House of Lords
Thursday, 10 December 2009.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.
The rates of duty for alcoholic drinks are already variable. Alcohol duty rates and structures are constrained by EU law. Beer and spirits must be taxed in proportion to their strength, while wine and cider must be taxed in bands covering a range of strengths. Within these constraints, the Government are free to set different rates of duty for each type of alcoholic beverage provided they are above the EU minimum rates.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. I acknowledge that this is a problem in continental Europe, as well as here. However, if we had a much clearer structure whereby drinks with a high alcohol content, particularly beers which are aimed at and often sold to young people, had a higher and more clearly differentiated tax rate—if necessary, including in this many northern European countries which have a similar problem to us—we could have a greater impact on alcohol abuse involving extra-strong drinks.
I thank my noble friend for that helpful observation. The purpose of taxation on alcohol is primarily to raise revenue for government. The social purpose is a secondary objective, but I take account of what my noble friend says and of the very broad concern that people have about excessive drinking, particularly by younger people.
My Lords, given that young people, if they begin the habit of hard drinking, are likely to sustain it; given the evidence that consumption is clearly tied to cost; given that 45 per cent of the victims of domestic violence say that the perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol when they were attacked; and that in the US, the prevalence of domestic violence is very much associated with those in alcohol rehabilitation programmes, will the Minister take that into consideration in his deliberations on the matter?
My Lords, I am sure that everybody accepts that the main function of the excise duties on alcoholic drinks is revenue-raising rather than social, but does the Minister accept that there are still serious concerns about the social impacts of the relatively low level of duty on high-alcohol lager and cider? Those drinks are now sold at very low prices and largely purchased by people with severe alcohol problems. Will the Government review the duty on those products?
In the PBR yesterday, we announced that the cider duty regime will be reviewed and proposals brought forward for Budget 2010. Cider duty is considerably lower than duty on other alcoholic drinks. Recent changes to alcohol duties have increased that differential in favour of cider. That is why the Government have said that we will review those rates. We also have some discretion within the EU framework further to increase rates of duty on high alcoholic strength beverages—beers and ciders—and that is a matter which we keep under very regular review.
My Lords, I understand the question about revenue but, in considering with whom he should consult on this matter, will the Minister be prepared to move beyond and consult those who have the education and care of our young people at heart? It would be reassuring to your Lordships' House if we knew that not only the currency of economics but also considerations about the well-being of the whole community we serve are driving our decisions in this matter.
My Lords, any process of consultation is wide. We want to hear from more than those who are specifically and directly involved in the industry. In this particular case, that includes those who have regard to social consequences and, as the noble Lord from the Cross Benches noted earlier, to the impact on regional economies.
My Lords, I do not think we have heard from the Labour Benches.
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, important as the revenue-raising function is, a second, but equally important, public expenditure objective should be to militate against dangers that lead to expenditure in the public sector? The abuse of alcohol leads to enormous costs to our National Health Service and to public utilities through road accidents and causes devastation to many families. Will he make sure that in taxation policy those aspects are borne in mind as being at least equal in importance to the revenue-raising function?
My Lords, is whisky, wherever it is made, taxed at the same level? I heard about English whisky on the radio this morning. It has a very high mark of approval and is expensive. However, I wonder whether the rate of tax on whisky is the same in England as it is in Scotland.
My Lords, yesterday the Conservative Front Bench challenged me on whether I had read the morning papers on a day when we were rather busy on one or two other matters, and now I am similarly challenged. I must get up earlier in the morning. As far as I am aware, the proportionality of alcohol tax is related to the strength of the alcoholic beverage, and the EU framework establishes that spirits must be taxed in relation to the taxation on beer and vice versa. I have no reason to believe that the EU treats whisky differently, whether it is made in England or in Scotland. If I have misdirected the House, I shall reply immediately and ensure not only that the letter is placed in the Library, but that it is posted in the various bars of the Palace of Westminster.
My Lords, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have met six times during 2009 to take forward negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including most recently on 22 November. These meetings have been constructive but many issues remain unresolved. We fully support the Minsk process and we have encouraged both sides to continue working towards a peaceful settlement to provide a stable, secure and prosperous future for the people of the region.
My Lords, 18 years is a mighty long time for no material progress by the Minsk Group, particularly given that Britain has such a vested interest in regional peace. What possibility exists for a compromise to allow for a negotiated settlement? What can be done to bring Russia more to the table, or is it time to look to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to determine whether legal principles of territorial integrity should supersede that of self-determination?
I thank the noble Viscount. As he is well aware, the UK strongly supports the OSCE Minsk process but of course understands the limitations of what has been achieved to date. I should like to assure the noble Viscount that the UK supports the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in accordance with UN charter and OSCE principles. We encourage the parties to reach a negotiated settlement, which could include the International Court of Justice. Under the UN charter, rulings of the ICJ are binding on the parties concerned.
Given the high Turkish hinterland in Azerbaijan, does the Minister feel that the Zurich Protocol between Turkey and Armenia signed in October this year on the reopening of that border will assist in this long-standing dispute? It has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and has resulted in millions of refugees in Azerbaijan from the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Does the Minister also see the usefulness of the European Commission in this regard? No doubt the Government are working through the Minsk Group and the OSCE, but is it not time to call on the strength of the European Commission, which I believe has not yet been fully deployed, where Britain could play a key role?
I can assure the noble Baroness that we are fully engaged with European Union efforts in the whole region. On her direct question about the Armenia-Turkey reconciliation process and Nagorno-Karabakh, there is no formal linkage between the two issues and the Government believe that progress on the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey should help towards a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We have urged all concerned to maintain the momentum of the normalisation process. As I said earlier, we want to see it accelerated so that we can ensure a positive impact and effect across the region.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the UK-Azerbaijan Business Council. Does the Minister agree that in an area which is of increasing importance to Britain, not least for energy security reasons, this is a dispute with 100 year-old roots which are nevertheless poisoning the whole region. Can she assure us that the Government will give their full support to US initiatives to carry forward a resolution of the situation and try to get the Russians into a more constructive mood? Further, following the observation of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, will they ensure that Turkey, in dealing with Armenia, is also completely even-handed in its dealings with Azerbaijan, with whom it used to be allies?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. On the question of the United States’s involvement in efforts to resolve the conflict, the US chairs the OSCE Minsk Group, together with France and Russia, and plays an important role in encouraging Azerbaijan and Armenia to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict. With regard to Turkey and Armenia, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, together with the other Minsk Group Foreign Ministers, has been engaged in this process and was present at the signing of the joint protocols between the Turkish and Armenian presidents in October. Of course, as the noble Lord said, Azerbaijan is a strategically important country, both in energy production and in its position as a key transit route for Caspian oil and gas.
My Lords, given the limited progress which has taken place over the past 18 years, as the Minister acknowledged, do Her Majesty’s Government believe that it is now time to expand the Minsk Group and, to revert to what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said, formally involve the EU on a basis that we have not seen hereunto?
It is possible that under the new arrangements and management of foreign policy that will be in place, it is to be hoped, in the early part of next year, we could see a more definite and constructive engagement by the European Union. We have an EU representative in the region who is actively engaged and would be able to facilitate more direct involvement under the new arrangements resulting from the Lisbon treaty.
Will the Minister also consider the fact that there are still four United Nations resolutions outstanding asking for the withdrawal of Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh and from the seven other Azeri regions that it occupies? Can Her Majesty’s Government do anything about that and put pressure on the United Nations to, in turn, put pressure on the Armenians?
What I can do, as I have tried to do since the beginning of the answers to this Question, is to assure the House that we are working hard in every possible place, including the United Nations, to ensure that those issues and concerns are raised and not only talked about but acted upon.
My Lords, having seen the atrocious conditions that refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are living in at the moment, this dispute is very urgent indeed. Can the Minister confirm that Russia is even- handed in its approach, that it has no troops assisting the Armenian troops in that territory, and that it is encouraging everyone to abide by the United Nations resolutions?
I thank the noble Lord. We have considered Russia’s role in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, as one of the Minsk co-chairs, can and should play a constructive role by encouraging the parties in the conflict to reach a mutually agreeable solution. As the noble Lord pointed out, considerable misery is being suffered in that region, particularly by refugees living in terrible circumstances in Azerbaijan. The situation needs to be addressed and Russia and others who have influence over these matters must be fully engaged.
Housing: Private Tenants
We have made good progress in taking action to protect private tenants affected by landlord repossessions. Following consultation during the summer, legislation to address concerns will be taken forward this Session through a Private Member’s Bill.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that positive response. It is good news that a Private Member’s Bill will take forward the intention to give some protection to innocent tenants who are evicted without any notice because of their landlord’s mortgage arrears. On the back of the campaigning by groups such as Citizens Advice, Shelter, Crisis and the Chartered Institute of Housing, will he consider whether the Financial Services Authority could have its arm strengthened so that, instead of only issuing guidance on these matters, it might require lenders to behave rather better in these circumstances?
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s support for the Private Member’s Bill, which provides that, if the lender seeks a possession order and the unauthorised tenant applies to the court, the court can postpone the date by which the tenant must leave for up to two months. A framework of protections through FSA regulation is in place at the moment, but the FSA has set in train a mortgage markets review which is out for consultation. The consultation closes in mid-February. Perhaps that will be an opportunity to press the point that the noble Lord raises.
My Lords, the Private Member’s Bill is good news. I hope that the Government will not only support it but give it sufficient time to become law. Has the Minister considered encouraging or forcing the lender to appoint a receiver of rent, which would allow rental payments to continue to be made directly to the lender? The receiver of rent would then technically become the agent of the borrower in default, allowing the tenant to continue in the property.
My Lords, on the first point, yes, absolutely, the Government are fully behind the Private Member’s Bill and we will do all we can to assist its passage in this Session. I hope that we have a shared endeavour across the House on that matter.
The noble Earl suggested a receiver of rent. The Bill provides that if the lender chooses to collect rents from an unauthorised tenant in the two months’ notice period it does not constitute the creation of any tenancy or obligation between the lender and the unauthorised tenant. I am not sure that what the noble Earl proposes would in any event be precluded, but I am happy to look into it further and write to him.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the justice of the case demands something rather more than a postponement of the making of a possession order? Would not almost all such tenancies have been created with the consent of the lender? Since the lender, therefore, has concurred in the creation of this legal interest, is it not both legally logical and socially just that there should be full recognition of that interest on the part of the tenant?
My Lords, we are dealing here with situations where the tenancy has arisen without the consent of the lender; that is the problem that the provisions try to address. With buy-to-let mortgages, for example, there would be a presumption that there would be a tenant, but this legislation particularly addresses situations in which a tenancy has been entered into by the owner without the consent of the lender. It is in those circumstances that, currently, tenants can be evicted at very short notice. That is the problem being addressed by the Private Member’s Bill.
My Lords, to come back to the legislative timetable, would it not have made more sense to include this provision in the Financial Services Bill, to be assured that it would go through in a timely fashion? People are affected by this here and now. How many people does the Minister believe are affected by this problem?
My Lords, on the first point, the amount that can be included in any piece of legislation going through your Lordships' House and the other place is always a challenge, and judgments have to be made about getting through the legislation that is required. With co-operation across the House, there is no reason why we should not secure this Private Member’s Bill.
Our estimate of the number of people affected is between 2,000 and 3,000. Higher estimates have been promulgated, but we believe that those are not right because, in many cases, the property is available for letting, and repossession happens because a tenant is not paying the rent in the first place. In the case of buy-to-let mortgages, most tenants are authorised, because that is the presumption of the financial arrangement.
The Minister mentions that these are lettings without the lender’s consent. Does he have any evidence as to whether that is a deliberate ploy on the part of the landlord or is it simply lackadaisical and they have not bothered? I ask this question because we read that there are many thousands of tenants in social housing who are there illegally. The person who has a legal lease or tenancy from the local authority has vacated it and passed it on to someone else. There are many thousands of these. Is it a similar situation with the ones owned by people who are being foreclosed on—or does he not know?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. There are issues around illegal subletting of social housing, which is precisely why my colleague John Healey announced on 30 November details of a crackdown on social housing fraud. CLG is supporting that by providing around £4 million for 147 local authorities that signed up to tackling the challenge. As for the generality of the circumstances in which lenders are not informed, I imagine that there are a range of different situations in the private rented sector.
Teesside Cast Products
My Lords, I have spoken to representatives of the unions, community and Unite about the very regrettable situation at Teesside, as well as to local government representatives and Redcar’s Member of Parliament. Earlier this week, I announced, with the regional development agency One North East, a £60 million programme of support that will help to create jobs and promote enterprise and innovation and contribute powerfully to the region’s and to Teesside's industrial future.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a general secretary, a long time ago, of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation—the union now called Community. I warmly welcome and sincerely thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply and the prompt action that he has taken this week. I can do no more at this stage than to quote Mr Michael Leahy, the general secretary of Community, who said that,
“Tata Corus are making a premature decision”—
without consultation, may I say—and that there is still time to avoid what would be a disaster for the workforce and the community at large. Does my noble friend agree that mothballing, which is the position that Tata holds, is not the answer? Finally, although he has come forward with the £60 million, which is to be gladly received, saving the plant is a top priority for the unions. Does he agree with that?
My Lords, of course I share my noble friend’s sentiment about the loss of jobs at the plant, but he will know that the reason for the company’s decision is the loss of a 10-year contract with a consortium of companies for the supply of the plant’s product—steel slab—and its inability to agree the sale of the plant to one of the companies in the consortium, as it had been attempting. I am not giving up on the plant—of course not. However, in my view it was necessary for the Government to move quickly to build up alternative industrial development and enterprise and sources of development, rather than simply to sit on our hands and to hope for the best.
While we welcome this much-needed help and the First Secretary of State’s assurance that he is not giving up, in the terms that he has just outlined, would he please reconsider his opposition to the straightforward loan guarantee scheme that we on the Conservative Benches have advocated for more than 12 months? Could he not introduce it now as a more effective way in which to support small and medium-sized enterprises and guarantee jobs, rather than trailing another narrowly targeted government scheme?
Noble Lords will be aware that the Government announced yesterday in the Pre-Budget Report that we are extending for a further year the life of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which is the way in which we are both funding and operating the theoretical alternative that the noble Lord has just described. I am sure that he will want to join me in looking forward to a speedy deployment and take-up of the programme that we have announced this week, on which we are working in close co-operation with the regional development agency One North East. If that regional development agency did not exist, we would not have an operational agency on the ground to help us to deliver this very important programme.
My Lords, as time goes past we are learning about the tragedy and disaster in Teesside. It has been welcome in recent times that there has been talk about diversifying from financial services to manufacturing and innovation. In that connection, the Government’s plan for £60 million in aid for steel is very welcome. I urge them to involve all local people—by that, I mean employers, employees and local people themselves—in plans and ideas for the future development of jobs in the area, to ensure that ideas come forward and people are listened to. Reskilling is all very well, although I approve of what the Government are doing about it, but we have to get the jobs, and we will do that by listening to local people and encouraging innovation, local jobs and local businesses.
The noble Lord is right in the way that he understands and characterises the modern industrial policies that I am developing. He will be encouraged to know that, within the programme that I announced this week, there will be £20 million of investment in the Tees Valley to upgrade available industrial land and install utilities to make it suitable for new low-carbon energy and biotechnology business clusters; a further £10 million for the production of environmentally friendly low-carbon goods in the Tees Valley; and up to £20 million to modernise the Wilton chemicals complex and secure further private-sector investment for the long-term future of that complex—incidentally, the largest chemicals cluster in the UK. We have also allocated £10 million for apprenticeships, capital investment, business advice and access to finance to support business start-ups. We could not deliver or make good any of those commitments without the closest possible co-operation with local people and their community representatives.
My Lords, with apologies to my noble friend, we are in the 31st minute.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Commonwealth: Democracy and Development
My Lords, I begin by saying that 54 countries and 2 billion people spanning all the continents, amounting to 30 per cent of the world’s population and one-quarter of the global economy, make up the Commonwealth today. It is truly a unique international organisation, which has growing relevance in strengthening democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law, human rights and sustainable development in an increasingly uncertain world.
As it celebrates the 60th year of its inception, the Commonwealth has never been more important to its citizens in adapting to the challenges facing the developed and developing worlds. I welcome the progress made at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in reaching agreements on youth development, climate change and healthcare.
I acknowledge the role that young people play in promoting the Commonwealth’s values of tolerance and development. The long-term success and sustainability of the Commonwealth is dependent on the financial and societal investments that the organisation makes towards youth development. I recognise that young people are most likely to be affected by unemployment, which is why I fully support plans to develop the Commonwealth youth credit initiative further; it will provide opportunities for young people to enhance their skills and receive mentoring.
Climate change is of course one of the great challenges that we face today. Last month’s meeting in Port of Spain enabled a progressive vision to be developed from the big polluters of today, Great Britain and Australia, to the rapidly expanding economies of India, South Africa and Malaysia and to countries that are yet to industrialise, such as those sub-Saharan nations that were represented. That is crucial to ensuring that developing nations avoid limiting themselves to growth driven by fossil fuels.
It is encouraging to see that the Commonwealth has pledged to give extra assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable members, which have contributed least to the causes of climate change. Low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh and the Maldives, and nations in sub-Saharan Africa will benefit greatly from increased defence measures. If we fail to act, there is a genuine risk of deaths and the wholesale migration of people whose land ceases to bear fruit as a result of flood and drought. In addition, there will be considerable financial losses in the countries affected. It is pleasing to see support for the Copenhagen launch fund proposal, which would help developing nations to tackle the effect of climate change—by encouraging reforestation, for example—and be paid for by the big polluters.
I believe that wealthier nations have a duty to share resources and provide funds to developing countries in order to assist them in adapting to the costs of climate change. Emerging economies such as India also have an important role to play, especially as the majority of global energy demand by 2030 is expected to come from those countries. The French premier, Nicolas Sarkozy, attended and addressed the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago, demonstrating that he acknowledges the significance of the Commonwealth and the reality that it is growing in stature and can be an important agenda setter.
I support the agreement reached by the Commonwealth states to remove barriers to healthcare for women and children in poorer nations. That is especially relevant, as the British Medical Journal has suggested that a lack of funds is responsible for approximately 233,000 child deaths in 20 African countries each year. It will also contribute to helping the secretariat to achieve the millennium development goals that relate to child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The Commonwealth is home to 60 per cent of the world’s HIV victims and HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for adults aged between 25 and 44 in the Caribbean. I would be grateful if the Minister could shed light on reports that the Commonwealth Foundation has reallocated funds to tackle HIV/AIDS in favour of cultural activities. Does the Minister feel that this would be counterproductive?
There were other significant developments last month in the Caribbean. The organisation continued to grow: Rwanda was welcomed into the fold. It is a testament to the Rwandan people that they have advanced so quickly and firmly down the democratic path after the atrocities of the 1990s. Entry into the Commonwealth will encourage Rwanda to continue to develop from the strides that it has taken since the 1994 genocide. President Kagame has rightly attracted praise for his astute leadership of Rwanda. Fifteen years ago, Commonwealth membership would have been a distant dream to that nation ravaged by war, but it is now a reality.
The Commonwealth has previously admitted Mozambique, which is of course a former Portuguese colony, and that is to be applauded. Ultimately, this is what the Commonwealth is all about: it is a club based on shared values and democracies. After all, the Commonwealth’s official stated goal is,
“to build stronger democratic institutions and processes across the Commonwealth”.
For the Commonwealth, this is a crucial step. We must continue to expand the Commonwealth’s membership if countries aspire to its core values. Only in this way can we maintain its relevance in a crowded international space. The conflict resolution programme ought to be expanded so that it is able to offer support to non-Commonwealth states if desired, with experts assigned the central goal of peaceful outcomes. The Commonwealth family has a moral duty to many of its neighbours in the wider interests of regional security and democratic values. The Commonwealth’s success in addressing the causes of state failure in Lesotho, Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Kenya should be harnessed and built on through mechanisms of conflict resolution.
The Commonwealth played a significant role in the ending of apartheid in South Africa, which highlights what this organisation can achieve. We can resolve to find a lasting settlement to the conflict between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I was recently in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where I met the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who would like to see a resolution to this long-standing dispute.
The Commonwealth is committed to advancing human rights in member nations. It must be bold in response to countries that show a blatant disregard for their citizens’ human rights. The Commonwealth must remain a beacon of tolerance. The Ugandan private member’s Bill that calls for life imprisonment or the death sentence for those convicted of homosexuality runs counter to the core beliefs of the organisation. What recent discussions have the Government had with members of the Ugandan Administration about this unsavoury proposal? The Commonwealth should entertain the prospect of creating an independent body to investigate successfully allegations of human rights abuses. This will end the reluctance of nation states to criticise each other for fear of harming bilateral relations.
In addition, there have been human rights abuses in Gambia and a war in Sri Lanka, which, unfortunately, have gone unmentioned by the Commonwealth. What is the Government’s view on how active the Commonwealth has been in highlighting these issues of concern in Commonwealth countries?
It is in Britain’s economic interests to take a greater role in promoting the virtues of the Commonwealth. As I said, the Commonwealth’s 2 billion inhabitants account for close to 30 per cent of the world’s population and contribute to approximately one-quarter of its economy. The linguistic and administrative legacy of British rule suggests that it would cost less to trade within the Commonwealth than outside the organisation.
The Commonwealth is made up of both developing and developed countries. These countries include some states that manufacture goods and machinery and others that produce raw materials. It would be a good fit if we can foster closer trade links between these countries within the Commonwealth. The growth of some of Britain’s ex-colonies, particularly India, provides abundant opportunities for economic development and closer business ties globally within the Commonwealth. Business and trade not only bring wealth to the nations but help considerably in building people-to-people connections.
I will address the question of funding. The UK Department for International Development currently provides 30 per cent of funds to the Commonwealth through bilateral development programmes, the Commonwealth Secretariat and developing autonomous Commonwealth bodies. What discussions, if any, have been held to work out a funding formula that takes into account the rising economic prowess of India, for example, so that all member states are contributing according to their means?
The Commonwealth is a unique organisation, which possesses characteristics that are different from those of other international organisations. For example, the G20 does not bring together states at different stages of the economic cycle; the Commonwealth does. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth said in his recent maiden speech:
“We are a family of equals, not just a family of nations”.
This emphasises that all nations are equal, something that even the United Nations does not possess with its layered structure and limited access to some of its councils.
I am, however, concerned about the lack of awareness of the importance of the Commonwealth. A recent report by the Royal Commonwealth Society stated that the organisation continued to have a “worryingly low profile” among both the public and policy-makers and that less than a third of people could name anything that the Commonwealth does. According to the report, there is widespread confusion about what the Commonwealth stands for today. The report further states that, while the Commonwealth does good work in many areas, there are calls for it to focus on where it can add value. The report incorporates a number of critical remarks by various people and is a wake-up call to the Commonwealth, which urgently needs to raise its profile. The report further argues that the Commonwealth must refocus on its principles, priorities and people. We clearly have greater work to do in placing the Commonwealth at the heart of our foreign policy agenda.
I should like to see increased engagement of the United Kingdom in the future. Will the Minister give a firm commitment that this Government will engage productively and build on what was achieved in Trinidad and Tobago? The clear challenges that the Commonwealth faces cannot be shirked. Zimbabwe is currently a pariah state. Fiji has been suspended since last September. Re-engagement with these countries has to be crucial in driving the Commonwealth forward. Will the Minister enlighten the House on the discussions that the Government and the Commonwealth have had with Zimbabwe and Fiji about allowing them back into the organisation?
On humanitarian issues, I have previously spoken in your Lordships’ House about the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and I welcome the decision of the Sri Lankan Government to open camps for internally displaced people. I hope that the Commonwealth can assist the Sri Lankan Government in honouring their pledge to resettle the majority of displaced citizens by the end of this year and to close the internment camps by 31 January 2010. Are Her Majesty’s Government playing a role in this regard?
I strongly believe in the Commonwealth as one of the key strings to our international bow. The old adage of democracies not going to war with other democracies comes to mind when discussing this, which is why I am such a supporter. Common values, shared culture and recognisable institutions across the globe offer the structural hope for a better world. From a democratic basis we can ensure socio-economic development; this is where the Commonwealth’s true value lies. I implore this Government and future Governments to remember this club’s importance as a mutually beneficial tool to rich and poor, strong and weak, in building a more consensual planet.
My Lords, perhaps I may be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on securing this debate. Judging by the number of your Lordships who wish to speak, it is a very welcome topic.
In the past, the Commonwealth has acted firmly against countries failing to comply with membership core values and principles. In recent times, however, apart from Fiji, little action has been taken against the more serious defaulters. Human Rights Watch claims that Pakistan and Bangladesh engaged in torture and illegal detention under the cloak of anti-terrorism measures, and accuses Sri Lanka, for the past six years a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, of overseeing serious breaches of the rules of war. It alleges that abuses continue, with Kenya deliberately avoiding accountability for state-sponsored, post-election violence, and accuses Cameroon, Uganda and Gambia of attacking human rights activists and journalists. Yet there has been no real action from the Commonwealth.
An added challenge has been created by the Commonwealth in its acceptance of Rwanda’s application for membership. Rwanda has made great progress towards attaining the Commonwealth fundamental core values since suffering the appalling genocide of the 1990s. Rwanda deserves and needs every encouragement. Yet, demonstrably, it has yet to meet the full criteria for membership enshrined in the 1991 Harare Declaration, the cornerstone of Commonwealth democratic integrity. The declaration represents the fundamental political values which underpin the Commonwealth. These are not just a set of aspirational ideals to be aimed for and achieved at some unspecified and convenient future date. They are the standards of entry irrevocably and irreversibly to be accepted, endorsed and implemented. The Commonwealth defines itself by these standards, as set out in the opening statement of the Harare Declaration of principles. Since its inception, the Commonwealth has been the consistent promoter of the universal values of democracy among its members, rich and poor, large and small. The Commonwealth is the universal champion of equality among nations, and a rich diversity of ethnicity, culture and beliefs, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, pointed out.
On the eve of the Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad, the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit—the CPSU—whose advisory board I chair, and Electoral Reform International Services launched their report on democracy in the Commonwealth. The study considered the quality of democracy in the Commonwealth and the effectiveness of Commonwealth collective action in promoting it. In broad terms, it identified the potential to improve standards and the application of democracy among its members. The report on the study sets out 12 key recommendations for action, of which I shall highlight just three.
