House of Lords
Thursday, 26 April 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.
My Lords, the latest estimate from 2009-10 of the annual lost revenue to the Exchequer through the smuggling or illegal sale of tobacco products is £1.3 billion for cigarettes and £750 million for hand-rolling tobacco.
My Lords, given that this large sum of money is lost to the Exchequer, what do the Government propose to do to reduce the amount? Above all, does it not drive a coach and horses through the policy of trying to reduce smoking if there are cheap cigarettes, some of them even worse for health than the cigarettes that we make in this country, on sale on street corners up and down the country? We have both a revenue problem and a health problem.
My Lords, the strategy has many different strands. The Government issued a comprehensive tobacco smuggling strategy in April 2011. Specifically, £25 million of HMRC’s total expenditure on tax avoidance is going in this area. It has to be said that over the past decade, the illicit market in cigarettes has come down from 21 per cent of the market in 2000 to 10 per cent in 2009-10. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, very significant progress has been made, and the Government are fully committed to continuing with that. On the other side, there is the tobacco control plan to make smoking less affordable. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is quite right regularly to press on this. It is a multi-layered strategy, and the present Government will continue to press on all aspects of this challenge.
My Lords, I can point to the success over the past decade of HMRC in particular, helped by the contribution of the UKBA, and it will be the same people, however configured, carrying on. As I have explained, money has been specifically targeted. As my noble friend also indicates, under the World Health Organisation there is a legally binding international treaty, which will also contribute to the further drive in this area.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their plain packaging campaign, which aims to reduce smoking by the young. Will the Minister confirm that the identification codes on packets of cigarettes make it easier to identify contraband products and thus remove them from this country?
My Lords, do the Government understand the enormous costs for those who manufacture the packaging? I was once part of Kodak and ran a print packaging outfit. Up and down the country, a huge number of people, as well as a lot of tax and money, are involved in the packaging of cigarettes. Frankly, I do not believe that plain packaging will make a tuppenny-bit of difference.
My Lords, in tackling the illegal sale and smuggling of cigarettes and some other commodities, do the Government make any assessment of the potential reduction in their capacity to tackle these issues by the loss of staff in crucial government departments?
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, is an expert on the subject because I think that he had exactly the same Question from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about two years ago. He will know about the considerable efforts that his Government made. As I have already said, very specifically within the overall reduction that government departments are facing, HMRC has allocated £917 million to deal with revenue avoidance issues in the spending review period, of which £25 million is targeted at the area about which we are talking today. His concerns are fully recognised and have been met.
My Lords, we have had several hours of debate about plain packaging and its effect on young people who take up cigarette smoking. Which evidence do the Government not accept on the basis of science? Is the Minister aware of today’s report from Cancer Research UK about plain packaging and its effect on children taking up cigarette smoking?
My Lords, many noble Lords may remember reading Parson Woodforde’s diaries in the 18th century when duty on brandy and coffee was very high and Parson Woodforde, along with everyone else, bought smuggled goods. Have the Government dispassionately looked at what might be a level of taxation that would deliver optimum tax revenues?
My Lords, I remember vaguely reading Parson Woodforde’s diaries. I did not read them in the 18th century, as my noble friend suggested, but in the 20th century. It is a difficult balancing act. As noble Lords know, the policy of the Government has been to raise duty above inflation in order to deal with health issues but that has implications, of course, for smuggling and other illegal sales. Therefore, this is a more difficult balancing act where we have a health priority as well as a revenue maximisation one.
Health: Clinical Commissioning Groups
My Lords, in February the NHS Commissioning Board Authority published Towards Establishment which set out general safeguards that clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) should have in place to manage conflicts of interest. More specific guidance outlining safeguards for when CCGs are commissioning services that could be provided by GPs will be published shortly. We expect that both of these will inform the guidance the NHS Commissioning Board must provide for CCGs once it is established.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his response. He will be aware of research published at the end of March which showed 22 clinical commissioning groups where the majority of GPs on the board of those groups actually had a financial interest in companies that are in receipt of NHS funding. Given that decisions on future contracts will fall to clinical commissioning groups, can the noble Earl assure me that those GPs will not take part in any discussions or decisions about future contracts? Will he also acknowledge that the problem arises from the weakness of the corporate governance arrangements, because in some CCGs there will be no one left to make the decision?
My Lords, I do not accept that. CCGs will be subject to rigorous safeguards that prevent conflicts of interest affecting their commissioning decisions. Each CCG has to maintain registers of interest. They must have a governing body with lay members on it and other non-GP clinicians who will oversee the arrangements for governance. Each CCG must make arrangements set out in their constitution to manage conflicts and potential conflicts of interest. And the NHS Commissioning Board, as part of its overseeing role, will be responsible for making sure that every CCG has arrangements to manage potential conflicts of interest. So we do not see these problems arising in practice.
I should like to probe the Minister a little further in response to that. While he says that CCGs have to have a register of interest, how are they going to be monitored to make sure that actually happens? How will the register be kept up to date so that conflicts of interest cannot arise in the future? And what actions might be taken when a conflict of interest is proved?
My Lords, the watchword in this context is transparency in that the governing body of a clinical commissioning group will usually meet in public. There will be provision for the health and well-being board of a local authority to challenge decisions made by the clinical commissioning group in its annual commissioning plans. In general, if anyone has a concern about a conflict of interest, or indeed a perceived one, it is open to them to refer the matter, first to the CCG and, secondly, to the NHS Commissioning Board itself.
My Lords, have the BMA and the royal colleges been involved in drawing up the guidance? And if a member of a CCG believes that there is no conflict of interest but a member of the public believes that there is, what mechanisms are available to resolve such a dispute?
My Lords, we are involving all relevant stakeholders in drawing up the precise rules that we expect the NHS Commissioning Board to follow. As I mentioned in my initial Answer, part of that has resulted in guidance that has already been issued and the rest will follow shortly. As regards the second part of my noble friend’s question, the key is for CCGs to make arrangements to make sure that actual and potential conflicts of interest do not affect the integrity of the group’s decision-making process and do not appear to do so. Therefore, the CCG must not only be fair and open and honest, it must also be seen to be all those things, because a perceived conflict of interest which is not managed appropriately would be as damaging to the reputation of a CCG as an actual conflict.
As my noble friend may remember from our debates on the Health and Social Care Bill, we have undertaken to ensure that no member of a commissioning support organisation may also be a member of the governing body of a CCG. Having said which, it is important that CCGs have the freedom to take advice on back-office functions and other matters that will assist them in their clinical decisions.
My Lords, I have spent a great deal of time working in governance with professionals from many different groupings and, however experienced professionals are in their own trade, they are not always very clear about governance issues. This is often true of trustees in voluntary organisations as well as in clinical governance in the health service. What plans does the Minister have for training and advice to the new bodies in order to ensure that people who often believe that they know the answers really do know them?
The noble Baroness makes an extremely important point, which is why we have laid great stress on training and ensuring that the NHS Commissioning Board will develop appropriate guidance on procurement, avoiding conflicts of interests and avoiding unfair competition entering the arena.
Economy: Credit Easing Policy
My Lords, the national loan guarantee scheme was launched on 20 March to provide cheaper loans for smaller businesses. Businesses have now started to benefit from these loans. Also, under the £1.2 billion business finance partnership, the Government intend shortly to invest up to £700 million with some or all of the seven shortlisted fund managers. Although it is too early to draw conclusions on any impact, credit easing is expected to have a positive effect on the economy.
Bearing in mind that the Answer that the noble Lord has just given me is not quite relevant to the Question on the Order Paper, surely the Answer should have been that the Office for Budget Responsibility—which meets regularly with the Chancellor and the Treasury—said in March, at the time of the Budget, that there would be a 6.9 per cent fall in business investment. Why did he not want to tell us that? At the same time the OBR told us that there would be growth this year. As the Minister knows, in the first quarter we have had negative growth of 0.2 per cent. In those circumstances, do he and the Chancellor believe that without QE we would have had even worse negative growth? Is that the Government’s position? What do they plan to do? Are they planning to increase QE, or are they taking note of the Treasury Select Committee’s recent report which pointed out the serious effect it was having on retired people who are taking out annuities and getting very low interest rates?
My Lords, I fear that I will not be able to do justice to all the six questions that I thought I detected, but let me try to deal with one or two. First, we should distinguish between credit easing, which is the policy announced by the Chancellor and made manifest in the national loan guarantee scheme, and quantitative easing, which is the responsibility of the Bank of England. As to quantitative easing, if the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, had asked me I would have answered that the Bank of England’s own assessment is that under quantitative easing the economy has benefited by between 1.5 to 2 per cent. One can therefore draw inferences from that for what a more limited scheme targeted at small businesses will achieve.
As to the question of the levels of investment in the economy, that is set out in the latest report from the Office for Budget Responsibility. It is therefore its independent figures, not mine, which point out that the fall-off in levels of business investment and the expected sharp recovery very much follow the pattern seen in the recession of the early 1990s. It is territory that we have been in before and the Government believe that we should respond in the ways that we have. As to the evidence that the national loan guarantee scheme is gaining traction, Barclays has already issued a £1.5 billion bond backed by the scheme, and Lloyds has issued $1.4 billion since the scheme started on 20 March. So it is indeed, unlike some of the schemes introduced by the previous Government, up and running and having an effect.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the very recently published unanimous report of the Economic Affairs Committee of this House on development aid which urged the Government to abandon the wholly arbitrary target of allocating 0.7 per cent of GDP for development aid? Is he further aware that if the Government were to accept this all-party recommendation there would be scope for expediting carefully chosen public investment plans, to the great benefit of the economy and without infringing the Government’s overall public expenditure plans?
My Lords, I think that we are straying a little bit but my noble friend has, of course, ultimately tied it back to the Question. Of course, if lots of other things were changed in government policy then we could free up money for all sorts of other good things. The Government have no intention—notwithstanding the excellent report from your Lordships’ committee—of changing their policy on development aid.
