it would achieve a great deal in any case because of the limited conditions that we could impose.
For those reasons, I am not convinced that we should take this reserve power, and I hope that the noble Baroness will seek leave to withdraw her amendment and will forgive me for my jousting about high interest rates.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I shall not forgive him for jousting about interest rates. It is interesting that his Government have so mismanaged the economy that we now have interest rates that are negative in real terms and, as such, a great disincentive to saving. Current rates will make it very difficult to convince people, once they have stopped qualifying for the Government’s generous top-up in the saving gateway, to continue to be savers. It would have been better if the Government’s management of the economy had not required the Bank of England to reduce rates to such catastrophically low levels for savers.
I would also like to place on record—since the Minister got a little carried away with himself, as he does from time to time—that I did not accuse the banks of mendacity. I hope that when the British Bankers’ Association reads Hansard, it will have the assurance that I do not believe that banks are guilty of that. However, I do believe that banks do not necessarily treat their customers as we would always prefer them to be treated.
The Minister has given me a number of reasons why the Government do not want to regulate and it is always a rather curious thing when on these Benches we stand up and ask for regulatory powers and the Government say they do not want to regulate. In this instance, we will probably have to agree to differ. I believe having a reserve power may well be useful, even if it can only be used at the point of rollover because of the way that inertia applies to accounts. The Government have set their minds against it and so, if there are problems and savers find that they are not being treated as well as they might by the saving gateway providers, they will know who to blame and they can add it to the long list of things that they have to blame this Government for. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
14: Before Clause 26, insert the following new Clause—
“Review and report to Parliament
(1) The Commissioners must make arrangements for an independent review of—
(a) the effect of Saving Gateway accounts on attitudes to saving money among persons who are or have been holders of Saving Gateway accounts;(b) the effect of Saving Gateway accounts on the behaviour of such persons in relation to saving money;(c) the effect of Saving Gateway accounts on the involvement of such persons with institutions offering financial services;(d) whether there are any barriers to the opening of Saving Gateway accounts by eligible persons; and(e) any other matters which the Commissioners and the Treasury agree should be considered.(2) The Commissioners must consult the Treasury before making the arrangements for the review.
(3) The Commissioners must provide the results and conclusions of the review to the Treasury.
(4) The Treasury must set out the results and conclusions in a report and lay the report before Parliament.
(5) The report must be laid before Parliament within the seven years beginning with the coming into force of section 6.”
My Lords, in Committee we had a very useful debate on the importance of ensuring that the saving gateway is effectively reviewed. At that time, in response to the points made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Williamson, I indicated that I would seek an opportunity to bring forward a government amendment on this point on Report. I am, therefore, pleased to propose a new clause on review and report to Parliament. I will also use these remarks to address the noble Baroness’s amendments to this proposed new clause.
The new clause would require HMRC to commission an independent review of the saving gateway. The requirement that the review be independent means that it must be carried out by a person or body other than HMRC or HM Treasury, so I do not believe that the noble Baroness’s Amendment 18 is required. There will be a commissioning, and possibly a commercial, relationship between HMRC and the reviewer, which will flow from HMRC’s obligation to make the arrangements for the review. However, neither HMRC nor HM Treasury will be involved in the day-to-day conduct of the review.
As noble Lords may be aware, independent evaluations of the two saving gateway pilots were carried out by the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Ipsos MORI, and we would envisage following a similar model for this review. Our amendment specifies some of the matters to be considered in the review. We think it is important for the review to focus on the performance of the scheme against the objectives we have set for it. Therefore, the matters specified at subsections (1)(a) to (d) of the new clause directly relate to the development of a saving habit among account holders, account holders’ engagement with mainstream financial services, and barriers to the opening of saving gateway accounts. However, it would not be appropriate this far ahead to be too prescriptive about all the matters to be considered. The amendment therefore also makes provision, at subsection (1)(e), for other matters to be included in the review where appropriate.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and other noble Lords are concerned about the advice and information available on saving gateway accounts, that HMRC issues notices of eligibility in an effective and timely fashion, and that there are sufficient providers of saving gateway accounts to ensure customer choice. Amendment 15, in the name of the noble Baroness, would require the review to consider these issues. However, the review, as set down in our new clause, is already broad enough to encompass consideration of these important matters if they remain relevant. For example, the review can look at the available advice and information on the scheme, any issues associated with the issue of notices of eligibility, and any barriers to potential account providers, as part of considering barriers to the opening of accounts.
The review can also look at the advice and information that is available to account holders from their providers—for example, when accounts near maturity and savers are considering further saving options—when it considers the effects of the scheme on saving behaviour and on involvement with institutions that offer financial services. Alternatively, it may be appropriate for the review to take a more detailed or wide-ranging look at some of these issues. If so, our new clause would allow this, but it should not require it. Instead, it should be focused on the published objectives of the saving gateway.
The new clause requires HMRC to make arrangements for the review, so it is appropriate that the reviewers provide their results and conclusions to HMRC, rather than to HM Treasury as the noble Baroness’s Amendment 16 would require.
Finally, I assure the noble Baroness that the requirement that the report be laid before Parliament creates an obligation for HM Treasury to lay the report before both Houses of Parliament, so Amendment 17 would not add anything to the Bill. I hope that I have sufficiently assured the noble Baroness that she seeks leave to withdraw her amendment. I beg to move.
Amendment 15 (to Amendment 14)
15: Before Clause 26, line 13, at end insert—
“( ) whether the provision of financial information and advice to such persons in connection with Saving Gateway accounts is satisfactory;( ) the impact of the provisions in this Act in relation to eligibility, including notices of eligibility;( ) whether there are any barriers to persons seeking to become approved account providers;”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for tabling his amendment in response to our debate in Grand Committee about the need for a review of the saving gateway scheme. I shall speak briefly to my four amendments to Amendment 15. The Minister has sought to answer some of the points that he thinks I am going to make, but I have one or two extra points to put to him.
I am quite sure that the review is needed. This week, for example, the Government released the findings of the latest Ipsos MORI report on the second pilot, but it tells us relatively little about the saving gateway scheme in the Bill because the coverage of the pilots was quite different from that in the Bill. We therefore have very little research information to help us to understand the effect of savings on the target group, which has been narrowed down for the purposes of the Bill, so I remain quite convinced that we need work to be done and a review to be carried out, and I am pleased that the Government have now come to that view.
Before I get into the detail of my amendments, I have one point to note but not pursue. The amendment to which I spoke in Grand Committee sought a review of the effectiveness of the saving gateway scheme. The Government’s Amendment 14 calls for a review of the effect of various things, and while “effect” and “effectiveness” come from the same linguistic stable, they mean rather different things. I had hoped for a review that set out how well the saving gateway scheme had performed and that did not merely confine itself to what effect the scheme had had. Obviously it will be for Parliament to judge the effectiveness of the saving gateway scheme, but it would have been helpful if the review had provided some assistance in that regard. As I said, however, I do not intend to pursue that further.
Amendment 15 sets out three additional things that should be included in the list. I completely accept that subsection (1)(e) of the proposed new clause allows the Treasury to specify additional things, if it chooses, before the review is commissioned and that could be included. However, the matters covered in my Amendment 15 arose during consideration of the Bill’s proposals not only in your Lordships’ House but in another place, and it is surprising that they are absent. In particular, the first item in my Amendment 15 is,
“the provision of financial information and advice”.
While some of that could be read between the lines in the government amendments, it is not there explicitly. I find that surprising; it kind of assumes that all the current actions by the Government on financial inclusion will be perfectly executed by the time that seven years is up. I rather doubt that that is the case.
The second item is the impact of the provisions on eligibility. I am not sure whether the Minister quite understood the points that I was going to try to make here. There is a concern that, at one end of the spectrum, the scheme could in a sense be abused by those with a transient relationship with the benefits system. When they get their notice of eligibility, they have parents who can bankroll their ability to fund a saving gateway account and to get the Government’s generous 50 per cent maturity payment at the end. We would not want the saving gateway account to be heavily used in that way, if at all.
At the other extreme, the vouchers only last for three months. It may well be that those on longer-term benefits cannot, for one reason or another, feel able to open an account within that period and are not aware of their ability to apply for a further voucher to be issued. We would not be happy if the saving gateway scheme missed those people if, at a later point, they could effectively have opened an account. From whichever way you look at it in here, there are ways in which that scheme’s eligibility mechanism may not work to achieve the end result. The Minister did not quite address that, and I could not see it being addressed in the Government’s own amendment.