The first is a proposal for regular and obligatory democracy health checks, with CHOGM authorising the secretariat to put in place and implement a mechanism and process to provide a regular check on the state of democracy in each member state. Secondly, each Commonwealth Government should issue a standing invitation to the Commonwealth Secretariat to visit member states—for instance, to observe electoral processes—without a formal invitation each time. This would provide an enormous step forward, because often the requirement for a formal invitation is used to impede Commonwealth action. The third proposal is for a stronger Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, focusing not just on action where there has been an unconstitutional usurpation of power, important though that is, but action, as originally foreseen, on serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s democratic principles. That proposal could bring many more countries onto CMAG’s agenda.
The Heads of Government communiqué from Trinidad includes this last proposal, which is welcome, but, regrettably, the other 11 proposals are not specifically addressed. There is no specific section dealing with democracy in the communiqué, and the word “democracy” appears only three times in the 25-page document. The commitment to democracy promotion should not be just one among a number of Commonwealth objectives, it should be the defining characteristic of the association.
Human Rights Watch comments that the secretariat,
“fails to push or fund its human rights unit as a viable mechanism to encourage its members to comply with international standards”,
and it does not,
“make a serious effort to get the Commonwealth to act collectively at the UN and elsewhere to champion human rights”.
Human Rights Watch argues that the Commonwealth needs to act robustly and resource its defence of human and democratic rights. While there are calls in the communiqué for the enactment and implementation of several human rights conventions, there is no mention of extra funding or new approaches to promoting these in the Commonwealth context. Civil Society’s statement at CHOGM calls for stronger partnerships between Governments and civil society in decision-making processes. It calls, too, for the strengthening and expansion of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit.
It is now time, 18 years after the signing of the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration, to give a new impetus to the Commonwealth’s commitment to promoting democracy. Much has been achieved since the signing of that historic declaration. The Commonwealth has committed itself to making democracy a “way of life”—and we need to spell out precisely what that means. There needs to be a common understanding about the state of current democratic arrangements and the impediments to deepening democracy. Political competition, rather than taking place among political parties, is too often between the state—representing the interests of the ruling party or its leader—and the opposition. The state apparatus—including the state media, public services, the state exchequer, police and judiciary, and intelligence services—is used to confer an unfair advantage on the ruling party. That is why more robust action is needed from the Commonwealth itself to move from affirmation to implementation of the Harare principles.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has done the House a great service in securing this debate in the Commonwealth’s 60th anniversary year.
I was only nine years old in 1949, but I remember the controversy in India over the founding of the new Commonwealth—a controversy that was due to the policies of South Africa and what was then “white” Australia. However, Prime Minister Pandit Nehru powerfully backed the new Commonwealth, and in a speech to the Lok Sabha he argued that the founding of a new Commonwealth could offer something unique to the world. He said:
“In this world, which is today sick and which has not recovered from so many wounds ... it is necessary that we touch upon the world problems, not with passion and prejudice ... but in a friendly way and with a touch of healing”.
Time has proved Nehru right; that touch of healing still defines the Commonwealth of today.
Over the years, we have seen the need for the Commonwealth’s touch in apartheid South Africa, in the military rule of Nigeria, in the abuses of Zimbabwe, and today in Fiji. Each of these cases has generated controversy, tension, even violent disagreement. When faced with such crises, the Commonwealth has always sought common ground, even when it seemed impossible. This is not a new trait. Professor Hancock once said that the Commonwealth’s existence could be traced to,
“an incorrigible disposition to escape from a logical dilemma”.
Under a succession of able Secretaries-General, this skill has been a hallmark of the Commonwealth. The current Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, is an expert at bringing together people with different perspectives. I am certain that he has the required “incorrigible disposition”.
Of course, building consensus is only the first step in applying the values of the Commonwealth. One cannot read the inspiring words of the Harare Declaration on human rights without sorrow that Harare’s citizens have since been betrayed by their leader. We all wish that more could be done to protect those citizens. Sadly, a touch of healing cannot be forced on the patient. In supporting freedom, the Commonwealth cannot operate by diktat. Yet even when we cannot do all that we wish, our principles serve as a powerful reminder of what should be done. The Commonwealth’s strength lies in the nations that have embraced its values—from India to South Africa to Singapore. It is their success that shows others the path.
In 1991, nine Commonwealth nations were under military or one-party rule; today, only suspended Fiji holds that dubious distinction. It is therefore right that the Commonwealth has decided to reconstitute the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group so that member nations themselves deal with violations of the values of the Commonwealth. In countries such as Gambia and Uganda today, the moral force of fellow members has the most weight.
It is also right that the Commonwealth considers whether the new Zimbabwe Government are returning to the values of the Harare Declaration. The most fitting tribute to the Commonwealth will come when the Harare Declaration proves to be more enduring than the regime that violated it. Alongside supporting democracy, the Commonwealth now offers another healing touch: helping Commonwealth citizens to secure their own economic future. The Commonwealth Youth Credit Initiative helps young people to start businesses by offering them small loans and business training. This scheme has helped thousands of businesses to get off the ground. One business starter, a young woman from Ahmedabad, said: “I didn’t know I could ever do something useful. My family is very proud of me. I have money over every week, after making the repayments. I put some of it back into my laundrette and most of the rest goes to support my children”. It strikes me that some leading bankers could benefit from such a sound business strategy.
Another such programme is the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative, which only last month launched the Aureos Africa Fund that aims to invest $400 million in small and medium-sized African businesses. From Nigerian drill makers to South African printers, this fund intends to provide both resources and management support for companies looking to expand and improve. Both these programmes are practical steps to improving lives and highlight two Commonwealth values: faith in the ability of our citizens, and the belief that a helping hand succeeds where a command can fail.
The Commonwealth’s great diversity makes it inevitable that its members often see the world differently. Yet by steadily guiding nations towards democracy and helping citizens to prosperity, the Commonwealth shows that diversity, democracy and development go hand in hand. After sixty years, the Commonwealth still offers the world a much needed healing touch.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Sheikh for initiating this debate. When lifting our eyes above the serious national issues on which we tend to concentrate on this House and looking at the rest of the world, too frequently we dwell mainly on the Middle East, Afghanistan and continental Europe. There was a time when the Commonwealth had a much higher profile, even among those neither politically active nor interested. As a schoolgirl in the middle of the last century, I could see that most of the terrestrial globe in the classroom was coloured pink—the British Empire. It was largely that grouping that morphed into the Commonwealth, and left our country with a legacy of good in those countries that gained their independence, unlike what happened to several other “empires” that left a legacy of unrest and unhappiness. Unfortunately, subsequent generations of schoolchildren hardly know what the Commonwealth is or what it stands for. My noble friend has given us a great opportunity to rekindle interest in that great organisation, which is such a cause of pride to its head, Her Majesty the Queen, and I am sure to all of us.
Although the Commonwealth is by now quite an old, established organisation of 54 countries, it is a role model for 21st-century groupings of countries for purposes of trade, peace alliances and organised aid to newly emerging economies. It also encourages countries that have gained independence from erstwhile non-democratic and dictatorial regimes—witness Rwanda. I trust that all existing Commonwealth members will do all that they can to encourage Rwanda to reach the standards required, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey.
My noble friend Lord Howell delivered a significant speech on the Commonwealth in May 2006—three and a half years ago, yet the main points are as relevant today as then. The main thrust was that the Commonwealth should reposition itself as a major economic and strategic world player, with its own influence on global issues such as Middle East peace and energy tensions. I say “hear, hear” to that, but let us go further. Those tensions are even greater now and other tensions have come centre stage, equally demanding action, equally threatening, and extremely concerning; namely, poverty and corruption.
Billions of people probably look for guidance and security from the US, the EU, China and the growing economic power of some South American countries. The United Nations always seems to struggle to arrive at agreed solutions and is too often weakened by the inability to get agreement. The EU seems to flail around trying to assert an influence that it believes it has, but unfortunately that belief is not universally shared by many of the people whom it claims to represent. The groupings in the Caucasus are looking at ways that can protect them against the perceived overpowering influence of Russia. And all the while the vulnerable citizens of the least developed countries carry the ultimate can, in terms of wretched poverty. Many millions in the world subscribe to the commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself” without even knowing who the neighbour is and what is going so woefully wrong with them.
To be fair, recent and current attempts to get a world decision to do something about global warming and the sobering likely effects of climate change, although unbelievably torturous, show that the “better good” occasionally musters universal—or almost universal—support. Is there a role for the Commonwealth as a grouping to lead the attempts to muster universal support to tackle the dreadful, inhumane level of poverty in the underdeveloped and developing world? It should certainly be considered.
The Commonwealth is almost alone in the world as being a group of nations that does not threaten any other group. The UN millennium development goals have been adopted by the Commonwealth, recognising that those goals,
“have mobilised governments, international institutions and civil society to reduce poverty with renewed vigour and commitment”.
The reason for that support was baldly stated in September 2005 by the then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth at the United Nations Assembly:
“Half of the Commonwealth is under the age of 25, yet 70 million Commonwealth children have never seen the inside of a school.
Women account for around 50 per cent of the world’s population yet in many countries they remain marginalised from full participation in society.
In addition, many other people are marginalised from their communities for reasons ranging from access to basic health and education services to socio-economic and governance opportunities”.
This is shameful, and I use that word deliberately.
Just 12 months ago I had the great honour to represent the Government at the third global conference of the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians against Corruption—GOPAC—in Kuwait. The message was clear: the future development of the seriously deprived, poverty-stricken countries of the world, where 1 billion people live on what is described as the poverty line of 1 US dollar per day or less, is largely threatened by corruption, which results in much of the funds to donor nations being siphoned off for political and other reasons by the few to the dreadful detriment of the many.
The World Bank and Transparency International have estimated that the cost of corruption worldwide is US $1,000 billion. Even in these days of mega-sums being lost through the antics of the banking sector, $1,000 billion as the cost of proven corruption is an almost impossible sum to understand, and is utterly scandalous. Can the Minister see any way in which we could influence the Commonwealth to major on this issue and take on the role as a world leader in the determination to fight this with all its might?
The definition of corruption that encapsulates this is,
“greed and personal gain by any means and at any cost”.
Would it not be marvellous if this debate led to a truly concentrated effort to tackle it? The Commonwealth has a better track record than many in achieving turnaround situations in a quiet but agreed manner. That is what the world needs and the Commonwealth could achieve it. It is not an impossible dream. The institutions are in place: the agencies of donor countries, the NGOs, the tireless activities of faith groups could all be used to create a better world for these 1 billion people and, by extension, a better world for us. Surely this is a wonderful aim to espouse.
My Lords, I was born and brought up in India and remember so clearly the resentment that Indians felt towards the British empire. It is ironic that, having spent so many years striving for its independence, India, like so many other countries, would choose to remain and maintain links with Britain as such staunch members of the Commonwealth. And then it becomes startlingly obvious why this is the case. The umbrella of the Commonwealth encompasses all its members not through a shared master but through a collective system of common values, ideals and principles—the English language, respect for democracy, human rights, institutions, legal systems, the rule of law and a dedication to trade. These qualities, which have often been referred to as “the Commonwealth factor”, are a major advantage in our globally competitive world.
The Commonwealth is a force for incredible good. With Her Majesty the Queen as its head, it has someone who inspires unanimous admiration and respect around the world. Further, one of the Commonwealth’s most powerful assets is its diversity, but this can also be its biggest challenge. The Commonwealth has a varied collection of member states: it has some of the biggest nations in the world and some of the smallest, some of the hottest and some of the coldest, some of the furthest north and some of the furthest south, some of the richest nations in the world and some of the poorest by far. For example, India and Pakistan make up 20 per cent of the world’s population, yet more than double that proportion of the world’s poorest people live in south Asia.
Today, in the 21st century, there is a positive list of thousands of items that India and Pakistan can trade with each other. It is estimated that if the barriers to trade between those two countries were removed, trade would increase tenfold. That is not an exaggeration. Can you imagine the millions of people who would be uplifted from poverty through the prosperity created through that increase in trade?
We know that open trade can revolutionise countries’ and regions’ economies—just look at us in the European Union. Who would have thought 60 years ago that France and Germany would be the best of friends and allies? I believe that that is thanks to the European Union. Trade brings peace, trade brings prosperity. Trade can stem hunger and promote wealth creation. While I recognise that trading does go on between Commonwealth member countries, there is much more that needs to be done.
There is a surprising absence in the Commonwealth of a major free trade agreement like those that exist around the world: the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA; the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC; and the Association of South-East Asian Nations, ASEAN.
The WTO Doha development round is still stalled after eight years, with two of the biggest stumbling blocks being the European Union and the United States. I propose that Commonwealth countries continue to strive to complete the WTO Doha development round and that they continue to belong to the trading blocs in their regions around the world, but in the mean time what about a Commonwealth trade organisation? What about an organisation that would bring together countries such as India and Pakistan? The Commonwealth is better equipped to commence with such a project, and I ask the Government why we are not encouraging something such as that.
The Commonwealth has 13 of the world’s fastest-growing economies. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said, Commonwealth countries make up one-third of the world’s population. A move towards a Commonwealth free trade agreement would be a recognition of the call by so many developing countries for trade, not aid. Commonwealth countries are voluntary members of the Commonwealth. They do not belong to the Commonwealth because they are forced to; they participate in a spirit of solidarity, community and belonging. What a wonderful spirit to have as a foundation for a trade agreement, which I am sure would prosper.
For the first time, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, is from its most populous country, India; and it is in this country that next year we will witness one of the greatest spectacles that the world has to offer—the Commonwealth Games. More than 50 countries compete in hundreds of events, and for 11 days Delhi will be transformed from the capital of India into the globe’s sporting capital. To quote a former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth Games are the,
“single biggest public manifestation of the Commonwealth”.
The Games are an example of what these great member states can achieve together. They are a visible expression of the commitment and passion that this collection of nations and territories inspire and encourage. Yet, in spite of the Commonwealth’s grand headquarters at Marlborough House, its main limitation is its minuscule budget.
How wonderful it would be if a Commonwealth free trade agreement existed. The more nations that trade, the more stable and peaceful their relations with each other become. As we have heard, the Commonwealth already has a great role in development, but it can do much more to aid its members, particularly those with smaller economies. Through economic liberalisation, we can also have economic empowerment, and then we will witness the true potential of our wonderful and treasured Commonwealth.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating my noble friend Lord Sheikh on introducing this very important debate and on the manner in which he did it.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, referred to the “Commonwealth factor” and described what has brought it about. I know from visits to just over half the member states and from participating in Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conferences and seminars what a unique role the Commonwealth plays in developing democracy, as my noble friend Lord Sheikh said. Democracy is the best guarantee yet designed for the development and protection of the rule of law, human rights, liberty, good governance and the shared values and ideals of the members of the Commonwealth. I would not go so far as to say that democracies do not go to war with each other but they are less likely to do so.
The Commonwealth is not a nostalgic, networking sodality; it contains a highly organised set of organisations which do their work with dedication and tenacity, led and inspired as they are by the outstanding Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma—himself, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, a citizen and former distinguished diplomatic representative of the world’s most populous democracy.
Democracy is a powerful enemy of conflict, which is the greatest cause of poverty and degradation in the world today. The work done by Commonwealth bodies to prevent and resolve conflict through dialogue, orchestrated by the secretariat, could be achieved by no other body, and the idea of extending its work outside the Commonwealth bears looking at. We are always told by our mothers not to try to run before we can walk, but it is an interesting idea. I recollect that when Australia occupied the chair of the Commonwealth in 2002, there was a real danger of armed conflict—possibly nuclear—between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and I recall the vital role that the Commonwealth played, which would be acknowledged by all concerned, in helping to diffuse that situation.
The secretariat’s current strategic plan sets out a focused series of interlinked programmes in pursuit of economic development to build on the public-private partnership programme, the debt recording and management system, the Commonwealth Connects programme, the private investment initiative, and others. The Commonwealth accounts for about a quarter of world trade and investment and 40 per cent of WTO membership. It is a truism that trade as well as—if not more than—aid will bring about a better life. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, alluded to India and Pakistan as a case in point. I shall dwell briefly on the work of the Commonwealth Business Council, which was founded in 1997 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh; ably run for some years by Mr Mohan Singh; and chaired, to its and the Commonwealth’s good fortune, with great distinction by Mr Paul Skinner.
The CBC acts as a bridge for co-operation between business and Governments, between developed and emerging markets and between large and small businesses. It concentrates on enhancing trade, promoting a good environment for business and investment, promoting good practice in corporate governance and corporate citizenship, and facilitating information communication technology development. It encourages developing countries to play an active role in the WTO and to co-ordinate their activities. In new trade rounds, it encourages trade liberalisation and further liberalisation of services. It helps to mobilise investment into Commonwealth countries through measures to facilitate access to international capital markets, strengthen domestic capital markets, encourage regional integration, and encourage the private sector to work with Governments to achieve successful market economies so as to generate investment.
The CBC’s membership is global. Its stakeholders include Governments, the private sector, donor agencies and civil society. Its role in changing perceptions, sharing knowledge and experience and promoting business and government co-operation is vital. It has substantial achievements to its credit. I hope that it will continue to enjoy, as it deserves, the enthusiastic support of the Commonwealth Secretariat and, where appropriate, the British Government.
It is for each generation to form its own conception of the Commonwealth and to build on the Commonwealth’s inspiring achievements over the years in working towards our common aspirations. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, the Doha round has now been stalled for some years. Most of the world is in recession and I fear that protectionism—which is in the DNA of the European Union and of north America, Japan and China; it is in most people’s DNA—is one of the great dangers that could emanate from it. Nothing could be worse for the developing world than protectionism. The work of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth factor can militate against that.
I hope the Minister will reaffirm the Government’s support, financially and otherwise, for the Commonwealth and assist in achieving the millennium development goals, in conflict prevention and resolution, and in nurturing democracy. We very much look forward to her remarks.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to join the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, in this debate. The Commonwealth knows that it has many friends in this House, perhaps because the two institutions have something in common. Both seem to belong to a past age but retain qualities that are still highly prized.
The Commonwealth is a remarkable assembly of nation states, cutting across all the frontiers of wealth, race and religion. Given that spread of interests, it may never be a strong political force, but it has shown that it can be a catalyst of political change. Some people say that the Commonwealth has no interests, but they forget that in recent years it has taken a stand on several major international issues, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and others have outlined. I applaud the achievements at Trinidad, especially the ability to pull in the UN Secretary-General and two Prime Ministers leading on climate change just before Copenhagen. That demonstrated true leadership.
The secretariat has forged some unsung but strategic partnerships, such as the governance reform programme in Africa and the trade capacity-building programme for regional economic communities in Africa. The promotion of fundamental human rights is at the heart of the Commonwealth. I applaud the new role in the universal periodic review of the UN Human Rights Council, which still staggers from one crisis to the next. I hope that the Commonwealth can instil some of its consensual charm into that, without coaxing it into the never-never land of bland communiqués that diplomats know so well.
I would like the Commonwealth to engage more directly in the development of civil society—which is, after all, a step towards democracy—among its member states. I take Rwanda as an example. Like the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, I was surprised to hear that Rwanda had been accepted as a member. Only last week, through church sources, I heard of the stifling of opposition, the intimidation of NGOs, the prohibitions on meetings and all the vicious paraphernalia of the one-party state. I know that the noble Baroness is all too well aware of that from her visits. Rwanda is not alone among offending Commonwealth states, some of which have been suspended by CMAG under the Harare rules. How can Rwanda qualify and how will it behave, now that it is a member, to avoid that suspension?
Mozambique may provide a helpful parallel. I remember that the NGOs were able gradually to criticise the powerful Frelimo Government, and some prominent corruption scandals were even opened up to media scrutiny. That may have been largely due to enlightened Frelimo politicians and donor pressure, rather than the Commonwealth, but membership will have provided many additional points of contact and will have generally enhanced Mozambique’s international status. Perhaps the same could occur in Rwanda, but its Government will have to work for it. They have the legitimate concerns that sectarian violence could return, but donors must be aware that even genuine fears of genocide easily become an excuse for tyranny and inaction.
Will our Government make a renewed effort, through the Commonwealth, to encourage civil society and the media in Rwanda so that they are not perpetually cowed by the Government? The community courts, which are trying genocide cases, should also be doing a lot more to encourage reconciliation as well as to administer justice. After all, this is one of our most favoured nations. The DfID country programme speaks of building,
“an accountable state that uses democratic systems”.
Rwanda is also a key to peace and stability in north-east Congo, where nearly 1 million people have been displaced by the fighting and the UN force is struggling to move into its peace-building role, with the support of Rwanda.
The Commonwealth is well suited to conflict resolution, a matter that I hope my noble friend Lady Young will explore, as she knows all about it. It must demonstrate that it can also engage with small but effective partners in human rights and governance. To fulfil the Harare principles, it needs to reach out, rather like the British Council has learnt to do through its young leadership programme, to people who may work at a low level today but could in future become the voices of good governance and democratic freedom.
In my last seconds, I want to propose at least two new members of the Commonwealth—one of which, Nepal, has so far not expressed any willingness to join. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and I were there earlier this year. I hope that its new Government will consider applying. There are so many links with the UK and I am sure that there would be considerable business advantages. I also mention Sudan, which does not qualify but would like to join, but that is for another day. I would also like to see Afghanistan join, but that, too, is for another day.
My Lords, I go further than the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. The House of Lords is the British House of the Commonwealth and it is natural that the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, should introduce this debate today to celebrate the 60th year of the Commonwealth. It is an enigma, an accident of history, but a happy accident. It has worked positively on economic development and the development of democracy. In many ways, because of its diversity, it is a mini-United Nations. We stand in the antechamber of the United Nations because we are bound together by Anglophony. The world is embracing English as never before. Indeed, I am struck by the influence of the Commonwealth, which was ably demonstrated in Trinidad and Tobago in the preparations for the Copenhagen climate change conference. Do noble Lords believe like me that a real sense of optimism came from Trinidad and Tobago and has now flown into Copenhagen?
Does the Commonwealth justify itself? It meets a felt need, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, demonstrated. Cameroon and Mozambique came in in 1995 and Rwanda came in in 2009. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, proposes other countries. The reason is that the Commonwealth is popular. Just like the European Union, more countries want to join. Does my noble friend agree that affection for one institution, the European Union, does not dilute affection for the other, the Commonwealth? Indeed, I hope that she can rebut the naysayers of the European Union and the Commonwealth. We should recognise that recently there were new recruits to the European Union that are represented in the Commonwealth. The EU now includes three Commonwealth states, plus Gibraltar. With her extensive knowledge from her years in the European Parliament and from representing us with the ACP, does my noble friend recognise that there is a real opportunity for our colleagues in the European Parliament to help with the development of the African Union, which I was pleased to go to on a CPA visit? The African Union is at a seminal stage, but we could give encouragement not only through our developing democratic ideas in the United Kingdom but also through the European Union and Parliament.
We are now developing ties with la Francophonie; perhaps my noble friend could report on those. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, rightly drew attention to the need to strengthen ties among the Commonwealth by developing business links. The noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, pointed out that that is, in part, answered by the existence of the excellent Commonwealth Business Council, which was also at CHOGM recently.
I declare an interest as a member of the executive of the CPA. I thank my colleagues there, especially the young people who busily prepare and see through the excellent conferences that are provided to help to develop democracy in other parts of the Commonwealth. These are held in London, but we send parties elsewhere as well. I would like to say something about young people. I have been able to go on some CPA visits and recently went to Dominica and Montserrat. I was very impressed that they had turned the fact that they were small countries into a virtue by bringing young people on. In those small countries, young people were able to monitor, follow and shadow their prime ministers and cabinets, which was of great benefit in terms of passing on the baton of democracy. I hope that we, too, can contribute to developing young people and their interest in the Commonwealth. I hope that the House of Lords will be the first democratic House to host young people from all over the Commonwealth to discuss common ideas, much as we have done with our young people in the United Kingdom.
I repeat that the House of Lords is the British House of the Commonwealth. We have many examples. I am to be followed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who gives us her wisdom about Australia. There are also my noble friends Lord Joffe, of South Africa, and Lady Amos, who came from Guyana and has now replaced the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, in Australia, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. There are tremendous links through the professional engagement of the House of Lords with the Commonwealth and they should be emphasised.
My noble friend will know that Italy and France ensure that members of their own parliaments represent the diaspora of the Italians, in places such as Argentina, and of the French, in places such as South Kensington, which has been of some interest recently and which has the highest proportion of French people in northern Europe. Can we explore some of these good ideas about strengthening our ability to speak with authority and listen carefully to our colleagues and friends in the Commonwealth so that this Chamber can do an excellent job of expressing what is happening throughout the Commonwealth in the development of democracy and economics?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Sheikh for giving us this opportunity to discuss this subject today. As a member of the Commonwealth, I find it particularly interesting. My family has been Australian for so many generations that I cannot really claim any rights in this country, but in 1954, I came here for six months and, somehow, I have never left. There have been all sorts of Acts over the years, and it has become increasingly difficult, but I think of the Commonwealth as a family. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison mentioned, we are united by the English language, although some people here think I talk Strine rather than English. We are also connected by tradition and history. The present country of Australia owes its origin to Captain Cook from Yorkshire, so there is a direct line back to this mother country. I consider myself one of the family in the mother country, and I intend to speak frankly today as a member of the family and have a bit of a gripe about one or two things.
First, before I start on the downward path, I shall say how enormously loved and respected the Queen is. Whatever the position in the Commonwealth, whether in Australia or any other part of the Commonwealth—I understand that most countries in the Commonwealth are now republics—it does not make a scrap of difference. She is still Head of the Commonwealth and is still held in the same high regard.
I have a right of abode, which is stamped in my passport. Years ago, it was put in for free, but now it costs £140. I was lucky to get mine while it was still £135; it went up the next week. When I applied for it last year, I had to get a new Australian passport because my 10 years were up. I said to my children, “It’s interesting. In Australia, you can have a five-year passport for half the price”. They said, “Mother, as an evidence of good faith, you must go for the 10-year one”, so I did, and I was glad I did when I discovered that you have to renew the right of abode every time, so £135 over 10 years was a much better buy than if I had had only a five-year passport.
But I was rather staggered to be told, when I applied for the right of abode, that the 1981 Act under which I had always been given it had changed in 2006, and I would therefore have to send all my documentation in again. This meant sending in my husband’s birth certificate, his parents’ marriage certificate and his father’s birth certificate. None could be certified copies, but had to be the original documents. I spoke to someone and told him that I have a letter from 1985 from which I shall quote. It acknowledges that I had sent all the documents in and, on returning them, states:
“Such certificates can apparently be affixed to any future passports”.