My Lords, the noble Lord very kindly gave way and I appreciate it.
Perhaps I may suggest to the Government that they missed an opportunity in this round of credit easing by not including community development financial institutions, which, after all, serve micro and small businesses considered unbankable by the big five. Will the Government reconsider and see if a tranche could be made available under this round, or certainly under future rounds?
I am grateful to my noble friend, who rightly comes back to this issue, which is important. We have certainly extended the reach of the present scheme beyond previous comparable schemes. For example, the NLGS includes asset-backed finance, which other schemes have not in the past; we have the non-bank finance schemes, through the business finance partnership; and we have one non-traditional big bank—Aldermore—which is in principle committed to the NLGS. So we are pushing out the boundaries. As to the specific question about CDFIs, as my noble friend may be aware, the banks, under the BBA’s better finance initiative, are putting in place procedures to make sure that banks formally pass customers whom they think appropriate towards CDFIs. That is an important step which the BBA has initiated.
My Lords, the Minister is no doubt aware that earlier this week the Bank of England reported another very substantial drop in bank lending. Quite clearly Project Merlin did not work; otherwise it would have been repeated. There is very little evidence that the banks are particularly interested or enthusiastic about credit easing—which, of course, as funding support, is to the advantage of the banks rather than the borrowers. Is not the truth about why companies and businesses are not borrowing is that they have no confidence in the Government’s ability to steer the economy back towards growth?
My Lords, as I have already explained, the pattern we are seeing in business investment is one that has largely been replicated from previous recessions. Since, on the top of this recession, we also have the enormous burden imposed by the previous Government of an unsustainable fiscal position, businesses are putting in a remarkable amount of investment. They have created over 600,000 new private sector jobs since the last election.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference 2015
My Lords, the first non-proliferation treaty preparatory committee of this review cycle is an opportunity for state parties to reaffirm collectively their support for the non-proliferation treaty. It is also the first opportunity to review the implementation of the action plan agreed at the 2010 NPT review conference. We hope that states will come ready to discuss progress made so far. The UK has taken a number of important disarmament steps since the 2010 conference, and we continue to give the highest priority to reversing the spread of nuclear weapons, keeping them out of terrorist hands and cutting their numbers worldwide.
I thank my noble friend for his reply. Does he share my concern that, worldwide, momentum seems to be going in the wrong direction? In fact, hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on modernising weapons systems, increasing the number of weapons in many countries. It is one of the few things that seem to have escaped austerity cuts in spending. How does my noble friend think that we can revive the focus, particularly the political focus, on this crucial issue of non-proliferation?
My noble friend is quite right to be concerned at some of the trends. In answer to her question about what we can do, we are taking a whole range of steps and can do more. Of course, we led the way with the P5 conference process in Paris last year. We reduced the number of warheads on our submarines and reduced operationally available warheads and our nuclear stockpile. We carried forward the verification discussions with Norway and are progressing the nuclear-free zones for south-east Asia. We welcome the arrival of Mr Jaakko Laajava to drive forward the Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone. We have also encouraged the signing up of the additional powers for the IAEA. There is a lot that we can do individually, but best of all we can work with our NPT partners and others to make sure that the review process carries forward and the action plan of 2010 is given real beef and muscle.
My Lords, I remind the House of my entry in the register of interests, in particular my engagement in a number of multilateral nuclear disarmament organisations. The Minister will be aware that the worst aspect of the nuclear order in the modern world, now 20 years after the end of the cold war, is that there are thousands of nuclear weapons on high alert status. Indeed, in arsenals not only in the United States and Russia there are weapons ready for use within minutes, in some circumstances on warning of a possible attack and not just minutes after an attack is known. It seems highly improbable, given that President Obama took months to decide to send troops to Afghanistan, that he is comfortable with that position. What steps are our Government taking with our allies to reduce this dangerous situation in the world, because it is totally unnecessary?
The noble Lord is absolutely right about the concerns. Obviously, we welcome the signs that Russia and the United States, which after all hold 95 per cent of these weapons—although other countries certainly have dangerous weapons as well—are moving towards some further resumption of the START negotiations. That would be very good. Over and above that, we continue to take the lead in the P5 process. Disarmament is one of the key three pillars of the NPT regime, along of course with non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy, and our full emphasis and efforts are applied to it. But obviously the big reductions in numbers must come through Russian and American action, which we greatly welcome and support.
My Lords, while accepting what my noble friend has just said, does he not agree that the number of weapons in the arsenals of the non-NPT nuclear powers is growing very fast indeed, particularly in Pakistan, and as far as we know in Israel and India? Can he suggest any way in which we could raise at the prep con the issue of including the non-NPT nuclear powers within some structure of, for example, longer warning periods, because this is beginning to undermine the confidence in the NPT itself?
That, as my noble friend points out with her considerable experience, is the danger: that the non-signatories to the NPT—the non-state parties—will carry on on their own path. We must and intend to work, both at this preparatory conference and at the next review conference, to urge these countries to sign up to the NPT and observe the necessary responsible actions to join in the world movement to reduce nuclear weapons. It is very difficult and there are all sorts of political subcurrents, as my noble friend knows. There are many complications, of which the imbroglio over the Middle East, the position of Iran and Israel and many other issues are a part, but we keep working at it.
My Lords, many of us on this Bench recognise that it will take time to achieve the vision of President Obama, set out at the Prague conference, for a world without nuclear weapons. However, does the Minister accept that President Obama’s vision has generated enthusiastic hope and interest in that process, and that there is much longing for progress to be made on this issue? What steps are the Government taking to reach out to this Prague generation ahead of the prep con in Vienna, and what steps are they taking to engage with young people on international non-proliferation and security issues more broadly?
The key word is steps. It has to be done step by step. It would be nice to think that we could move directly towards the goal of a nuclear-free world, but we know that any attempt to move in that direction would be met with non-participation by large numbers of people, and possibly distract us from the overall aim of moving step by step to nuclear disarmament. The measures I have outlined already in detail to your Lordships are part of this step-by-step approach, which we have pursued and will continue to pursue with vigour. As to the message to younger people, we all share a responsibility for bringing home to the present and next generation the enormous dangers of allowing proliferation to continue, and of people being too relaxed and saying that certain countries should have nuclear weapons if they want. If they do, the matter will spread. It will not be contained, and we will have a much less stable and more dangerous world.
Apprenticeships (Alternative English Completion Conditions) Regulations 2012
Motion to Approve
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, while we have the Leader of the House with us, I wondered if he would explain to the House the arrangements that will be in place on Tuesday for Prorogation, which I know is a matter of interest to all. While I have the opportunity, would the noble Lord also give fair consideration, if we go late on Monday in debating House of Lords reform, to enabling the closing speeches to take place on the Tuesday morning before we prorogue? I have in mind that, with 63 speakers already identified, things might go rather late and, given the importance of the subject, I am not sure that that is what the House would prefer.
My Lords, the opposition Chief Whip is clearly in playful mood.
Noble Lords have not heard what I have said yet. I will demonstrate how playful the noble Lord is being. We had of course agreed in the usual channels that we would have a day’s debate. I am a bit surprised to hear him today suggest that there should be more time. It is of course perfectly well precedented for us to have over 50, or even 60, speakers in a day. The further two days that we have given are also now well known; a number of Peers have already put their names down to speak then. They will be on Thursday 10 May and Monday 14 May. So over the next three weeks we have three whole days to debate your Lordships’ House, which must be enough.
Next Tuesday, of course, is 1 May. That is the day when traditionally members of the people’s party go marching and waving flags, and I am sure they will be doing so in Brighton. It is also, I am led to believe, the date of the ancient fertility rite when perhaps even Members of this House dance around maypoles, though I am sure that will not include me. The noble Lord is right that it is extremely likely that the House will prorogue on that day, and we will make a further announcement when we have completed the passage of the Sunday trading Bill. I hope that the House feels that there is more than enough time to discuss the future of your Lordships’ House. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, whose debate it is, is trying to get in, so perhaps I will give way to him.
My Lords, I say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I am not in a playful mood about this. If we have 63 speakers down now for the debate on Monday, which could well be 70 or even more by the time that the debate starts, it is quite wrong to expect the House to deal with that issue, the Bill and the report on the Bill in a debate that could perhaps finish at 2 am or 3 am. That is not the way in which it should be done. In my view, which I urge the House to consider—properly, not frivolously—we should adjourn at a normal hour on Monday, come back on Tuesday and continue the debate. Prorogation can easily take place at the conclusion of a normal day’s debate on Tuesday just as easily as it could take place earlier.
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord thinks like that. Earlier this week, we suggested to the Opposition that we could start the debate this afternoon. On Monday, when I made a short business statement about today, my noble friend Lord Tyler prudently sought an assurance from me that the House might sit later than our target rising time next Monday; in fact, he went further and assured me that there would be great enthusiasm in your Lordships’ House to go through the night if necessary on this issue. I know that my noble friend was making a joke, but the fact that there are 63 speakers should really not in any way stop us from dealing with this issue on one day on Monday, as is extremely well precedented.
My Lords, I rarely press a second time in situations like this. The noble Lord is right that there was a suggestion that we could consider this matter today. I saw the early version of the forward business and took the view that the Sunday trading Bill may well take a little longer than business managers opposite believe to be the case; I may be wrong, but I may not. Although the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, may suffer from bouts of insomnia from time to time, I try to control mine, and it is in the House’s best interest at least to consider these matters at a time when all of us in your Lordships’ House have a reasonable opportunity to participate properly.
I urge the noble Lord the Leader to be slightly more flexible in his approach to this. He is known for his flexibility and generosity of spirit. While 1 May is certainly a day that we all enjoy celebrating in different ways, the House might enjoy having some extended opportunity to listen to the arguments on House of Lords reform.