Then there is the issue of account providers. I specifically sought to address that because we had much discussion about whether there will be a vibrant and competitive marketplace for account providers. The Government say that that is a barrier to eligible persons opening an account, rather than looking at it from the account providers’ end of the telescope. Those are the three items I would raise in connection with that amendment.
The Minister sought to justify the way in which the independent review is to be provided to HMRC, which would then,
“provide the results and conclusions … to the Treasury”.
I am rather suspicious of that formulation. It has an independent review getting fed into HMRC, which then has the opportunity to interfere with the “results and conclusions” before they are passed on to the Treasury, which has to lay them before Parliament. I do not understand why the review itself is not provided straight the way through the system. Why is there an opportunity for the commissioners to rephrase the findings? The Government have, for example, released the whole of the Ipsos MORI report this week but there might be occasions in future where the information is modified. That is not a helpful formula; it is not even the normal one for these kinds of things.
On whether Parliament is both Houses of Parliament, I used to think it was not necessary to separate out each House in relation to Parliament, but the Government do not always use “Parliament” to mean both Houses. For example, the Prime Minister in one of his many makeover statements announced that public appointments would be subject to confirmatory hearings by Parliament. When we pressed that further, we discovered that in this case the Government meant Parliament was only the other place. Therefore, whenever we see a reference to Parliament now, we always feel that it is necessary to clarify whether the Government mean both Houses of Parliament or simply the other place, because they have form, if you like, on using Parliament to mean both things and not necessarily being clear at the time.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out that the Government intend the independent review to be independent of the Treasury and HMRC, which was what I sought to tease out in Amendment 18. I sought to avoid the kind of so-called independent review that was done, for example, of the FSA’s handling of Northern Rock. It was carried out by the FSA’s supposedly independent internal audit department, but that could not have qualified for a properly independent review. The Government have answered me in relation to Amendment 18.
My Lords, I am grateful for the Government bringing forward this amendment. I supported the broadly analogous amendment put down by the noble Baroness in Committee. I am particularly pleased that the review will look to any barriers which may exist around the opening of saving gateway accounts, as the Minister knows. One of my principal concerns about this Bill is that, far from there being competition between saving gateway providers, there will not be any providers because it will not be economically viable for banks, building societies or the Post Office to do it. That provision in this amendment is helpful because it allows that potential problem to be looked at.
I have one remaining concern about the amendment, which is the suggestion that no review will take place until after seven years of Clause 6 coming into force. Seven years is a long time. If the scheme is working well, seven years may be fine. But if there are problems with the scheme in any material respect, to wait seven years before you even start looking at it seems to be too long. Although I know the Minister believes that seven years is the right period, I want to confirm the provision in the amendment. It does not say that the review will be after seven years, but that it will be within seven years. Therefore, if there were strong arguments for having a review earlier, you would still be able to do it under the legislation even though, were the Minister still to be in his post in seven years’ time, he could wait for the seven years to elapse before he did it.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendment, which, in general, seems to be important and sound in substance. I also think that there are important points in the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness. I hope that we can somehow disinter her first point about financial information and advice. I do not see why that is not put specifically in the Bill. As I said earlier, the educative aspect of this Bill is a central part of it. I hope that that could somehow be embodied. I note that my noble friend says, “Well, it would happen anyway”, but I would like something a bit more specific than that.
I have two little points about the government amendment. I take it that the reference to the Ipsos MORI material means that the support will be an account in terms of not merely historical consequence but expectations. I hope that this Ipsos MORI material can be related to what appears in the report, because it shows, first, how carefully this scheme has been researched and prepared for and, secondly, it shows that socially it is potentially extremely significant in that people’s habits are changed. People who have embarked on schemes of this kind seem to stay on them and have a very different view of their own financial competence.
Finally, I sympathise very much with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that seven years seems an extraordinary period. It is longer than the life of a Parliament even without reforming the rules on when we have elections. I hope that we can have a slightly optimistic gloss on these words from my noble friend.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and my noble friend Lord Morgan for their most helpful and constructive contributions to the debate on this matter. I have listened closely to the points made. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, raises again a point that has been raised previously; namely, will there be sufficient account providers? I have shared with noble Lords my concern on that point as well. I have been engaged in active discussion with banks, building societies and other potential providers of saving gateway accounts. I am confident as those discussions continue that there will be a range of providers to meet the requirement of the intent behind the creation of saving gateway accounts at launch.
Questions were asked about the review period being seven years. It is important to remember that the seven years specified is the latest that this report can be published and not the earliest. If there are benefits to conducting and publishing the review earlier, the proposed new clause would provide sufficient flexibility for that to happen.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, raised a number of points, one of which I can handle swiftly and, I hope, effectively; that is, the laying of reports before Parliament. “Parliament” in this context encompasses this House and the other place by virtue of the Laying of Documents Before Parliament (Interpretation) Act 1948. The noble Baroness raises important questions about eligibility for the scheme and whether the scheme is effectively targeted. It will be possible for this and other matters to be considered by the review if Treasury Ministers consider that to be appropriate. However, consideration of issues around eligibility creates a risk that the review might become a more general survey of savings, attitudes and behaviour among a wider group of people, rather than a consideration of the impact of the saving gateway on saving habits and financial inclusion among participants. The Treasury will keep eligibility for the saving gateway under review in any case, but this reinforces the view that the precise specification of the review within the framework as defined in my amendment is a matter where judgment is better made in the light of experience and observed practice.
Questions were raised as to whether my new clause would allow the Treasury to present the review in a report, whether this would be Treasury spin and whether we would see the reviewer’s own words. I assure noble Lords that that will not be the case. There will not be spin and the report will be presented in the reviewer’s own words. That is consistent with the sincerity of intent which has always been in our contemplation. This is a novel approach to tackling a significant problem around financial exclusion for the least fortunate in the community. We proceed on the basis that we are best informed by experience and the development of the account. It would be entirely consistent therefore for us to want there to be a full, broad-ranging and appropriate review at an appropriate time in order to assess whether the saving gateway account was having the intended effect.
The noble Baroness also raises a question around whether we should be using the word “effect” or the word “effectiveness”. I think that “effect” is what we had in mind and we would wish to leave it at that stage, but I will reflect further on the issue, as I have endeavoured to do at all times during our discussions on the Bill. I have stated again the importance that I attach to the effective post-implementation review of the saving gateway, and I believe that the proposed new clause provides for such a review, as well as being targeted on the scheme’s published objectives. It also provides a great deal of flexibility for any other relevant issue to be raised. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendments. I beg to move.
With respect, my Lords, it is for me to withdraw my amendment before the noble Lord moves his. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. We are satisfied that the Government have tabled the amendment. I am sorry that he has not responded to the points that I have put before him in terms of greater specificity of what the review should cover. In my remarks, I fully accepted that paragraph (e) would allow a judgment to be made in the light of experience, as the Minister said. If that were all that were necessary it would be necessary only to put in paragraph (e) and the other matters are regarded as important. It is a pity that the Government do not believe that the matters I have raised in my Amendment 15 are as important.
I am glad also that the Government are happy for the report of whoever is commissioned to go straight through the commissioners to the Treasury and onwards to Parliament. It is not what the Act says, and it is a pity that the Government have phrased it that way. They have moved a long way and, as I said at the outset, we are grateful to the Government for tabling the amendment. It is a pity that they are not prepared to engage in improving it further, but I live in hope that there is a week before Third Reading and the Minister might wish to consider the matter further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 (to Amendment 14) withdrawn.
Amendment 14 agreed.
Amendments 16 to 18 not moved.
Clause 27 : Orders and regulations
19: Clause 27, page 13, line 14, after “or (5)” insert “, 4(2)(a) or (3), 6(5)”
My Lords, this amendment increases the parliamentary scrutiny of the use of the regulation-making powers provided by the Bill. As noble Lords may know, most of the Bill’s delegated powers will be subject to the affirmative procedure on their first use and the negative procedure on subsequent uses. That will allow appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the scheme’s details that will be introduced, but also the flexibility to make minor or technical changes to the scheme. As the Bill stands there are four exceptions, where every use of a power will be subject to the affirmative procedure. These are the three delegated powers that relate to eligibility for the saving gateway and the power for regulations to set the match rate. The delegated powers relate to central features of the saving gateway and so it is right that any changes should be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, proposed in Grand Committee that several further powers should also be subject to the affirmative procedure. My noble friend Lord Davies and I agreed to consider the points carefully. As a result, the amendment would make a further three regulation-making powers subject to the affirmative procedure on each use, rather than just on their first use. They are the powers to set the monthly deposit limit, set the maturity period that we discussed earlier and finally to set the number of accounts that people can hold, either at the same time or in their lifetime.