But by the time we come to 2008-09, I am told that that I have to send all the documents in again. I said that this would be the fourth grant of right of abode in 40 years, but no matter. I spoke to a very nice and extremely helpful man in the Managed Migration Directorate of the Home Office. He said, “I have taken this up with the top brass here, but there is no way that you can get away without sending everything in again because of the demands of the 2006 Act”. I did think that it was a terrible waste of the directorate staff’s time and effort to do this. Then, when I got the right of abode, it stated that it had been issued under Section 2(1)(b) of the 1981 Act. That puzzled me because I had been told that I had to send everything in because of the 2006 Act. I thought that mine was an isolated case until I met someone else in exactly the same position after having been given the right of abode for 20 years.
I should like to mention to the Minister a more serious point. Apparently there is a defect in the 2006 Act which may affect my right and that of any other Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizen to sit in this House. I seek the Minister’s reassurance on that point because it might be by sheer luck that I am speaking today.
There are so many things that I would like to say about the Commonwealth. I have been involved in observing elections in the Seychelles, and I have seen lots of the work done with DfID through chairing an NGO in Africa. The Commonwealth is a marvellous body and I am very privileged to have been able to join the debate today.
My Lords, it may be of benefit to the whole House if I rise briefly to give the noble Baroness the assurance she seeks. The Government are aware of the legal uncertainty for Members of the House who are Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens, and we will legislate before the end of the current Session of Parliament to put the issue beyond doubt. I will provide a fuller explanation when I reply to the debate, but for the time being, I hope that the noble Baroness is reassured.
My Lords, perhaps I may add that this is an extremely serious matter. I have to ask the Minister that, when she winds up the debate, she will say how long the Government have known about this problem and how legislation is to be brought forward. This directly affects the right of many distinguished Members of this House to sit here. It is an urgent matter and we need to know all the details very soon.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for securing this timely debate, coming as it does so close on the heels of the recent CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago. First, I shall declare my interests. I am a member of both the Culture Committee of the UK National Commission for UNESCO and the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I am also chair of the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development. Through the latter role, I was in the privileged position of being able to attend the Commonwealth People’s Forum meeting of civil society organisations and NGOs from across the Commonwealth which opened on 22 November and concluded with a presentation to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers on 29 November.
Civil society plays a tremendously important role in CHOGM proceedings, and I am glad that my noble friend Lord Sandwich drew attention to the work of NGOs and civil society because I do not believe that they receive sufficient recognition. Because of that, I want to focus on some of the issues raised during the Commonwealth People’s Forum. The Port of Spain Civil Society Statement to the CHOGM of 25 November arose from a series of meetings that began months ago and culminated in a gathering of around 700 people in Trinidad. My role was to present the case that culture, creativity and innovation should be given due regard when considering development strategies. I would very much like to know where the Government stand on this issue and the extent to which DfID and the FCO support the case for developing a more holistic model of development within the Commonwealth that takes full advantage of and invests in cultural and creative initiatives, especially as they can make such a valuable contribution to economic and social development as well as alleviating the impact of climate change and effectively promoting health programmes.
Inevitably, much of the focus in Port of Spain was placed on the substantial challenges we all face in relation to climate change. That was brought home to me forcefully by the many people I spoke to from small island states and low-lying areas. Changing weather patterns in the Caribbean islands and elsewhere are all too obvious. A key issue for environmentalists in the region has been how to raise the level of public awareness about the human contribution to global warming. One innovative project that originated in Trinidad had positive repercussions in Jamaica. After attending several workshops on climate change which included the use of visual and performing arts, one participant established a high-profile public awareness campaign in Jamaica using the cream of contemporary reggae and hip-hop artists in the Caribbean region to make a CD and DVD that give an easy-to-assimilate, compelling narrative on climate change in order to engage the public.
In earlier debates in your Lordships’ House on development, a number of noble Lords have drawn attention to the vital role of women in alleviating poverty in developing countries, and this role was reiterated many times at the CPF. However, several men and women pointed out that in some regions and states, the lives of young men in particular were in a precarious state for different reasons. This should not be read as a desire to shift the emphasis away from women, but for us to recognise that the wretched position of many men in the developing world has similar roots to that of women. For example, the men who wreak violence on women often kill and maim each other and/or physically assault children. There is a downward spiral of violent behaviour which can undermine any notion of gender equality.
Terrifying examples of this expression of violence are to be found in armed conflicts in various parts of the world. Having recently emerged from some 11 years of conflict, Sierra Leoneans were unsurprisingly wary about their Government’s ability to protect their lives and rights, and the call to return home from refugee camps was resisted. The population was also reluctant to engage with the findings of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not least because each volume of those findings was approximately 2,000 pages long. Through a combination of communication skills honed via PR and marketing along with creative visual work, an illustrated comic book-style text was produced to explain the history of the conflict and distil the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Using the terms “Sierra Cats” and “Sierra Rats”, mythical animals with local cultural significance to denote the antagonists, the text managed to create a space where healing and peace-building could take place, and where former foes and victims of the disorder could begin to come to terms with the distressing recent history.
The position of minorities in some states has worsened since the 2000 CHOGM, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has already drawn attention to a number of countries where that is the case. It is worth noting that only 14 out of the 53, now 54, members of the Commonwealth have national human rights institutions that have achieved the Status A category in the accreditation system of the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions. If the Commonwealth stands for anything, surely it must stand up for human rights. Of course it is a sensitive situation as both the historical and contemporary circumstances of colonial history, and the balance of economic power within the Commonwealth, shape member states’ attitudes and willingness either to be castigated or to castigate others about these violations.
To me, one of the key challenges for the Commonwealth is one that is up there with addressing the problems of climate change, poverty and the impact of the economic crisis: how to work with governments, politicians, the private sector and civil society to ensure the realisation of full and universal human rights.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sheikh has done the House a great service by introducing this debate. My theme is poverty and development.
In their different ways, all the players in Commonwealth development believe that it is only economic development—the creation of sustainable enterprises with the resources to meet market needs profitably—which will lead to permanently low levels of poverty. This has happened in Malaysia, which is now a middle-income country, but not in Ghana, although at independence their two situations were strictly comparable. Has DfID an analysis of the reasons why Malaysians now have an average income per head which is 10 times that of Ghanaians? How has it come about?
DfID lends support in its White Paper to the private sector’s role in achieving middle-income status, but its support is hedged with qualifications. The basic and enabling conditions need to be put in place by poor country Governments, corruption has to be eliminated, and the environment has to be wholly protected before it is possible to expect private sector development progress. This caution leads DfID to fund other bodies whose purpose is to study development but not to do it themselves.
It seems that DfID has yet to decide the old-fashioned riddle of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Is it ideal conditions for the private sector or the nerve to get on with it? Both questions need an answer. However, in development there have been answers. For example, Abraham Darby and his Quaker partners did not wait for government approval at Coalbrookdale; they would not have known that such a precondition could exist. Cecil Rhodes and his free-wheeling contemporaries—who attract the disapproval of today’s development pundits—contributed a great deal to modern South Africa’s economy. This leads me to ask why economic development does not come top of DfID’s priorities.
What plans do we have for four sub-Saharan African countries—the Gambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Zambia? All are Commonwealth countries, all are near the bottom of development indices and all have around half or more of their people living below the world poverty line. These countries need to achieve more than poverty alleviation. There is, indeed, a vital temporary place for poverty alleviation, but it is only a second best; it is no long-term solution.
If we have the ambition to see these countries become middle-income countries, what needs to happen? The first necessary condition for any significant development will be partnership between the country concerned, and the private sector within it, and offshore players. For example, in large-scale sugar production, both Malawi and Zambia produce sugar from cane; Sierra Leone most probably could; the Gambia probably not. The international sugar market is complex. It is full of multi and bilateral agreements; there is competition from beet sugar; some markets are growing, driven by rising populations and incomes, and others are inaccessible. The agronomy is complex—there are many varieties of cane. Is the soil suitable? Is the right amount of land available? Shall we have a large group of outgrowers? Is the cane to be rain-fed or irrigated? An experienced team of professionals is needed to assess the prospects of success. Sugar cane needs immediate processing at harvest time—it goes into a capital-intensive mill, demanding management and maintenance skills—and both the technology and the finance needed are scarce resources.
There will be housing, medical and schooling needs, and food supplies will probably need supplementing. I stop there to ask, where in DfID’s plans does hands-on management of major development opportunities feature? If the Gambia is again to become the shipping entrepôt it once was, a similar set of partnership imperatives applies. Ports need modern equipment.
Finally, daunting as these ideas may seem, they have been successfully tackled many times in the past. It is just that at some point, perhaps through lack of confidence or mistrust of business, we went off into the safer havens of poverty alleviation, abstract nouns and political correctness. Development solves many of the perceived problems which worry the bureaucracy—witness Malaysia, which was such a worry to the aid pundits as it achieved middle income—and we have to get down to the concrete realities of scientific and global detail to achieve development. As things are, there will be more people below the poverty line next year than there are today. Only private sector partnerships will turn the tide.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on initiating such a valuable debate. Having listened to the contributions so far, much of value has been said which will need, in due course, to be answered by the Minister.
We should be proud of the Commonwealth. We should also be proud of our contribution to the Commonwealth. The admission of Mozambique and Rwanda, whatever the problems, particularly of the latter, may be, at least shows how well regarded the Commonwealth is among many other countries internationally. It continues to have the potential to play an important part on the world stage although it may not yet have found its voice—or, perhaps more accurately, its role for the future.
I shall focus on an area that has not so far been referred to, and it will not surprise your Lordships that, as a former judge, I shall be commenting on the judiciary within the Commonwealth. The promotion of the common law of England and Wales has, over the past two centuries, crossed the world and forms the basis of the legal systems of many Commonwealth countries. It brought with it the immense importance of the rule of law, which is one of the pillars of a civilised and representative society. The Commonwealth law conferences held in different parts of the Commonwealth have shown the extent to which the principles of English law still play a part, even in countries which have totally different traditions such as in the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia.
I was recently involved in a training programme in Kuala Lumpur and found, without surprise, that I was talking exactly the same language as the Malaysian judges—and, I am glad to say, they did it all in English. However, one has to recognise the problems the judiciary has in the administration of justice in some parts of the Commonwealth. This is very worrying. Rwanda clearly needs help. Kenya has problems in respect of its competency and suitability amid allegations of corruption in the judiciary. I recently met some members of the Kenyan Parliament when I was taking part in a conference, in this building, of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—of which I am a member—and they were very concerned about corruption among the judiciary. However, the Kenyan Government have responded to an international request to set up a court to try cases of international piracy and they are to be much commended for doing so. They have also set up an interim judicial commission to do what a judicial studies board would call an appraisal of the judiciary. They hope to do that over the next 12 months.
Kenya is not alone in having problems with the judiciary. There are difficulties in preserving or even setting up a system of genuine judicial independence and impartiality. Not all Governments recognise the need for the judiciary to be independent. Some Governments see the judiciary as civil servants and, consequently, subject to control.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is doing excellent work in helping developing democracies to strengthen their legislatures. United Kingdom judges are involved in projects within and outside the Commonwealth, generally through the Judicial Studies Board. The Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association, of which I was a member, is very supportive of judges in the Commonwealth who have difficulties. But there remains a pressing need for provision within the Commonwealth, particularly within the United Kingdom, to give as much support as possible to judges and the administration of justice in order to sustain competent, properly trained, independent and impartial judges and to uphold the administration of justice throughout the Commonwealth. The theme of this debate is the goals of democracy and development. An absolutely essential element of those goals is a strong, well respected judiciary which can be trusted by its citizens. As I said earlier, one of the pillars of democracy is the rule of law.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord on initiating this debate on the linkage between governance and development. It is being increasingly recognised, perhaps first by the World Bank and, over the past few years, by DfID that unless rulers are challenged and made accountable, there will be corruption and inefficiency.
I follow the noble and learned Baroness in saying that, rather like Monsieur Jourdain and prose, the Commonwealth has been doing it all the time from the very start. One thinks of the contribution of the common law—which has been touched on—and of the contribution over the decades by Lincoln’s Inn, not just in the substance of law but also in procedure, which has had a major effect on Commonwealth development.
It is important to be realistic about what the Commonwealth can and cannot do. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, made this point as did the current Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, in an excellent speech on human rights at the November CHOGM, where he drew the distinction between the rhetoric and the reality. The rhetoric is the Harare Declaration; the reality is that, often, perhaps because of bureaucratic problems, many Commonwealth countries are unable to implement even the Convention on Torture or the two major UN human rights conventions. Fourteen members are yet to ratify the two 1966 conventions. We can help in that.
In terms of governance, part of the Commonwealth’s strength is negative: the response to peer reviews in respect of the Harare principles; the role of the CMAG over the fluctuating membership of Fiji and Pakistan; and now Zimbabwe being self-excluded. It is also important that at the recent CHOGM it was decided to hold the next CHOGM not in Sri Lanka, because of repression and human rights problems, but in Australia. That also has some effect.
The strength of the Commonwealth in part derives from the informal Commonwealth, a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young: the Commonwealth People’s Forum—in the genesis of which we in the UK had a major part in the Gleneagles CHOGM—and the networks of non-governmental organisations. Concerning South Africa, I have enormous respect for the civics which flourished in the apartheid years and which may now be a bulwark against authoritarianism in South Africa, challenging the Executive and asking the Government to explain themselves and the pretensions of power. All those are intermediary bodies which are part of the informal Commonwealth. I think, too, of the way in which the very diversity of the Commonwealth that we saw in the November CHOGM perhaps paved the way for Copenhagen by reaching informal agreements on financial support for poorer countries.
But the major contribution of our Commonwealth, as has been rightly said, in terms of Parliament and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, is vital. It is the parliamentary dimension which can profitably be strengthened. Much useful work is being done by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association generally, headquartered here in London, and by our own UK branch. For example, the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association organised the International Parliamentary Governance Seminar held in London in November, looking at the role of Parliament in governance, parliamentary democracy, the role of the press, the role of opposition and so on.
I shall make two quick points on this. First, there are a number of other organisations in the field; for example, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the European Union, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the foundations in the US and Germany and so on. There is an important role for co-ordination. I make a specific case for co-operation with France, particularly in west Africa. That was symbolised by the appearance of President Sarkozy at the CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago. A number of the Commonwealth countries are now bilingual; for example, Mauritius, Cameroon, Canada and Rwanda. La Francophonie, which has 53 members—and the lusophone members, which are eight in the world—can usefully work with the Commonwealth in this area to promote democracy and good governance.
In the current climate of this Parliament being vilified by the press in the UK, many parliamentarians in the UK feel under threat by taking part in the overseas work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to strengthen democracy. Perhaps our press fails to appreciate the hard and valuable work done by parliamentarians in terms of seminars and conferences worldwide.
Finally, I praise the initiative of the Royal Commonwealth Society and of our Foreign Secretary on the Commonwealth Conversation. The key question asked is whether the Commonwealth is spreading itself too thinly. In so many of the other things that it does, many other international organisations do the work perhaps in some ways more professionally and with more money. It is perhaps in governance that the Commonwealth can make the most important contribution. The Commonwealth Conversation reported back to CHOGM last month. I understand that a full report will be made by the Royal Commonwealth Society in January. It would be helpful to have an interim assessment by the Government today.
I have attended many Commonwealth conferences. I value the family spirit, the instant rapport and the fact that small countries can walk tall. It is important that many countries are still seeking membership. The Commonwealth can add value not only to their democracy but also to their development, as the mover of the Motion said.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, whom I last followed in a debate on Sierra Leone in the other place, which presages some degree of continuity. I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Sheikh on celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of London via the vehicle of this debate.
I am grateful to him for causing me in this context to take stock of my own travels. I find that I am short of two or three countries in the European Union to visit. In the United States, I am short of the states of Nebraska and North Dakota. However, in the Commonwealth, I have visited less than 40 per cent of its complement: seven countries out of the eight signatories of the 1949 Declaration of London; seven other African countries besides South Africa, including Mozambique; two islands in the Caribbean; one in the Indian Ocean; an archipelago in the Pacific; and strategic crossroads in Cyprus and Singapore. I have lived and worked twice in the United States, once in the European Union and once in what was then EFTA for a total of six-and-a-half years. I have never worked in the Commonwealth outside this country and have spent at most, in a single visit, a couple of months in Australia, a month in New Zealand, three weeks in South Africa and, in composite terms, six weeks in Canada.
Overall, therefore, I have much greater physical familiarity with Europe and the United States, and count myself as a European and an Atlanticist, yet it is within the Commonwealth that I feel most naturally at home. Why? It is the language, for one—and the very terms of my noble friend’s Motion, for another. For the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, one might add the rule of law. Then there are the historical connections, when we were generally on the same side, and what might be termed political wisdom in terms of our elision from imperial power to friendly partner, not least through Her Majesty’s superb response to her role. Never in the Commonwealth have we practised our historic role in Europe of an offshore holder of a balance of power.
If political wisdom has been one of our country’s most significant contributions to history, lyric poetry has fulfilled the same role towards civilisation. Those two strands come together in the game of cricket, one of the few games to have Laws with an upper-case “L” rather than rules with a lower-case “r”, and one in which lyricism is its essence and joy. It is also one in which generally the rule of law prevails. The epitome of its universality is that it is a game in which temperaments as diverse as the West Indian and the English find common cause. My noble friend on the Front Bench implied the other day that Rwanda’s entry into the Commonwealth from Belgian ancestry might have been lubricated by their newfound attachment to cricket. To echo the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, it seems conceivable that Afghanistan, which has already beaten an MCC side led by Mike Gatting, might apply to join, too.
The particular practical contribution that cricket has provided in the Commonwealth is a lexicon of metaphors on which debaters can draw in our mutual councils, which one can rely on to be understood. I made the same point in an alternative way, by saying that as our EU budget Council Minister for four years, I could rely on this same regard only on metaphors from classical mythology, and even that was unfair to the Scandinavians. However, above all, as my noble friend so often and rightly reminds us, it is the Commonwealth’s global reach and universality that is its greatest asset and potentially greatest strength. I say “potentially” because, even after 60 years, which exceeds the average lifespan in too many Commonwealth countries, we have not between us realised that full potential.
The Commonwealth has supreme successes in sport and education, both practised multilaterally throughout the Commonwealth and often bilaterally as well. Our mutual capacity to maximise our collective contribution to world equilibrium—and, yes, in the Motion’s terms, to development—has not yet been properly exercised and is already the test and challenge for the next generation. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, were wholly correct to emphasise the global importance of the semi-slumbering giant of India developing as it is, but much more patient thought needs to go into how the Commonwealth can exploit our mutual relationships in future and, indeed, as India stretches itself. Batons need to pass; we are not yet pulling our full weight in the world.
In the context of the rule of law, the Commonwealth can pride itself on the justice with which expulsions from the Commonwealth have occurred. I am not going to rehearse all the cases, but South Africa and Zimbabwe on one continent and Pakistan on the sub-continent were as much as anything expelled because they had offended against the spirit of the club, and the rest of the club did not want that to be condoned. The spirit is in the same vein a preoccupation of cricketers.
In conclusion, I cite a humble career long ago—that of a 19th-century Manchester non-conformist missionary, who spent a lifetime in the Admiralty Islands teaching his congregation the Commandments of God and the laws of cricket. When he died, full of years, his flock were too poor for a permanent monument, but planted his wooden leg upon his grave, and so fruitful was the local soil that the wooden leg took root and flourished and provided them with an inexhaustible supply of cricket bats. That is not a bad symbol for the Commonwealth. It is our responsibility within it to help to make its fertility blossom even more productively, commercially and politically.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for initiating this timely debate on the Commonwealth. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville.
I support so much of what has been said about the achievements of the Commonwealth in the fields of democracy and development, and would like to add my emphasis on three points. First, while the organisation’s involvement in development has been vital and important since its inception 60 years ago, the Commonwealth’s activities to promote democracy and champion democratic standards, human rights and the rule of law have really now begun to come into their own in the post-apartheid world, and with the creation of the mechanism of CMAG in 1995. This means of applying political pressure by members acting in concert, along with the provision of vital practical and expert assistance, for example at election time, has been a potent force for good in the past 15 years. The Commonwealth does not always get enough credit for that quiet diplomacy, as it tackles some of the very delicate political and governance issues among its members. However, much still needs to be done—and I welcome one outcome of the recent CHOGM meeting in Trinidad and Tobago—to look for ways in which to strengthen the role of CMAG in dealing with violations of the Harare principles, examples of which we have been given today. I hope that the Minister will let us know how the British Government will support that outcome of the CHOGM meeting.
Secondly, the Commonwealth seems to be of growing relevance in the 21st century and not a throwback, as some mentioned earlier. With increasing globalisation in all our lives, it becomes more not less relevant. The great challenges of economic growth, trade, climate change, water management, food and energy security are all global issues requiring global solutions. A grouping like the Commonwealth, brought together, unusually, by history rather than geography, has a unique contribution to make to the wider understanding of some of these issues. We must never forget, as some noble Lords have said, the priceless asset that the organisation has of a common language. It has a contribution, too, in brokering solutions that reach beyond and across regions, across the developed and developing world and the divides of size or situation. In other words, the Commonwealth is an organisation that is fit for purpose in a globalised world. I hope that the Minister will touch on how the Government may use the Doha round and negotiations that continue on climate change.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly for the vast majority of the people of the Commonwealth, the organisation does so much of its best work at the sub-political level—namely, among the non-governmental or civil society organisations. I certainly associate myself with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, on the importance of the Commonwealth People's Forum. The work of these organisations in bringing people together, whether cricketers or dentists, businessmen or academics, to consult and exchange views, can be seen to be a good example of what is known as soft power. I hope that the British Government will continue to look for ways to use and support this aspect of Commonwealth activities.
The organisation in its 60 anniversary year still has a lot going for it. If there is an obvious challenge, it is in engaging the interests of people, particularly younger generations, in the value of the organisation and, in this country, in retaining some interest in the organisation which for years has been taken for granted.
If, however, the media have long since lost interest in the Commonwealth, let us take comfort in the importance that the people of this country attach to these links. If anyone doubts this, let me leave your Lordships with one thought. A fortnight tomorrow we shall be celebrating Christmas. On that day, business and political telephones, e-mails, twitters and texts will fall briefly silent, but the people of this country will be communicating in every way possible with kith and kin, friends and families, overseas. Certainly some of those contacts overseas will be in the United States and some in Europe, but I would wager that the overwhelming majority of the calls made on Christmas Day will be to the countries of the Commonwealth. Let us never underestimate the importance of the Commonwealth as we reflect on the long-term interests of the people of this country.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Sheikh, who has made one of his very professional speeches. Underneath, he is a real trader. He speaks most of the Indian languages as well as Swahili. While he may appear to be rather a serious man, he suffers from the disadvantage that he has to share an office with me, and I am never sure when I am serious or not.
I have spent most of my life in trade. When people asked what I did, certain parts of my family would whisper, “He’s in trade”, as if it was not the thing to be. My first assignment when I joined your Lordships’ House—surprisingly enough, as a failed economist who indeed had failed at everything—was to be appointed to a team to advise the Government of India on their future trading. I had only just joined the Lords, 45 years ago or longer. I went out as a young man with two introductions, one from the Speaker of the House of Commons and one from the secretary of the MCC. The letter from the secretary of the MCC opened every door until I was asked if I would like to play a game of cricket against the Indian XI.
We dealt with ilmenite, manganese, coir, jute, copper, handicrafts in Kashmir, prawns down in the south and cashew nuts. But I never believed, when we made certain predictions, that India would outstrip them by 10 times, manufacture things and then buy back British Leyland. We all liked the old former Morris Oxford in India, which, as one of my colleagues pointed out bluntly, could take ruts and bumps.
From India I found that I had moved on to Africa—to Sudan, which could have been the breadbasket of the Middle East. Everywhere I went, one thing I learnt later in my mind was that I like the phrase, “o’er land and o’er sea”.
In the debate on the Queen’s Speech I made certain suggestions. I have learnt in your Lordships’ House that if you want to get anything done at all it takes 10 to 15 years, like some good wines. So I have used what I call the “rule of thumb”. It is extremely useful. If you want to know where you are when you are sailing with a rather bad map, you put your thumb on the coastline and stay outside the width of your thumb. If you want to know where and how deep to plant things on land, wherever it may be, you stick your thumb in the ground. If you want to know how far away you are from other people—for example, from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, although I am not allowed to gesture in your Lordships’ House—you hold up your thumb and shut one eye, and you will see that it will move to the right. You work out how many fingers that is, and that will tell you how far offshore you are.
The theme I want to adopt today is to state further that when you look at the Commonwealth, you should first of all look at it from space. As Secretary of the Parliamentary Space Committee, I can say that you can do this with three or four pictures—it is fantastic.
Now to the land of the Commonwealth, which is very significant, with its 54 countries. I have said to myself, “Yes, you have the countries of the Commonwealth, and within that there are 15 Her Majesty’s Realms”—maybe one day Wales and Scotland, if they go independent, will become Her Majesty’s Realms—“but you also have 12 or so overseas territories. If you then look at those territories and the islands that are with them, you find that you probably have over 100 pieces of real estate that have sea around them”. So, in the defence and foreign affairs debate, I said that we should immediately introduce a Bill in this House to extend the coastal limit of our territories, Her Majesty’s Realms and the Commonwealth to 500 miles. This is not too difficult. Surprisingly enough, the United Kingdom is 14th in the top countries with more than 10,000 kilometres of coastline in the world, ahead of India. If you consider all this along with the resources of the sea, and then you look at global warming, defence and everything you can think of, the sea becomes important.
One of the suggestions that I have made—apart from doing what I have just said and claiming the rights to it—is that we should launch a series of satellites that could survey the sea, and name them after Commonwealth leaders. That is in hand, I suggest to the Ministry of Defence, and I would like to buy them if someone would finance them.
The key element of all, though, is people. Having been brought up partly in Canada and having more cousins in Australia—who have just written my family history—than I have had hot dinners in my life, and thinking of the areas that I have worked in, I am interested in people. The people of the Commonwealth are important to us. Are they British citizens? No; those from the overseas territories, under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, are citizens, but the territories under us presumably become part of the Commonwealth. Could we not think of harmonising the Commonwealth and bringing it together by having at airports not just entry signs that say “EU” and “Swiss” but one that says “Commonwealth”? Is there not some added value that we could give to the Commonwealth nationality, as such? Where is a Commonwealth citizen domiciled? How many Commonwealth citizens are there in the United Kingdom who may suddenly be forced to be non-doms?