My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and what has just been said. There is no reason at all why this House should not debate on Tuesday. I have attended many Prorogation ceremonies in this House, having come down the Corridor from another place, that have taken place at 4 pm, 5 pm or 6 pm. There is ample precedent for that and no reason for it not to happen. The facilities of the House will already be paid for—that was an excuse for our not sitting last week—and it would mean that there was ample time to have a civilised debate during civilised hours. It does nothing for the reputation of this House if we sit until 2 am, 3 am or 4 am; frankly, that is an insult to this House and to the wider community. This is a crucial issue on the future shape of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and it should be debated at civilised hours on Monday and, if necessary on Tuesday. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, deserves the support of the House in this matter.
I will give way in a moment because I am generous and flexible on these sorts of matters. When we announced that we were going to have two whole days of the Queen’s Speech devoted to discussing the future of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton—so it has been drawn to my attention—tweeted to say that it was a sign of skewed government priorities to give so much time to it. Today, he asks for more time. Over the next two weeks, out of six sitting days, we will be debating the future of the House of Lords over three whole days.
My Lords, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack, that outside this House the general public may take the view that, in spending so much time on discussing the House of Lords when there are other things to debate in the Queen’s Speech and otherwise, we are already being very generous. Now I will give way to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.
I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House. I wanted to clarify one thing. My understanding is that the two days of debate on the Queen’s Speech are on constitutional matters, not just on the future of the House of Lords. So those of us who want to raise devolution issues, the Mackay committee or any other constitutional matters could do so in those two days. It is not just confined to the reform of the House of Lords. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will confirm that.
Can I also put it to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that his statement about there being two extra days during the debate on the Queen’s Speech to discuss constitutional matters, which may include the House of Lords, is not to the point? The fact that there will be two further days makes no difference to the number of speakers lined up to speak on the debate that is scheduled for next Monday on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. Is the noble Lord the Leader of the House suggesting that some of us who have put our names down to speak on Monday should take them off the list and wait for a further opportunity on 10 May or 14 May? If that is not what he is suggesting, these two extra days on the Queen’s Speech will do nothing to reduce the overcrowding of the list of speakers who want to speak on Monday.
My Lords, there will be an extra day added to the Queen’s Speech debate if an announcement is made in the Queen’s Speech that there will be a Bill on the future of the House of Lords. But, of course, the Queen’s Speech debate is one debate. Noble Lords will be able to raise the issue of the future of the House of Lords wherever they want but, for convenience, we have suggested that two days should be specifically set aside so that noble Lords can concentrate on the issue on those two days. I have announced those days.
I understand the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Low, raises. The point is that it is entirely well precedented to have over 60 speakers speaking in a major debate and completing it in one day. There is no reason why we should not be able to do so.
My Lords, I have tried to say, first, that it is entirely well precedented to have 60 speakers in one day. Secondly, it is likely that we will prorogue on Tuesday, subject to the progress of business, although we will not be able to make an announcement on that until we have completed the passage of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill.
I warmly welcome the Leader of the House’s comment that we should not waste too much time in this House debating subjects that are of no interest whatever to people outside it. I put it to him that the solution is in his and the Government’s hands—that is, to drop the Bill.
My Lords, it is a kind and generous offer. I have already, and rightly, been kind and generous in offering as much time as I have. Of course, if a Bill is announced in the Queen’s Speech, it will be just the beginning of many debates over the many hours and days that we shall have, not just between now and the Summer Recess but possibly well after.
My Lords, the Leader of the House referred to the traditions of the House. Is one of those not that the Leader listens to the House? Around 10 speakers have now asked him to do something; none has supported him. In pursuance of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, if Monday’s debate ends at 2 am or 3 am, 70 or 80 people—and the staff—will, for no particular reason, have to stay here, very tired, in the middle of the night to hear the closing speeches and get home afterwards. If they do not, they will have to scratch their names. Is this not a ridiculous position for the Leader to get himself into without any good reason? Will he not listen to the House?
In the spirit of helpfulness, may I make another attempt to suggest a possible solution to the problem of accommodating such a large number of speakers in Monday’s debate, so that we will be able to complete it in social hours? If the Leader of the House is so opposed to carrying the debate over into Tuesday and splitting it between two days, may I suggest that we begin the debate at 11 am on Monday?
My Lords, I listen to the noble Lord, Lord Low, with care every time he speaks. I remind the House that many Members travel a long distance to get here. I fear that the reason for not suggesting that the debate begin on Thursday afternoon was that the noble Lord the Leader of the House knows that it could excite the wrath of, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on suddenly being told that Thursday afternoon was the time being suggested. I still have not heard the reason for the noble Lord’s absolutely unusual refusal to listen to the House, except that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, apparently agreed to it. Having heard the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on the future of the House of Lords, perhaps we do not need to debate it at all.
My Lords, perhaps I am being naive again but I thought that the whole point of having this debate on Monday was so that we could make the case for a Bill not being included in the Queen’s Speech. My noble friend argues that there will be two more days to debate the Queen’s Speech—by then it will be too late. I thought that the whole purpose of the debate was for the Government to be informed. I have not put my name down to speak because, frankly, I did not fancy hanging around until 2 am. However, if my noble friend were to agree to the additional time, I would be happy to add my thoughts, which I am sure would be very helpful to the Government.
To say that two more days are available in the Queen’s Speech debate to discuss this question suggests that the Leader of the House thinks that it will be relevant to the Queen’s Speech so to do. I certainly understood that the Queen’s Speech was supposed to be a matter of mystery until it was delivered. It is not therefore reasonable to assume at this stage in our parliamentary progress that the future of this House would be relevant to a debate on the Queen’s Speech, so I find that argument rather difficult. Certainly, for my part, I am not going to take part in the debate on Monday, nor would I do so if it were to be extended to Tuesday. I have various views about it, but I had better not say. The suggestion that the debate should continue until 2 am or 3 am strikes me as absolutely absurd.
I cannot see any difficulty in having the Prorogation ceremony fairly late on Tuesday. In fact, I have been a participant in Prorogation ceremonies that have taken place quite late. I do not remember the latest occasion, but they were certainly late in the evening. I can therefore see no difficulty in having a Prorogation ceremony on Tuesday, but still allowing substantially two days for this debate at this stage, before we know what is in the Queen’s Speech.
I am unable to do that but we will be making an announcement shortly. I am glad that all my noble friends have been so helpful on this. The plain facts are these: if we had never had a debate in your Lordships’ House with 63 or 65 speakers, and had not managed to complete it in a day, I would completely understand what the House was saying. The point is that time and again we have had debates with even more than 63 or 65 speakers in a day. It is therefore perfectly well precedented to do this. The very significant point that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern made is entirely right. None of us should pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, least of all me; but in the eventuality that there was an announcement, it was entirely right—and again this is well precedented by successive Governments—to put down the subjects of debate for the subsequent debate on the humble Address. We are doing nothing new, nothing adventurous and nothing dangerous, if I may say so. My noble friend Lord Forsyth is certainly not naive on these matters. If we are taking so much time today to discuss how much time we should devote to the debate on the Joint Committee report, one can only imagine what it would be like if we were ever faced with a Bill itself.
Before I conclude, can I just say that I know there is a great deal of interest in this subject. We have a system of discussing these issues within the usual channels. Would it not be better for us to use the usual channels? We thought we had an agreement until half an hour ago. Perhaps we should use the usual channels again to debate the matter further.
My Lords, perhaps I may raise a point that has not been made so far, which is that the debate is not to be time-limited for individual speakers. Therein lies the problem, because if noble Lords look at the Companion, they will find that they could speak for up to 15 minutes each, and—given the enthusiasm that there is about this subject—if noble Lords chose to speak for that length of time, the idea that we would rise at midnight, or even 2 am or 3 am, is fanciful. On that basis, we will be here well into Tuesday. Of course noble Lords must operate a certain amount of self-restraint, but even if they were to speak for only half the time, some seven and a half minutes, I calculate that they would still be here for nine or 10 hours. This is not sensible and I ask the noble Lord to think. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, “No time limitations”. I do not know why he said that; most people could make pithy effective speeches within four or five minutes, and then take part in the longer debate on the Queen’s Speech. That would be an effective way of dealing with this. I disagreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said; he is not in his place to defend his views, but it was none the less daft to suggest that we should not be time-limited. I suggest that we try to have time-limited speeches and finish at a sensible hour.
Perhaps I may make one little point to the noble Lord when he is considering what should happen—what he should do about this. My recollection is that on the last day before Prorogation, there is a rush among government departments to say things that they have not had the opportunity to say before. All we need is one or two Statements on Monday and the whole of the timetable is pushed back by another hour or hour and a half. Can he guarantee that there will not be any Statements on Monday?
Does not my noble friend recognise the impact of this performance on his reputation? We all have huge respect for the way in which he conducts himself and it would be very distressing if this example of uncharacteristic obstinacy was to prevail against the wishes of the House as a whole.
I ask the Leader of the House what seems to me a very simple question. We have been told that we are going to prorogue, presumably, in the morning—that is why we cannot continue the debate. Why cannot we prorogue in the afternoon? I just do not understand the argument, because we have not had a reason why it cannot be later in the day.
My Lords, the noble Lord may recall his history of the other place in Edwardian times, when Arthur Balfour, who was rather used to making long and fanciful statements, was ejected from the prime ministership and went into opposition. He may recall the occasion on which Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who had just become Prime Minister, said that Balfour tried to dazzle the House with his verbal gymnastics and studied eloquence. Henry Campbell-Bannerman dismissed him with the following two sentences:
“I say, enough of this foolery! It might have answered very well in the last Parliament, but it is altogether out of place in this”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/3/1906; col. 992.]
I appeal to the noble Lord the Leader of the House to recognise that the specific report to be debated is one of such significance. A report of this importance rarely comes before the House. It is an insult to the people who worked for three months to produce the report on such a significant issue to have it debated right into the early hours of the morning. I fear—this may be what the Leader of the House has in mind—that a number of people will strike their names from the list because they will not be able to stay that late. That is a way of muzzling the House which is quite unacceptable.