Having considered the matter closely, I agree with the noble Baroness that changes in these areas could affect the cost of the saving gateway relatively significantly and that the affirmative procedure is appropriate. I hope that noble Lords will welcome the increased parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill’s powers. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Minister said that I tabled amendments in Grand Committee to achieve the same effect as the amendment before the House today. I am grateful to him for taking on board the points that I made. I merely remark that this is a most agreeable way to conclude Report stage.
Amendment 19 agreed.
Coroners and Justice Bill
Committee (2nd Day)
Clause 7 : Whether jury required
15: Clause 7, page 4, leave out, lines 22 to 24.
I rise to speak for the first time on the Bill. I was unable to be present at Second Reading, but I want to express my thanks to my noble friend Lord Patel for his generosity in incorporating my main points in his Second Reading speech.
I turn to this group of amendments, in which I have two with slightly different implications. We come to address the rules that deal with when a coroner must call a jury. The amendments would ensure that all deaths in custody in state detention, including deaths of those detained under the Mental Health Act and those held under the Immigration Acts, were automatically investigated at an inquest held before a jury, including those where death is presumed to be of natural clauses.
I should declare at the outset an interest in this point as a psychiatrist and a former Mental Health Act commissioner who spent far too many months of my life on various inquiries into homicides, untoward incidents and quality-of-care examinations in special hospitals’ regional secure units and local psychiatric units.
It seems that the new legislation weakens the current position in some respects, where some inquests following deaths in custody are held before a jury, although not all in the case of detained patients. The jury is at the coroner’s discretion but is held where the death occurred,
“in circumstances the continuation or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public”,
a phrase that has encouraged a coroner to call a jury where there is a suspicion of contributory neglect. It is, however, still common for a coroner to decide not to call a jury in the case of the death of a detained patient.
It is worth reminding ourselves at this point that juries are convened in only about 4 per cent of coroners’ inquests and the amendments would not extend that percentage much. The new provision states that inquests into deaths occurring in detention and custody will take place only before juries where the death was violent or unnatural, where the cause of death is unknown, where a member of the police is involved and where the death was due to a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease, or otherwise where the senior coroner believes that there is sufficient reason for doing so. It is therefore possible that significant numbers of deaths that would previously have been investigated before a jury will not automatically receive the same scrutiny.
On the face of it, the provision seems sensible. It means that apparent deaths of natural causes of aged people with terminal illness or those who are otherwise expected to die within a short time will not be dealt with in this way. I hope to convince noble Lords that that should not be the case and that there are good reasons for having a jury when people are in closed, locked institutions.
My anxieties arise from a current case, which I will mention, and from working as a psychiatrist in the past in mental health units remote from district general hospitals—indeed, all special hospitals and regional secure units, and many psychiatric units are remote—where I and many other psychiatrists experienced difficulties in getting adequate physical healthcare for our patients. I have had experience of sitting on inquiries and also of the reports made voluntarily to the recently defunct Mental Health Act Commission of the deaths of detained patients. We also know from social research about poor access to healthcare and the very high mortality rates of mental health patients.
A current case I want to mention is that of Mrs Sandra Allen, a 61 year-old woman who was detained in a north London psychiatric hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act for a recurrence of her manic depressive illness. She died of natural causes—a heart attack—in 2006. The inquest was held without a jury. The coroner ruled that she died of natural causes which were unavoidable, but her children are challenging the verdict because they believe that their mother’s death could have been avoided with better care. They claim that she was neglected.
The circumstances were as follows: Mrs Allen, who was 61, died from a heart attack after choking on a sandwich which she had been left to eat unattended. She had no dentures and a long history of choking, possibly as a result of medication she was taking. The staff were inexperienced in dealing with the situation; they were unable to clear her airways and did not know how to operate the oxygen canister which was provided on the ward. She was still choking when the ambulance arrived; it waited several minutes outside the unit because the security guard was asleep and the ward was locked. The ambulance staff simply did not get in to help her in time. Her family has argued that the coroner was wrong to reject its request for an inquiry before a jury, since it felt that much of the psychiatric and physical care she received was unacceptable and contributed to her untimely death.
I can remember another very similar case: a patient of mine needed urgent coronary angioplasty; he was difficult to manage but I believe he could have been cared for on a normal hospital ward with psychiatric advice. The cardiac surgeon procrastinated under circumstances in which any other patient would have been treated as a matter of urgency. The patient died of a heart attack within a couple of weeks. Again, the finding was of natural causes.
When I was a practising psychiatrist, I often had great difficulty getting adequate specialist consultant advice for patients. Mental health nursing staff were often inexperienced in dealing with physical conditions and reluctant to refer patients to a district general hospital because of the stigma and fear that the patients generate, sometimes with the best of intentions.
Matters have improved considerably, I believe, in special hospitals and regional secure units, but it seems to me to remain crucial that relatives of detained patients who die in state custody, even when it appears to be a completely natural and expected death, should be exposed to a manner of inquiry which gives the public the greatest confidence. I have often been struck by the distress, anxiety and suspicion that relatives have when what is apparently a natural death has not been fully exposed to scrutiny. If the sister of David Bennett—sometimes called Rocky Bennett—had not articulated very clearly before a jury the circumstances of his death in a regional secure unit, I doubt whether the conditions there would have been fully exposed.
Reports of the recently defunct Mental Health Act Commission have exposed the difficulties in obtaining adequate care in many units. There are approximately 300 deaths notified to the commission every year from psychiatric units of deaths in untoward circumstances. That is quite a significant proportion of the number of all patients dying in psychiatric units.
There is a race and culture dimension to the problem. Black patients currently make up 30 per cent of patients detained in high-security psychiatric hospitals, 40 per cent of those in medium-secure settings. The black population is at much higher risk of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease, and at an earlier age. They therefore have difficult responses sometimes to some of the drugs that are given in psychiatric units. It is crucial, of course, that they have good access to care but that we do not misinterpret deaths of detained patients from natural causes as due to poor care if they have had the best care and advice. Services must not only be doing their best but be seen to be doing their best.
The Disability Rights Commission report, Equal Treatment: Closing the Gap, highlighted the profound differences in smoking-related disease and increased mortality of those with learning disabilities and serious mental health problems, an unpredicted doubling of the rate of bowel cancer in people with schizophrenia and the very poor access to healthcare by people with serious mental illnesses and learning disabilities. We need to pick up when care goes wrong in closed units if we are to improve awareness and support families who want to understand what happened to their relatives.
Finally, it is worth commenting on the sharp decline in the numbers of deaths of detained patients in psychiatric hospitals, probably not because of better care but simply because the age profile has changed dramatically, and older, long-term patients are now cared for in care homes and nursing homes. This means that the number of patients for whom an inquest with a jury would be required would be relatively small.
I listened very carefully to the debates yesterday, and think it is important to make it clear that I am not trying to extend the coroner’s role of finding and establishing the cause of death into the more narrative areas that we were trying to avoid. There is no doubt that finding a cause of deliberate neglect or omission or commission of care is a very important part of a coroner’s fact-finding mission. The public need to have every confidence in a system which is as open as possible, and the public believe in juries. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are dealing with Clause 7, and it is helpful first to look at its structure. Subsection (1) provides that an inquest into a death,
“must be held without a jury unless subsection (2) or (3) applies”.
Subsection (2) sets out limited circumstances in which an inquest into a death must be held with a jury. Those circumstances are triggered only if the senior coroner has reason to suspect,
“that the deceased died while in custody or otherwise in state detention”,
and that the death resulted from an act or omission of a police officer or a member of a service police force, or that it was caused by,
“a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease”.
There is provision in subsection (3) for discretion that an inquest into a death may be held with a jury if the senior coroner thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so. However, the mandatory requirement for a jury is now limited by the Bill from what it has been. The purpose of Amendments 16, 17, 19 and 20 is to extend those categories.
It is notable that the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Jordan v the United Kingdom examined the state’s obligations under Article 2 on the right to life following a death in state custody. It held that the state must ensure that the deceased’s family are provided with the truth, that lessons are learnt to improve public health and that, if appropriate, criminal proceedings be brought. The European Court held in particular that an investigation into the death must be made on the initiative of the state and that it should not be left to individual members of the deceased’s family to bring civil proceedings.
The European Court held that the investigation must be independent, effective, prompt, open to public scrutiny, and should support the participation of the next of kin. If those conditions are not fulfilled, there would be a breach of the right to life set out in Article 2. The House of Lords, in the case of Amin, confirmed that judgment and established that these requirements should not only apply where state agents were actively involved in the death of a person, but where the death was alleged to have resulted from negligence on the part of state agents. It is our submission from these Benches that there should be an Article 2-compliant inquest in all cases where the state has failed in its obligation to protect life. I have already indicated to noble Lords the degree to which Clause 7 limits the circumstances in which a mandatory inquest with a jury can be carried out.