The value of the Commonwealth is not what it is today but its potential. It is the only global organisation in the world, and one of which I have become extremely fond.
My Lords, I extend my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on his acumen in putting down this subject for debate; the number of speakers demonstrates that. His opening speech showed how much he is in command of his subject, and we are happy that he has done this.
We all welcome the debate on the role that the Commonwealth has to play in democracy and development, and we welcome the accession of Rwanda. Point 21 of the Commonwealth communiqué reads:
“Heads of Government welcomed the Global Political Agreement on power sharing in Zimbabwe, and expressed the hope that this would be implemented faithfully and effectively … they looked forward to the conditions being created for the return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth”.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister elaborated somewhat on this by saying that he hoped that by the next meeting in 2011, which is two years away, Zimbabwe would have made enough progress for it to be welcomed back into the Commonwealth. He said that Britain had channelled £60 million in aid to Zimbabwe this year and was looking to do more, once the Zimbabwean Government had shown that they were ready to implement the power-sharing agreement.
If my memory serves me correctly, 30 years ago today, Lancaster House was the venue for the most intense discussions and negotiations on the future of what was then Southern Rhodesia. What has happened in the past 30 years? During that period we have gone from immense enthusiasm and optimism to the depths of despair for the future of Zimbabwe. Where are we now on the spectrum of highs and lows? It might be facetious to say, “It depends on which day you ask”. The problem is that we really do not know what is happening on the ground; it depends entirely who briefs. The All-Party Zimbabwe Group has had briefings from a number of different people. Some have been optimistic, more so than I would have expected, in that the economy has settled down; the level of violence, although still there, is not as high as it was; and the rate of land seizures appears to have slowed down. Other briefings say quite the opposite—that the violence is still there and increasing; and that the number of land seizures is growing to the extent that some of the Zimbabwean elite, who claim to be acting in the interests of Zimbabwe, have seized farms from white farmers producing a great deal of agricultural produce and now own 10 or 12 farms, all of which are non-productive. I was going to say that this land is lying fallow, but lying fallow is a positive thing; this land is actually lying derelict. We must try to deal with the situation.
As for the global political agreement, there is a sort of stagnation around which must worry all of us. It certainly worries the Commonwealth. It is true that President Zuma of South Africa is gaining plaudits for how he has dealt with the situation, but I regret that the Southern African Development Community, the guarantor of the agreement, has let the first deadline slip. That is bad news, and it means that this issue has to be forced. “Forced” is perhaps the wrong word to use, because President Mugabe, with brutal clarity, is excellent at manipulating a perception of ways in which colonialism and neo-colonialism work on his country. So we will be walking a tightrope. The British Government must certainly become involved, but the Commonwealth also has to become involved with much more vigour than it seems to have had in the past. Perhaps that is an unfair criticism, but I feel that there needs to be a push and a stimulus to keep things going.
President Mugabe and the people of Zimbabwe must recognise that there is an immense reservoir of good will in this country for the people of Zimbabwe. Lots of people are doing things to try to help in the future. Perhaps I may draw the House’s attention to a report which is to be published next Thursday entitled Land in Zimbabwe: Past Mistakes, Future Prospects, which has been produced by the Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group. I should add that the group welcomes the support given to it by the Royal African Society. The report points to ways for the future, and every input must be used for that.
If we are to keep the stimulus—which is absolutely necessary—going, then unilateral action will not help. I understand perfectly well that this country, the UK, has no prescriptive right to dictate to Zimbabwe what its future should be. However, I believe that multilateralism, within the Commonwealth especially, can move things forward when we are at a critical point for Zimbabwe. If the Commonwealth is to be true to its goals and aims, it really must put a huge effort into moving things forward. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for this debate.
My Lords, I join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Sheikh on his most eloquent and informative speech. He is right to bring the issue of the Commonwealth’s shared goals in democracy and development to the attention of your Lordships’ House. As a recent report from the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit has argued, the association’s continuing relevance will depend on its member countries’ ability to translate their commitment to democracy into a practical reality.
Eighteen years after the historic Harare Declaration which committed the Commonwealth to making democracy “a way of life”, it is important that we ask ourselves now how committed this Government and previous Governments have been to supporting that. It is vital, particularly during this period of global economic challenge, that we do not merely pay lip service to our position in the Commonwealth. Sadly, however, for far too long, rather than recognising the strengths of our Commonwealth partners, we have largely chosen to ignore them.
The Commonwealth has enormous potential for good. The alliances forged over 60 years between the 54 countries which make up the Commonwealth have only become more and more important in this new era of multilateralism. That trend will and should intensify. It is truly unique: an organisation where 54 countries of greatly varying wealth and circumstance come together, with the economic powerhouses of India and Australia sharing a table with some of the poorest countries in the world—a fact proven by the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.
If we think of the great challenges facing our world today—disparity of wealth, globalisation, climate change, the so-called clash of civilisations, and threatened national security—we realise that the Commonwealth’s varied membership positions it at the nexus between those interrelated crises. The unique strength of the Commonwealth is that its member states share some common essential aims despite their enormous differences in wealth, geography and global position. As my right honourable friend William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said in a speech earlier this year:
“Each member is made from its own distinct material yet they are woven together by the common threads of democracy, diversity, tolerance, understanding and collaboration”.
I am sure that there are those in the Government who agree that the Commonwealth should play a more prominent role, but the reality has rarely lived up to their rhetoric. When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair told us:
“We cannot let a priceless legacy like this fade into nostalgia”.
And yet two Labour Foreign Ministers have regularly failed to attend CMAG meetings. To me, that sums up Labour’s dismissive attitude towards the Commonwealth, especially as those meetings were held in London. It begs the question of what message the Government want to send to our fellow Commonwealth member states. And what message is sent by the closure of embassies and high commissions in seven Commonwealth states?
The Government should be promoting established relations with Commonwealth countries. India and Australia’s economic success—in stark comparison to the dire straits in which we find ourselves—should be utilised. Instead of relinquishing our Commonwealth commitments, we should be engaging more fruitfully. After all, Commonwealth trade has grown from £2 trillion to £3 trillion in the past 10 years. India’s growth is 7 per cent and Australia continues to grow. We must take every opportunity to engage in trade with those countries and with our African partners, and we should encourage mutually beneficial investment for all.
Speaking as someone of Indian origin, I am passionate about our relationship with India. In our large Indian diaspora community we have the perfect vehicle for strengthening that relationship with India. It is unbelievably wasteful not to make more comprehensive use of relationships which we could develop. It is imperative that we utilise our historic links with India as well as our current connection through our large Indian community. Not to do so would be detrimental both to our prosperity and to our influence in those parts of the world.
The Indian diaspora, with the extraordinary contribution it has made to British life, is representative of the wider impact that Commonwealth countries have had on the British economy and British society. A great many skilled personnel have found their way into our health system, for example, and inevitably improved it. Immigrant entrepreneurs have added value to the economy in ways that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. To take the Indian example, the Indian community represents around 2 per cent of the population but contributes between 4 and 5 per cent of GDP. What a fantastic demonstration of what can be achieved. The contribution of Commonwealth citizens to this country has been and continues to be enormous, but there are those of us who believe that this fact seems to have escaped the notice of this Government and previous Governments.
Both India and Britain are among the Commonwealth powers that have experienced terrorist activity on their soil. Others have experienced long conflicts, guerrilla warfare and other violent events. That wealth of experience makes the Commonwealth such a potent tool for peace. It really is time to revisit our relationship with countries that have proven to be such loyal friends to us.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has shown an impeccable sense of timing. It is 60 years after the founding of the Commonwealth, and just after the Trinidad debate. He should be congratulated on bringing about what has been a very constructive and positive debate on the Commonwealth. It is quite extraordinary to reflect on the transformation, over 60 years, from a British Empire—which I was a part of, as the last district officer to go to Kenya—to today’s Commonwealth of equal nations, involving in that time a massive migration which has created multicultural societies in countries such as ours, Canada and Australia. Now it is a group of 54 nations with one-third of the world’s population—rich and poor, big and small, with cultures and multiple faiths of all kinds—and that is a remarkable story.
The Royal Commonwealth Society’s report, however, shows that the Commonwealth has a very low profile, and that there is immense ignorance about the Commonwealth and what it is all about. It is absolutely salient to our history, so why is it that in our schools today children are not taught about their own history—that of the Commonwealth itself? Why do schools not twin with schools throughout the Commonwealth? This would bring the Commonwealth to life for young people. After all, the age of empire is now long gone. We can forget about the hang-ups of the past and stop being paternal and preaching to others. Equally, other countries within the Commonwealth can no longer blame the colonialists for their own problems. We can look to the future in a completely different light and see the Commonwealth as complementary to our European Union membership, and not as a substitute.
The Royal Commonwealth Society has challenged us in its report to stand up for the principles and values of the Commonwealth; to decide on our priorities and where the Commonwealth can add value; and to concentrate on the people of the Commonwealth, who are, after all, its heart. These are the NGOs, the civic societies and the professional bodies.
The Trinidad communiqué is pretty bland and very long. I would be grateful if the Minister—who I know is committed to the Commonwealth—could guide us to where the Government feel the priorities should be. There is an immensely long list of issues in the communiqué, but I would be glad to hear where the Minister sees the priorities. Of course climate change had to be a priority this time, but I am glad that the main emphasis in this debate has been on other issues, including governance, which is absolutely critical. What China is doing in Africa today is positive in many senses and may bring about more prosperity in Africa, but if Chinese investment and trade are not carried out within a framework of good governance in those countries, we will see an increase in corruption and civil conflict.
There is conflict resolution, which has been mentioned today, and reconstruction, both of which the Commonwealth is well equipped to play a positive role in. It also has an interfaith role. With 500 million Muslims, 400 million Christians and many other religions, the scope for interfaith work within the Commonwealth is strong.
I am rather surprised that education has not been a highlight of today’s debate. That is an area where the Commonwealth can play a very positive role. It is stunning to learn that 27 million Commonwealth children do not even go to primary school. Surely that is an area to which the Commonwealth should give priority. The Commonwealth of Learning, dealing with distance learning, plays a magnificent role in that field, and should be buttressed. I remind noble Lords again of the importance of Commonwealth scholarships. Related to all that is the youth: 50 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population is under 25. There should be a major imaginative move to encourage the youth within the Commonwealth, whether that is in entrepreneurship or networking of one kind or another. Then there is civil society, which in itself buttresses democracy in these countries. The work of the Commonwealth Foundation in strengthening civil society and the contact between professional bodies also are essential. Finally, like so many other noble Lords, I would highlight development, trade and the issues of poverty which the Commonwealth is so well equipped to deal with.
To give effect to these priorities, we need a strengthened, modern secretariat. I am glad that there have been references to Mr Sharma and the role he plays and to the importance of India in the Commonwealth today. We now have an opportunity to revitalise the Commonwealth. I am glad that the Trinidad conference decided to set up an eminent persons group to examine options for reform, to strengthen institutions and co-operation, to enhance the profile of the Commonwealth and to help determine its priorities. I hope the British Government will take a strong lead in that.
My Lords, we come to the concluding part of this important debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, who has been instrumental in shaping the agenda on the basis of which most noble Lords have contributed today. It is a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce. I recall that he called a similar debate in July 2007. Much of the trend that was established at that stage was followed in the contributions of many noble Lords today.
As most noble Lords have said, this debate comes at an appropriate time—soon after the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Trinidad and Tobago, and the 60th anniversary of the organisation coming into being. The Commonwealth is a unique organisation of diverse nations, playing an important role in global politics. It is able to address issues that pose global challenges such as the impact of climate change, which the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, mentioned in his contribution. The issues that affect such places as Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Caribbean and the Pacific islands are now being discussed in Copenhagen.
This debate also gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth. Her contribution has been unique and it is her dedication that has kept the Commonwealth together over all these years. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for mentioning this contribution. On that point, I understand that there will be some clarification on the right of abode, which was raised. I point out to the Minister that there has been so much immigration and nationality legislation—particularly in the past 10 or 12 years—that it is about time that there was some consolidation of it. That would not have created the type of complex situation that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, has raised a fundamental issue: are there any constitutional implications for the membership of some Members of the House of Lords? If so, I very much hope that there will be a Statement to the House at some stage on that particular matter.
It is interesting that the transition from the days of the British Raj, or Empire, to the Commonwealth has been so remarkable. No longer are there shades of the master-servant relationship. Rather, it is one of respect among nations of equals. The free movement of people in the early years of the Commonwealth has enriched the cultures of all our member nations. I am delighted that this point was ably stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, particularly the contributions of many of the diverse communities that have settled in this country from Commonwealth countries. The common thread that unites us all is our beliefs, which are shaped by our multiracial, multicultural and multireligious society.
However, there remain some doubts about our common commitment to the Commonwealth of nations. The emergence of the European Economic Community, followed by the European Union, and now its extension to include new and emerging nations from the Eastern bloc, gives an impression of a downgrading of our ties with the Commonwealth. There remains a suspicion that we maintain a relationship that is no more than is absolutely necessary. I trust that the Minister will assure us that this is not so and that we will ensure that the European Union does not become a rich men’s club at the expense of our ties with the Commonwealth countries.
I will concentrate on two matters. The first concerns Commonwealth ties, which are so important. The Government could still do more to promote these ties. It has been brought to my attention that the recategorisation of the immigration points-based system now means that volunteers—I talk about volunteers only—who come to the United Kingdom for perhaps two weeks’ voluntary work are now classed in the same category as people seeking long-term paid employment in the United Kingdom. This is clearly not right, and means that there are extra costs for visas, which puts off many people, including those from Commonwealth countries, from coming to the United Kingdom. It seems absurd to hinder these people who want to do voluntary work in Britain and thus help strengthen and further the relationship and ties between Britain and other countries. We cannot put a price on this soft diplomacy. The Government should do as much as possible to help them. I urge the Minister to consider revising the points-based system, as I have already urged the Commons Minister, Phil Woolas, to do.
As I said, I want to concentrate on two matters. My second point, concerning poverty, was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain. Because poverty is endemic in many Commonwealth countries, we need to ask whether trade liberalisation can benefit the Commonwealth in the current economic climate. Trade liberalisation entails the removal of, or reduction in, the trade practices that limit the free flow of goods and services from one nation to another. That point was ably raised by the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria, Lord Goodlad and Lord Harrison. Trade barriers are a form of protectionism and are carried out through a variety of means: tariffs, which raise the price of goods coming into a country; quotas, a physical limit on the number of goods that can be brought into a country; and other non-tariff barriers such as regulations and legislation which make it very hard for foreign competitors to sell their goods in other countries.
I emphasise that free trade or trade liberalisation do not mean unregulated trade where vulnerable communities are exploited by powerful multinational corporations. Free trade does not disregard the need to ensure gender equality, prevent child labour and ensure that supply chains function with optimum benefits for those along the entire supply chain, especially at the bottom. Trade liberalisation is about opening up markets to foreign competition; using fairness as a principle of transborder trade; and not holding developing world economies to ransom. The aim of trade liberalisation is to create a level playing field on which economies at different levels of development are able to compete. Trade barriers were established historically as a means of protecting states' trade interests. They were an attempt to protect domestic industries from competition from foreign producers and service providers. The basis for this has always been political.
Under a free trade policy, prices would be a reflection of true supply and demand, and are the sole determinant of resource allocation. Free trade differs from other forms of trade policy where the allocation of goods and services among trading countries is determined by artificial prices that do not reflect the true nature of supply and demand. These artificial prices are the result of protectionist trade policies, whereby Governments intervene in the market through price adjustments and supply restrictions. Such government interventions generally increase the cost of goods and services to both consumers and producers.
An attempt to solve a problem in one sector by interfering in the market creates problems elsewhere. The problem is markedly increased in the developing world. In many parts of Africa, the protectionist approach of western Governments has crippled economies and perpetuated poverty. Trade tariffs, western farming subsidies and commodity dumping have made it increasingly difficult for African states to generate healthy and stable economies. Many countries are not able to sell their produce even to their neighbours, who can import products more cheaply from Europe and the United States.
Women are more vulnerable to poverty than men and access to global markets is essential if women are to be empowered to work their way out of poverty. The Commonwealth is giving special attention to the different needs, constraints and interests of women in trade policy and trade liberalisation. Trade liberalisation is not without its difficulties, but it must not be confused with free trade and the complete absence of regulation. If one pays decent wages to workers throughout the Commonwealth, even marginally more money can be used by impoverished communities to enhance their own and their children's education. This will also increase people's own buying power and an entire market for goods and services will suddenly open up. Impoverished communities should not be seen as pools of cheap labour and threats to domestic labour; rather they are untouched markets, potential consumers and, ultimately, valuable participants in the growth of the world economy. This is the true meaning of trade liberalisation, and this is what development is all about.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth conference. I warmly thank my noble friend Lord Sheikh for promoting this debate and for introducing it with such a constructive and powerful speech. I want to allow the Minister ample time to cover the apparent legislative muddle that threatens the right of many of our colleagues in your Lordships’ House to sit here. This needs to be cleared up very quickly indeed and I hope that it will be clarified.
The debate has shown that the idea of the Commonwealth as a marginal international institution doing good works, uttering virtuous aspirations and blessing a host of unofficial organisations is now completely redundant. We now face—our comments have confirmed this—an entirely new international set of conditions, in which the Commonwealth should shed its past diffidence and prepare itself to take a lead in setting the global agenda. This will require the Commonwealth to raise its game all round, expand its ambitions and activities and forge new links with non-members in the wider world. It needs to demonstrate boldly its new significance in the promotion of world trade and investment and to build on the role that it has already begun to carve out in the World Trade Organisation debates that have been so bogged down.
I was very glad to see that at the Trinidad and Tobago Heads of Government Meeting a week or so ago the Commonwealth made moves that seemed to go in the right direction and to reflect this outward-looking trend. It brought in outside speakers, including the President of France, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. That was a very promising sign, although frankly it would have been right for this House and the other place to have had a little more time to discuss the proposal for Rwandan membership before we simply signed up with other members and invited Rwanda in. That matter should have come before us.
Further progress in the Commonwealth depends, of course, on its leading member states. Until they wake up fully and understand the staggering potential of the new Commonwealth network as an ideal model for international collaboration in the 21st century, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, rightly reminded us, the backing will simply not be there. This means persuading Commonwealth Governments to give place and recognition to the Commonwealth network in their foreign and overseas economic and development policies at a level that—for various reasons, mostly now completely outdated—they have hitherto failed to do. The one big exception is India, which almost alone, with its new flair and dynamism, has recognised the Commonwealth as,
“the ideal platform for business and trade”.
Therefore, the first task is to bring home to a half-interested world a few new facts about the Commonwealth system that have clearly escaped our policy-makers and world leaders so far.
First, far from being a rundown club, held together by nostalgia and decolonisation fixations, today’s Commonwealth, as your Lordships have rightly observed, now contains 13 of the world’s fastest growing economies, including the most potent emerging markets on the planet. Outside the USA and Japan, the key cutting-edge countries in information technology and e-commerce are all Commonwealth members. The new jewel in the Commonwealth crown turns out to be the old jewel, dramatically repolished and reset—booming India, the world’s largest democracy with a population set to exceed China’s. I am pleased that we have such a dynamic and wise Secretary-General of the Commonwealth in Kamalesh Sharma, who is able to preside over and carry forward these realities. This presents a picture that is far removed from the old image of the Commonwealth, which was believed to be bogged down in demands for more aid and arguments about, first, South Africa and, latterly, Zimbabwe. Many sleepy policy-makers find it simply too difficult to absorb what has really happened. The unloved ugly-duckling organisation has grown almost overnight into a true swan; or, to use a different metaphor, the Commonwealth of today and tomorrow has been described as the neglected colossus which should be neglected no longer.
Secondly, it has recently been estimated that, in the new information age context, the Commonwealth’s commonalities of language, law, accounting systems, business regulations and judicial exchanges, as outlined by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, give us a 15 per cent cost advantage over dealing with countries outside the Commonwealth. As for finance, one may think that Wall Street is full of the masters of the world, but the combined market capitalisations of Toronto, Sydney and London exceed those of New York. The assets of the financial services sectors of the Commonwealth group of nations are now larger than those of the entire European Union.
Thirdly, it should be noted that recent detailed academic analysis has identified a growing “Commonwealth effect”—a perceived reduction in what is termed the psychic distance between Commonwealth member states and a consequent increased propensity for Commonwealth member states, especially the smaller developing ones, to engage in increased trade and investment activity between one another, in preference to and prior to trade and investment elsewhere in the global community. That is why flows of capital investment intra-Commonwealth—between Commonwealth countries—are gradually increasing in relation to other flows.
However, the new story should not just be about bread-and-butter matters and new economic opportunities, although they are staring us in the face. The Commonwealth needs to be reassessed in terms of its real weight in securing world stability, balancing the dialogue with the United States, linking rising Asia and the West, helping to handle the prickliest of issues such as the Middle East and Iran, promoting better development links, bringing small and larger nations—poorer and richer—together on mutually respectful and truly friendly terms and bridging the faith divides that others seek to exploit and widen. In all these areas, the Commonwealth—reformed, reinforced, built on and enlarged—offers, as the former Indian Industry Minister, Mr Kamal Nath, said, an ideal platform.
The tragic decline of America’s soft-power reputation and influence across the entire globe is leaving a dangerous vacuum. Into this vacuum, cautiously, subtly but steadily are moving the Chinese, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, reminded us, with their cash, investment projects, trade deals, secured access to oil and gas supplies in an energy-hungry world, military and policing support, and technology. That is happening, especially across all of Africa. This gap ought to be filled not by the Chinese dictatorship but by the free democracies of the Commonwealth, from north, south, east and west, banded together by a commitment to freedom under the rule of law and ready to make real and common sacrifices in the interests of a peaceful and stable world and the spread of democratic governance in many different forms. The Commonwealth possesses the vital attributes for dealing with this new world that the old 20th-century institutions conspicuously lacked. It stretches across faiths, as we have been reminded by your Lordships, with half a billion Muslim members, and it stretches across all the continents, thus by its very existence nullifying the dark analysis of a clash of civilisations.
It would be better still if a more confident Commonwealth now reaches out and makes friendly associations with other like-minded nations, both in Europe and Asia—even with Japan, which to some seems to be at the other end of the world but has some 11 per cent of the entire world’s GNP. With its confidence and dynamism beginning to be restored, Japan is interested in making links with the Commonwealth, especially with India and Britain together.
The Commonwealth Secretariat should be encouraged to develop its external wing in a much more powerful way than has been the case and should perhaps nominate a high official to work with the Secretary-General and act as the Commonwealth’s high representative. If we could make an emboldened Commonwealth the central platform of the international future, it would become one of the most enlightened and responsible groupings on the planet, a true league of democracies, which is ready to be America’s candid friend but not its lapdog, and a serious and respected force in economics and trade, in upholding security and in peacekeeping.
This is the body whose strengthening our own United Kingdom should now make its key foreign policy. That is not, I am afraid, the stance at present. In particular, the UK should consider transferring the administration of part of its overseas development effort, which at present goes through the EU, from that unsatisfactory channel to the Commonwealth system.
Of course we must always remain the best possible local members of the European region, as we nearly always have been. But Europe is no longer the most prosperous region. It is our duty to build up our links, many of which were strong in the distant past, with what are becoming the most prosperous and dynamic areas of the world, with smaller as well as larger nations and with those that are struggling in addition to those that are rapidly industrialising and increasingly high-tech. This is what an enlarged Commonwealth can do for us. That is why Britain’s external relations priorities need major realignment and why I should like to christen the home of our able and experienced diplomats the Commonwealth and Foreign Office—the CFO, not the FCO. Small things make a considerable difference.
My Lords, it may assist the House if I say that through the usual channels it has been agreed that my noble friend Lady Kinnock will respond to the debate within the 20 minutes allocated. Following that, she will deal with the very important issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes.
My Lords, of course, I should like to thank noble Lords for their contributions to this constructive and stimulating debate. In particular, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, as everyone has done, for initiating the discussion and for identifying many of the key Commonwealth issues—namely, its core value of democracy, and the development that affects so many Commonwealth member states. I very much concur with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Hughes, who acknowledged the breadth of knowledge shown by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, in his intervention.
The democratic promise of the Commonwealth, which we are discussing, was set initially by the pledges made in 1971 in the Singapore Declaration, and subsequently two decades later in the Harare Declaration. The Commonwealth is indeed, as many noble Lords have said, committed to the promotion of representative democracy, individual liberty, the pursuit of equality, opposition to racism, the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease, and opposition to gender discrimination.
When the modern Commonwealth was born, the defining features of international relations were the beginning of the Cold War, the end of empire, and the emergence of the post-colonial age. Sixty years later, the world has obviously changed. Imperial ties and imperial rivalries have been replaced by unprecedented global trade, travel and communications that make the world’s people more directly linked and interdependent than ever. As many noble Lords have said, that global reach is the Commonwealth’s global strength.
At the Commonwealth summit in Port of Spain, at which I was proud and privileged to be present, I was certainly reminded that no individual nation can act on any environmental or developmental challenge unless we work together. There are no single-country solutions to planetary, political, financial or economic crises. That is why the Commonwealth has an enduring utility. It has a legacy of achievements on political, diplomatic and economic issues, and retains a very distinctive voice, as we saw last month, on matters that remain politically divisive and contentious—there were many contentious issues at CHOGM—in today’s world. I saw at CHOGM that, where many international institutions often struggle to achieve the consensus that is necessary for action, the Commonwealth can put its principles into practice: whether on climate change, Sri Lanka, MDGs, or indeed the need for reform.
In Trinidad, the reasons for action in relation to the Copenhagen summit were obvious. The 54 Commonwealth nations contain a third of the population of the planet: 2 billion people, including those who are most exposed to the most devastating effects of climate change. If the pressures of carbon emissions continue on current trends, countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania face a potential drop of more than 20 per cent in some crop yields. Rice yields in India and Bangladesh will fall by as much as one-third. Large swathes of the Commonwealth’s small-island member states could disappear under the sea.
These are some of the realities that compelled a coherent voice from the Commonwealth, and a strong statement on 2 degrees; additional funding for adaptation; and Fast Start funding for the Copenhagen Launch Fund, starting in 2010 and rising to £10 billion a year by 2012. We believe that this statement will influence the debate at Copenhagen, but we know that this organisation has been the subject of many, many obituaries from those of little faith and little realism.