My Lords, I suggested a moment ago that we have a means of discussing these issues through the usual channels. I think that that is the most appropriate way. I was struck by something that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, said. She said that Peers should be able to speak and make pithy and effective speeches. I quite agree. Sometimes during the course of the past half hour, I have felt that I was suggesting the slaughter of the innocents. If there really were so many speakers down for Monday, of course we would have given it two days a long time ago. No noble Lord has explained why we cannot have a debate on Monday with 63 speakers; we have done it many times. However, I am happy to discuss this with the usual channels, and when we have a clearer idea of when the Sunday trading Bill will complete its passage through Parliament, we will be able to make an announcement on Prorogation.
Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill [HL]
Committee and Remaining Stages
Clause 1 : Suspension of restriction on Sunday trading hours
A1: Clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection (2)
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, and I have decided that we will not be moving any of our amendments to the Bill today. Last night I had a courteous and positive meeting with the Leader of the House of Commons and we seemed to be making progress towards an agreement that would allow our simple internal housekeeping measure to proceed separately from all the debates on fundamental Lords reform. That, I think, would be the wish of the House and I am ready to try to accommodate that.
Yesterday, some of my friends and colleagues accused me of throwing my toys out of the pram. I plead guilty to that. I am prepared to put them back in the pram on the clear understanding that I might throw them out again on Monday if we do not get these assurances firmed up between now and then. Therefore, I shall not move the amendment.
Amendment A1 not moved.
Amendments A2 and A3 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
1: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Opting out of Sunday work
(1) Where a shop worker gives an opting-out notice in the pre-Games period that relates to work at an exempted large shop, section 41(3) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 has effect as if the notice period in relation to the shop worker were the period which—
(a) begins with the day on which the notice is given, and(b) ends two months after that day, or with Saturday 21 July 2012 (if that is later).(2) Section 42(2) of that Act accordingly has effect in relation to the shop worker as if the reference to three months were a reference to the notice period as it is modified by subsection (1).
(3) Where the opting-out notice includes an express statement to the effect that the shop worker objects to Sunday working only during the suspension period, the shop worker is to be treated for the purposes of that Act as having given an opting-in notice at the end of that period.
(4) The “pre-Games period” is the period which—
(a) begins with the day on which this Act is passed, and(b) ends with Monday 9 July 2012.(5) An “exempted large shop” is a shop to which paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the Sunday Trading Act 1994 would apply during the suspension period were it not for the disapplication made by section 1(1).
(6) In this section—
“opting-in notice”, “opting-out notice” and “shop worker” each have the same meaning as in the Employment Rights Act 1996, and
“suspension period” has the meaning given in section 1(3).”
My Lords, we had a very good Second Reading debate two days ago, so I was not intending to preface my remarks with an extended speech about the purposes of the Bill. However, I remind the Committee that the Bill is a time-limited and temporary measure to allow flexibility in trading hours on the eight Sundays that bracket and include the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This is a unique occasion for this country. We want to demonstrate that we are truly open, flexible and accommodating of all the athletes and visitors who will be in the country for the Games, and indeed that for all the millions of UK citizens who take advantage of the Games, watching on big screens and taking part in the other events around the country, we make the experience as good as it possibly can be. In achieving that, there may indeed be opportunities for economic benefit and for some people to earn extra money at a time when the economic conditions are not great. Therefore, this is a temporary Bill that is important to the overall Olympics and Paralympics experience.
As I said on a number of occasions at Second Reading, not only is it temporary but it has an explicit sunset clause. If at any stage the Government were to come forward with a further measure on Sunday trading, which is not planned, then of course that would involve the full consultation, impact assessments and all the other things that permanent measures have.
With that brief preface, I shall talk to Amendment 1. This amendment will insert a new clause into the Bill to deal with concerns that shop workers who want to opt out of Sunday shop-working in time for the start of the suspension period, by exercising their opt-out right under Part 4 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, may have to have given their opting-out notice prior to the Bill receiving Royal Assent. This is because the usual period for such opting-out notices is three months, and there will be a bit less than three months between Royal Assent in early May and the start of the suspension period on 22 July.
The first question that might arise is: why is this being brought forward as an amendment rather than having been in the Bill in the first place? The reason is that we had initially believed that the amendment was not necessary, as we would expect shop workers who do not wish to work on a Sunday at all for religious reasons to have either already exercised their right to opt out or to have come to an arrangement with their employer. Furthermore, many employers require only a one-month notice period, whether in the terms of their employment contracts or in the good practices that they adopt. At Second Reading I gave a number of examples of that from major retail groups. In fact—this is an important point for the Committee to understand—a one-month period is the default under the Employment Rights Act 1996 if an employer has not informed employees of their right to opt out of Sunday working. Therefore, the back-stop of a one-month opting-out period is there in the Act.
Nevertheless, initially we had constructive discussions with the Opposition about the Bill. We would not have brought it forward under the fast-track procedure if we had not had indications and discussions with the Opposition on this issue. The amendment was tabled following a request from the Opposition, which we quite understood, to make it clear what the protections were and to put in another layer of protections. I am disappointed that, notwithstanding the opposition Front Bench making it clear at Second Reading that the Opposition would not oppose the Bill, further points have now come up which we will be debating this afternoon.
In addition to the government amendment, as I already committed to the House at Second Reading in response to other good points that were raised by the Opposition, the business department will be putting out on its website full guidance notes if and when the Bill gets Royal Assent so that employers and employees will understand the full ramifications. This is not an easy area of law, so it was a helpful suggestion which we are committed to following up. In response to their concerns and those expressed by the Federation of Small Businesses, and indirectly by the Association of Convenience Stores, I have also committed that if the Government were to bring forward further measures on flexibility of trading hours on Sundays for large shops, the impact of this temporary measure would be taken into that assessment.
Turning to the amendment, it is important to remember that shop workers already enjoy strong employment protections around Sunday working. Their rights specifically in relation to Sunday working are unique and are not shared by almost all other sectors of the working population who may be required to work on Sundays. To take one example that is close to the retail industry, workers in the catering industry are not protected and, of course, may well be asked to work extended hours around the Olympics, as they can be at other times. The rights in relation to Sunday working were put in place to give protection to those shop workers who did not wish to work on a Sunday as a matter of principle—for example, for religious reasons. As I have said, shop workers who do not wish to work on a Sunday at all for religious reasons may well have already either exercised their right to opt out or would have come to an arrangement with their employer. If their employer has not already brought to their attention the terms of the Act on their right to opt out, then indeed they have a fall-back period of one month.
However, the Government have listened to the concerns and share the concern that some shop workers may wish to exercise their right to opt out of Sunday working during the suspension period, given the possibility of having to work longer or different hours, and will not have enough time after Royal Assent to give their employer the usual three months’ notice in time for the start of the suspension period. For many workers in large retail groups, the notice period is only one month, and these employees will be totally unaffected by the amendment. We have met the trade unions, businesses and other interested parties to ensure that we are protecting the rights of shop workers to opt out of Sunday working in the least burdensome way possible, both for employees and employers.
Subsection (1) of the proposed new clause has the effect of temporarily shortening the usual three-month notice period that applies in respect of opting-out notices given by shop workers to their employers. An opting-out notice is a written notice whereby the employee indicates to his or her employer that he or she objects to Sunday working. The effect of serving a notice is that following the notice period the employee can refuse to do shop work on Sundays and will be legally protected in that regard. It would be unfair dismissal to dismiss an opted-out shop worker because of their refusal.
It may be relevant in that context to draw the Committee’s attention to a piece of evidence in the equality assessment that was part of the assessment that we put out yesterday to help discussion of the Bill. It covered the number of cases around this issue that went to employment tribunals. Noble Lords may have seen that between 1997 and 2005, after the right was introduced, only 176 cases for unfair dismissal or detriment caused by refusing to work on a Sunday were brought before employment tribunals. Noble Lords may say that there are pressures on employees—the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, is nodding—and I appreciate that the number of cases that reach an employment tribunal will not fully reflect these pressures. However, if the Committee will hear me out, the relevant point is that in the latest year for which figures are available there were 218,000 employment tribunal cases, while over a number of years only 176 concerned detriment or unfair dismissal related to Sunday trading. We take the issue very seriously but we should put it into perspective—and of course we are talking here only about a subset of the retail sector, while the figures may have covered other shops as well.
If the Committee will bear with me, I will go into some important technicalities about how the scheme will operate through the weeks in question. For opting-out notices given between 22 May and 9 July, the notice period will be shortened to two months. For opting-out notices given between Royal Assent in early May and 21 May, the notice period will be more than two months and will vary according to when the notice is given. The effect will be that the notice period will automatically end at the end of Saturday 21 July, just before the suspension period starts. That will ensure that a shop worker who serves an opting-out notice shortly after Royal Assent will not be opted out before the Sunday opening hours restrictions are lifted.
Opting-out notices given after 9 July will not be affected by the amendment. The current and usual three-month notice period will apply as it would otherwise have done. This is because, even if the notice period were to be shortened to two months for such notices, they would still take effect only after the end of the suspension period on Sunday 9 September, by which time shops will have had to revert to current restricted Sunday opening hours. Therefore, there is no reason for the shorter two-month notice period to apply to notices given after 9 July. It will apply only in relation to shop workers who work in shops that are able to open for longer, earlier or later on Sundays as a result of the Bill. The Government do not see any reason to shorten the opting-out notice period for workers in shops that already have no restrictions on their Sunday opening hours.
I recognise that some shop workers may be happy to continue working their usual Sunday hours during the suspension period but will not want to work longer or different hours. If their contract allows their employer to require them to work more hours on Sundays, such employees will have to use this opt-out right to opt out of Sunday working altogether if they wish to avoid any risk of being made to work longer or different hours. The amendment does not provide them with any new right to opt out during the suspension period of working additional or different hours from their current usual hours.