Amendment 16 would add to that limited number of people,
“a member of the security services”.
In the other place, an amendment was tabled in Committee that proposed adding “any other state official” to the list of those whose actions resulting in a death would trigger an inquest to be held with a jury. The Government argued that that amendment was too widely drafted. It was a Conservative amendment. Mr David Howarth, my colleague in the other place, said:
“If the Minister thinks that the amendment is too vague, I ask her about this specific case: is she against adding the security services to the list?”
The Minister, Bridget Prentice, said:
“That would be a far better argument than that for the general extension to state officials”.—[Official Report, Commons, Coroners and Justice Bill Committee, 10/2/09; cols. 212-3.]
That is what has inspired us to add,
“a member of the security services”,
to the list of people where an inquest with a jury must be held. We are encouraged by the Minister about that, although frankly I do not think that it goes far enough to meet the requirements of the European Court.
Amendment 17 would add to the circumstances something that is already existing law. We propose to add to the illustrations where an inquest must be held with a jury paragraph (d), which says,
“that the death occurred in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public”.
The purpose of that is to repeat the existing law. The Coroners Act 1988 provided a requirement to summon a jury in those cases, so this Bill takes a step back in dealing with cases in which continuance or possible recurrence prejudicial to health or safety is concerned. The wording of the amendment was invoked in a 2007 High Court case, involving the deputy coroner of the Queen’s household, to ensure that an inquest occurred into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. That was triggered by the ability of the paparazzi to behave as they did in the hours before the deceased came by their deaths. The inquest was ordered to be held in those circumstances.
Amendments 19 and 20 would add to the Bill,
“that the death otherwise resulted from an act or omission of a public authority”—
that is, a person or body who,
“would be so considered under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998”.
In those circumstances, it is imperative that a jury be summoned for the purposes of hearing the inquest.
The jury is the most democratic institution that we have in this country. In modern times, the jury is more democratic than Parliament, in that it allows the voice of the people to be heard, to set the standards and to come to conclusions, and it is in those circumstances where state officials have misbehaved one way or another that the jury’s role is most appropriate. I support the amendment.
Amendment 18 would also extend the circumstances in the Bill for inquests to be held with a jury. There are two new instances: where the deceased was undertaking training carried out by Her Majesty’s forces and where the deceased was under 18 and serving in Her Majesty’s forces, and in both cases the death was violent or unnatural, or the cause unknown. I am indebted to the help of the Royal British Legion in formulating this amendment.
Military training can be conducted on a 24-hour basis, with individuals living on camp. Some training courses are designed to push people to their physical and mental limits. All of this may increase their vulnerability and necessitate additional safeguards. In the unfortunate case that something goes wrong, my amendment would allow for additional scrutiny of the conduct of the defence authorities, where this additional duty is owed by the state due to the nature of the activity. Similarly, for those under 18, additional safeguards are needed to ensure that increased risks due to age, immaturity and vulnerability have been assessed and reduced.
The Blake report, The Deepcut Review, included a recommendation that only when individuals reached 18 should they be engaged in full military duties, recognising that additional maturity is needed to cope with the strains of military life. Blake also recommended that the training environment of young people be extended and dedicated to their needs. Although these recommendations have not been taken forward by the Ministry of Defence, there is legislation in place to protect young people in the workplace, not least the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, which provide additional duties to control the risks of young people at work, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prevents those under 18 from being actively deployed.
My amendment would ensure that, where a death occurs, there is additional scrutiny into the circumstances and that the lessons learnt can be followed up and implemented. These safeguards would help to ensure fair treatment for the youngest members of the Armed Forces, in line with the undertakings in Command Paper 7424, The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-government Support to our Armed Forces.
I support Amendment 17, which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has introduced very clearly. My contact with this issue stems from my membership of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which we spend a lot of time considering the issues that are before us this evening. It is hard to understand why the Government are limiting further the requirement for compulsory juries in certain instances, in particular the health and safety of the public or public interests. We have had evidence from a number of organisations, in particular Inquest, which had this concern. It talked about juries being fundamental to the democratic system. It said that they,
“in cases of contentious deaths are often seen by families as the key safeguard in terms of public accountability”.
In such instances, it is very clear that families, who may be extremely distressed at what has happened, want the assurance that everything is handled properly. The best assurance that they can have is that there is a jury to oversee the process by which the coroner looks into the death. I hope that my noble friend will consider this as a good example of a Select Committee and others putting forward arguments to which he will be inclined to be sympathetic.
I do not know whether it will be helpful if I outline to the Government the views of the Opposition on this matter. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, and all others who have spoken to the other amendments have made a very good case. We need to hear from the Government just what their reasoning is behind the provisions that they have put into Clause 7.
In another place, my honourable friend Mr Bellingham said:
“I entirely accept that having a jury sit with a coroner will be the exception rather than the rule. The overwhelming majority of inquests take place without a jury, and it would be completely impractical if that were not the case, because the costs and logistical implications of having a jury are significant”.—[Official Report, Commons, Coroners and Justice Bill Committee, 10/2/09; col. 207.]
He went on to say that in certain cases it was very important that there was a jury because it was important for the families of the deceased and others in helping them to come to terms with what had happened.
The Government came forward with Clause 7, which states at subsection (1):
“An inquest into a death must be held without a jury unless subsection (2) or (3) applies”.
We have been taken through those provisions by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, who pointed out what the exceptions were. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, wants to add something to subsection (2). We are then told in subsection (3) that the senior coroner can insist on there being a jury when he thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so, without spelling out what those sufficient reasons are.
The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, told us that only in about 4 per cent of cases was a jury empanelled in these inquests. We need confirmation from the Government that that is the case. We also need to hear from the Government what assessment they have made about the effects of this clause. Will it reduce that 4 per cent down to a lower figure? More importantly—because it is rather vague—what do the Government think in this context about subsection (3), which gives the senior coroner a very wide power to make exceptions? Presumably, the Government made some assessment when they drafted this provision of what they thought might happen.
Before we take any of these amendments any further—and no doubt those proposing them will want to consider this—we need to hear from the Government what assessment they made; I presume that they did make one. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, can tell us what assessment was made on the effect of subsection (1) and the exceptions in subsections (2) and (3), particularly in subsection (3), which seems very vague. Will there be further guidance to the senior coroner on when he will exercise that judgment, or will it be left entirely to him? If so, do the Government have any idea about what the effect will be, or might it change in future?
My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has with his usual eloquence outlined the arguments for the amendments in our joint names. However, there are one or two issues on which I shall probe the Minister further. In particular, I refer to the wording used in Clause 7(1), that an,
“inquest into a death must be held without a jury unless”—
then two exclusions are given—along with that of subsection (3), which says:
“An inquest into a death may be held with a jury if the senior coroner thinks … so”.
I cannot help but wonder whether the wording might have been more congenial if it had been, “An inquest may be held without a jury”, and then, in subsection (3), that an inquest “must be held with a jury if the senior coroner thinks it is a good idea”. It seems to me that one subsection contradicts the other, rather than giving an alternative or an option.
Perhaps of greater importance is subsection (2)(b), which refers to a case in which,
“the death resulted from an act or omission of … a police officer, or … a member of a service police force”,
to which my noble friend has added,
“a member of the security services”.
Increasingly nowadays we find that the functions, particularly of police officers, and sometimes of service police officers, are being carried out by officials in the private sector. For example, in my own part of the world there was, tragically, the murder of two soldiers outside Masserene Army barracks. It emerged subsequently that the security was provided not by the military directly or by the military police service but by private contractors. I shall not go into the details of the implications that that might have for the particular event, but there was an attack to which it would have been not unreasonable to expect some response from people who were not police officers or service police officers but private contractors acting as though they were police officers. Would these subsections apply to officials in the private sector who were acting in the place of police officers or service police officers, doing precisely the same job and doing it on behalf of the state and simply being employed because that is currently the way in which the Government seek to provide certain services?
I support the amendments in principle. I particularly support the amendment tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, which makes an important addition to Clause 7. I wondered why the Government had not applied to leave out line 18, since they are proposing to leave out Clause 11. However, that is a small point, which will no doubt be put right at some later stage.
I have one caveat. The view of coroners to whom I have been speaking is that any considerable additions to the list of inquests that should have a jury will add fairly substantially to the delay and expense of running cases and that, therefore, if one is to have these additions one must bear that in mind.