The fact is that the Commonwealth is doing remarkably well, so while we should welcome the affirmation of Commonwealth values and principles made at CHOGM—I urge noble Lords to look at that affirmation—we should also call for further and re-invigorated reform and the promotion of democracy. Both are essential to the sustained vitality of the Commonwealth. I would go so far as saying to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that the Commonwealth should be defined by its commitment to democracy. The definition should not be theoretical or technical; rather, it should be broad, inclusive and applied. As noble Lords have said, membership of the Commonwealth should invariably mean conditions of freedom: to engage in the political process, to devolve power, to promote gender equity, to enjoy equality before just laws, to deal with religious intolerance, and to encourage young people to participate.
No model can or should be imposed on Commonwealth members. However, when we talk about a more equal Commonwealth, we must address the marginalisation of people who are still excluded from the political process. Many Commonwealth citizens face enormous pressure from increased migration, state fragility, less security and more instability. The solidarity of the Commonwealth—we have seen this today—will as always be tested, but it will be the most essential characteristic. In all circumstances, there must be practical assistance, advocacy and protection. There must also be visionary leadership both from the Commonwealth Secretariat and from Heads of Government. That means, for instance, that election observation carried out by the Commonwealth should ensure more follow-up and continuing political dialogue. There is a need for more consistency in the process that is applied when countries are suspended from the membership of the Commonwealth, and, while we now largely focus on those who usurp power, there should also be a more rigorous commitment to addressing violations of human rights.
There must be leadership on how we deepen democracy and challenge those Commonwealth Governments who do not in reality tolerate open political competition and who continue to take advantage of their incumbency. We must be seen and heard to challenge intolerance and authoritarianism. The Commonwealth has the potential to be a really impressive champion of the universality of human rights. As a direct result of CHOGM, I am pleased to say that a working group will be set up to streamline and improve a rather unsatisfactory process.
I am glad that the theme of this debate brought democracy and development together. No lasting progress on tackling poverty can come about without good governance. That includes genuine respect for human rights, transparency, accountability, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. The interdependence of development and democracy is a natural issue for the Commonwealth, and I welcome the call made in the CHOGM communiqué for renewed global action to accelerate progress towards achieving the millennium development goals.
I do not think any noble Lord mentioned that the communiqué also referred to a health compact, which involves issues such as providing health services that are free at the point of use particularly for women and children. This is fundamental to fulfilling the health-related MDGs, which I am sure noble Lords are aware are particularly off-track. There is some encouragement, however. Since 2001, seven Commonwealth countries have removed user fees in their countries either for the whole population or for vulnerable groups. Malawi, Sierra Leone and Ghana all announced in New York in September that they would expand access to health services, giving millions more people access to free healthcare.
With 27 million Commonwealth children out of school, education, which is such a vital component in helping people out of poverty, is an urgent priority for Commonwealth countries. I welcome the fact that leaders in Port of Spain called for the replenishment of the Education for All task force initiative and unanimously supported the 1GOAL campaign.
I particularly welcome CHOGM’s recognition of the need to give women a stronger voice and greater influence in their communities. The case for action is overwhelming. In Africa, children of mothers who have spent five years in primary education are 40 per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five. In India, if the female/male ratio of workers went up by 10 per cent, GDP would be expected to rise by 8 per cent.
At CHOGM, we were pleased to welcome Rwanda into the Commonwealth as its 54th member. Membership will bind Rwanda to the values of the Commonwealth, including respect for human rights and a commitment to democratic principles.
I will now attempt to answer as many of the many questions that were asked as is possible. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked how the Commonwealth can support youth. There are Commonwealth youth programmes, especially the scholarship and fellowship programmes, through which the Commonwealth provides young people with access to higher education and enables graduates to go back to their countries to contribute to local economies. The Government provide 30 per cent of funding for the youth programmes.
The noble Lord asked whether the reallocation of Commonwealth Foundation funds would undermine efforts to tackle HIV. I reassure him that the same amounts are available, but we have seen quite welcome changes to the way in which the money is being spent.
The noble Lord also asked about the relationship between the G20 and the Commonwealth. The UK is a member of both the Commonwealth and the G20, and we recognise that we have a very special responsibility to ensure that, along with other members, we continue to transmit to the wider group the perspectives, priorities and concerns of the Commonwealth.
The noble Lord and other noble Lords raised the issue of Zimbabwe. While progress has been made in Zimbabwe over the past year, a great deal remains to be done in terms of judicial, constitutional and economic reform; freedom of the media; and respect for human rights. The Finance Minister, who is from the MDC, has made considerable progress in improving inflation in the economy. It is absolutely right that the prospect of Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth is considered; if noble Lords look at the wording carefully, they will see that that is what is said. However, that is provided—I emphasise this strongly—that the reforms that we seek have been implemented, and that the benchmarks set in the GPA and the Harare principles are met. That is firm and agreed by Commonwealth members.
I say to my noble friend Lord Hughes that, when I was in South Africa recently, I met a number of Zimbabweans. They confirmed that there was still a high level of violence, intimidation and land seizures in the country. However, we remain hopeful that the engagement of President Zuma as a facilitator and the existence of the Maputo process, slow though it is, will bring progress soon.
I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, that we are concerned about the proposed introduction of the Private Member’s Bill which threatens such draconian measures against homosexuals in Uganda. We have made our position clear to the Government of Uganda. At the CHOGM, the Prime Minister raised the issue with the President of Uganda, and I raised it with its Foreign Minister. Please rest assured that we are well aware of the seriousness of the matter.
I turn to scales of funding to the Commonwealth. The UK has supported work to find a formula setting a floor for contributions at a level that poorer states can afford, so we are attempting to deal with that. It is clearly important that they can continue to benefit from the Commonwealth. Contributions must reflect core values of the Commonwealth, including that of ensuring equitable distribution and the principle of shared ownership. We will work hard to come up with an outcome that is fair to all.
The noble Lord mentioned Cyprus. I again refer him to the communiqué, which suggests a lasting settlement based on the principles of the UN and the Commonwealth.
It is not the first time that there has been a necessity to suspend Fiji, about which the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked a question. After the coup in 2006, the interim Government were given two years to restore democracy or face suspension. In April 2009, the situation grew worse. I have been working closely in relation to the abrogation of the constitution and the establishment of public emergency regulations. I was at the CMAG discussion in Port of Spain where grave concerns were expressed. CMAG gave the regime a final chance to open up inclusive and effective dialogue. If it fails to do so, the suspension will be continued. As noble Lords will see in the communiqué, a decision was taken to have Fiji not participate in the Commonwealth Games. We continue to support multilateral and regional efforts to broker dialogue with Fiji through the Pacific forum, but we just hope that we will see progress soon.
Sri Lanka and the issue of hosting the next CHOGM were mentioned. We are obviously keen, as the noble Lord would be, to ensure that Commonwealth summits demonstrate that we embody our shared values, including respect for human rights and democracy. We took that position; our ongoing concerns about humanitarian issues were expressed strongly; and the UK could not support Sri Lanka’s bid to host the next CHOGM. The UK supported Australia’s bid to host in 2011. All being well, Sri Lanka is scheduled to host in 2013, and Mauritius is willing to host in 2015. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, also raised the issue of suspension from the Commonwealth. It was not on the formal agenda of CMAG but I confirm that, given the seriousness of the situation, we raised our concerns clearly, strongly and loudly whenever appropriate.
I have read the CPSU publication carefully and consider it welcome. It makes a number of sensible and interesting commitments and shows great understanding of the work of the Commonwealth. I hope that many of us will take note of it, as the noble Lord has.
A number of noble Lords raised the subject of involvement with young people, on which I have touched. The noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, raised the youth credit initiative, which we welcome along with other Commonwealth programmes; it is a good initiative.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, asked about progress on the MDGs. They were agreed nine years ago and we have made progress. As she will know, in many areas fewer people are dying of AIDS. Many countries are implementing proven strategies to combat malaria and measles, two major killers of children. Deaths of children under five have declined from 12.6 million. There are a number of important signs of progress to which I can point. The world is edging closer to universal primary education, but on that MDG things are going slowly. Of course MDG 5 —maternal mortality—is the one that is still the most worrying of all; the health compact in the Commonwealth may have something to contribute to it.
I have not got anywhere near to the end of the questions. I have two minutes more, which I will use up, and then I will just have to apologise to Members and answer their questions promptly in writing.
The noble Baroness also raised the challenges that the Commonwealth faces, the first of which is clearly the economic hardship of many of its citizens. Tens of millions of people are in vulnerable employment and earn around a dollar a day, which is worrying. We must seize the opportunity offered by 2010 and the UN MDG review summit in September. We must prepare carefully for that summit to make sure that we have our positions in place.
I shall answer the question on tackling corruption. There has to be and is a firm commitment in the Commonwealth to the principles of good governance and the rule of law, which noble Lords raised. Those are central issues—they are at the heart of our efforts to build the democracy that we have been discussing. In that context, we need to acknowledge the role of other international institutions, such as the OECD and parts of the UN.
I undertook to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, on Members of the House who are Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens. It appears that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 may have inadvertently cast doubts on whether Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens were eligible for membership of the House. That was clearly not Parliament’s intention when passing the Act. Some months ago, the Government were alerted to the matter. Since then, we have undertaken discussions within government to find a way to address it. We recognise the seriousness of the issue. To put it beyond doubt and remove any uncertainty, we will introduce appropriate legislation before the end of the current Session. Only one or two clauses would be required. I understand that Members of your Lordships' House have concerns about the issue, and we will make Ministers available for an open meeting as soon as it is practical. The Government will table a Written Ministerial Statement as soon as possible explaining the issue in more detail.
My Lords, I certainly do not want to see any law which removes from this House the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, the noble and learned Baroness, the Attorney-General, or our own inimitable friend, Lady Gardner of Parkes. We are very glad that the matter is being taken seriously and that there will be new legislation as soon as possible. We welcome that but we are concerned that this matter has apparently been allowed to go on for some months, if not longer, without us being made aware of it. It is very worrying and it needs to be put right with the maximum possible rapidity. We look forward to hearing up-to-date information on when a Bill will come forward and what form it will take.
My Lords, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has said, and I am not simply talking about new legislation. I do not think we are talking about excluding any Members, as we are very proud of the contribution that people make to this House. What has been the retrospective implication of the decisions that have been taken so far in terms of membership of Members of the Lords who may not have been entitled to sit in the House?
My Lords, may I crave your indulgence in saying that I am not the Minister responsible for these matters? I trust that your Lordships will accept that I will ensure that a response to all these questions will be given in the Written Ministerial Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what she has said because it helps to clarify the situation. She said that there was no certainty that our being here was out of order, so I am hoping that means that we can continue to attend while it is being made 100 per cent clear that to do so is in order.
My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to the Minister for the comprehensive route she has taken in responding to this debate. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part and made this such an interesting and informative debate.
While in my submission I portrayed an overall picture of the Commonwealth and tried to encompass salient topics, I am pleased that noble Lords have spoken on specific points. To save time, I am not able to mention the names of the noble Lords who made various points, but I will however say what those points were. They included: democratic values; extra funding for the commonwealth; the views of Pandit Nehru; the Harare Declaration; the Commonwealth youth credit initiative; how to combat poverty and corruption; trade between India and Pakistan; the Commonwealth Games in India; the free trade arrangement; the work of the Commonwealth Business Council; the work of the CPA; the respect for the Queen in the Commonwealth; the work of civil society; the judiciary in the Commonwealth and training of judges; the role of cricket in bringing people together; the role of the Commonwealth People’s Forum; and the contribution of Commonwealth citizens to the well-being and advancement of the United Kingdom.
I was brought up in a British colony; when I was a young boy we had Empire Day, and the empire resulted in the Commonwealth. It is imperative that Commonwealth Day is always celebrated; we must not be complacent and must look critically at issues which need improvement. It is a unique club, indeed, and all members, including Great Britain, need to address all the issues raised today. I hope that what has been said here has an impact on improving the Commonwealth as a whole. Against that background, with great appreciation for all those who have taken part, I beg leave to withdrawn the Motion.
Agriculture: Royal Society Report
My Lords, almost exactly 10 months ago, on 12 February, I rose to my feet in a debate on another outstanding report produced by a different team of concerned experts, the Good Childhood report. Reaping the Benefits is about a different problem in a different context but it, too, deals with a situation that will simply not go away. It also lays down imperatives for the Government. It is well written, packed with facts and punctuated with recommendations that certainly make sense to me.
This report has appeared just as the Royal Society celebrates its 350th anniversary. It is a worthy tribute to the work of the society, and has been produced at a time of great importance in the history of our planet. I am quite prepared to believe that the subject was chosen carefully to chime in with the society’s celebrations but I think the heavens themselves must have had a hand in the conjunction with the climate change summit in Copenhagen. It is an impressive text to accompany such vital discussions.
Looked at in one way, the past 50 years of global agriculture is a tale of surprising progress. Population has more than doubled, but the amount of food available has risen too. The greatest improvements have been in China and in Asia generally, but the Americas are also on a rising trend. Figures for Africa are no better than they were in 1960, while figures in Europe have declined slightly in recent years.
In the UK, according to the 2008 agricultural statistics, the trade gap in food, feed and drink has widened by 52 per cent in real terms since 1998 to £15.2 billion. At the same time, self-sufficiency in indigenous food has fallen by 9 per cent, from 82 per cent in 1998 to 73 per cent in 2008. The number of dairy cows has fallen by 22 per cent, beef cows by 13 per cent and pigs by 40 per cent. I could continue giving such figures about a variety of other items. Clearly this situation is unsustainable in the long term and the report reiterates the challenges we face.
The National Farmers’ Union publication, Why Farming Matters More Than Ever, points out that relying on trade and imports to buy our way out of any possible food shortages is naive in the extreme. If food worldwide becomes really scarce, there is nothing to stop countries from placing restrictions on their food exports. The World Bank counted 31 countries in July 2008 that had reduced or suspended their exports. We cannot simply continue to rely on importing food as and when we need it. The question is not how the world can continue to produce food for the UK market but rather what the UK can contribute to world food supplies.
In his foreword to Why Science Matters, NFU president Peter Kendall stated:
“Funding priorities should include proper resources given to applied science and translation to practice on the ground”.
This call for practical transfer of knowledge to farmers and the need for increasing UK skill levels is reflected in recommendation 5 of the Royal Society’s report. There a call is made to reverse the decline in subjects such as agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany science. The need for these skills was raised with me by the principal of Harper Adams, who explained the difficulty in accessing higher education funding. So the challenge is to develop the science base and provide a workforce able to understand and implement the new innovations through Defra, the BBSCR, universities and specialist agricultural colleges.
The need to work together across all departments is restated in the Royal Society’s first recommendation, which calls for research councils to develop a cross-council “grand challenge” on global food crop security. It believes that it will require between £50 million and £100 million per year of new government money in addition to the existing research spending. It urges central government, DfID and Defra to work closely together and calls for the benefits of such research to be made available to the poorer farmers.
The report clearly states that our technology should be harnessed to improve productivity overseas. This is particularly important in the struggle against the big bad trio of weeds, pests and diseases, which the report blames for up to 40 per cent of the losses worldwide over eight major crops, with the rider that without chemicals, resistant breeds and crop rotations, those losses could be between 50 per cent and 80 per cent.
In some parts of the developing world, crop losses are also caused by the lack of basic infrastructure, such as poor quality roads, no piped water and no organised way to put one’s produce up for sale. Farmers in the UK are aware of the difficulties faced by African families and in 1988, in response to their dilemma, a group of dairy farmers came together and sent pregnant cows to Uganda. Six years later, after experiencing a number of setbacks, they amended their arrangements so that the livestock were given to the woman of the household. Three years after that, they put in place a social development team to train the recipients of the cows in organic agriculture, environmental sustainability and livestock husbandry. It has been a wonderful success and is all written up in a set of papers called the Foundation Series.
GM crops have become well established in parts of the world and will surely be an important contributor to world food expansion. I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to the John Innes Centre at Norwich earlier this year to learn about the plant breeding programmes on which it is currently working. Although the European Union has so far decided against the importation of GM crops, many of us feel that this technology has much to offer. We should perhaps look at the possibility of having perennial wheat crops. I was also pleased to see that more than 100 scientists from overseas were working at the centre on up-to-date research.
Over the years, UK farmers have responded to the lead given them by Governments. UK food production doubled between the 1940s and the 1980s. Wheat, barley and oats increased sixfold after 1945 but UK yields have now levelled off, falling from a 4 per cent annual increase up to the 1980s to around 1 per cent.
Today, we expect farmers to produce food sustainably. In other words, we expect them to have regard for the environment and biodiversity. As the president of LEAF, I am a firm believer in integrated farm management systems. It would be difficult to imagine returning to prairie-type farming with the accompanying sacrifice of wildlife and biodiversity. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust also believes in farming in a sustainable manner. On its farm in Loddington, minimum tillage instead of deep ploughing, the planting of ground cover in the early stages of producing a wheat crop and the use of beetle banks are all part of its current research themes. Individual farmers are also committed to looking at new ways of producing food in order to benefit society as a whole.
In the past, UK farmers have not been known for close collaboration but this, too, is changing. For example, the Plumgarth Hub is a facility for farmers and cottage industries to reconnect to their food chain within the Lake District National Park. This was established in 2001 in response to consumers’ interest in locally produced, fully traceable food. Food security is not simply about producing the basic commodities; it should also allow consumer choice. Key to that choice is proper commodity labelling—an issue which I believe the Government have not taken on board—and country of origin labelling should be mandatory.
The world population will go on increasing for at least the next 40 years. At the same time, interruptions to the established pattern of weather, temperature and rainfall—what we call climate—are expected to continue and may well become more marked. Effects will be felt all across the globe but will impact differently in different parts of it. There can be no one solution, as this report makes abundantly clear.
It is also now obvious that developments that earlier were hailed as miracle workers—nitrogenous fertilisers, certain types of fishing nets and equipment that allowed fields to be tilled to the very roots of the hedges—have had unimagined and unhealthy side-effects. We are in the unfortunate position of having to cope with both the onset of the unexpected and the ramifications of our own mistakes.
The situation is grave; it may even be very grave. However, this learned report, in all its erudition, gives me great cause to hope that if those who govern us and those who have the required knowledge and experience will only study what is written and act upon it, things will start to improve. Having said that, I stress that everyone can play a part, however small. For example, we can all turn off lights at home, when we leave the office and when we go into the garden; we can have a quicker shower in the morning, wash the dishes in a bowl instead of using running water, make a new year resolution to ban the sprinkler from the lawn and recycle our Christmas cards. In addition, all of us could waste less food—in this country, we waste a third of all we produce.
Industry has been aware for a while of what faces us. Glancing at year-end reports and accounts tells a story of diversification—of oil companies growing vegetation for biofuels and construction companies testing solar and photovoltaic equipment. I think I am right in remembering that K-glass was a private invention, but it is now a standard for replacement windows.
Companies in the animal feed and animal health businesses have been prolific in their advances. Thank goodness they have, as with the speed at which disease is travelling around the world with the changing climate, they will need greater agility in the future. On the crop side, the discovery of plant genomes and how to unlock them has already resulted in considerable advances. However, I am assured that there is much more to come.
As I said, GM crops have become established in some parts of the world and will surely be an important contributor to world food expansion. So, too, will research into tillage systems designed to conserve soil quality. Concentration on the environment and how to operate in harmony with it is not a new phenomenon, and, as I said earlier, I am proud to be associated with LEAF here in the UK.
The world has a problem with food supply, and the UK has the knowledge and expertise that can help to defeat that problem. There is a need for co-ordinating effort, for pump-priming and for development funding that cannot be undertaken purely by private companies —in other words, there is a need for input from government. However, that input has to be effective. There will be a place for targets and monitoring but, most importantly, there must be involvement, encouragement and resources so that there is no let-up in constructing the solutions.
The next farming generation does not expect subsidies but it does want the Government to recognise the importance of farming and food production for the welfare of the nation. That next generation looks to have less unnecessary regulation and desires more joined-up thinking across government departments.
I apologise that I did not declare at the start my family’s farming interest and my interest in many rural communities.
Here in Reaping the Benefits is the blueprint. I hope that, unlike 10 months ago, the Government are listening and that they will resolve to take the Royal Society’s message on board. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on bringing forward this debate on the Royal Society report, Reaping the Benefits. It is extraordinary how history repeats itself, especially in agriculture and food production. The Royal Society, not for the first time, comes to the rescue. In 1755, progressive farmers and landowners in Breconshire, my home county, consulted the Royal Society because farmers and rural dwellers were struggling with rampant poverty in rural areas. With Royal Society support, they founded the Brecknock Agricultural Society—the first agricultural society—and the first agricultural show in the whole of Britain. This far-sighted act furthered what were then modern farming techniques and the transfer of modern technology to farmers in order to reduce rural poverty, and it was a resounding success. In 2005, it celebrated its 250th year. In times past, it introduced the Norfolk four-course rotation system, which was phased out only in the 1960s. There is cattle and sheep-breeding excellence, and likewise, there were projects in the First and Second World Wars. The war agricultural executive committee in the Second World War put in place progressive farmers all over Great Britain. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a revolution and, as I have mentioned before, I was part of that, working for ICI’s agricultural division. Many of my colleagues worked for the advisory service at NAAS, which became ADAS and on research stations.
Post-Second World War, UK self-sufficiency rates went up from 40 per cent to 75 per cent. Today, UK self-sufficiency in home-produced food is only 60 per cent. At the same time, the world cannot feed itself. Make no mistake, this is a crisis. Add to that climate change, which Sir David King, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, described as the biggest challenge to face us in the 21st century. We have a lot of problems, and it is not surprising that the Royal Society has produced this timely report. It is in five sections: the challenge of food security, both UK and global, scientific targets, capacity to innovate, making science make a difference and governance. It is a large subject, but I shall address the first point only—the challenge of food security, both UK and global.
I am concentrating my remarks because I believe that this is the most important aspect confronting us. Indeed, section 5.1 covers many aspects of the importance of achieving food security both within the UK and across the world. It makes the cogent point that the world does not have the ability to feed itself at present. There are many other aspects pointing to increased global food production, but that has to be achieved without damage to the environment and the long-term interests of the globe.
The UK could lead the way, but one has to re-establish research, particularly agricultural education, and reinvent agricultural extension and advisory capacity. These points are made in the report, along with the importance of public funding to bring it about. Agriculture and farming must come to the fore. Defra’s cuts in the budget for agricultural research have been devastating. I believe that they are the result of undue pressure by the Treasury, which has been extremely negligent of the future of farming and food production in this country. It has downgraded the importance of the science over the past 20 years, and the amount spent now on research is minimal. The closure of many research and experimental stations was unforgivable. In our debate in this House on 20 January, I outlined clearly what had gone on in research stations that no longer exist.
It will be only if we restore our lost capacity and get on-farm technology transfer again that we can help to solve the global food production crisis. We cannot rely on corporate company research to solve our problems. I say that as someone who has worked for a large corporate company in my time. GM research cannot rely on the Monsantos of this world. It needs independent, publicly funded research and development with truly objective independent assessment. All risk factors must be evaluated. The Treasury must stop ignoring agriculture and Defra must get itself properly organised to meet these challenges.
I believe that the crisis in Africa is extremely serious. Indeed, the issue of climate change is impacting very seriously. However, I believe that the problems of feeding the world are not insoluble. The primary recommendations of the Royal Society in a British context can be achieved with imagination and courage, and many of these problems can be solved both in the UK and globally.
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Byford for giving us the opportunity to consider what the United Kingdom could and should contribute to the agenda of addressing the challenges of global food security. We need globally co-ordinated programmes of research that can be translated rapidly into sustainable food production, particularly in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where food security is an immediate and urgent issue.
I declare several interests. I am a farmer. I chair the Living with Environmental Change programme, which is a co-ordinated programme of publicly funded research. Indeed, food security is one of our major priorities, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Services Research Council. I should also put on record that I was on the review panel for the Royal Society’s report. It said in so many words that it did not have to take any notice of members of the review panel, but nevertheless, there I am on the list.
In the context of global food security and the research needed to ensure food supplies, we should note that this report from the Royal Society is dealing with the potential for food crop production. One must recognise that animal husbandry, agricultural engineering, and indeed, the social sciences all can and should make a contribution to this great issue of global food security. It is not to minimise the role of food crop production. Clearly, it is absolutely key, but we should be under no illusion that food crop production in itself will only be part of the solution. I emphasise once more how important the social sciences will be. Without understanding how research can be transferred into appropriate technology, as has so often been seen in the past, research fails to be effective.
I like the concept of sustainable intensification in the report. To many people that sounds like an oxymoron. After all, those of us who farm intensively—I have never made any secret that my farm is certainly intensive—have always been upbraided, sometimes fairly, for the impacts of leakage into soil, air and water and the effects on biodiversity. Sustainable intensification is an important concept. Extensive use of land, or land that could be better protected to provide ecosystem services is an important concept. To be greedy on land will clearly be self-defeating.
Agricultural research has been an enormously successful story, not just since Malthus, who is always mentioned in this context. If we compare the food available—theoretically available, although there are availability issues, but the food grown—it is about 29 per cent more per capita, bearing in mind the increase in population, than it was in 1960. I say again, of course, that many people simply do not have access to that food. We need agricultural production systems that do not leak into soil, air and water, which conserve and enhance the soil’s organic matter, which buttress the resilience of our ecosystems and which contribute to habitats. Let us take, for example, pollinator insects, which is a topical subject. There is a lot of interest in how to restore the ability of insects to add to food production. We recognise that by losing habitats we have lost pollinator insects. We need to use land for flood protection and carbon sinks. It is not just trees but soils that provide that. We can also expect farming systems to replace fossil fuels with energy crops.
There is a long list of issues that some would have said are irreconcilable. I do not believe that at all. Like my noble friend Lady Byford, I am eternally optimistic. This report from the Royal Society points out the enormous opportunities. Remember, after all, that the biological sciences are serving us well and, although there have been the swingeing cuts to which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred, in the applied research in agriculture, the biological sciences have done well. The report refers to the enormous advances in genomics and molecular biology. Where we are short—this is where I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Livsey—is that we lack the soil scientists, the agronomists and the agricultural engineers. I remember that in the 1980s, when I chaired the Agriculture and Food Research Council, long since subsumed into the BBSRC, I had the gloomy job of presiding over closure after closure, which continues to this day. That was because there was simply a lack of understanding as to how transferring the great advances in the biological sciences into food production in this country would be a useful public service. Secretary of State after Secretary of State said that food security was not on the agenda. That changed two years ago, rightly.