We have considered this point carefully and such an amendment is likely to be complex to frame and would also go well beyond the rationale of the existing Sunday opt-out right; namely, to protect those who have a fundamental objection to Sunday working, as opposed merely to giving shop workers a choice about what Sunday hours they would prefer to work. Instead of opting out, such workers could seek to agree a variation to their contract with their employer to avoid having to work longer or different hours. In our discussions with businesses, we have been emphasising the need for them to treat their staff fairly during this temporary suspension. Indeed, it is important to remember during this debate that many of these issues will be resolved perfectly amicably between employers and employees without the need for reliance on the statutory protections. At Second Reading, I gave the example of one of our largest retail groups for which opting in on Sunday is entirely voluntary and which is already anticipating a very large take-up. The picture is very different according to the particular employment contracts of the large retail groups. Most of those we have heard about give considerably tighter protection in their contracts of employment or their working practices than the fallback in the Act. On top of that, we do not believe that any of these retail groups will want adverse publicity during the period of the Games, given the particular spotlight that will be on their behaviour, partly as a result of the very proper discussion in your Lordships’ House.
Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause contains a consequential amendment only. As there might be some shop workers who wish to opt out only in relation to the suspension period, we have included a provision which would make it easier for them to opt back in at the end of the period. Subsection (3) allows the shop worker to include a statement in their opting-out notice which makes clear that they object to Sunday working only during the suspension period. If they include such a statement, they will be deemed to have served an opting-in notice at the end of the suspension period, although they would then still need to reach an express agreement with their employer to do Sunday shop work. We think that this will be beneficial for shop workers who want to opt out of Sunday working only for the duration of the suspension period and for their employers. Shop workers will not have to give their employer a separate opting-in notice not long after giving an opting-out notice and it may help employers to plan ahead if they know that an opted-out worker wishes to opt back in after 9 September. The other government amendments in this group are technical amendments, although I am happy to explain them in more detail if noble Lords would find that helpful.
Finally, the issues that I have explained in relation to the government amendments are very much interlinked with the amendments that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, will speak to shortly, although if he wants not to move them, that would be fine. However, I will hold back my remarks that relate to both the government amendments and the other amendments we may go on to discuss until a little later in this discussion. I beg to move.
Amendments 1A to 1D (to Amendment 1) not moved.
My Lords, having lived with Sunday trading for as long as the Bills have existed, it is with very deep regret that I cannot be present this afternoon due to the short notice with which this Bill is intended to be read, combined with the fact that I cannot put off the arrangements I have made for this afternoon. I apologise.
I support everything the Minister has said about this sensible and compassionate little Bill, whose provisions last only for a limited time. There is no question of them being enlarged for the future. Last Sunday at my garden centre, the workers were all laughing at this House for making a fuss about such a very short Bill, under which I hope that most employers, if not all, will treat their employees with respect and in agreement.
My Lords, on an amendment of this kind it is very tempting to be drawn into a Second Reading contribution. Of course, that must be avoided, although I think the Minister pushed things a little far with his introductory statement reminding us what the Bill was all about.
Some of us cannot countenance this amendment because, whatever it may do to modify the original suggestions, it does not meet the fundamental objections that we are putting forward. The first fundamental objection is that there is an extraordinary paradox that when we are celebrating athletic achievement in the context of recreation, we are deliberately taking a step to encourage people to forego their recreation in order that others may be able to shop—not actually to watch the Games or cheer the Games on but to shop. The burden is clearly being put on the workers.
We know from the research that has been done that barely more than one worker in 10 is in favour of such a proposition. The overriding majority have severe misgivings, and in the real world in which they live—not the theoretical world of policy-making in Whitehall or here—they know the pressures that will be put upon them to comply with the proposal. That is one concern.
My other concern is that we have reached a settlement—or I thought we had reached a settlement, but of course that goes for a lot of social legislation which I thought was a wonderful achievement in the history of Britain, much of it done with bipartisan support to create the sort of Britain in which many of us wanted to live, but apparently there are no lines drawn under any of that; everything is open for destruction. Leaving that wider, very disturbing reality of the political age in which we are living on one side—if one can—and looking specifically at this, the settlement is that shop workers have the arrangements that are now in place. Those arrangements are being suspended.
I cannot for the life of me see how we can say, in terms of elementary justice, that it is the responsibility of the worker to seek to opt out of those arrangements. Surely if the existing arrangements are wantonly being put aside for a time, there should be an opportunity for the worker to opt in to the possibility of this. The onus is completely on the wrong foot.
Perhaps I might make just one other point. At Second Reading and today, the Minister has made this reference to the number of people who are not covered by the shop workers’ legislation. Of course, that is the reality, but we must recognise that that does not make their position right and the position of the shop workers questionable. It is a shortcoming in the rest of society. The ideal is what shop workers enjoy but because of the way we, as a society, have become dependent on the way in which we are organised, unfortunately, that is not extended to everyone. Very real arrangements are in place to ensure that where the rights enjoyed by shop workers are not available elsewhere, arrangements are made to ensure that those people can have adequate compensation for not having the privilege that shop workers have.
This is just another manoeuvre—if I may put it that way—to try to make palatable what many of us see as a basically unsatisfactory and unacceptable Bill. In a way, the Government undermine their own position by being so emphatic that it is a temporary measure that will be lifted at the end of the Olympic period, which suggests that they cannot justify it on a long-term basis. If temporary measures of this kind are being taken in contradiction of the whole spirit of recreation and the enjoyment of sport, why is the onus being put on the employee to opt out as distinct from the opportunity—I can be seduced into using that word in this context—for a worker to opt in if he or she so wished?
My Lords, opposition Amendment 1E is an alternative to the one described by the Minister in his opening speech. It is there because we have not been able to reach agreement on how to safeguard shop workers’ rights during this period. He is absolutely right and I very much applaud the way in which he has approached this Bill. He has sought to consult as effectively as he could, as have we on our side. We have met him and have talked with as many interested parties as we have been able.
Let me make absolutely clear, as I did at Second Reading to which the Minister paid due regard, that we are in favour of this Bill. We want it to become law because we think it enhances the potential experience of the Olympic Games, albeit to a limited extent in so far as it creates consumer opportunities and shows Britain open for business. Nevertheless, it is an advantage and our existing shopping legislation would have looked odd in that the Games are on for a limited period. In particular, as I pointed out at Second Reading, the shops would close before the closing ceremony of the Games had even begun, which would have been a nonsense. We are in favour of change and we are broadly in favour of the Bill.
Our difficulty is how to safeguard the rights of shop workers. I am not prepared to accept the argument—as I am sure other noble Lords are not—to say at this stage, “Well, of course, shopkeepers are somewhat favoured in comparison to others who work on Sundays because of the existing provisions of Sunday trading law”. Shopkeepers are in that position but only because we have been concerned to circumscribe the hours of shopping on Sundays with the broad agreement of our community. Every test of public opinion at the present time reflects the fact that broadly what obtains in the generality is acceptable.
Shopkeepers have proper rights in relation to this, which were provided for in previous legislation. Now, a significant change is to be effected for this limited period. Consequently, we have sought to address ourselves to ensure that workers’ interests are protected. Although I have one other dimension in a later amendment, I emphasise that in all other aspects we are in favour of the Bill and wish it a safe passage. But we want to put before the House the critical issue of how shop workers’ interests are safeguarded.
We think that either the government amendment or ours is necessary because we need to be specific on how workers are to be treated over this period, but we have severe reservations about the government amendment. We discussed as fully as we could with the Government how to reach agreement. I regret, as does the Minister, that we have not been able to reach that agreement, which would have facilitated the passage of this legislation and kept the terms on which we have considered this Bill on the equable lines that they were at Second Reading. When discordant voices were expressed, they were about the whole principle of Sunday opening and not really related to the Bill.
We have tabled Amendment 1E because we think it makes absolutely clear the legislative position as it will affect shop workers over this period. I accept what the Minister said about this being merely a backstop. Many large organisations may have arrangements with their workers, which in some cases are likely to be more favourable to their workers than those provided in the Bill. But the law is an important backstop, which properly constrains the way in which these arrangements can be made, and it is necessary.
The Minister said that he has had wide consultations and knows that a large number of organisations will act entirely properly, and I accept that. But there are some organisations about which we will have more doubts. Certainly, independent shops may avail themselves of these opportunities but I doubt that the Minister is fully apprised of their arrangements and we are certainly not. One might say, “Well, you should be better advised on this”, but this Bill has come through under the emergency provisions. It is a rushed Bill due to the Government’s failure to recognise the necessity that such a provision was possible. That is why many of the difficulties we have in how to interpret the needs outside are less intensive than we would have hoped them to be.
However, we are sure that we need the law to be clear. An amendment is important and our Amendment 1E has considerable advantages over the government amendment. It calls for employers to give employees two months’ notice if they wish them to work on one of the Olympic Sundays. After all, this is a unique change and workers need to be informed about it. A request to work is a straightforward way to facilitate this.
Let us not underestimate the problems facing shop workers. This is a period of very significant unemployment in this country. We all know that work in shops is on a mixture of contracts. For a time we even had arrangements whereby people worked in shops on a voluntary basis while they got work experience. That has changed now but it reflects the complexity and the variety of provision in large commercial organisations. That is why we need clarity. We need it also because workers are likely to feel somewhat vulnerable at this present time. It is not easy to say no to an employer when there are 10 people at the gate for every job inside. This context has to be appreciated in recognising why those who represent shop workers are very concerned about the Bill.
Our Amendment 1E gives real clarity on the issue. It requires workers to submit an opt-out notice one month before the relevant Sunday. This builds in a period of time to make a decision between a request to work and having to submit the request to opt out. Our amendment is clearer than the Government’s and it is intelligible. It backs up the workers’ position in a clear and explicit way. Workers’ and employers’ rights and responsibilities are clearly stated in our amendment because it goes back to the first principles. It is not entirely incompatible with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, because, as he has indicated, we have sought to achieve a consensual view with regard to this measure, and in broad terms we have obtained that. We are not changing the original Sunday Trading Act; we are merely putting forward an amendment which is preferable to the Government’s in its clarity and intelligibility. That is why, in due course, I hope to press Amendment 1E.