If the Minister will forgive me, I support the Government on the wording of Clause 7(1) and (3). My recollection of the Coroners Act 1988 is that an inquest into a death must be held without a jury except in certain circumstances—the same situation. That is very important because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said, only about 4 per cent of cases are with juries and there would be considerable pressure on coroners to hold a large number of quite unnecessary cases with juries if you did not have the starting point that you must do it without a jury.
Furthermore, under subsection (3) I take the view that it is very important that the senior coroner should have a very broad power to have a jury. I was personally rapped over the knuckles by the divisional court in the case to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, referred. Sitting in my capacity as a deputy assistant coroner, I had continued that case on Princess Diana without a jury. It is very important that the senior coroner should have a board remit on this. I do not think that, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, the “may” and “must” should be transposed or that that would be in the public interest.
At the risk of boring the House, I would like to refer to the debates and discussions we had in this House on the Corporate Manslaughter Bill. It was agreed then that the prison service should be made subject to the provisions of that Bill, largely on behalf of all the concerns people had that prison management somehow was able to escape from the normal supervision that would have been expected in cases where it might have contributed to death. During the course of that debate, the whole question arose of the families, and the way the families saw delays over inquests, and the fact that they went to inquests expecting more than an inquest is designed to give—which was clearly brought out in the debate yesterday, when I was unfortunately unable to be here.
One of the reasons I welcome the formation of a more formalised coronial service, if that is right, is that I suspect that when coroners involved in a case relating to deaths in custody come to decide whether this is a case that ought to go to a jury— because it contains aspects that deserve something more than a normal inquisitorial process—they will be better informed, and therefore the doubts that exist over the system at the moment may be ameliorated. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said, there will not be all that many, but it is important that the whole system is subject to overall review, rather than it being left to be a sort of post code lottery. In this way, relatives can expect that the jury system, in which they as citizens have more confidence than a non-jury system, will result in fair rights, not depending on where they happen to be.
I speak briefly in support of the spirit of all the amendments in this grouping. I have been fascinated by the arguments put forward by noble Lords, and I am pleased to say that most of the points I wanted to make have already been made. I do, however, wanted to reinforce some of the comments made by my noble friend Lady Murphy about black and minority ethnic people in respect of this particular issue.
As she pointed out, black people are very much over-represented in the mental health system and in the prison system: they are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and more likely to be among those detained and awaiting deportation under the Immigration Act. In fact, black Britons are over 44 times more likely than their white counterparts to be detained under section in the mental health system, despite having similar rates of mental ill-health as other ethnic groups. Especially relevant here, as my noble friend Lady Murphy has pointed out, is that people of African-Caribbean descent are much more likely to be given high doses of potent behaviour-modifying drugs and are much more likely to be physically restrained. This has led to a number of fatal, tragic outcomes: she mentioned the case of Rocky Bennett as one of those.
These issues are not exclusively the concern of black and minority ethnic communities—of course they are not. That has been amply illustrated. I do think, however, as is often the case, what has had a negative impact on one section of society indicates that the system is not working as effectively as it should for people in general—particularly those in vulnerable positions. Currently Clause 7 of the Bill provides that deaths in detention—as has been said—will be heard before juries only if a very limited set of circumstances is satisfied. This is not sufficient to ensure that such deaths in the mental health sector or other public authorities are fully and independently investigated, or to give the public confidence in the system. Again, this was pointed out earlier.
Juries do give a degree of openness and transparency required in these tragic circumstances, and they are fundamental to democracy, as they represent the only opportunity where ordinary people—independent of state authorities—can participate in the judicial system. This is particularly important where the state is implicated in a death, or where there is even a question mark about the possible role of the state in a death, and it is particularly important also for those who come from vulnerable communities and lack confidence in the system because of their negative experiences.
Limiting the calling of juries to the types of cases outlined currently in subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 7 is insufficient. It would mean that cases of negligence or gross negligence, neglect and systemic failures might not be heard before juries, and this will further damage the confidence of the public and the families, and will not ensure that that sense of independence and impartiality is in the inquest system. All inquests into deaths in state custody or detention should automatically be brought before a jury, in my view. I hope we will get a further chance to discuss this shortly.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this interesting and important debate. I will try to establish some context. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, invited me to do that in numerical terms. That will stretch me somewhat, but I will do my best. He suggested that inquests that take place with a jury made up about 4 per cent of cases a year. Our figure is 2 per cent. It means that fewer than 500 inquests across the whole of England and Wales take place with a jury. We do see the provisions in this clause increasing the number of inquests with juries. It may go up from 2 per cent to 3 per cent. There will be an increase, because of the provisions of the Bill designed to meet the representations that have been made during this debate today, about areas where real concerns have been expressed and where the value of juries has been extolled. Of course, noble Lords are absolutely right when they put forward that principle; it is an important part of a democratic society.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, raised the question of what the principle is behind this clause, and whether it was back-to-front. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, answered that point better than I could. The presumption behind the legislation is the practice of the nation at the present time and always has been: namely, the vast majority of inquests take place without a jury, but provision needs to be made for a jury in significant and particular cases. The point about Clause 7(3) in those terms is that it makes provision for judgments that a jury should sit. But of course we anticipate, under our proposals, that the vast majority of inquests will continue, as they have always been, to be determined by a coroner sitting alone, rather than with a jury. After all, coroners are highly knowledgeable and increasingly well trained.
We are intending to improve that training, of course, with the provisions in Clause 30. With the coroners’ independence of mind, I am content that they should be able to continue to hold most inquests sitting alone, with a jury present only where there is a clear need for the additional level of public scrutiny. I will come on to the representations made during this debate about situations in which that additional level of public scrutiny would take place. Clause 7(3) contains provisions to give coroners discretion to summon a jury if they feel there is sufficient reason for doing so, even if the death concerned does not fall into the categories mentioned in Clause 7(2). There is also the safeguard in Clause 32(2)(g) relating to appeals where an interested person may appeal to the chief coroner if he feels that the coroner should exercise his or her discretion differently.
That is the context behind this clause and the propositions in the Bill. I want to look at the detailed arguments advanced about cases where inquests should be conducted with a jury. Of course, I understand the thinking behind Amendment 16, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, which requires that an inquest into the death of a person caused by an act or omission by a member of the security services should be held with a jury. We are not aware of any such deaths being subject to inquests in the past 50 years, so we are discussing a marginal provision, so marginal that, although the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, advocated his case on principle, I do not think we need it. If such a death were to occur, and given the fact that we have not experienced one in the past half century, it is surely preferable and sufficient to allow coroners to use their discretionary powers under Clause 7(3) to decide whether they wish to conduct an inquest with a jury in those circumstances. After all, the coroner will be aware of how exceptional the circumstances are and will therefore exercise careful judgment.
The second amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, could lead to a substantial increase in the number of inquests that would require a jury to be summoned, given that there is a wide range of circumstances in which the provision could be said to apply. I shall make the most obvious point. Road traffic deaths in this country are too high. We have had considerable success in recent years in reducing fatalities on the roads against a background of road traffic increasing almost year by year, but road traffic deaths are still numerous. They run into the thousands. Is it suggested that almost all of them should come within this provision? After all, almost all of them involve issues of public safety. By definition, we learn from deaths on the road, and public policy is affected accordingly. However, it is a big leap from a necessary learning process with regard to accidents to a provision that might lead to the interpretation that because every road death potentially has some implication for public policy, in all such cases inquests should be held with a jury.
I do not have that figure. The noble Lord is arguing for the necessary extension, and I am saying that his amendment leaves open the interpretation that if there is an element of public safety or public concern, that might necessitate the coroner deciding that a jury would be necessary. I do not think that that is a basis on which we can proceed. Leaving aside the additional resources that would be required if this criterion came into play, alternative measures are being put in place substantially to improve the public protection role of coroners. That would surely be more effective than saying we need a jury in such circumstances. We are concerned to improve the role of coroners in public protection, but that is different from accepting an amendment that has significant resource implications.
The Committee will be aware of changes made last July to Rule 43 of the Coroners’ Rules 1984, which gave enhanced priority to coroners’ reports relating to the prevention of future deaths. Early indications are that these rule changes have already made a positive difference to the coroner’s public protection role. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor will shortly be publishing a summary of those reports and the responses to them. These provisions will be further enhanced under measures being brought forward at paragraph 6 of Schedule 4 to the Bill.