We need to recognise that this country can contribute to the underpinning science, to capacity-building in the third world and to the conservation of natural resources, including biodiversity. To do that, we will have to bring all our research institutes, botanic gardens and agricultural colleges in line with the departmental priorities not just of Defra but of DfID.
My Lords, I too, must declare an interest as a farmer, and a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust at Rothamsted. I focus my remarks on the crucial agricultural research that that goes on in this country but which is for the benefit of farmers in the developing world, notably Africa.
The UN believes that by 2030, one in every three births will be in Africa, and that by 2050, every other birth in the world will occur there. Although the political instability that goes with food shortage should be avoided—I, too, am an optimist—in most of the rest of the world, the disaster that is waiting to happen in Africa is sure to spill over and affect us all, unless we now redirect our efforts to reinvigorate African agriculture.
Most African farmers, 70 per cent of whom are women, are struggling to enter into commercial farming. Indeed, how can a lady farmer in Africa invest in irrigation or crop storage—two very important missing pieces of the jigsaw needed for African agriculture—when she cannot establish ownership or rights to her land? What is the point of her paying for modern seeds, even if they have the potential to triple her production, when she says, “What do I do with the surplus when I have fed my family and my village?”. There are no local markets. There is no market infrastructure. There are few roads. A village with surplus might be only 60 miles away from a village with famine. Only last year, in 2008, northern Tanzania was short of maize, while southern Tanzania had a surplus, but it was easier and cheaper to ship maize in from abroad than to transport it from the south to the north of the country.
However, there is huge potential for agricultural growth in Africa. It has abundant resources and 12 times the land area of India, with only half as many people to feed. Tanzania, for instance, reckons that it is using only 23 per cent of its arable land. We need an agricultural revolution to take Africa out of poverty.
Asia has shown that it can be done. In the 1970s and 1980s, Asian Governments kick-started their green revolution by spending 15 per cent—sometimes more—of their budget on agriculture. For instance, that allowed Vietnam to turn itself from being a net importer of rice into being the second largest exporter of rice in the world. It allowed China to take 400 million people out of poverty by focusing on smallholder agriculture. Always, agriculture is the key. The World Bank estimates that a 1 per cent increase in agricultural GDP in Africa reduces poverty by four times as much as a 1 per cent increase in non-agricultural GDP.
Yet donor countries spend less than 5 per cent of ODA on agriculture. The UK is one of the worst offenders. Our aid to sub-Saharan Africa has declined by 30 per cent since 1997. There are numerous examples where research and extension have worked. For instance, the introduction of Mosaic disease-resistant cassava varieties into West Africa during the 1980s is estimated to have contributed to feeding an additional 29 million people in the region on an ongoing basis. That is but one example of many. It is vital that we continue to provide the science to enable us to repeat such breakthroughs.
However, the main point that I want to make today, which echoes the message of the Reaping the Benefits report, to which other noble Lords have referred, is that any renewed investment in R&D is completely useless unless it is translated into work on farms and in communities. The point is that knowledge transfer is a two-way process. It is a partnership between growers and scientists. If the link between the two is broken, everyone is wasting their time. Blue-sky research with no bearing on the growers’ ability to produce is pointless. We used to have a revered reputation for agricultural extension in Africa, which we are losing. We were way ahead of the rest of the field, but DfID now talks about not having “a competitive advantage” in agriculture, which, frankly, is meaningless nonsense.
Modern seeds and fertilisers could already triple production on many farms if only the lady farmer could find the training and finance package from her local government. Does that need a competitive advantage in agriculture? She could bring money to her village if only she could find storage for her crop and the means to market it and transport it away. Does that need a competitive advantage in agriculture? She could invest in her own land—for example, in irrigation—if only she were allowed to own it. Does that need a competitive advantage in agriculture? Focusing on agriculture does not require DfID to have agricultural expertise; it is about helping African Governments across a variety of departments to invest in a range of rural infrastructure, without which most of our agricultural research and extension will go to waste.
I believe that there are serious political dangers ahead if we do not invest in agriculture in Africa. Our foreign policy and overseas aid must be targeted at ensuring that our scientists can bring their research and solutions to bear on these problems.
My Lords, it is always a privilege to support my noble friend Lady Byford, especially on this problem. I crave the indulgence of the House and of the Minister if I have to leave before the wind-up—my wife has just come out of hospital and I think that she needs me at home. I declare an interest as a farmer who is involved in many farming organisations. I am president of the food research institute at Chipping Campden and president of the International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council, which is worldwide.
As to reaping the benefits, we are talking about the benefits of 50 years of international research since the green revolution. Of course, now we face the challenges of securing the food supplies for those suggested 9 billion people by 2050. That has to be done by facing the change in consumption patterns, the impact of climate change and, since they are not making any more, the scarcity of water and land.
Of course, we must see this in globalised terms. In Britain, only two years ago, no Minister could accept that there could ever be a food shortage or a need for security. We lived through a period of surpluses in Europe, many reforms of the common agricultural policy, fixing intervention prices, creating quotas and then taking 10 per cent out of the land to reduce the surpluses that we had. “Why expand production if we could import food cheaper?” seemed to be the thought in the minds of many. Over the past decade, as my noble friend Lady Byford said, dairy herds have halved, livestock numbers have decreased and the pound to euro relationship has been to our disadvantage. The Minister for Climate Change, Ed Miliband, recently said, or was reported to have said, that we should reduce livestock numbers by one-third to reduce gas emissions. The answer is that we have already done that, but for economic reasons.
To meet the needs of the future, we must obviously reverse that trend. We need to reduce the food miles and fill more shopping baskets with local food, in fair competition with other European products. That is a tall order and cannot happen overnight, but we need to sow the seeds for a better future in order to reap the benefits of the research—benefits for the consumer and the nation and benefits enabling and encouraging food growth in those developing countries where it is needed. That is often a problem, but more one of distribution than of growth.
The summary of the report makes some interesting comments, which have already been mentioned. It states that,
“the UK needs to maintain and build its capacity to innovate, in collaboration with international and national research centres ... but training in agricultural sciences and related topics has recently suffered from a lack of policy attention and support”.
With the background of the world recession, it will be difficult to meet the target of feeding the hungry and to meet the needs of the growing population and the ever increasing average human lifespan. In practical terms, that means doubling production and tripling crop yields with less land and water. This is a problem, mostly for developing countries, such as China and India.
The urgency also lies with dealing with climate change, which we debated yesterday. The two are inescapably linked. The impact of climate change is often promoted in simplistic and fragmented ways. To suggest that we should stop eating meat because of its higher energy inputs and the methane production from ruminant animals, when they are key to maintaining biodiversity and are often the only effective utiliser of grass—one of the best converters of sunlight into digestible crops and essential for maintaining soil fertility and soil structure—cannot make sense.
The problem is the failure to put a value on biodiversity. Next year, 2010, is the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity. There is little sign that the world is taking much notice. The techniques of biotechnology take plant breeders one step further when they are applied to food. They refer to an alteration in the genetic make-up of a certain food, animal or plant. To meet the needs of world hunger, we must find methods of boosting growth.
GM crops were introduced in North America in 1995; last year, more than 125 million hectares of GM crops were commercially grown worldwide by more than 13 million farmers in 25 countries. Consumers are happily consuming soya milk imported from the United States—where 90 per cent of the soya crop, from 62 million hectares, is genetically modified—yet they complain about using genetically modified seed in this country. That is understandable when many are led to believe that genetically modified products are Frankenstein food. The main arguments against GM crops are based on their unknown environmental impact, yet 12 years’ commercial experience suggests that insect-resistant and disease-resistant crops reduce the number of pesticide applications, since plants have an inbuilt ability to protect themselves from certain pests and diseases. All this takes account of the use of feedstock for biofuels in response to the rundown in the supply of high-priced fossil fuel.
The lack of availability of water will inhibit production. Sixty-seven per cent of fresh water is now, rightly, used in agriculture but, as the population increases and prosperity spreads, the demand will increase still further, so there will be a shortage and, in the battle for priorities, food production will suffer without sufficient water. Farmers have to rely more on scientists to find alternatives in the growth of new crops. Interesting research is taking place in countries such as Israel and that is important to the growth of food elsewhere where it is needed in the world.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. Rather a long time ago, I was a member of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee when he was its chairman. In those days, I think he thought that the late Barbara Castle and I, the Labour members on the committee, caused him a certain amount of grief—he is nodding—but I remember him as a diplomatic and wise chairman in a challenging post.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on initiating this debate and pay tribute to her for her long-standing commitment to British agriculture and the countryside. I know that a couple of weeks ago she flagged up this debate in her contribution on the Queen’s Speech. I hope that she will not mind if I take issue with a point that she made concerning the siting of the new Marine Management Organisation in the north-east of England. I think she said that she thought it was being put there simply because we have a Defra office in the area. However, Newcastle University has the largest and most broadly based marine school in the country and we have the excellent Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats. While I would not denigrate the other strong candidates for the location of the agency, I urge the noble Baroness to visit the north-east to see the excellent facilities and become aware of our long maritime tradition, which means that the area will be an excellent location for the organisation.
The report to which the noble Baroness has drawn our attention is important in dealing with food production and food security in a world with an expanding population that is confronted by climate change and resource depletion. Its recommendations are important for the UK and the wider world. We are all familiar with the sobering statistics, but it was telling that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, referred to specific examples of what is happening, particularly in Africa, about which we need to be concerned.
The report also highlights the importance of working with EU partners on some of these issues. As we know, British agriculture has to be looked at within the EU context because of the existence of the common agricultural policy. I must say that I find it frustrating that much reporting of the CAP still tends to be in old-fashioned terms, as if it is still the policy that existed in the past. Guaranteed prices were offered for some crops and products, often at the expense of others, and that led to bad environmental as well as other effects. However, not only has the agricultural budget been reduced—it now represents 35 per cent of the total EU budget instead of 70 per cent as it did in my day and that of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb—but, with the emergence of the second pillar of the agricultural policy, we have potentially a much better approach that will allow for more market-friendly activities and a policy that respects the environment more than was the case in the past. At the same time, this approach will allow funds to be used for some of the important goals quite rightly highlighted in the report. I hope that the movement away from the traditional funding approach towards more funding under the second pillar will continue. If the public see money being spent in a way that delivers public goods and helps the environment, support for agricultural spending will be much greater in the future than it was in the past.
Recently the Franco-British Council, of which I am chair, organised a debate on agriculture which attracted participants in equal numbers from Britain and France. Instead of the stereotypical arguments of the past, where we were at loggerheads with each other, it was good to see broad agreement on the importance of the environment in agricultural policy, the importance of research and the need to get away from the traditional type of CAP to something more positive for the future.
In her speech, the noble Baroness mentioned the importance of farming sustainably and biodiversity. I should like to conclude with a couple of remarks on each of those. I pay tribute to British farmers on how they have increasingly adopted an environmentally sustainable approach to farming. The contrast between organic and mainstream farmers is now much less marked than it used to be. We ought to recognise that and pay tribute to it. Biodiversity and the quality of our countryside are also important. Next year is the International Year of Biodiversity, so while we ought to do our bit to support the survival of threatened plants and animals throughout the world, we also need to do that at home.
In saying that, I conclude with another parochial issue dear to my heart, which is the survival of the red squirrel in Northumberland, where I live. A lot more needs to be done if this charming creature is to be safeguarded for the future. This year we have seen greater encroachment by grey squirrels than ever before, so we need to establish an effective buffer zone. It would be tragic if, in the International Year of Biodiversity, we saw even fewer of our precious flora and fauna in our own country, so I urge the Government to do their bit in that respect.
My Lords, this is a timely debate, initiated by my noble friend Lady Byford. As we all know, the Copenhagen conference on climate change is now in progress, which in turn is timely since the future problems of the globe will be upon us in a matter of a generation. As has been mentioned, by 2050 some 9 billion people will inhabit our planet; the issues that growth raises are global in nature and in urgent need of attention. Other speakers have therefore mentioned global warming, environmental degradation, water shortages and even social unrest, which is already upon us in certain countries. Such burgeoning populations will demand new approaches to food production and security, as well as to disease control.
In his foreword to the Royal Society report, the president, the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, notes that a multi-pronged approach that includes using essential modern genetic technology is identified. He notes the,
“big gap between sophisticated UK laboratories and the reality of subsistence farming in Africa”.
I would add that there are other areas of the world, such as parts of Asia and South America, where farming is still carried out at the subsistence level. Ronan Keating, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s good will ambassador, has stated quite bluntly that the fundamental way to address global poverty and food security must begin with putting agriculture back at the top of the international development agenda. Some 500 million peasant farmers across the developing world face a daily struggle to produce and provide enough food for their families and the people they support.
The report identifies the issues that lead to food insecurity, and I wish to deal with two of the eight that are listed. The first is the increasing demand for livestock products—meat and dairy—especially from animals fed on grain, and the second is the growing demand for biofuels. My noble friend Lord Plumb illustrated the amount of grain that is grown by farmers globally. It comes as no surprise that 90 per cent of the world’s soy is destined for animal feed and that for every kilogram of beef produced, nine kilograms of soy have to be used.
Livestock have come in for serious criticism because of their consumption of grass, their production of methane and for other reasons, but it should not be forgotten that in many parts of the developing world livestock are absolutely essential to provide the draught power for cultivation. Animals such as oxen, yaks, buffaloes, donkeys, camels and, occasionally, elephants, are essential providers of energy without which sustainable agriculture would not be possible.
The other driver of chronic food insecurity on which I wish to dwell is the use of food crops for biofuels. Again, this has been identified by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and several international institutions as a key cause of the food crisis by increasing the demand for crops such as grain and corn and increasing competition for land between food and fuel producers. As has been detailed, intensive fuel production destroys the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in places such as Brazil. Of course, not all biofuel production should be dismissed. Marginal land, properly used, can probably be used to produce biofuel crops.
Alain Lipietz, a French MEP, poses the question:
“How can we dedicate land to biofuel production when 25,000 people are dying from hunger each day?”.
In a world where 1.4 billion hectares are cultivated, this statistic is alarming—and yet 4 per cent of crops that are grown for food are dedicated to biofuel production.
The Royal Society report maintains that many areas can be addressed by scientists in this country. The executive director of the European Environment Agency has said that Europe should seek to generate as much bioenergy as possible itself without compromising the situation elsewhere in the world, and has given some hard-headed facts about this. The first is that business as usual cannot attain, and the second is that bold imagination and action are necessary. The report contains bold suggestions and is worthy of close attention and, I hope, action.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Byford for introducing the debate and particularly for the way in which she did so. I declare an interest as a trustee of trusts that own agricultural land in the north of Scotland and as a chartered surveyor who is no longer active in that capacity in the farming world.
In 1974, Henry Kissinger, then the USA’s Secretary of State, told the first food conference in Rome that no child would go to bed hungry within 10 years. Recently, at another UN food conference in Rome, we were told that about 15 per cent of the world’s population will go to bed hungry. That is an indictment on all of us but it is only part of the sorry saga. The report of the Royal Society not only helps to identify ways in which it is possible to feed these people but is also a crucial addition to the wider debate on how to secure intensified global food production in a sustainable manner to feed a burgeoning population. It produces a range of evidence to support its message that food security is one of this century’s key global challenges.
There are no quick and easy ways to produce sufficient nutritious food for a population approaching 9 billion while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of food production. The immediate objective must be to sustain stable, high yields in the face of soil erosion and degradation, finite non-renewable resources, losses through pests and diseases and increased climate variation and change.
The husbandry and farm management technologies needed for this will differ greatly, both internationally and nationally. Much will depend on climate, soil, topography, current crops and, as my noble friend Lord Plumb has just reminded us, society’s view of crop production; for example, GM crops. The EU has been guilty of allowing decisions to be based on emotion, not science. The latest regulations on the licensing and use of plant protection products, which make obtaining approval for products hugely expensive and a constraint on industry, are a good example. Such attitudes are hampering the putting into place of solutions now to the very problems that my noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, highlighted, thus perpetuating poverty, hunger and malnutrition. But not just crop yield is important. There is a need to maintain the health of the cropping system and reduce its external impacts. The great driving force in improving agricultural production, maintaining profits, improving habitat and reducing external impacts throughout the world has been farm machinery. This is likely to continue. What are the Government doing to make sure that the UK is a force in this market?
Improving our scientific knowledge is also a key factor and was stressed in the Royal Society’s report. In this country we are fortunate to have world-leading scientific and research institutions. One of these is the Scottish Crop Research Institute, which will shortly amalgamate with the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute to form the biggest such institute in the UK, and it will be unique in its remit in Europe. The SCRI has for many years taken its scientific research and converted it into products for the marketplace. Given this expertise and great resource, can the Minister tell me what contracts, together with their value, Defra and DfID have placed with SCRI? Can he also confirm today that the Scottish and English research bodies obtain equal access to all the funding from the research councils? If not, the RCUK is a misnomer and recommendation 1 of the Royal Society’s report is undermined.
Chapter 2 of the report looks at the constraints on future food crop production and points out:
“In most areas the effects of climate change will further exacerbate the stresses on crop plants, potentially leading to catastrophic yield reductions”.
I have the privilege of serving on EU Sub-Committee D. We have just launched an inquiry into the EU policy response to adaptation of agriculture and forestry to climate change. The starting point for our inquiry is the European Commission’s White Paper of April 2009, Adapting to climate change, and the related paper on the challenge for European agriculture and rural areas. The White Paper recognises that most adaptation measures will be taken at national, regional or local levels, but states that measures can be strengthened by an integrated approach at EU level, as climate change does not recognise national boundaries. We aim to conclude our inquiry and report to the House by the end of March next year. We are clear about some of the key issues that we need to explore and, not surprisingly, these parallel those in the Royal Society’s report. The effect of climate change will be variable and unequal in the EU and even within the UK. Climate change may also mean greater uncertainties in weather patterns with more extremes. This raises questions of improving resilience of crops and soils to such shocks.
What will this mean for the British farmer? There is no clear-cut answer yet. What, however, is clear is that, first, scientific evidence indicates that we will be luckier than most other countries and, secondly, farmers will need to change and years of tradition will be swept away. Stock numbers have declined hugely recently and I have never seen the hills so empty of sheep. As we increasingly turn our attention to land management, public environmental polices as well as habitats and species protection, so farming methods will change. For example, we have plenty of what is an increasingly precious resource, water, but we do not manage it. If farmland is to become a better holding ground for water, those who manage the land will need to be compensated accordingly if it is at the expense of agriculture, production and income. Have the Government given consideration to the value and cost of the new impositions on farmers, and how they will help them retrain to be more land managers than solely producers of crops and stock?
Our reaction to these huge problems depends on finance. The Stern report and the Royal Society’s report highlight the possible cost of mitigation and adaptation. Will the Minister confirm that he agrees with the Royal Society that RCUK should receive at least £2 billion of new money and that the Government will provide it?
My Lords, I declare several interests. I am the president of the British Trust for Ornithology, president of my local wildlife trust and a member of the climate change adaptation sub-committee.
I welcome in broad terms the Royal Society report and in particular the concept of sustainable intensification, although there are elements of the report that I do not agree with, and I shall come on to them. There is no doubt that there will be a genuine societal need to increase food production in the UK and the rest of north-west Europe in the coming decades, as climate change restricts production elsewhere and populations continue to grow. The last time that there was such a need to increase food production, the research, new technology and state-funded advice all swung pretty smoothly into action and, in combination, were very successful, but at a terrible cost to biodiversity. We cannot afford for history to repeat itself, not only because of the impact that it would have on biodiversity and on other land-based values—landscape, carbon emissions, soil conservation and water quality, as well as flood attenuation—but also because it would be ultimately self-defeating, undermining the ecosystem services on which agriculture depends. It is not inevitable that history has to repeat itself, but there are some strenuous technical and policy challenges, which the Royal Society report outlines.
I ask the Minister to grasp three issues arising from this report and from the challenge of intensifying food production. The first is really about the framework of controls, regulation and incentives for sustainable agriculture and managing the impact of agriculture in the future on biodiversity and other ecosystem services. At the moment, it is clear that the framework is not working. The farmland bird index, the Government’s own index for sustainability in the farmed environment, has not improved for many years. It is clear that some of the current incentives are not working. Shortly, further scientific work will be announced on the biodiversity impacts of the environmentally sensitive area scheme, which will demonstrate that there is still little improvement in farmland birds.
We have a voluntary scheme in the shape of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. It is early days for that yet, and it is very much a voluntary scheme, although we welcome the initiative from the farming organisations. But the big player in town on the issue of agriculture is the framework of the common agricultural policy. We need the Government to grasp the task of the reform leading up to 2014, to ensure that substantial money moves from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the common agricultural policy.
The second issue that I urge the Minister to take up is recommendation 11 of the Royal Society report of an EU regulatory system for new agricultural technologies, including genetic modification. I was chairman of English Nature at the time of the first world war on genetic modification, when concerns were raised about the impact of GM on biodiversity. We should learn from the history of that as well, because many in the conservation movement are not against genetic modification of agricultural crops to intensify food production. Rather, they are against ill advised release into the environment without proper testing. We would not release medicines into the human population without lengthy and proper testing, and we need to ensure that the regulatory system for all environmental technologies and all the adverse impacts that could have an effect on our ecosystems and biodiversity are properly tested before they come into play. That means getting ahead of the game. A drug manufacturer knows exactly how long in advance of putting a drug into production it needs to get its testing processes under way.
On the broader issue of land use, we are not making land any more. We have a finite resource on this small island. There are hugely competing claims, which will intensify with climate change, rising population and potentially increased immigration. The Government, with great wisdom, have instituted a full study by the Foresight programme, and it will report early in 2010. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government will take up the recommendations that I hope the report will make on a land use strategy and the creation of a new decision process for rationalising competing land uses.
I shall finish briefly with a naked and unashamed plug before the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, tells me that I have exceeded my six minutes. Today is the day when the climate change committee’s adaptation sub-committee is launched. Many of your Lordships helpfully and collaboratively combined to ensure that the committee was brought into being as part of the Climate Change Act, and I thank your Lordships for that. I hope that all Members of this House, and indeed the Government, will welcome the work of the committee and give it support in future to help to ensure that this country transforms to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for bringing this report to the attention of the House and for giving us the chance to debate it today. I declare my interests as a livestock farmer, particularly one in what are called the “less favoured areas”.
The report exemplifies the high standards and expertise that we all expect from the Royal Society. Particularly impressive is the survey of the world’s current and future constraints on food production. For those involved in food production, it is not all for our comfort or complacency. As the report says,
“Current approaches to maximising production within agricultural systems are unsustainable”.
It also quotes from a report by the FAO, the UN and the World Bank which says that,
“the dominant model of agriculture needs to change”.
The encouraging side to this is that farmers in this country are always ready to respond to change, and take a great interest in innovation.
The context of where we are is encapsulated by the statistics that the report gives: while 1 billion people are currently malnourished, 1 billion are overweight. To take further the quote mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, about the people who die of starvation and related illnesses, I have a figure of 35,000 in the past 24 hours—but the finer point is really academic.
As many noble Lords have mentioned, in British agriculture we find that production in many areas is shrinking and we are relying increasingly on imported food. The outstanding characteristic of the report is the emphasis on sustainability and the contribution of science and technology. A major part of this has to be the uptake of new ideas in areas of the world where there is poverty and malnutrition, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned.
I have always been impressed by the work of a Scottish academic friend of mine who teaches at the University of Harare. Some of his evidence, on pages 31 and 32 of the report, deals with the elimination of diseases and viruses. For over 20 years, he has been training Africans in modern methods of crop improvement. Using technology that initially meant, for lack of funding, that he was using jam jars instead of Petri dishes to produce virus-free stock, he has helped to found an indigenous biotechnology company in Zimbabwe whose products are now feeding 3 million people. This pioneering work has increased the sweet potato and cassava yield from six tonnes to 30 tonnes per hectare. This means that 1.2 hectares is sufficient ground to feed a family for a year.
Financed by local and international NGOs, including Save the Children, virus-free plants have been supplied to 60,000 African smallholder families. After the first harvest, each family is able to sell to 10 other families. Taking each family as five people, that means that one-third of the population of Zimbabwe is being reached with the economic means of commercial farming as well as their own sustenance. The plant material is distributed along with graduate-level trainers who understand the farmers’ culture and guide them in the new processes. The FAO has now commissioned Agri-Biotech to supply 50 million rooted cuttings to 77 separate projects across the country.
I do not know whether this will offer any comfort to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, but the report draws an interesting distinction with regard to that emotionally loaded phrase, genetic modification. It distinguishes between transgenetic GM and cis-genetic GM. Some elements of cis-genetic GM have been used for centuries, but now it is able to be carried out with much more precision. Even now, I would feel that should be much more acceptable to the sceptical European public. Just think what my Harare friend would do if presented with a few cis-genetic solutions. The question of how much already-available technology is not being transferred to poor farmers around the world is vital. Virus elimination by means of simple biotechnology should work for a number of crops. Aid channels such as DfID, as well as the countries themselves, could do more to enhance the status of young scientists, and Zimbabwe, once settled in a productive new phase, could again be a hub for agricultural advance in the region.
As my noble friend Lord Plumb has pointed out, there has been a contraction of livestock production in the UK. That has contributed to some statistics that are rather relevant today, when we are talking about Copenhagen. These were provided to me by NFU Scotland, which points out that agricultural emissions of methane and NO2 have fallen by 17 per cent since 1990, with CO2 falling by 5 per cent since 2006. Yet in some areas, that approach is really unsustainable. Taking figures from the Scottish Agricultural College’s report Farming’s Retreat from the Hills, it has been achieved mainly by a 12 per cent drop in beef cow numbers and a 23 per cent drop in sheep numbers. Yet in the half of Scotland which is the Highlands and Islands, the contraction of the sheep flock is nearer 30 per cent—and, in some districts, it is 60 per cent.
While it is always a virtue to consider what our farmers can do to enhance our national food security, is it not time that we began to think more of what, by pioneering technology, our farmers could do to alleviate the fate of the starving people in the other parts of the world?
My Lords, I start by thanking and congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on initiating this important debate. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my declaration of interests: I am an owner and landlord of agricultural property, and my law firm has a large agricultural department.
Governments and Parliaments the world over are usually and understandably fixated on the immediate and current problems. It is therefore all the more welcome that I and other noble Lords are able today to congratulate the Royal Society—and Sir David Baulcombe and his working group—on producing such a profound and prescient work on a matter of such vital importance to the citizens of the world. The ability of the world to grow enough good food for all without depleting and degrading its ability to continue to do so is, I believe, the nub of the paper. We are very grateful to the Royal Society.