My Lords, I regret that I was not able to be in the House on Tuesday and therefore could not participate in the Second Reading debate. However, I take the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, with regard to the protection of shop workers. In the Second Reading debate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that he had been involved prior to 1986. So was I as the general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers. We fought strenuously up and down the country and we took a view. The only reason that we won the vote in the Commons under Margaret Thatcher, who I believe put a three-line Whip on the vote, was because 70-odd Conservative Members rebelled and supported the Opposition. At about 1 am on 16 April 1986 Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the Opposition, phoned me at home to tell me how successful they had been. It is the only time in Margaret Thatcher’s term of office that she was defeated, and that is important.
Shop workers, mainly women, are vulnerable, low-paid workers. A high proportion of them are part-time workers. They are people who need as much protection as they can possibly get. I take the view that opting in would have been better than opting out. But you have heard the spokesman for the Opposition saying that the Labour Party accepts this Bill so we will support it as being the best that can be secured. About 11 per cent of the working population in Britain today is employed in retailing. As I have said, they are mainly women workers and they need the greatest degree of protection. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, hit the nail on the head when he stated that these people should be asked to opt in and not to opt out. It looks as if we are going to have an opting-out exercise, so there we are. But I support the view that we should protect shop workers as much as we can.
My Lords, I want to make a brief intervention. I listened to most of the Second Reading debate. My noble friend Lord Newby spoke on behalf of this bit of the coalition and we felt that one speech between us was probably enough on that occasion. What we have here is a temporary situation that is on very sensitive ground. We all agree there. I do not know if the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, is getting an award for this, but he gave the most detailed explanation of an amendment that I have heard over many years in this House.
It might have been long but it was appropriate—the right thing done at the wrong time. What I would like him briefly to clarify again is what the Government will do to make sure that everybody is aware of this change. I do not think that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, will be necessary if we get greater assurance that the Government intend to place a duty on employers to make sure that their workers know what is coming.
There are other issues to do with Sunday trading. If we had the Olympics every six or seven cycles, I am sure that we would have rather more of a point to make. The fact of the matter is, we do not. Most people in this Chamber will not see the Olympics in this country again in their lifetime—virtually all of us, I suspect. It is a special event and a special occasion. If the Minister can give us some assurance that, in the context of these new rights for this special occasion, a real effort will be made to make sure that nobody finds themselves in the situation of thinking, “I did not think I had to do that but I am doing it,” then I think that many of the objections here will be removed.
This is a very direct and important point. I gave confirmation on Second Reading but let me do it again. Not only do I have my noble friend Lady Wilcox from the department here but I am sure that the walls have ears and the department will hear the message loud and clear. It has committed to putting out clear guidance, if and when the Bill gets Royal Assent, so that both employers and employees understand exactly the position under the Bill. That guidance will go beyond narrow legalistic explanations to try and be helpful about what should be done and how and about the timescales. I will make sure that my honourable friend the business Minister, who will be taking this Bill through another place if it passes your Lordships’ House, gets these messages loud and clear. I know that he is going to continue to discuss these issues with business and employee groups. I hope that that helps my noble friend.
My Lords, it is good to see the Minister back on the Front Bench. We missed him yesterday when we discussed the progress of convergence under Maastricht. He would no doubt have been as surprised as we were on this side of the House that in an important economic debate there was not a single speaker from the coalition government Benches in support of the Government’s economic policy.
I declare an interest as a former retailer, not as distinguished in my achievements as the noble Lord, Lord Alliance, who I see in his place, but as a previous chairman of Marks & Spencer.
I join my noble friend Lord Davies in making it clear that we on this side of the House support the fundamental intention of the Bill. We will take issue in Committee not with its intent but rather with its phrasing. That said, it is lamentable and shambolic that the Bill should be before the House now, so that the three-month notice period which the law allows for those who work in retailing in other circumstances will not apply. It is a shambles, although I do not think that that is the Minister’s fault.
The economic case that has been made for this proposal is equally shambolic and flimsy. I am sorry that I was not here for the Minister’s speech on Second Reading but I have read it in Hansard. It was a very good speech and he explained the situation very carefully. I was disappointed not to be here for what may well have been the Minister’s parliamentary high point in terms of his contributions to the House. He made an extraordinarily good speech on the issue of Sunday trading. However, the economic case—which is presumably one of the reasons why the Treasury is taking responsibility for the Bill—is extremely flimsy. On every key quantifiable metric we are told, “Not applicable”. Net present value: “Not applicable”. Impact on economy: “Not applicable”. To every question we receive the reply that it is not applicable. Indeed, no acknowledgement is given at all in the narrative to substantial data and evidence suggesting that the total number of visitors to the United Kingdom might be lower as a result of the Olympics. Those who come specifically to participate in, celebrate and observe this wonderful event—which we are clearly going to do a great job in hosting—will be offset by those who say, “It is not probably a good time to go to the United Kingdom”.
It does not seem that the Government have done a great deal of research among retailers. It has been difficult to find leading retailers that are enthusiastic about the intention of the Bill. Indeed, Mr Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, who is Mr Boris Johnson’s representative on LOCOG, has said that he does not support this proposal. I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine a family, having observed Usain Bolt in the 100 metres, deciding that now is a good time to go and do the weekly shop at Tesco. I do not think that the economic case that has been made is particularly good.
I have been following what the noble Lord has said very carefully and wonder if he can help me on this. I understand from papers available in the Printed Paper Office that the Centre for Retail Research estimates that the impact of relaxing these laws will benefit retailers by £189.8 million and that food stores will enjoy a boost of £61 million. That is clearly documented in papers available to the House today.
I do not like to intervene often but as the noble Lord, Lord Myners—who I know likes occasionally to intervene on me, quite properly, while I am at the Dispatch Box—has invited me to do so, it might help if I say that a formal impact assessment under the accepted procedures is not required in this case because this is a temporary measure. Such an assessment is not required precisely because, among other things, it is often difficult with a temporary measure to make an assessment that is up to the very high standards imposed on full impact assessments.
I thought that it would help the House if there were an assessment that, although not a formal impact assessment, would give a great deal of relevant and, I hope, helpful information—and my noble friend has just quoted from it. I make no apologies that boxes which would have been filled in for a formal impact assessment were not filled in in this case, as that would give a spurious impression of accuracy. We did not have to give the House anything in this form but we thought that it would help the debate to provide such information as is available. My noble friend has given some of that information but it also includes statistics from USDAW and others and I believe that it presents a balanced picture. The noble Lord, Lord Myners, should understand that this was never intended to give, nor should it give, a spurious, false picture. It is not up to the standards that would be required for Bills that have permanent effect.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for her intervention, and to the Minister for correcting the noble Baroness by saying that there was no impact assessment and that the data from which the noble Baroness quotes do not constitute an impact statement. The numbers quoted by the noble Baroness, incidentally, are probably less than a week-end’s takings at Westfield and take no account of displacement—that is to say, the spending which would have taken place in any case but is now being brought into these Sunday trading permitted-hours figures or displaced from smaller stores to larger ones.
I should like to talk about treating people fairly, because that seems to be the issue on which the House wishes to focus in Committee.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to talk about treating people fairly.
This is an issue of ensuring that employees have adequate notice. Sunday is a special day: many choose not to work on Sundays or to limit the number of hours they work. We know from research by USDAW that a very high percentage of shop workers already feel under great pressure to work on a Sunday when they would rather not do so and would rather be with their families, and to give people inadequate time to make a decision is a most regrettable outcome.
We have two amendments, but I believe that the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham is superior in its precision of expression. The key issue is to ensure that we treat employees fairly and that they do not feel pressurised—that they have time to reflect, to consult their families and to take into account other options that might be available to them. They should not be strong-armed and muscled into doing something that they do not want to do but perhaps feel they cannot avoid given the extraordinarily bad employment situation facing the economy.
I am willing to give way to the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, but I do not think that we disagree on the data. The data to which she refers are of course helpful and the Minister has explained, in a correct and proportionate way, that a full impact assessment would not have been justified for the proposal as made. However, it is clear that a very poor economic justification has been given. I shall support the amendment of my noble friend Davies of Oldham if I have the opportunity.
My Lords, I wish to speak very briefly in the debate because it is important and I want to make certain that the voice of shop workers is heard. I do not have the credentials of my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity to speak on behalf of USDAW, but I have been sent a brief by it and some of the points it raises are very important.
I begin by declaring an interest. My stepdaughter works in the retail trade for a large company, often on a Sunday against her will. She has to do that, as we have already heard from other speakers. Unfortunately, it is not always the choice of the workers themselves to work on a Sunday.
USDAW wanted to ensure that its advice to legislators about the Government’s proposals was based as closely as possible on the current views of its membership. Therefore, it commissioned an objective survey, by telephone, of over 20,000 of its members working in retail in England and Wales. I draw to the Committee’s attention some important statistics that came out of this research. Of the 20,000 interviewed, 78 per cent opposed longer openings on Sundays during the Olympics. That is quite a large percentage and we should bear that in mind in our discussions. Only 11 per cent supported it. Fifty-one per cent of staff are already under pressure to work on Sundays—as is my stepdaughter, as I have explained to the Committee—when they do not really want to. Seventy-three per cent of shop workers believe that longer Sunday opening will lead to more pressure to work on Sundays against their will. Many of us in this House would not agree with pressure being put on workers in that way. However, that was the result of the survey.
I also draw three points to your Lordships’ attention. Many workers said that they want to be able to enjoy the Olympics on Sundays with their families, along with the rest of the country. That has been mentioned and it is an important issue. Why should the rest of us be able to enjoy the Olympics on a Sunday when workers who may have had some pressure put on them would not be able to? Shop workers want to be able to spend time with children, partners and families on a Sunday. Again, that is a perfectly understandable response from the workers involved. The shorter trading and working hours mean that this is often the only time they can spend together as a family during the week.