I believe the Government’s position is preferable. It is to enhance the public protection role of coroners by giving greater prominence to their reports to prevent future deaths, rather than insisting that they hold such inquests with a jury, which is the concept behind the amendment. I accept the motives behind it, which the Government share. Coroners have a role in improving the quality of public perception. In circumstances such as these, bereaved families want to feel that lessons have been learnt if the death occurred in circumstances where public policy could be improved. We will provide for that through coroners’ reports.
Amendment 18 was spoken to by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who was strongly supported by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The Committee will be aware that for the most part coroners sit alone when considering deaths of military personnel on active service. I do not think it can be contended that that has stopped coroners successfully investigating all such deaths with a commendable degree of vigour, thoroughness and independence or, on occasion, passing judgments and making comments critical of the Government. I do not think the system can be criticised in that respect. There is no reason to believe that coroners do not or will not deal with the deaths of military personnel undertaking training or under the age of 18 with any less rigour. There is no reason to presume that coroners will do anything other than approach such deaths with the same degree of responsibility and the features that I have outlined as they already do for other military deaths.
The Bill already contains provisions giving coroners discretion to summon a jury if they feel that there is sufficient reason for doing so, even if the death concerned does not fall into the categories mentioned in subsection (2). There is also the right of appeal to the Chief Coroner, if the family feels that the coroner should exercise his or her discretion differently. I consider that the anxieties that have been expressed in these amendments have been covered by the Government’s approach, and that noble Lords should have confidence in the position outlined in the Bill.
I would also suggest that the issue of whether juries should be summoned in certain types of cases that involve the deaths of military personnel, particularly those of a young age, is one that the Chief Coroner may wish to address in any guidance that he or she may issue. The Chief Coroner will be aware of anxieties and public disquiet on this score, and of course this debate today is evidence of concern in that area. We would expect that the Chief Coroner would address such an issue in guidance that was given.
On the first amendment, ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy—Amendment 15—I contend that there is no useful purpose in maintaining the status quo in relation to prison deaths and requiring that all deaths in prison, of whatever cause or origin, should be investigated by way of an inquest held with a jury. If there is a reason to suspect that the death was for a violent, unnatural, or unknown cause, the coroner will be obliged to hold an inquest with a jury. I do not see any need for a jury inquest where the death occurred of wholly natural causes in wholly non-suspicious circumstances. I do not see the need for a jury inquest for the death from wholly natural causes, for instance, in a prison hospital, when a similar death in a general hospital would not even warrant an investigation at all.
I accept that there would be an inquest into a death in a prison hospital—and the coroner may feel the need to call a jury in such a case—because of concerns about the level of care that might emerge from investigations. That certainly would occasion an aspect of public policy concern and we would recognise the importance of that. If that did arise, the discretionary powers in Clause 7(3) mean that of course the coroner could indeed summon a jury.
Finally, on Amendments 19 and 20, there is no need for there to be a jury in any but the most serious cases. These amendments would mean that in any and all cases where it may be considered that a failing on the part of the state, a public authority, or their employees, contributed to a death, there would need to be an inquest held with a jury.
Having a jury in every instance where a public authority might be implicated would certainly increase the number of jury inquests by a considerable factor. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, quoted a particular instance where people are acting almost as surrogate agents of the state, as I understand it; not employees, but private sector individuals operating in a capacity on behalf of the state, which raises significant issues. It would not be automatic, but the coroner could certainly use his discretion to summon a jury in such a case. We would expect a coroner to have regard to the factors that the noble Lord outlined, and of course it might well be that this would condition the coroner to think that he ought to summon a jury.
A jury inquest, however, in all the circumstances that have been contended by the amendments is, I maintain, unnecessary and adds little to the process. The costs and delays involved in holding jury inquests in all such circumstances would certainly be untenable. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, began by saying that he wanted the context on numbers; I have not got an estimate of what the costs of the amendments would be—in some cases they might be not great—but it is clear that in some cases a door might be open to a very great increase indeed in the number of inquests with juries and, therefore, very substantial costs.
We anticipate that further guidance will be issued and provided by the Chief Coroner as to the circumstances when the coroner may use his or her discretion. We trust the coroner service, with its additional and enhanced training, and we have seen evidence of the thoroughness with which the work is done. The coroner, of course, has the capacity to summon a jury when it is considered necessary. Beyond that, we will have a Chief Coroner in place who will issue guidance and who can be appealed to, if the bereaved consider that a jury should have been summoned.
On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendments on the basis that we have had a pretty thorough investigation of this issue and the Government, in forming the legislation, have considered these points very thoroughly.
It is interesting to hear the Minister use cost as an argument against these provisions, when of course the costs have been plonked upon local authorities. For once, the Government are not defending their own resources.
I return to Amendment 17, where he conjured up the idea of the costs of numerous inquests in road traffic accidents. As I indicated in opening, the amendment simply puts back the existing law—namely Section 8(3)(d) of the Coroners Act 1988—which provides that a jury must be summoned in circumstances where,
“the death occurred in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public”.
That is precisely what the amendment states. As far as I am aware, the coroner system has not so far been overwhelmed by motor accident cases. The suggestion that we are opening the door to a huge increase in inquests in those particular cases simply does not arise.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights asked the Minister, in the course of the preparation of this Bill, to explain why the Government considered it appropriate to remove those existing provisions for compulsory jury inquests in cases where health and safety of the public might be at risk. The Minister explained that it was rare for juries to be appointed under the existing provision. The reason that she gave was that there was confusion about what it might mean in practice. Since it was rare, the Government considered that it was no longer needed and that it was sufficient to rely on the discretion contained now in Clause 7(3).
The Joint Committee on Human Rights then asked the Minister to explain in what circumstances the coroner’s discretion to summon a jury would be exercised, and whether this could include cases where there might be a risk to the health and safety of the public, and a report from the coroner, which will be provided under paragraph 6 of Schedule 4, might be necessary to eliminate or reduce such a risk.
The Minister told the Joint Committee in evidence that the coroner’s discretion to summon a jury would be exercised where it was felt that the public interest in the case was such that the coroner considered the additional scrutiny and independence of the jury would be beneficial, but that was not likely in the circumstances where health and safety was involved. On the one hand, the Minister's response to the exclusion of the existing law was that the coroner could exercise discretion to have a jury, but on the other hand, the Minister said that it was unlikely that the discretion would be exercised in those cases, which is a completely confusing answer. It is no surprise that the Joint Committee recommended that the Bill be amended to reflect the existing legal position.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred to the discretion of the coroner and it is interesting to see how even that discretion has been limited by the Minister's answer. However, I am sure that any coroner in the future and any Chief Coroner will take heart from the Minister’s words that if there were a problem in health and safety cases no doubt a jury would be summoned under Clause 7(3).
I heard what the Minister said about Amendment 16, where we sought to add the security services to the list. I was pleased to hear that there has apparently been no incident in 50 years, but the greater degree of participation that we have seen over these past few years of the security services in operational matters may very well lead to a situation where an inquest with a jury would be desirable. However, again, the coroner considering that would no doubt turn to Hansard and see that the Minister would approve of a jury in those cases.
As always, I have been stimulated and surprised at the elucidation of the law by listening to colleagues in the Committee discussing these amendments. I must confess that it had not sunk in—I had not clocked—that there was a possibility of going to this new figure, the Chief Coroner. For some of the cases I can immediately think about, that might address the issue of the public having somebody to take their concerns and anxieties to. I had read the legislation to mean that it was much more restrictive, whereas I am not entirely sure, after listening to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that that is the case. I am not sure that I quite understand the implications of the Minister's response.
I am sorry if I have been more cryptic than clear, but right at the beginning, if the noble Baroness will recall, I was pressed on the question of figures. In terms of clarity, currently there are 2 per cent of cases and we expect that to increase by about 50 per cent. That is the Government's broad estimate.
I apologise that I got the figure wrong. I must have had an earlier figure from when the 1988 Act was first enacted or from the next 10 years or so. I am still not entirely convinced that members of the public and relatives of patients and prisoners who die under distressing circumstances that are not obviously violent or untoward deaths would have reassurance without a jury. I am not sure at the moment that the Minister's response has entirely addressed that problem. We are talking about a very small number of patients and prisoners who fall into that category, not huge swathes of people who are detained and die of natural causes who do not require investigation. Having said that, I will take away what I have heard, read it in greater depth and return later on Report.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.
18: Clause 7, page 4, line 29, at end insert—
“(d) that the death occurred while the deceased was undertaking training carried out by Her Majesty’s Forces, and either—(i) the death was a violent or unnatural one, or(ii) the cause of death is unknown, or(e) that the death occurred while the deceased was serving in Her Majesty’s Forces and under the age of 18 years, and(i) the death was a violent or unnatural one, or(ii) the cause of death is unknown.”