There are many other aspects to and consequences of that challenge, such as global warming, international and national stability, population growth and migration. On that side, I would be interested to hear whether the Minister knows what effect chaos and mayhem in failing states have on world food production. Zimbabwe was once one of the most successful agricultural economies in Africa, and it is not alone. Is there academic research on food production loss in such states? The fundamental and pivotal problems, and proposed solutions, are highlighted in this important report.
First, exactly what do the Government intend to do with the report? Will they respond in writing to it, and when will they do so? I hope that the House will then have an opportunity to debate that response. One great advantage of this House is that we can find time to highlight such significant anticipatory work as has been adumbrated in this report, and continue to press the Government not only to take the report seriously but to act upon it. Secondly, are the Government aware of whether this report will be considered and discussed by the United Nations and—as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, who was a distinguished Agriculture Minister, suggested—by the European Union? Are the Government taking an active role internationally through the Foreign Office to highlight the report and canvass for international co-operation in reaching solutions?
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, is correct when he says in the foreword to the report that government support is crucial. Governments of the world can learn from science, which sets an enviable example of international co-operation in the sharing of learning, research and expertise worldwide. What action are the Government and their EU partners taking to secure better soil management and to promote agronomy, soil science and agro-ecology? The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, with his wealth of experience, described the lamentable reduction of expertise in these fields. Figure 2.1 on page 14 of the report illustrates that Britain and other European Union countries suffer extensively from degraded or very degraded soil. What research is being undertaken or supported by the Government into the use of pesticides, organic modes of production and new crop varieties? What is our contribution to international science and our own science in these fields?
UK agriculture and our farmers are the most innovative and enterprising. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, reminded the House of the altruistic work carried out by groups of farmers in the United Kingdom. I am aware of several such initiatives and schemes. Great credit goes to our farmers, who make considerable sacrifices directly to improve the lives of individuals in emerging countries. What steps is Defra taking to join the UK agriculture industry in this important work, and what is it doing to connect our farmers to these innovations? This point was rightly stressed by my noble friend Lord Livsey, who has considerable knowledge and experience in this field.
The report graphically illustrates that, however important our national priorities may be, we live in a small world and are utterly interdependent. We can and must work together as one world, acknowledging and embracing our common humanity.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer and a grower. We are members of LEAF, the organisation that links farming and the environment, and of which my noble friend Lady Byford has spoken as its president. I have for a long time, like other noble Lords, been involved with organisations connected to the industry, and have maintained my involvement with many of them.
I thank my noble friend Lady Byford, as have many noble Lords, for introducing this important debate. Noble Lords’ contributions have set a very high standard. They have been authoritative and have covered the wide range of the subject area. They also reflect the authority of the Royal Society’s report, Reaping the Benefits. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, who unfortunately is not in his place, and Sir David Baulcombe, the chairman of the committee that produced this great and seminal work. It crowns the 350-year existence of the society with a work in an area of immense importance. Together with the concept of the perfect storm from John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientist, it sets the agenda of feeding the world against a background of climate change, soil degradation, water shortage and population growth. Food security is a topic of our time. There is a moral imperative on British agriculture to seek to address it.
Only today in the Metro newspaper, which many noble Lords will have picked up on their way here, there is talk of 100 million people starving as a result of climate change. I did not see the “Horizon” programme that showed just how great the pressures are on the world’s food resources, but it was reported to me earlier today.
The theme of this report is the international nature of agricultural research and science. It is of global relevance. We heard very evocative speeches from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, about the ways in which British science and what we do in the United Kingdom can support, and is vital for, continents such as Africa and others where food security is an even greater threat than it is to this country.
There is strong consensus across the Chamber on this matter. Earlier today I spoke at a Lantra conference where I reminded the delegates of the importance of agricultural skills. I said that I did not think the Minister would be greatly out of sympathy with the views expressed by noble Lords, and I expect that will be so. However, it has not always been the case. It is only a relatively short time since the former Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, suggested that it would be possible for the United Kingdom to feed itself in a world market, for it was perceived that there was a world market of plenty. Those days and those perceptions are gone for good, but their consequences are serious. My noble friend Lady Byford gave the relevant figures. A reduction in self-sufficiency of 1 per cent per annum over the past 10 years is a serious loss to the resources of this country. University faculties have been run down, as have research institutes. I was a trustee of the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute, which has gone. My local experimental horticultural station became part of the Institute of Horticultural Research at Kirton in Lincolnshire, which has gone. Indeed, the Institute of Horticultural Research at Wellesbourne is under threat—I spoke to Professor Stuart Palmer only the other day—as a consequence of lack of funding. Lack of funding is causing stress on research facilities.
I was taken to task by the Minister in another place, Mr Jim Fitzpatrick, for saying that the Government had failed to support research and development. However, Defra funding has declined dramatically, as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, indicated. Much of the funding lies with DBIS and is difficult to trace and sometimes difficult to use. Levy boards, now combined with the AHDB, are looking at ways in which they can joint fund, with the Technology Strategy Board, projects across the range of agriculture and horticulture. However, their levies are considered to be a proto-fiscal tax and therefore joint funding with government funding is not allowed under competition laws, so there is no possibility of a partnership between the growers of this country and the Technology Strategy Board. That money which the Government are setting great store by cannot be used in the most effective manner unless they solve this problem. It must be a nonsense.
Returning to Lantra, I should say that skills play a key part in making the most of farming as a resource. In this matter, the Principal Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, has decided that there should be only six skills groups, rather than the industry-based groups, as at present. There may be room for some rationalisation. There are, after all, three media-training groups; but it is not even clear to Lantra where it fits within this grand design—if at all. How can we give priority to food security without recognising the importance of skills in the sector?
While on funding, I heard this morning from a very authoritative source that, under yesterday’s Pre-Budget Report, £81 million has been taken back into the Treasury from the Rural Development Programme for England, whose funds are important for training and knowledge transfer. I should be grateful if the Minister could advise me whether that assertion is correct. I certainly hope that it is not, as this is an important element in technology transfer—getting the work from the scientists to farmers and our horticultural growers.
We have talked about technology transfer, because it is important to understand that science on its own is not sufficient. It needs to be applied on farms and taken up by growers. In the ideal solution, science should work alongside farmers and growers. My noble friends Lord Selborne and Lord Plumb pointed out that this is very important to any way of increasing the productivity of British agriculture.
Farmers should be confident of their role as feeders of the nation—and they should be proud of it—because this is good for science, good for the industry and good for consumers and the country. We should seek to build more competitive, efficient and productive agriculture in this country, within a sustainable environment.
I conclude by thanking the Royal Society for providing, through its report, the catalyst for change. I should thank it for pointing out the imperative of doing something about the issue and outlining the opportunities for which a future Government must prepare.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on introducing a debate of great importance. It has produced a series of speeches that have addressed some of the most significant issues that our country and our society have to face.
It is clear that more and more food will be needed to feed global population growth. The most recent figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations suggest that global food production will need to increase by more than 40 per cent by 2030, and 70 per cent by 2050, compared with average 2005-07 levels. Those are demanding targets indeed. They bring forth not only a range of questions but some potential solutions whereby we can address the issues.
Farmers are crucial not only to the production of food but to the protection of our countryside and natural resources. They make a huge contribution to the rural economy and our way of life. We have a growing understanding of the extent to which agriculture is at the centre of the two great global challenges that we face—food security and global warming. The extent to which those two themes have intertwined in almost every contribution that has been made in this debate has been interesting.
Finding ways to produce more food but have less of an impact on the environment is a huge challenge. We will do so only by having a thriving farming industry that is competitive, profitable and innovative and that makes the most of new technologies and techniques. We must communicate these developments to others who need to benefit from them, too. That is why I greatly welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on this dimension. It might be thought that this part of the debate would be best addressed by a DfID Minister, but we know that the relationship between my department, Defra, and DfID is absolutely critical to producing a strategy for addressing the issues which the noble Lord identifies.
There were several comments about the problems in Africa. I do not have the research figures which the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, asked me to provide on the disaster in Zimbabwe. We may not know about it in a statistical sense, but we know how a country that looked as though it could develop into the food basket of a great deal of Africa has been reduced to importing food and desperately coping with hungry citizens. That is a measure of how things have gone catastrophically wrong. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, indicated that that is not the only failed state. We look forward to Zimbabwe recovering and improving, but it has had more than a decade of those disastrous circumstances.
That is not the only situation in Africa, but let us draw hope from the fact that Africa has vast potential. It will be part of our task in driving towards meeting those world targets to ensure that Africa, and indeed other parts of the world, significantly increase their productivity. We can help, encourage and develop through the expertise that we have. As noble Lords have indicated in the debate, the situation in Africa also shows how enormously important it is that we maintain our own research functions and recognise that the increase in food production will depend quite critically on applied science. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and the Royal Society have, quite appropriately, addressed in this 350th anniversary year the critical issue of the relationship between science and food. We need science to address itself to food production. Indeed, that is the basis of today’s debate, which, as I have already indicated, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for introducing for us.
In August, we produced a detailed assessment of how we would address our issues of food security. The assessment shows that Britain enjoys a high level of food security as a developed, stable economy that is integrated into Europe and that has a diverse supply base, but that does not mean that we can be complacent in any way, shape or form. Given the many challenges that the food system will face, the Government have been developing a vision for a sustainable and secure food system. Our aim is to bring together the various aspects of food policy into one coherent strategy for a healthy, sustainable and secure food system. The strategy will define what an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable food system will look like in 20 years’ time, and will then describe how businesses and consumers can contribute to it. We are aware; Defra has the necessity of addressing itself to that fundamental issue up front, and Defra and DfID are collaborating closely on international food security. Ministers attended the world food security meeting in Rome in November. We are working on a joint narrative on international food security and sustainable agriculture, and are co-sponsors of the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project, which is due to report in October next year.
Given the strength of noble Lords’ representations in the debate, I indicate that in general terms we are fully seized of the importance of the issues and have already begun to address them in significant ways. However, there are specific challenges. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about translation of research into practice on farms. That is an important consideration. Collaborative projects with industry will continue to be important in the new sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform. The Technology Strategy Board also funds knowledge-transfer partnerships and networks, which work in close liaison with the other programmes supported.
I agree with the noble Baroness—several other noble Lords drew attention to it—that the issue is also about skills, and ensuring that our future farmers are equipped to cope with a change of environment. There is not much point in applying research to agriculture if the practitioners are not sufficiently aware of the processes in which they are involved to apply them intelligently and get the most from them. We all foresee a rapidly changing world so far as agricultural production is concerned. Our skills base is probably inadequate and needs attention. The issue is known throughout the industry. For instance, we all know the rather unfortunate fact that the average farmer is in his mid-60s. If we are to get rapid change in agriculture, and to get commitment, we will need young people who are equipped to cope with the challenges of the future. The Government have an important role to play with regard to the skills agenda.
I have been asked on all sides whether the Government take the Royal Society’s report on board. Indeed we do. It has an authority and substance that adds enormous weight to the issue and will succeed in communicating the priorities wider in the nation. We have been and are committed to addressing those priorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, expressed the view that there might be a decreased spend on research and development. I am not sure that I agree entirely. Of course I accept his statistics on certain facilities being withdrawn; there is no gainsaying that. I have emphasised the skills agenda at present, but I am all too mindful that several agricultural colleges have closed over the past decade and we need to address ourselves to the others to make sure that they are sufficiently productive. Defra’s research priorities have expanded over recent years, leading to a reduction in farming and food research expenditure. That has been compensated for by increasing expenditure from other funders, and overall government investment in farming and food R&D has remained constant. We have been able to draw other resources into the area.
As has been emphasised in several contributions to the debate, it is not as though significant research in agricultural production is not going on. A dimension of British production, in a wide range beyond agriculture, may be that a gap occurs between the development of research and its application. That is a point to which we have to address ourselves with increasing force and energy. It relates to the skills agenda as well as to information and commitment. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, drew upon the National Farmers’ Union report on these issues. I know how strong it is on the necessity of making sure that there is a close relationship between effective research and practice on the farms.
Collaborative projects with industry will of course continue to be very important in the new sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform. I assure the noble Baroness that our response to that is positive.
Inevitably, if one talks about research, there is bound to be some reference to GM foods and crops. Of course GM is not a technological panacea for meeting the complex challenge of ensuring global food security, but alongside other developments, it could help to make crop production more efficient and sustainable. However, the Government regard safety as a top priority on this issue; we will continue to be led by the scientific evidence and will therefore proceed with some care.
I was grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who presented the case for why science matters for farming. I reassure him that we regard research and development as being at the very heart of agriculture in a way that perhaps it has not been to the same extent in the past. Given the demands of our new society, our new world and our new environment, that position is greatly reinforced. I was very grateful for his comments on these matters.
As I indicated, I was glad that the debate broadened beyond the United Kingdom scene. Our major priority—the responsibility that the Government and my department have—is for production in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, began the debate in those terms but the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, followed it up very strongly in terms of the worldwide needs of Africa in particular. I emphasise that we will sustain the closest links with DfID.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned the “Horizon” programme last night on the relationship between food production and population growth. As we all know, certain aspects of population growth are quite unstoppable in the foreseeable future. The programme identified areas in which some restraint might be gradually introduced. It emphasised, for instance, that young women who stayed in education longer also had families later and fewer children. This is as true in India as it is in advanced democracies and an important lesson can be drawn from it. However, that does not alter the fact that over the next 40 years, in order to feed the inevitable growth in population that is bound to occur, we will have to address these issues of effective production, particularly in areas of the world where land is underused or there has not been sufficient investment in it and where they do not apply the techniques that we are used to in our own society, with our relatively high production levels, so that their production levels are so much lower.
I am not allowed under the rules of the House to comment directly on the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, as he has left us, but we all know the strength of his position. We all wish Lady Plumb the fullest and quickest possible recovery.
I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Quin. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, might have expected, she was bound to refer to the location of the Marine Management Organisation in Newcastle. You do not mix it with a former Member of the other place or of the European Parliament, as their territorial imperative relating to the places that they represented will always be extraordinarily strong. My noble friend Lady Quin was true to form in that respect. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will confess, the decision on location was difficult because of a number of competing possibilities. However, I know that my noble friend rejoices in the fact that Newcastle was chosen. She also emphasised the need for us to be concerned about biodiversity, soil quality and water availability, as well as fish stocks, which she introduced into the debate as an important part of our natural resources.
I was grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, addressed the question of food insecurity and whether it is the case that our targets for renewable energy will mean that we lose capacity for producing food. There are of course competing uses. We all recognise that land devoted to biofuels is not producing food, and there is bound to be a trade-off in decisions on the effective use of land. I emphasise to the noble Lord that those dimensions will need to be balanced but he will know that there is bound to be some contradiction between the rate at which we address the targets for controlling climate change and reducing carbon in the atmosphere and the extent to which we are able to increase certain areas of production. However, with regard to carbon production, I accept that agriculture can make substantial steps forward without necessarily producing anything but good.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised some sticking problems to which I do not have direct answers. I do, however, have one answer: I do not think that the Scottish Crop Research Institute is eligible for funds from the Higher Education Funding Council. However, some higher education institutions are, and Defra, and indeed DfID, produces funding as part of contracts put to research institutes, and the institute to which he referred might well benefit from that.
My noble friend Lady Young emphasised, as we would expect, the relationship between production and the environment. I was grateful for her contribution. As she rightly said, these are the real demands of this debate that we all have to confront and meet.
I am not terribly happy about the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor—the concept of the perfect storm—because I am not sure that storms, perfect or imperfect, ever bring benefits, whereas the challenge presented by the collision of these factors is one to which we all have to respond. I know that the noble Lord is thinking constructively about these matters and I know that our own research people, and John Beddington himself, I believe, talked in terms of the perfect storm. We face a difficult situation. However, I want to adopt a slightly more optimistic stance than I would if I were standing at the Dispatch Box in a perfect storm. I am a poor enough sailor in any circumstances and therefore I like the security of addressing the problems that we all have to face in terms of “graphic”, “challenging” and “a way of communicating”.
I was grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for his contribution. He asked what the Government were doing about the report. We are already in action. We agreed with its broad analysis and will look at it in detail. However, I am not sure that I can provide a guarantee of a debate. I am always slightly wary of the usual channels when it comes to such matters, not least because I am occasionally a bit to close to them myself. We will consider the matter, but I reassure the noble Lord that the Government are taking the matter seriously.
On behalf of the whole House I express our gratitude to the noble Baroness for introducing this report from the Royal Society. The debate has been timely and reflective of the great value we attach to this institution which has directed itself to the great challenges facing agriculture, an industry for which my department is responsible. The challenges are enormous. We will not agree all along the line about the strategies to pursue, but I hope that there is sufficient consensus for us to make progress together. I have derived from this debate at least a common analysis of the problems, and that is a step along the journey.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his response. He is right that we have had much convergence of thought around the Chamber this afternoon. We are all aware of the food security problem and the urgency that climate change adds to it.
I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. The Minister need not worry about my regard for her—in some ways it is formidable. We worked opposite each other in my early days when she was in another place, and I am grateful to her for joining us today. I am grateful to all my noble friends.
I have three things to say quickly. First, the question of skills has again been highlighted, and the Minister has just referred to it. I want to tempt him to have serious discussions with his counterpart in higher education, as something could be done about this real problem. Secondly, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I express his apologies for being unable to be here to take part in the debate. Noble Lords may have seen him in the Chamber for the start of the debate, but as he had to leave at 4 o’clock, he felt that he could not take part. I know that he is anxious to read the contributions that he was not able to listen to.
Finally, I add to the thanks and support that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, who has long been regarded as a leading authority and sympathetic supporter of agriculture not only in this country but in Europe and internationally. I know that his wife has just come out of hospital, and he has explained why he cannot be here. To all those who have taken part, I give my grateful thanks, and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Child Poverty Bill
The Bill was read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Criminal Defence Service (Contribution Orders) Regulations 2009
Motion to Approve
In moving the regulations, with the leave of the House, I shall also speak to the draft Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 and the draft Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders: Appeals etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
These three sets of regulations are laid by the Lord Chancellor under provisions of the Access to Justice Act 1999 and are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. The instruments are being laid to extend means-testing for legal aid to the Crown Court. There are four other sets of regulations, all subject to the negative resolution procedure, relating to financial eligibility; interests of justice provisions; amendments that provide for the right of the Legal Services Commission to grant representation in Crown Court proceedings; and, lastly, those that limit the power of the court to grant representation.
The draft contribution orders regulations are the main instrument. They provide the framework within which the new scheme will operate. The draft representation orders amendment regulations provide that, in almost all cases, responsibility for granting representation orders in criminal proceedings in the Crown Court will move from the court to the Legal Services Commission. The draft representation orders appeals etc. regulations provide for consequential amendments to the process for appealing against refusals to grant a representation order.
The regulations underpin the new scheme that will be introduced in January 2010 at five early-adopter courts. The courts involved are Bradford, Norwich, Preston, Blackfriars and Swansea Crown Courts. The scheme applies to trials, committals for sentence and appeals to the Crown Court. It will then be extended to the rest of England and Wales between April and June 2010. The purpose of the early-adopter phase will be to test the processes that have been developed before national rollout occurs and to make any changes necessary.
The introduction of means-testing in the Crown Court is a central part of our policy to target legal aid at those who need it most and to secure best value for money for the taxpayer. That has been a stated commitment of the Government since 2005.
There are two major questions to pose to the House. First, why should not a convicted defendant have to pay some or all of his or her costs if he or she can afford to? The second, related, question is: why should the state pay precious legal aid funds to a convicted defendant who can afford to pay and thus deprive others who are in need of legal aid? The means-testing scheme that has been in operation in the magistrates’ courts since October 2006 has, to date, delivered savings to the Legal Aid Fund of more than £80 million. Our forecast of savings in the Crown Court is more than £50 million a year by 2013-14.
The Government believe that the scheme will fairly and effectively target those convicted defendants who can afford to contribute towards part or all of their legal aid costs because of their income and/or capital asset position. Defendants who have made an income contribution towards their costs during the life of their case and are then acquitted will have their contributions returned with interest.
The proposed scheme focuses legal aid support on the majority of Crown Court defendants, who genuinely cannot afford to contribute towards their legal aid costs. We estimate that about three out of four defendants will continue to receive representation for free. Those who are under 18 and those in receipt of what are described as passporting benefits, such as income support, will be exempt from making any contribution at all. The scheme will also create a stake for those defendants who are asked to pay a fixed number of monthly contributions—assessed according to their means—in ensuring the timely progression and disposal of their case.
The income threshold in the Crown Court will be the same as that currently operating in the magistrates’ court scheme. In addition, we propose a capital asset threshold of £30,000. Those convicted defendants who have not covered the costs of their cases from income contributions alone will have their capital assets assessed to determine whether they should make a further contribution. As I said, only assets, which include equity in property in excess of the £30,000 threshold, will be taken into account when determining whether a contribution from capital is required.
The contribution order regulations provide that every defendant appearing for trial or committal for sentence before the Crown Court will be granted a representation order. The Crown Court means-assessment scheme builds on that which exists in the magistrates’ courts and incorporates elements of it. Where supporting evidence is required to enable a fair and proper assessment of means to take place, defendants will have up to two weeks from the submission of their application form for legal aid in which to furnish the relevant information. All defendants remanded in custody by the court will be able initially to self-certify their means by completing and signing a statement of truth.
These provisions are designed to ensure that there is the minimum of delay in a defendant obtaining representation and the minimum of delay in the representative beginning work on a defendant’s case. This is particularly important in indictable-only cases, where the role of the magistrates’ court is restricted to a single hearing before the case moves to the Crown Court.
The scheme sets a generous threshold of disposable income. We are clear that defendants, and particularly their partners and dependants, should not be disadvantaged unduly by a requirement to make contributions, whether from income or capital. The threshold that we have set, and the allowances that will be made before a defendant is required to contribute, make us confident that only those genuinely able to pay will be required to do so. I reiterate that the requirement to pay will, we estimate, affect only around one in four defendants.
Concern was expressed in the recent consultation exercise on these draft regulations about aggregation of income and assets and enforcement for non-payment of a contribution order. The Government consider that the fairest way of judging whether a contribution should be payable is to aggregate income and assets at the household level. This is in line with current civil schemes and reflects the practice when other means-tested benefits are being applied for. However, aggregation will not take place where the partner has a contrary interest in the case, by being, for example, the victim or a witness for the prosecution at trial. The draft regulations deliberately do not specify what a contrary interest might be, so that such issues can be dealt with on the facts of each case. A hardship procedure will act as an additional safeguard for those who believe that they are genuinely unable to pay the contribution assessed because, for example, they have other, exceptional financial commitments.
When it comes to the collection and enforcement of a contribution order, the agency charged with maintaining the scheme will provide a supportive environment for defendants to comply. I have to say that there may have been some misunderstanding of the Government’s position when it comes to enforcement. Any enforcement action will be taken against the defendant alone and not against partners or dependants. The action itself might take a variety of forms—for example, attachment of earnings orders, distress warrants, third-party debt orders pre-conviction or, post-conviction, charging orders on property and, in due course, seizure of motor vehicles.
I wish to make it abundantly clear that the option of a forced sale of a home will be an exceptional last resort and considered only where there has been a persistent and wilful refusal by a defendant to comply with the terms of a contribution order. In addition, any enforcement action will have to be the subject of an application to a judge. The Government are confident that this judicial safeguard will protect the interests of those who might be at risk from a defendant’s failure to comply with an order. Any decision to take enforcement action will rest with the Legal Services Commission, after due consideration, and not with the enforcement agency undertaking the administrative elements of the scheme. The Government have decided that all enforcement options should be open to the agency to seek, because it believes that it is not right that those who have been fairly assessed as having the means to contribute towards the costs of their case should seek to evade that responsibility.
I have dwelt on some of the more important aspects of the new Crown Court contribution order regime and now turn briefly to the two other draft sets of regulations that require affirmative resolution. The first are the draft Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders: Appeals etc.) (Amendment) Regulations. As I said, these amend regulations that had provided for an appeals process where an individual had been refused a representation order on the ground that the interests of justice did not require representation.
One of the key elements of the new Crown Court scheme is that all defendants committed, sent or transferred for trial will pass the interests of justice test, as will those committed for sentence from the magistrates’ court. The Government recognise that the types of case heard in the Crown Court are more serious on the whole than those heard in the magistrates’ court. For this reason, we believe it only right that an automatic grant of representation should be made for defendants appearing before the Crown Court. This is provided for in the new interests of justice regulations, which are the subject of negative resolution. The draft Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders: Appeals etc.) (Amendment) Regulations limit appeals against a refusal to grant a representation order to appeals to the Crown Court, which will continue to be subject to an interests of justice test.
Finally, I turn to the draft Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders) (Amendment) Regulations. These regulations provide that the Legal Services Commission may grant the right to publicly funded representation in criminal proceedings in the Crown Court. In practice, the Legal Services Commission will delegate this function to staff in the magistrates’ courts, who are by now very experienced in dealing with legal aid applications under a means-testing regime.
The introduction of a means-testing scheme in the Crown Court is designed to enable a sustainable future for the Legal Aid Fund, to ensure that those who are guilty and can afford to contribute towards the costs of their case do so and to underpin our commitment that those most in need of access to legal advice and assistance, whether in the criminal or the civil field, continue to receive it. I beg to move.
My Lords, we have quite a lot to absorb here, but I thank the Minister for explaining what the Government are seeking to do with these rather complicated regulations. He has presented them as an efficiency measure designed to ease the strain on the legal aid budget. The Criminal Defence Service uses criminal legal aid to help people who are under investigation or facing criminal charges by ensuring that those accused of crimes have access to legal advice and representation. From my time on the bench, I am very aware that legal aid has been one of the fastest growing areas of public sector spending over the past 25 years, up from £536 million in 1982 in today’s prices to around £2.1 billion today. Of that, criminal legal aid accounts for around £1.2 billion.
The Minister has argued that this rate of increase in spending is not sustainable. Therefore, in conjunction with the Legal Services Commission, the body responsible for administering legal aid, the Government are looking for savings where they can. That is understandable. No matter how reluctant they are to admit it, they must find “efficiencies” across every area of public spending. However, we are dealing with a very sensitive area, as people’s liberty is at stake. The savings the noble Lord hopes to make must not be allowed to trump the interests of justice.