Lastly, many staff find it very difficult to work on Sundays. This point has not yet been raised. There are practical problems with transport, particularly in rural areas due to a lack of Sunday bus services, and with childcare, especially for single parents. If people in rural areas are asked to work during the Olympics on a Sunday, they will face even more difficulties than those in urban areas.
I raise these issues because I think they should be borne in mind during this debate. Along with the noble Lord, Lord Myners, I think that Amendment 1E is worthy of support and I will support it.
My Lords, first I want to say a word about the document that the noble Lord, Lord Myners, received yesterday morning in the Printed Paper Office. Your Lordships will remember that in the original Explanatory Notes issued by the Government in connection with this Bill, there was reference to an Appendix C, which I came across in the course of my preparation for Second Reading. When I drew this to my noble friend’s attention, the immediate reaction was that this would be published the next day, which was a very generous and ready response. It is 100 per cent obvious, I think, that this document was not intended to be published and that the reference to Appendix C in the Explanatory Notes was a mistake—and which of us has not made a mistake? When you see the document, it demonstrates quite plainly that it was not intended to be published. However, my noble friend on the Front Bench had no reason whatever to seek to suppress a document to which reference had been made, so that we could see it for what it is.
I also emphasise, as my noble friend did at Second Reading, that the Government were not emphasising that an economic case had been established for this particular Bill and that it depended on more general considerations, which he gave. However, this document does contain some figures, and the £61 million is referred to in it. I would not wish to analyse it as it does not have the polish that you would expect from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills if it were intended for publication. The mysterious passive comes into it quite a number of times: “it is to be considered”, or, “are considered as”, and so on. It does not say who the subject of the consideration is or who actually reached that point of view. Again and again, it mentions that any detriment would be time-limited, which seems a glimpse of the obvious since a suspension is only for a limited period. On the other hand, it repeatedly refers to Great Britain being open for business. The obvious conclusion is that that also is time-limited and is therefore not much of a point, to my mind. I have to say, in fairness to my noble friend, that he did not really make that point as part of his submissions in support of this Bill.
We are concerned today only with the amendments, and I am not going to take up time in dealing with any other matters. However, I will just say what my approach to the amendments is. First, under the present law, a shop worker is entitled, if he or she is working for one of these large stores as defined in the Bill, to opt out of Sunday work. The statutory requirements are very clear and are, as my noble friend has explained, a statutory back-up. A good number of retail businesses operate within that system, but with much less requirement for notice than the statutory requirement of three months. The point that I find difficult in trying to deal with the alternative amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, is that, in the ordinary course of events, workers in this industry who have not opted out would expect to be working on the days to which this suspension applies. Therefore, if they did not wish to work on these days in any event, they would have already opted out.
The only problem is that because this Bill has come rather late, Royal Assent will be too close to the first day of suspension for the ordinary provisions of the Act to apply. Therefore, the Government have sought to deal with that point in their amendment. They provide for two months to be the proper limit for notice in that case. That seems reasonable, in the sense it will be more than two months from Royal Assent to the first day on which the suspension operates. However, I do not see that two months is particularly sacrosanct, and if that is all there is between the two amendments, I hope that by the time we get to Report later in the afternoon, it will be possible to reach an agreement. The old arbitrators’ agreement is the one that might work. Between one month and two months, six weeks would be a reasonable compromise.
It seems that this matter can readily be compromised and I see no necessity for workers to be told that they are expected to work on these Sundays. They would have to do that anyway if they had not opted out under the ordinary regime. They may have better arrangements within the retail business than statute requires, but we are concerned only with the statutory safeguards. All that is really required is that there should be a reasonable notice period for a worker who has not already given their notice but who wants not to work on the suspended Sundays for reasons connected with that. So long as a reasonable period of notice is given to him or her, that seems sufficient. I hope it will be possible to compromise on this point and forget the question of the employer having to give written notice that the employer expects the worker to work on these Sundays, because that would happen in the ordinary course of events anyway. The only difference between these Sundays and ordinary Sundays is that the hours are a bit longer. I see no need for notice and therefore, so far as I am concerned, it should be possible to reach a reasonable period of notice as a matter of compromise between the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, and the one proposed by my noble friend.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I have form to the extent that during the 1980s I took a prominent part from this side of the House in putting forward primarily the views of the Co-operative movement. My noble friend Lord Davies of Coity referred to the victory in 1986, when the Bill brought forward by the Conservative Government was defeated. What we now have in law is, to put it crudely, a compromise that tries to meet the aims and objectives of a number of points of view. That, of course, like all compromises, needs to be worked on. It took some years. In 1994, we had the Bill. I am a registered compromiser, if compromising will make progress.
Many people have assumed that this was the end of the argument and that what was produced and is in law was going to stand, but we should not underestimate the durability and tenacity of the major retailers in this country. They would never accept the original proposal and are unhappy with the present law. I know, because of my connections on this matter, that they have been at it all the time, quite rightly, lobbying, discussing, and producing arrangements.
My question is who the Bill seeks to serve. One argument is that a number of people from all over the world will expect to be able to shop not merely for six hours on a Sunday but for 12. I asked the Library to let me have a piece of paper, which told me of the experience in those countries now. In Austria, shops are closed on a Sunday except at railway stations and airports. In Denmark, opening on a Sunday is generally prohibited, although most shops are open on eight Sundays before Christmas. In France, it is limited to selected retailers; in Northern Ireland, shops are open on Sundays from 12 till six o’clock; in Italy, shops are permitted to open for 12 Sundays per year in exceptional tourist areas; in Norway, shops are open on Sundays in December; in Portugal, high streets generally have no trading on a Sunday; and in Spain, shops on high streets are open from 10 till two o’clock on a Sunday once a month.
So when we try to anticipate whether the British people are satisfied with the existing law on a Sunday, who are we trying to appease or serve? Although I am a great supporter of retailing in general and have taken a part in various positions, we must not underestimate the fact that this can be the thin edge of the wedge in future. If it is proved afterwards that no harm has been done, those who want complete opening on Sundays, as they have always wanted, will take that as a green light. So while I appreciate what the Minister has said and done—and he has been very fair and not tried to bamboozle us—my word of caution is that we need to watch this situation like a hawk, and the major retailers, which have a great stake in this, with their business and profits. We have to be very careful that we do not go down the slippery slope and find distress.
There was an organisation in the 1980s that is still going strong, called Keep Sunday Special. The case that is made for Sunday being special, especially for shop workers, need not be stated again. It is a danger. I do not oppose the Bill, because I believe that it has good intentions, but we need to be very careful that we do not start something and finish up with less than we want.
It might be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who went through a useful list of restrictions on Sunday trading in other countries, to refer to the restrictions in Germany, which I did not hear him mention. That country, which I think he will find on the list that he read out has very restricted weekend shopping hours, as we discussed at Second Reading, opened up that restrictive regime for the 2006 World Cup and it has now reverted to what it was before. That is a good, current European example of a very restrictive regime opened up for a major sporting event and then reverting to what it was before. That will give the noble Lord comfort that what we seek to do here is well precedented.
I may help the Minister by quoting from a document given to me by the Library called The Economic Costs and Benefits of Easing Sunday Shopping Restrictions on Large Stores in England and Wales, a report for the Department of Trade and Industry in May 2006. On Germany, it says that shops are closed,
“except convenience and travel goods at railway stations and airports. Local authorities may grant permission for retailers to open on Sundays (maximum 4 per year)”.
My Lords, that makes the point that Germany had a much more restrictive regime than the UK, and that country freed it up much more significantly compared with the normal regime for the 2006 World Cup to give everyone the sort of experience that we want for the Olympics here. Then it reverted to what it was before. I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing up that point.
In the debate at Second Reading views were expressed on the broader issue of Sunday trading. The position that I stated in that debate was that I did not think that the economic case was at all convincing and that it did not manage to clear the retail growth review from the Treasury or clear the recent red tape review. A number of respondents did not say that this was something that they wanted to go ahead. The noble Lord, Lord Myners, who has very significant experience in this whole area, looked at the case and said that it was at least questionable, certainly ordinarily. I agree that we are talking about exceptional times. Normally the restriction on larger stores is not just a restriction on them but is to protect the smaller stores.
The noble Lord, Lord Myners, referred to Justin King from Sainsbury’s serving on LOCOG and asked whether the position was different given that Mayor Boris Johnson had put him forward. Like others on this side of the House, I am spending a fair bit of time campaigning for Boris Johnson at the moment. He has made a great priority of strengthening the high streets and supporting small business. That is essentially what this measure is about.
That point made, I turn to the amendment, which I welcome. Let us be clear what we are talking about on the date, which as it stood in the Bill was at 24 April. We were effectively going to say that the minimum notice period that had to be given under the Bill was that, two days ago, before this legislation had been passed, somebody would have had to give notice to their employer that they did not want to work on 22 July. On that point it is obvious and the Minister, who is wise in these things, has brought forward this amendment, which is very simple in its present form. I do not buy in any sense the idea that Amendment 1E, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, simplifies the thing. If anything, it makes it more complicated because you almost go back to the potential for three months, with a two-month notice period then a one-month response period to come back in. You are potentially going back into this very difficult situation.
It is also worth noting a little more about which Sundays we are talking about, because we know where this argument is coming from. It is from the big stores, particularly the London-based stores and development companies that sponsored the research pointing to the benefit, to which my noble friend Lady Browning referred. In fairness, I did not mean that as a jibe. We are in a recession and we want to make money. When we have people actually coming here, we want jobs so they absolutely ought to try to make the case. I am simply pointing to the fact that there is an element of that. The impact assessment refers to the fact that there will be 450,000 visitors, but they are not going to stay for the whole period. They will predominantly be clustered around the summer Olympics rather than the Paralympics. I would wish it to be the other way round, because the Paralympics espouse to me more of what the Olympic spirit is all about, but the reality is that most of the attention will come from 27 July, when the opening ceremony takes place. Therefore, the first Sunday on which there will be the desire to celebrate sporting achievements by visiting shops for more hours, for which we accept the case because the cake will be larger, will be 29 July and not 22 July. Moreover, the Games will be going on until 12 August, which happens to be a Sunday in my diary, while on Sunday 19 August, for which liberalisation is being made, nothing will be taking place—other than a lot of people working very hard to get the site ready for the Paralympic Games to start. However, those Games do not start on 26 August; they actually start on 29 August. To add insult to injury, the dates finish on the closing date of the Paralympics themselves, 9 September. That part is absolutely right.