The Minister made the point that the Chief Coroner would issue guidance. It would be helpful if he would clear up whether the Chief Coroner himself would be subject to some form of regulation or order on the types of guidance that he should issue, because it would be very helpful to know that he could be guided in that way. I beg to move.
I apologise to the Committee and to the noble and gallant Lord, because I thought we had concluded the debate. I quite understand his point. I cannot be precise about the present position, but I emphasise that areas that cause significant public concern will be an issue. First of all, coroners themselves will exercise their judgment in this context. The Chief Coroner's position will be one in which guidance will be issued on such concerns in order that coroners are advised about the issues. Of course, the noble and gallant Lord has indicated one area of public concern, which might well justify guidance from the Chief Coroner. We will be looking at that position in due course, and during the course of the Bill we will seek to be more explicit. But at this stage, when we are considering the amendments and judging the general perspective of the Committee, it would scarcely behove me to seek strict guidance from the Box in circumstances where I could presume that they had it, because we are still considering the legislation. The noble and gallant Lord will appreciate that the guidance which is then issued will take into account the passage of this Bill.
Will the Minister help me? I think that I am not the only noble Lord who is slightly uncertain about this, given what the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said. I thought that I heard the Minister indicating that families who were concerned could make some sort of representation to a senior coroner in respect of the holding of a jury-attended inquest and that if they were dissatisfied with that they would have this new route of making representations to the Chief Coroner in order to ensure that something of that kind could happen.
I may have misheard the Minister, but I would be grateful if he could clarify whether I have taken him correctly and that there will now be two routes. Given this provision and his comments, if families wish there to be a jury-attended inquest, could they make representation to the senior coroner and, subsequently, to the Chief Coroner?
Of course, these would be exceptional circumstances, as the noble Lord will appreciate. To make the point that I have just been pressed on, the role of the Chief Coroner is, first, to produce the guidance that enables coroners to exercise their functions accurately and effectively. In exceptional circumstances, an appeal to the Chief Coroner is possible. He would consider such cases. The context would be one in which some very particular features obtained. I come back to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. There has not been such a case in 50 years, but if we had one that was conducted without a jury, I have no doubt that it might look exceptional and an appeal might well be made. Of course, there might be good reasons why it would be so. The noble Lord would always give credence to that fact. Nevertheless, it is in such circumstances that an appeal is possible. In answer to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, training will be improved, but will be under the existing auspices and structure.
Amendment 18 withdrawn.
Amendments 19 and 20 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Assembling a jury
21: Clause 8, page 4, line 39, leave out “six, seven, eight or nine” and insert “not less than seven nor more than eleven”
This amendment was put forward by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and is supported by Inquest. For no reason that can be ascertained, the Government propose to change the number of jury members required at an inquest from not fewer than seven or more than 11 to six, seven, eight or nine. The Joint Committee on Human Rights asked the Minister to consider whether public confidence in the outcome of any relevant inquest—and in the process as a whole—will be diminished by the proposed reduction, particularly in cases where the convention rights under Article 2 are engaged. The Minister told the Joint Committee in evidence that no concerns had been raised about this issue in public consultation, but he said no more. He did not justify it in any way. When we look at the Explanatory Notes for guidance, we see that they say on Clause 8 that,
“the nature of the inquisitorial task”,
that inquest juries,
“are required to undertake means they do not need to be of the same size as juries in the criminal courts”.
Why not? The issues that are involved concern someone’s death. Juries are to be summoned, in accordance with the Bill, only in circumstances where agents of the state have caused, or may have caused, that death. There is an even greater need to ensure that the decision-making remains of a high standard.
We submit that it is wholly wrong for issues as crucial to the public interest as the deliberate killing of a civilian by an agent of the state—and noble Lords know the case to which I am referring—to be determined by a jury possibly consisting of as few as six members. What is the purpose of the reduction? The limited research that has been done in other jurisdictions into the composition of juries has discovered that the best quality of decision-making is found when there are 12 members of a jury, who discuss all the issues. That is what the research has shown. We have operated for many years with much smaller juries in inquests, but I can see simply no reason to reduce them as proposed in the Bill. I beg to move.
I support this amendment and have put my name to it. I have a concern about the way in which a group of people behaves when its number becomes very small. If you have a group of only six people, you do not have the ability for someone to hold a balance. In a very small group, if one person feels outside the group, it is quite easy for them to feel intimidated and, perhaps, to begin to doubt their own sense. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has pointed out, the evidence shows that decision-making is sounder when a slightly larger number of people is involved. I would be interested to know the reasoning. We now have compulsory jury service for a much wider base of the population than previously, so I do not believe that it can be because there is difficulty in getting a jury when one is needed. The marginal cost of having the extra people on the jury must be so small as to be relatively insignificant.
Of all the events that can ever happen to anyone, death is the most final and absolute. Where somebody’s life has been taken by the wrongful deed of an agent of the state, nothing at all can be done to bring that life back. If people have been defrauded or have lost all their goods or their livelihood, there is at least the possibility of compensation, however terrible the event has been. With death, there is absolutely nothing. Compensation to the family does nothing. It papers over the cracks that will remain in their lives for ever as massive gaping holes. If we are looking at somebody’s death, particularly where there is concern about deliberate killing, we must make sure that the jury is in the best position to make the best quality of judgment that it can.
When I saw from this amendment the alteration to the law that the Government want to make, it seemed that it could have the effect only of diminishing public confidence in the jury system. That point has already been made. One would seek a powerful explanation from the Government as to why they are making this change. It looks like tinkering for no good reason whatever and with one very serious adverse consequence of lowering confidence.
I, too, support the amendment, which clearly and simply puts back the present situation. To my knowledge, there is nothing wrong with the present system. I have not come across any criticism of it. Unlike a jury in a criminal trial, which requires 12 members, the current situation requires a minimum of seven. It is not necessary to have 11, and there may be any number between the two. However, to bring the number back down to six, seven, eight or nine means that if there is dissent at six, the jury would be unable to do its job because at least six of the jury must agree under Clause 9(2)(a). A number of six would not make it possible for the jury to have a disagreement. A jury of seven would be very difficult if there was a disagreement. Just as the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, has said, the significance of a jury will be diminished if, out of only seven people, one or possibly two disagreed. There is no good reason to change this. If something works, why drop it?
Will the noble and learned Baroness give way? I have listened to the arguments around the Committee. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, would support them—or perhaps he would not. Whether he does or does not, I am persuaded that we need to look at this again. If the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, will withdraw his amendment tonight, I will take it back to the department and hope to come back with a positive decision for those who have spoken tonight.
I am sure that everyone is grateful that the Minister is going to have another look at this, but before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment, I want to underline what the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said about what the Government are doing: they are diminishing public confidence in the whole jury system. I ought to point out to noble Lords that the Government’s desire to diminish public confidence in the jury system is probably a strong motive for them.
I am sorry that the noble Lord has said that. This has nothing whatsoever to do with diminishing the role of the jury in the English legal system. I do not pretend that the arguments were the strongest in the world, but the noble Lord has compelled me to say what they were.
There have been problems in a number of coroner districts with summoning jurors. The process is not centralised, as it is in the Crown Court, and we do not wish to create a new administrative burden by making it so. There have been occasions when inquests have had to be adjourned, causing unnecessary delay to bereaved families.
Another argument that could be prayed in favour—again, I do not argue it strongly—is that the purpose of an inquest is to establish the factual matters set out in Clause 5. Jurors, like coroners, do not have to make judgments between the merits of arguments of opposing parties. They do not award costs or make recommendations in respect of costs. Neither they nor the coroner can make an enforcement judgment or order. They do not determine anyone’s civil rights or obligations for the purposes of Article 6. At the most basic level, coroners and juries simply do not sit in judgment.
Those two arguments have led us to putting those numbers into the Bill. However, as I said when I got to my feet the first time—and I hope that this is acceptable—I am persuaded by what I have heard so far that there is a strong argument the other way. In order not to delay the Committee any further, I ask the noble Lord, when he is ready, if he will, to withdraw the amendment and we will come back to the matter.
I am interested in the first reason given by the Minister because, going back to my early years, as I mentioned, I worked in a coroner’s office. I recall that it was customary to pray a tales and get the necessary numbers for a jury by simply going around the town and finding people. Perhaps that is not the best way of doing it.
While welcoming the Minister’s indication, I have one more point. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, before he had to leave, asked me to mention his Amendment 22. The Bill could currently mean that you could have a decision by coroner’s jury of 5:3, which is not much more—only one more—than a simple majority verdict. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, representing the Joint Committee on Human Rights, had asked to insert that the minority in any circumstances should consist,
“of not more than two”.