As the Minister has explained, in October 2006 a new means-testing scheme for eligibility for criminal legal aid was introduced in the magistrates’ court. The orders now before your Lordships will extend the means testing already in place in the magistrates’ court to the Crown Court. I cannot complain about the principle of proposing that defendants who have been convicted in the Crown Court should pay a contribution towards their legal representation if they can afford it, but I have a number of concerns with what the Government are actually doing.
We are concerned by some of the consequences of these regulations in that there will be a large impact on vulnerable defendants. We fear that if the Government push ahead with these changes we will see a large number of defendants who will just miss out on criminal legal aid in Crown Court cases. This will lead to a situation whereby criminal legal aid will be available only for the very wealthy or the very poor. The way that defendants’ wealth is to be assessed makes us worry that if faced with the seizure of their assets, perhaps even their home, defendants will run the risk of forgoing representation altogether. Can the Minister inform the House whether the number of unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ court has risen since the introduction of means testing in such courts?
The Law Society has voiced its continued concerns, which I share, about the assessments of partners’ incomes and capital. Unless the defendant’s partner has a contrary interest in the proceedings, his or her resources are to be assessed for the purposes of paying legal aid too. However, there are doubts over whether even partners with a contrary interest are sufficiently protected by the regulations. What about a situation where a home inhabited by the defendant and partner may be entirely owned by the defendant and can therefore be included in the assessment of means? A potential effect of these regulations would be to give a defendant in a domestic violence case the power to threaten the complainant—in other words, his or her partner—with homelessness if they continue with the proceedings. Where the family home is entirely owned by the defendant, the regulations allow for the sale of the home to be forced in order to pay for the proceedings, so the victim of domestic violence could thus find themselves homeless if their partner is found guilty. These are serious concerns and I hope the Minister will address them. I cannot believe that such an outcome would be considered an appropriate application of the policy. However, I cannot see a protection against it spelt out in the regulations.
The noble Lord said that the Government have made a generous calculation of a defendant’s disposable income. We are told that only in cases where the defendant’s disposable income exceeds £3,398 will they be liable to pay a pre-conviction contribution from their income. Should we see a rise in the number of unrepresented defendants appearing in the Crown Court—I ask the Minister to confirm that these numbers will be monitored—will that income threshold be raised? I was concerned about whether someone found innocent and not guilty of an offence would have the pre-paid amount paid back, and he has assured me on that matter.
The worry we have about the Government’s means-testing agenda is that it will deny access to justice for defendants and will not save a considerable amount of money. As I said earlier, the legal aid budget has swollen to £2.1 billion and the criminal legal aid budget is £1.2 billion. How much will these regulations save? The Government are trying to save money at the margins when they should be getting a grip of the high-cost cases—terrorism trials and the like—which comprise only about 1 per cent of all criminal cases but swallow nearly half—49 per cent—of the legal aid. How much does the Ministry of Justice expect to spend on these high-cost cases next year? The Government ought to be looking at legitimate ways of trimming the budget in such cases—the cost of expert witnesses, for example, and better case management. Until they are prepared to do that, we shall see more regulations like these, which may be well intended but risk harming access to justice.
My Lords, the love fest of yesterday is, I am afraid, over. We on these Benches support the principle that convicted criminals should pay for their defence when they can. However, in the past that has turned out to be a purely theoretical principle. Attempts have been made before to introduce means-testing of the costs of defence, but they failed because the cost of administering these schemes exceeded such benefits as might accrue from recovering the money. Consequently, some years ago, it was decided that it was cheaper to give everyone legal aid rather than to go through this bureaucratic procedure. If, as Mr Vince Cable points out, bankers can avoid their 50 per cent extra tax overnight, so sophisticated criminals will be able to avoid this scheme if they have to pay. It has holes in it.
The problem is outlined in the Government’s supplementary impact assessment. Page 1 of the financial profiling of Crown Court defendants sets out the difficulties:
“The Criminal Justice System does not gather any information about the financial or domestic characteristics of Crown Court defendants. The demographic information about defendants that the Criminal Justice System collects is very limited. The best information that we have about defendants is derived from CREST … the computer system that supports the progression of cases through the Crown Court. The system records case level and defendant level information about the proceedings, but the only demographic data that CREST records about each defendant is their age, sex and post code. Other detailed financial and demographic information is not collected, creating an “information gap” … This paper describes how Ministry of Justice Operational Researchers have attempted to fill this “information gap” by imputing a socio-economic profile of Crown Court defendants”.
It then identifies the sources.
The paper was put for academic peer review. Professor Martin Chalkley of the University of Dundee, says that it is,
“a carefully written and well-explained paper”,
and that the overall methodology has been “appropriately chosen and executed”, but he has significant problems with the seeking out of alternative data sources and,
“refinements or extensions of the bootstrapping techniques”.
I need not explain to the Minister what bootstrapping techniques are.
His comments are followed by those of Professor Ian Walker of Lancaster University, on page 40 of the report, who points that the populations are different when you try to match income data from the family resources survey to CREST. He states that,
“defendants are NOT a random sample of the population even controlling for sex, age and postcode … There is a ‘selection’ problem”.
He goes on to describe the difficulties there and sets out a whole series of worries about the accuracy of the report.
The third academic who looked at the report, Professor Lanot of Keele University, also said that he was not convinced by the bootstrapping procedure. He gives a series of criticisms about the methodology.
Where the Government are guessing income levels of defendants and basing their policy decisions on a guess, one would think that it would have been wise to introduce the scheme gradually. However, no pilots for Crown Court means-testing have been carried out. As the Minister said, this new scheme will be rolled out in five courts in January of next year and then to the rest of the country within three months, in April to June 2010. The Government have claimed that the operation of the scheme,
“will be evaluated based on the initial roll-out”.
They believe that they will be able to see within three months whether the means-testing is accurate, whether any further rollout is desirable or necessary and whether their guesses are right. This is a guesstimate: the impact assessment has no doubt been done as professionally as possible, but great reservations are expressed about it.
What problems arise? First, as the noble Baroness has pointed out, the thresholds used in means-testing are extremely and unacceptably low—a disposable income of £3,398, not simply of the defendant himself but taking into account the income of his partner and any support that he might have from relatives or friends who live in the same household or support it. That is an unacceptably low threshold, which will apply to a large number of people. Then there is the question of the capital involved; £30,000 is the threshold for capital. What the report fails to take into account from a practical point of view is that, if a convicted defendant does have any money, he is likely to have it seized from him under the Proceeds of Crime Act—a matter that we discussed yesterday. If he is assessed at the beginning of the proceedings, just after he has been arrested, what account can possibly be taken in a Crown Court trial if he does not get bail and loses his job and if that causes severe problems to his partner and if, at the end of the day, when the case is completed, any capital that he or she may have is removed through the Proceeds of Crime Act? What consideration has been given to those practical points?
My first major point is that it is quite wrong to make the assessment of a person just as he has been arrested. It is wrong practically and in principle. He is presumed to be innocent until he has been proved guilty; at that point, when he has been proved to be guilty, and in the light of the circumstances of that time, as well as those of his partner and his home and whether applications have been made under the Proceeds of Crime Act to take whatever assets he has, it would be sensible to carry out a means test to determine if and whether he should produce any contribution to his defence.
There is a further issue in that regard. While the defendant is in prison or on bail, he is subject to all sorts of other pressures that cannot be foreseen by a means test before the trial procedures begin. Unless there is built into the system the possibility of reassessment, which means more cost and more bureaucratic work, he is under considerable difficulty.
I turn to other points of concern. The partner whose income is taken into account may have children and those children may suffer as a result of a conviction and any sentence that is passed or any order that is made. The noble Baroness referred to the question of defendants who are unrepresented. The Minister will know from his own experience just how difficult it is for a judge conducting a trial at which the defendant is unrepresented. If he chooses not to incur the expense that would be involved in having legal representation, the trial would be prolonged, made difficult and would cost more. That is a matter that does not appear anywhere in the impact assessment—the cost of implementing a policy that will include the additional costs of court proceedings.
So when one sees that the impact assessment claims that it will deliver gross savings of £52.4 million per annum—it is as exact as that—one has to take that figure with a pinch of salt. My second main question is: when will this be reviewed? When will rational consideration be given to the effects of the scheme and to how much money has actually been saved? The initial set-up costs are estimated at £12.2 million and the ongoing costs are at £13.5 million per annum—presumably those can be calculated a bit better—but the gap between the costs of running the scheme and what is recovered may simply be so narrow as to make the whole thing unworkable and unnecessary, as has happened on a previous occasion.
Then there is the calculation of debts. It often happens that a defendant has large debts, possibly overdrafts at the bank but much more likely credit card debts, that have to be serviced. The impact assessment has not seriously looked at that, but it says that 40 per cent to 50 per cent of households in the defendant population are likely to be in debt. On one hand you have the bureaucratic costs of running the scheme; on the other, you have the possible additional costs of court proceedings through underrepresentation; thirdly, you have the social costs that arise from the fact that debts will not be paid and partners and children will all be in a difficult position. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurances that, when the scheme goes through, it will be subject to regular monitoring and reports of the results of that monitoring and whether the guesstimates that appear in the impact assessment have proved to be true.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their contributions and helpful questions. It is right, with a new scheme such as this, that questions should be asked of it. The answer is that we will know the result only once the scheme has been tried. I can say that the early-adopter phase will be used to test the processes and I assure the House that, for obvious reasons, we will want to continue closely to monitor the impact of these pretty fundamental changes. Towards the end of next year a full review will take place of how this has worked out.
When I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, though, it is not just for the comments that they have made but because they expressed support in principle for the idea that those who are convicted of offences in the Crown Court and who can afford to pay should have to pay some part, if not all, of their costs, so that the precious legal fund that the noble Baroness talked about can be spent on those who really need the help that it provides.
I shall try to deal with some of the important questions that have been asked. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, rightly pointed out that the previous experience in this field has not been entirely happy, to say the least. One of the reasons for that is that the costs rather overwhelmed the amount of money that came in. We have been very conscious indeed in creating this new scheme to try to make sure that that does not happen. Of course, there will be start-up costs. We know that there will always be some cost in running this, but we are as sure as we can be at this stage—before the early adopters and before the scheme comes into force—that this is a better scheme and better planned. It also has more chance of satisfying the principle that we all agree with, which is that convicted defendants should, if they possibly can, pay for their criminal trials. That is in the same way as happens now in the magistrates’ courts, which saves the Legal Aid Fund a considerable amount of money.
The noble Baroness made some interesting points about the HCCs; perhaps I may come to those at the end. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the number of unrepresented defendants and whether that has risen in the magistrates’ court since the new scheme came in some years ago. I do not have the figures, but I will of course write to them. However, defendants appear unrepresented for a number of reasons and perhaps I may say a word or two about that important point. We believe that introducing the new scheme will not have an unduly adverse effect on the number of unrepresented defendants, but it is something that we shall be looking at closely.
It is perhaps worth noting that under the old Crown Court means-testing scheme, abolished in 2001 when the threshold for income contributions was lower than we now propose, only 0.3 per cent of defendants appeared unrepresented. Current figures from Her Majesty’s Courts Service suggest that about 0.05 per cent of defendants appearing before the Crown Court represent themselves, equating to a figure of about 45 defendants out of a total defendant population of some 90,000. As I say, defendants appear unrepresented for a number of reasons, and we will use the early adopter phase to test out our belief that the introduction of means-testing will not lead to a significantly greater number.
The noble Baroness asked how much would be saved, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, gave the estimate—and it is, of course, an estimate. We think that £50 million per year is a reasonable estimate. Perhaps I might pray in aid that we thought when the magistrates’ court scheme came in that we would by now be saving about £80 million per year, which is about the figure that we are presently saving. We think that that £50 million is a cautious figure. The noble Baroness asked about the costs of expert witnesses. We are looking very hard indeed at those costs, as part of the quite controversial consultation paper which we put out in August. We agree that the costs of experts across the field are too high and take up too much of a finite budget. We have set out the options in that consultation paper.
The noble Lord asked about the modelling scheme. We believe that that is based on a wide variety of surveys undertaken over a considerable period and that those data sources are fairly comprehensive and reliable. The same modelling was used to develop the magistrates’ court means-testing scheme. I must straightaway put right a mistake that I have made; I am grateful to those advising me, as the savings in the magistrates’ court scheme have not been £80 million per year as I said, but £80 million in total since it began. That £80 million total is in the three years that the magistrates’ court scheme has been in operation. I am sorry to have misled the House, even if it was only temporarily.
Taking that figure, it means that the savings have been rather less than £30 million a year for the very many more defendants who appear in the magistrates’ courts than appear in the Crown Court. If the savings are to be on that sort of level in the Crown Court, are we not getting very close to the estimated costs?
The noble Lord will know—and I certainly know from experience—that costs in the Crown Court are rather higher than costs in the magistrates’ court by a very large multiplier. Indeed, if one looked at the cost of legal aid in the magistrates’ court compared to the Crown Court, one would see that the Crown Court took up a huge amount of criminal legal aid costs, so it is not a direct comparison. Let me not try to rewrite history. The early days of the magistrates’ court scheme did not work particularly satisfactorily. Changes had to be made. It is now up and running well. Those are the total savings at this time.
I was asked about the impact on vulnerable defendants. Enforcement action will be taken only against the defendant and each case will be treated on its merits. Proper safeguards exist for vulnerable people. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, made a point about it being more sensible to assess on conviction. Our experience—and, I think, that of the courts generally—is that recovery from convicted defendants has been administratively cumbersome and produced very few savings for the fund. That has been a disappointment, and so we feel that this new system is appropriate.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again. Does the Minister accept that acquittals are, as a percentage, much larger in the Crown Court? Does he also accept that the proposed scheme means that assessment and means testing have to take place at the beginning, will possibly have to be reassessed in the light of circumstances, and that the bureaucracy then has to pay back all the money that has been recovered? There is a potential great waste of money in 40 per cent of cases.
I do not believe that it is as many as 40 per cent of those who appear in the Crown Court, either for plea or for trial. We are talking about pleas and committals for sentence where a guilty plea has already been entered. It is a good deal less than 40 per cent. All these matters have been carefully considered in drawing up the scheme.
I turn now to thresholds, on which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord made interesting points. Thresholds take account of partners, dependants and all relevant outgoings. It is disposable income that counts. We believe that the calculation is generous. It incorporates a cost of living allowance that is weighted to reflect the defendant’s family circumstances and number of dependants. The allowance, which is based on the categories of expenditure covered by the well-known expenditure and food survey, includes items such as food, non-alcoholic drink, utility bills, clothing, footwear, health, education and transport. In addition, the test takes into account a defendant’s actual costs for income tax, national insurance, council tax, rent and mortgage payments, childcare costs and maintenance payments. Having made these deductions, it is only in those cases where the defendant’s disposable income exceeds £3,398 a year that they will be liable to pay any contribution from their income.
The income threshold level and the range of allowances that we make before requiring a defendant to contribute is more generous than those recommended in a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on minimum income standards in Britain. We are criticised by the Law Society for not making as generous an allowance for very young children as the Rowntree report proposes, but we make a more generous allowance for adult members of the family and believe that it represents a fairer deal for the defendant, their partner and dependants.
If defendants are assessed as being able to make a contribution from income, they will have to make six monthly payments. If they pay on or before the due date each month, they will have to make only five monthly payments. That aspect of the scheme will ensure that defendants do not overpay significantly from income. Any overpayment will be refunded at the conclusion of the case, with interest. There is also a hardship route that will act as an additional safeguard for those defendants who believe that they genuinely cannot afford to meet the costs of their income contribution.
I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness refer to high-cost cases. I hope very much that her comments represented the view of her party—I am sure that is the case—because this is a very important consideration. She said that the total amount spent on legal aid was £2.1 billion, with £1.2 billion being spent on criminal legal aid and the balance on civil legal aid, of which a large amount is family legal aid. Very high-cost cases are widely considered to take up too much of the Legal Aid Fund. Just over £100 million per year is taken up by very high-cost cases, which are defined as cases lasting more than 40 days, those estimated to last more than 40 days, or those estimated to last more than 25 days with a certain number of pages. We have just put out a consultation paper on very high-cost cases. One of its suggestions—there are a number of possible suggestions—is that cases should not be considered very high-cost cases until they reach 60 days plus, and that other cases should be paid for by graduated fee, as happens at present with Crown Court defence cases lasting fewer than 40 days. Savings would be made if that system were adopted. Importantly, those savings could go towards ensuring that junior members of the Bar do not have to bear the cut that we are likely to have to impose given the pressures on the legal aid budget and the need to ensure that we concentrate our legal aid spend as best we can on people who need legal help, particularly in these hard times. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for having raised the issue of very high-cost cases.
I have spoken for quite long enough. I am very grateful to noble Lords for having made the points that they did. We are on a journey that we very much hope succeeds. I know that the House also hopes that it will succeed as that would mean that convicted offenders who had the resources to pay for their legal aid would pay for it. We will be watching what happens very closely because past experience shows that such schemes have not always succeeded. I know that not only we but also the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will be watching what happens closely.
Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders, Appeals etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
Criminal Defence Service (Representation Orders) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
Motion to Approve
Banking Act 2009 (Exclusion of Insurers) Order 2009
Motion to Approve
My Lords, the order excludes insurance companies from the scope of the special resolution regime established by the Banking Act 2009. The regime provides the authorities with powers to resolve banks that are failing. The regime is also applied to building societies, and may be applied, by order, to credit unions.
The usual way of defining a “bank” in legislation is to refer to a UK institution that has a regulatory permission granted by the FSA to accept deposits, and then to refine that definition excluding bodies that are not to be regarded as banks. Sections 2 and 91 of the Banking Act adopt exactly that approach, but give the Treasury the power to add to the exclusions from the definition of bank by making orders.
The reasons for excluding insurers are clear. The special resolution regime was not designed for insurance companies. The Banking Act is, of course, an,
“Act to make provision about banking”,
not insurance. This is also clear from the special resolution objectives. These refer explicitly to “banking services”, “banking systems” and “protection of depositors”, none of which are applicable to insurance companies.
The key provisions of the special resolution regime would not be suitable for use in the resolution of an insurance company and would require significant modifications if they were to be applied effectively to insurers. This reflects the differences in the structure of insurance and banking institutions, and the different ways in which they carry on their businesses, as well as the significant difference between banking and insurance as financial services. While the Banking Act provides powers to deal with mutual banks—building societies—there is no similar power to deal with mutual insurers, which perform an important role in the insurance industry in the UK. The statutory code of practice issued under Section 5 of the Banking Act refers only to banks and building societies. The banking reform consultation documents essentially referred only to banks and other institutions that carry out deposit-taking business.
However, it may be helpful if I explain why insurance companies often have a deposit-taking permission, which is why they are potentially caught by the definition of “bank” and the scope of Parts 1 to 3 of the Banking Act. Under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, institutions can apply for permission to carry on a number of regulated activities, such as accepting deposits and dealing in investments as principal or agent. Where an institution meets the conditions for authorisation, the FSA will issue a permission that lists all the regulated activities that the institution may undertake, and any restrictions that apply to those activities.
A view has been taken historically that, in some instances, the business of providing insurance might require a firm to accept deposits. Consequently, most institutions that are authorised by the FSA to carry on insurance business have the permission to accept deposits. This permission is granted for the purposes of carrying on insurance business.
Let me give an example of where an insurance company may need a deposit-taking permission. A life insurer may need to hold the proceeds of a matured policy while waiting for instructions from the policyholder as to what to do with the proceeds. To do this will require the insurer to hold a deposit-taking permission, but it can be used only in the course of carrying on its insurance business. I must emphasise, however, that even if an insurer has a deposit-taking permission, it does not carry out banking business. Indeed, insurers are prevented from carrying out deposit taking by European law. This is recognised in the limitation that the FSA applies to these permissions, under which insurers are limited to accepting deposits in the course of carrying on insurance business.
Like many industries, the UK insurance sector has been affected by the financial crisis. However, both the insurance industry and the UK’s prudential regulation regime for the insurance sector have so far stood up well to testing economic conditions, and the insurance industry continues to provide a vital contribution to the UK economy.
As I have made clear, the special resolution powers are not designed to deal with insurance companies, and the Government believe that it is appropriate that insurers should be expressly excluded from the scope of the definition of a bank in Sections 2 and 91.
I apologise if I have repeated elements of the Banking Act, with which I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, are all too familiar, given their exertions on the Act when it went through this House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this order. I was initially inclined just to nod it through as another example of the perils of legislating in haste, as we did with the Banking Act when it was considered in your Lordships’ House earlier this year, but I will explore the reasons for the order a little further.
I accept what the Minister has said about the Banking Act being written primarily with banks in mind, but the situation is not quite as simple as that. As has been pointed out, credit unions and building societies, which are not banks, are specifically excluded from the definition of a bank but are given their own special enabling powers later in the Banking Act to ensure that provisions that are analogous to those for banks can be made—and, indeed, have been made for building societies—so that the equivalent of the special resolution regime can be created for them.
I am slightly concerned that we have excluded some elements of deposit-takers but have then provided especially for them when we have not necessarily done so for insurers. My initial thought was that, if the problem arose from the insurance companies being given multiple commissions, the simple answer would be that the FSA should withdraw one element of the multiple commissions, but the Minister has explained that the insurers need to accept deposits in the context of their insurance business and are not allowed to conduct a banking business. However, my question is still: why are the Government excluding them completely from the ambit of the Banking Act? Are the Government making an a priori judgment that an authorised insurer could never pose a systemic risk by virtue of its deposit-taking business? If so, will the Minister explain the Government’s thinking? It is not enough to say that today’s business model for insurers would mean that they could never use a deposit-taking authorisation in a way that threatened financial stability.
The Minister, as I have said, made the point that the powers in the Act are written with banks in mind. I have accepted that, but I am less persuaded that the consultation and the codes of practice are written only with banks in mind, because those are relatively easy to change if the powers exist under the Banking Act. However, I remind the Minister that the holding company provisions in Sections 82 and 83 of the Banking Act, which were introduced at a late stage in the Bill’s progress, allow any holding company of banks to be grabbed without any detailed sector-specific legislation. Therefore, the legislation in the Banking Act is already mixed in scope. This provision could, for example, allow Tesco to be caught up in the legislation if the conditions were met, because Tesco is the holding company of a bank. If an insurer met the definition of a holding company of a bank because it owned a bank deposit-taker, it could be swept into the special resolution regime under the holding company rules. Why, then, would we want to keep out of the special resolution regime an insurer that was a deposit-taker?
At the heart of my questions is this: what are the Government doing to protect the UK’s financial stability from systemically important insurers? What legislation do they have in place that allows action similar to that contained in the Banking Act and which could operate for insurers? AIG showed us that insurers, too, could be a source of systemic risk and could threaten financial stability. If there is no sector-specific legislation to deal with the problems posed by systemically important insurers, why would the Government want to junk the powers in the Banking Act, even if they are imperfectly described in that Act?
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the Government’s thinking in bringing forward the order, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. There is a slight problem on orders, which is when someone who speaks before you sort of reads out your speech.
I fear not. Unusually, the noble Baroness made the points that I was going to make as well.
In a sense, I was surprised that the Government bothered with the order. As the noble Baroness said, one could conclude that the Government thought that either there were no circumstances under which a UK insurer would need bailing out; or, if such circumstances did come forward, there was some other means of doing it. If a UK insurer got into difficulty, the Government wanted to bail it out and this statutory instrument had not gone through, I suspect that they would find that the Banking Act was the easiest way in which to deal with it. If that route were closed, as it would be by the order, I fear that we would have another Northern Rock-type Bill to deal with an insurer that had got into difficulties. Echoing what the noble Baroness said, I would be grateful if the Minister could strengthen his arguments as to why it is necessary to bring forward the order; it brings no benefits to anyone whatever. However, it is a belt-and-braces provision that could in certain circumstances be useful.
My Lords, there was one blissful moment when the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that his speech had been pre-empted in which I thought that he was suggesting that mine had pre-empted it. Alas, that was not so; he was referring to the noble Baroness’s speech, which means that I have to address myself to both noble Lords.
The issue is straightforward. It is a question of whether we think that the insurance industry is likely to face systemic risk in the way in which the banks did, and for which the Banking Act was subsequently passed to provide for the special resolution regime to deal with that matter. Insurance companies are different, a point that I made in my opening contribution. Above all, they differ from banks in the much lower importance of liquidity risks, which had a central role in the banking crisis. We all recognise that the liquidity risks to which the banks exposed themselves were somewhat removed from the general interpretation, hence the overextension of the banks into diverse financial systems, as a result of which some eventually suffered. The insurance industry has not suffered a general worldwide crisis over the past two years. The banks may have gone through their worst crisis for the past 70 years, but that is not the case with the insurance industry. That does not mean that it has not been affected; of course it has. However, the way in which risks crystallize, and the timescales in which they do so, are different in insurance. As we all recall from our long deliberations about the special resolution regime, it is directed towards an emergency and moves with force and speed to deal with a bank in crisis. We just do not see the insurance industry constructed in that way.
The regulation of insurance companies needs to be different from the regulation of banks. Of course we identify and track carefully all the potential consequences knocked on from any sector to another, but the simple fact is that insurance companies are not subject to the same risk as the banks. That is why the order provides for the exemption.
My Lords, the Minister said that insurance companies did not cause a problem in the recent financial crisis. That is true for the UK but not for the United States. Given that it can cause problems under certain circumstances, although it did not in recent years, the Minister said that the regulation for insurers needs to be different—which indeed it does. However, as we found with the banks, regulation was one of the contributory factors leading to the severity of the problems. I would like the Minister to answer this question directly. Are the Government satisfied that they have sufficient legislative powers to act if there were a systemic financial problem in the UK caused by the insurance industry?
Of course, my Lords. The noble Baroness does not always believe every word that I manage from the Dispatch Box but let me make the obvious point. If the Government had anxieties, why would they be bringing forth an order to exclude the insurance industry from regulatory powers—which is what the special regime introduces—included in the Banking Act, which applies to banks? The answer is quite straightforward, as I sought to establish in my opening remarks. The insurance industry is a different institution with a different level of risk. It has not shown that level of vulnerability with which the Banking Act was designed to deal during the extremes of the banking crisis a couple of years ago. There is a different regulatory regime for the insurance companies. I hope I am not giving the impression that the Government are utterly reckless about what might happen in the insurance world. Of course the FSA has its responsibilities and of course there is a regime of regulation. But the Banking Act deals with the specific problem of a much higher risk-taking operation and power which the banking system has and the insurance system does not avail itself of. That is why we are looking for the exemption.
House adjourned at 5.37 pm.