I ask the Minister to consider that amendment as he considers the amendment that has been moved.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9 : Determinations and findings by jury
Amendment 22 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Amendment 23 not moved.
24: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Death of a minor: possibility to exclude press from inquest
If the deceased is a minor, the senior coroner responsible for the inquest may exclude the press from the inquest if such exclusion is in the interest of surviving siblings of the deceased.”
The amendment concerns the death of a minor and the possibility of excluding the press from an inquest. We have a charter for the bereaved. In 1971, the Brodrick committee on death certificates and coroners recommended that the coroner needed discretion to hold an inquest in private and to balance public interest against private grief.
The grieving process after suicide, especially when the death has been of a young person, is often different in nature from the grief after other causes of death. The fact that the loved one’s death involved an element of choice raises painful questions that do not necessarily arise when the death has been from natural or accidental causes. The grieving is characterised by agonising questions and a search for some explanation of what happened. Those bereaved often feel a strong sense of guilt—indeed, abandonment—and rejection.
Legal processes can make this worse, particularly when there are delays in an inquest and communication with the coroner’s office is difficult. Giving evidence and public reporting have been shown in studies by Biddle and Wertheimer to be particularly problematic. The feeling of guilt is worsened by questioning in public, and the process can induce stigma and shame. These are worsened by public reporting of highly personal information.
In 2006, the Coroners Bill, published in draft, contained new powers for coroners to impose anonymity in any case where the coroner believed there to be no public interest in the names of families being made public. Consultation on this covered adult and child deaths, so it is understandable that on balance it was not pursued, because it might raise an unfair expectation among families when it should be used only in exceptional cases. The Press Complaints Commission code of practice has also been amended since that time and now includes an important provision to avoid intrusion into grief and shock.
The Bill helpfully has provision in Clause 36(3)(b) for witnesses under 18 to give evidence in private to try to lessen the ordeal and to improve the evidence that they give. I am sure that everyone will welcome that. It also provides for a person’s name to be withheld under the coroner’s direction, as specified in Clause 36(2)(e).
In a letter to Madeleine Moon MP on 23 March 2009, the Minister in the other place, Bridget Prentice, described the provision as applying when it is needed to protect that person’s safety. Therefore, it would mainly apply during inquests into the deaths of UK Special Forces personnel or when witnesses and bereaved families need to remain anonymous to protect their safety. Of course, on the other side of the coin, many families want to expose the horror of the death—for example, after carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas appliance, where there has been a failure to diagnose a life-threatening condition or where there is a question of culpability.
Where families wish to talk to the press, they should of course be allowed to do so. What I am asking for is consideration for the surviving siblings of the deceased. They have feelings of culpability, and possibly even inadvertent complicity, in the death, which can be even more acute than in more adult members of the family. For example, they may think, “If only I had not gone out”, “If only I had told Mum about that remark made in confidence”, “If only I had asked who the internet friends were”, and so on.
At school, the child can be subject to desperately cruel remarks, sometimes from other children repeating comments overheard at home, such as, “They’re a strange family”, or, “They blame the mother”. These can be inferred from reading newspaper reports, often in the local paper, which provide details within the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct. Sadly, our experience in Bridgend, before the code of conduct was amended, was that some statements appeared in the press that had not been made at all. There had been a misinterpretation in the reporting. This caused enormous distress to families. I do not suggest that the press are breaching the new code; they are not. We had bad experiences previously, but press reporting seems to have improved. However, we have seen friends of a dead teenager goaded to disclose details about the deceased or to supply a photograph. Sometimes the first time the bereaved see the picture is when it appears in the papers.
The grieving relatives of a suicide victim are themselves at increased risk of suicide. The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 gives coroners the power to prohibit publication in newspapers of the name of a child in relation to inquests. This appears to be limited to living children and does not apply to the name of the dead child, yet the sibling is of course easily identified because they usually share the same surname and, in a small community, they are often known to have been at the same school.
In 2008, one in five of the 4,698 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission related to intrusion into privacy. In the experience of Bridgend, PAPYRUS—a UK charity committed to the prevention of young suicides—found that,
“judgment by many journalists was based on their personal reaction to news, revealing a lack of understanding that vulnerable young people could become severely distressed, suicidal even, by reading that another young person had killed themselves”.
A crucial aspect of modern reporting is that news is now on the internet immediately and is archived, effectively becoming available for ever.
Bereavement for any child is a cruel wake-up call to the cold realities that lie beyond childhood years. It is like a rapid removal of the comfort blanket beautifully hemmed with childlike ideals. Sadly, there are some realities that we cannot shield our children from, but exacerbating and compounding their grief when their siblings die is something that we can and should think about preventing. I believe that it should be a priority. The purpose of my amendment is to allow the grieving family to be given a choice and the coroner to have the power to do this. I am not saying that inquests on all children should normally be held in private and I hope that I have explained adequately the purpose of my amendment. I beg to move.
The very presence on any amendment of the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, normally has me agreeing with it before I have even read it, so greatly do I respect her judgment on the range of matters with which she frequently enlightens us. I am speaking briefly now not because I am against this amendment, but because it worries me a bit.
I fully understand that sometimes the press have behaved outrageously—we have all seen it. I have no particular brief for the press, because many times they have reported a sudden and perhaps particularly bloody death by murder or in a road accident, and I have seen them ask members of the family, “How do you feel?” and things of that kind. I agree that that is very bad behaviour indeed. On the other hand, I am nervous about banning the press. We are an almost-free country—I would not say that we are completely free, but we are pretty free—and that is very much allied to the fact that the press are able to observe and report what they think to be right. I have also seen reporters with great sensitivity dealing with cases that we are all worried about.
My question is, how does the coroner know, prior to the particular circumstances, whether the press will act in such a way? I am bothered by another question. If there is a reason to seek to ban the press because you assume that they will behave badly—and perhaps that assumption is absolutely right—if there are no siblings, you would not be able to ban the press anyway. I do not understand why that is in the amendment. If a coroner is certain that bad behaviour is going to happen, and it is going to be so bad that it must be stopped by banning the press, the fact that the person who has been killed or has had a very bad accident has no siblings would rule out a ban anyway. I seek answers to these concerns. I may support the amendment all the way—as I said, I usually support anything from this quarter—but I am troubled on those points.
This amendment presents certain difficulties. It would be desirable to have this power available, but in exceptional circumstances. The family courts have now been opened to the press, but judges have the power to exclude the press in exceptional circumstances. The welfare of children in the family law system is paramount. It is very important that we should recognise, with regard to the welfare of child siblings of a child who has died—particularly a child or young person under 18 who has died in the manner of the very sad deaths in Bridgend—that the effect is absolutely devastating.
There are various ways in which this might be dealt with. Under Clause 36(2)(e), I hope that the,
“provision for a senior coroner to have power to give a direction, in proceedings at an inquest, allowing or requiring a name or other matter not to be disclosed except to persons specified in the direction”,
would meet the need for what I might call the muzzling of the press in appropriate cases—if I have read that clause correctly. That would seem to be the more suitable way of dealing with the majority of cases. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has made a powerful point for a small minority of cases where perhaps the local as much as the national press might not be able to contain themselves. She was talking about exceptional cases.
Perhaps I may hypothesise on what the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, said. I can see the situation arising in which the family would say to the coroner, “We have already had the press around us on this suicide. We are desperate that the press behave themselves, and the only way for that to happen is not to allow them to come into the inquest”. Therefore, I see this issue being brought by the family, or by the lawyers or friends of the family, to the senior coroner at the start of an inquest rather than during the hearing. I can see an exceptional circumstance but I should not have thought that it would be appropriate for most siblings. Therefore, I believe that the press should be there but with the requirement that they cannot publish the name or any facts that the coroner says they cannot publish.
I, too, start from the premise that anything proposed by my noble friend Lady Finlay is almost certainly correct. However, I have a problem here which is different from the one that has been mentioned. The thrust of the noble Baroness’s argument depends to a very large extent on cases of suicide, but this provision is not written in terms of suicide. I may be missing a very obvious point but it is not linked to any section of the Bill that refers to suicide; it is simply a proposed new clause that deals with the death of a minor. In this context, the only interests being considered are those of the surviving siblings. It is not difficult to imagine cases in which, due to the parents’ mental state, publicity about the death of a young child will be unbelievably distressing. Here, we are picking out the interests of one class of people, whereas, as the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, said, perhaps we should be thinking of amending the Bill by using better language