This is a simple adjustment. The opposition amendment makes this not simpler but more complex. Most of the visitors and the economic activity will be early on, which again is the reason for giving maximum notice to people. If they have problems, we need to make sure that that happens as quickly as possible and therefore the adjustment to two months, as proposed in my noble friend’s amendment, would seem sensible in this case.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Myners, greatly underestimates my noble friend Lord Sassoon’s ability if he thinks that my noble friend’s excellent speech—I agree about that—at Second Reading is anything like the high point of his parliamentary career, as the noble Lord said it would be. My noble friend has a long way to go. Now he is looking at me as if he is wondering what is coming next, which is quite right.
I simply want assurance on what I think are called Pepper v Hart terms—in other words, for the guidance of people trying to work out what this law is meant to mean when they come to examine it in court. I am concerned rather along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, put forward. I am an inveterate opponent of Sunday opening in principle, but the House has given a Second Reading to the Bill. I accept that so what we are discussing are the means of exempting on grounds of conscience those who do not wish to be ruled by it—and of course I am in favour of that. However, throughout the Second Reading debate and in conversations thereafter, everybody has been seeking reassurance that this is not to be used as a precedent. The phrase actually used was “stalking horse”; I take it that that means a precedent. When the noble Lord, Lord Graham, made that point forcefully he got a reply from my noble friend with some information in it, but not an avowal again that this is not to be used as a precedent or that that is not the Government’s intention. All I ask is that my noble friend reiterates that assurance, so that it will be on the record in this debate as well as at Second Reading.
My Lords, I am happy to reiterate for my noble friend Lord Elton the assurances on that point which I gave at Second Reading.
The debate was going so well that I had thought that there might be more points. It has been a good debate around this subject, but perhaps I might make some remarks about Amendment 1F, which the Government do not see merit in. That amendment, as we have heard, seeks to require employers to give two months’ written notice to any shop worker who works only in a large shop affected by the Bill, and who has not already given an opting-out notice that they wish to work on a Sunday during the suspension period, requesting them to do so. I may have said Amendment 1F; I meant Amendment 1E. I apologise to the Committee. My notes say Amendment 1A, but I think that was probably the Government’s amendment. For the avoidance of doubt, I am objecting to Amendment 1E, while the Government’s amendment is the one in which I hope the Committee will see merit.
Amendment 1E gives the shop worker an opportunity to give a written objection to the request within one month. If done, this has the effect of making the employment contract unenforceable to the extent that it requires the shop worker to do shop work on Sunday during the suspension period—in other words, it gives a temporary opt-out. This amendment is unnecessary, as I will come on to explain, but in introducing it I think that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, said on three occasions that it was a clear amendment. I suggest that it is not clear and, regrettably, certainly not workable. Let me explain its unworkability, because it is quite important and comes to some of the points that noble Lords have made in the debate.
First, if a large retailer was concerned about the additional burden that this amendment, if passed, would place on them and went to seek legal advice, it is my belief that any competent employment lawyer could pick this provision apart in minutes. The amendment’s main fault is that it contains no effective sanction against non-service of the proposed notice from the employer. If the employer does not serve this notice, the effect is that the shop worker never acquires the right to opt out of Sunday working during the suspension period as envisaged by subsection (3) of this proposed new clause. As there is no sanction in place for non-service of the notice, the advice from an employment lawyer would likely be to ignore this provision in the Act, as it would then be.
In addition, I suggest that the amendment would have some strange and undesirable effects. First and foremost, it could constitute a huge burden upon employers, particularly large ones with many staff. Doing this in respect of every employee who might be asked to work by a large retailer would be a substantial burden, added to which there would be staff hours involved in producing the notices and monitoring the responses. Employers might also need more than one notice per employee, as the requirement relates to each individual Sunday. I accept that employers could roll them up into one notice, but that is not what the amendment says. If circumstances changed—for example, if a retailer did not get enough staff for a particular Sunday—they might need to serve some more notices, assuming that they had the time to do so. And so on.
The provision does not give employers much time to plan. They might not know until one month after the date of their notice that the employee was not going to exercise their right. It would also have the effect that even those employees currently contracted to work only on Sundays would find themselves receiving a notice from their employer that they were requested to work on one Sunday or more during the suspension period. While I understand that the underlying concern here is a perfectly reasonable one, the effects of the amendment begin to get into Alice in Wonderland territory if people contracted to work only on Sundays were required to get notices from their employer. They would then have an opportunity to object to this within one month, even though they were contracted to work only on Sundays anyway.
Similarly, a notice would have to be given to those shop workers for whom the employer does not propose to make any changes to their usual or contracted hours for the Sundays concerned. The amendment would even have the rather bizarre effect that a large shop currently subject to the restrictions, even if it did not intend to change its opening hours during the suspension period, would still have to serve this notice on its shop workers to be able to be staffed for its current opening hours. This plainly means that that employer would face a burden in just opening at all, even if it did not seek to change its current opening hours. That would be totally contrary to the intention of the Bill.
The amendment is unworkable and in the view of the Government, as I said, it is also unnecessary. We should not lose sight of the fact that if a shop worker does not want to work on Sundays, whether for religious reasons or any other reasons, they will already have been able to exercise their right to opt out or will be automatically protected because their contract cannot require them to work on Sundays, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern has already pointed out.
At this point it is right to think a bit about the views of employees. This important issue has been raised by the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Davies of Coity, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen. These are important points, but we must remember that there may be many employees who would like the opportunity of a few extra hours as they could make some considerable extra money if they wanted to work on all eight Sundays. In these times, we should not be dismissive of that and just look in dramatic terms at the other side of the argument.
Yes, there was an USDAW poll. I have seen its document that talks about polling 10,000 of its members. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, talked about 20,000 members but the document that all Peers received talked about 10,000. At one point the poll was described as independent but I am not sure that that is right, as USDAW says that it did it itself, and it was taken from only 10,000 or perhaps 20,000 out of its 414,000 members. It would be good if we had some independent polls that we could debate but I do not think that we do. My noble friend Lady Trumpington carried out more of an in-depth qualitative survey that came to a rather different view; she told us that the people she had talked to during her research were perfectly relaxed about this. All I can say is that the evidence we have on this is incomplete at best, and we have to regard it in that way.
There may be a number of different effects on families. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, referred to it being harder to arrange childcare on weekends, but interestingly the submission from Working Families, a group that represents working families, to what was then the Department of Trade and Industry on its informal consultation on Sunday trading in 2006, said that it was beneficial for many parents to work on Sunday as childcare is easier to arrange than on other days of the week. Although this is a second-order effect of the Bill, it is also right to recognise, because all these concerns are being raised, that it is a perfectly reasonable concern but the Working Families submission made the point that the Bill could give families some greater flexibility over the eight-week period. I do not dismiss these concerns but we should look at them in a balanced way.
We should also remember that in many cases the main national retailers are already in discussion with their staff on this issue. They are not waiting; they have to plan ahead. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said at one point that no major retailers support this. He indicates that he did not—maybe I misheard him—but he certainly quoted the example of one major retailer. To take a major retailer that has made a statement on this, Morrisons says that it is excited, like its customers, that the Olympics are almost upon it and welcome the Government’s decision to relax the Sunday trading laws during the Games. We know that other retailers are already planning ahead because there will be very little time between the Bill receiving Royal Assent and the start of the suspension period. That is why the government amendment proposes a simple reduction in the opting-out notice period from three months to as little as two months.
In seeking to protect the rights of shop workers, as I have tried to explain, the Opposition have come up with a bureaucratic nightmare for employers, the vast majority of which want to co-operate with their employees to reach mutually acceptable agreements regarding working arrangements, and a potentially confusing measure for employees who would find themselves served with one or more notices stating that they might be required to work on a particular Sunday but not necessarily specifying the hours that they were required to work, nor indeed explaining why the notice was being given out. My noble friend Lord Bates referred to the complexity of all this and I can only underline that.
The amendment could have the no doubt unintended consequence that employers served this notice on all their employees to ensure that they had sufficient staff to cover not only the extra opening hours, if they decided to take advantage of the flexibility under the Bill, but also their current opening hours. Indeed, one of the major supermarket groups has estimated that it would have to serve 180,000 such notices to comply with this amendment, so the amendment would be costly and unnecessary for employers if they even decided to comply with this provision.
I shall say a word or two about the economic impact, about which things have been said. The main purpose of the Bill, as I explained at Second Reading and as my noble and learned friend recognises that I have explained, is to enhance the Olympic experience for all concerned. But of course another purpose of the Bill is to make sure that we do this in a way that is capable of contributing to an economic boost, not an economic cost, to the country. Clearly, individual retailers will make up their minds in respect of this, but if retailers find that they need to serve hundreds of thousands of these notices, any gains that the Bill would otherwise have are likely to be wiped out in whole or in very considerable part by compliance with that amendment. I hear what my noble friend Lord Bates and the noble Lord, Lord Myners, say about the economic impact. The one thing that we absolutely do not want to do is to put in place something that imposes an economic cost.
We know that some large retailers already operate a one-month opting-out notice. I cannot imagine why on earth these stores in particular should have to serve an additional notice to their staff when the notice period that they already apply is more generous than the three-month one, when their staff will have adequate time to opt out before the suspension period begins. Again, the amendment would get us into perverse territory. We know already that some employers are talking to their staff via their store management teams. We are told that another has started a staff availability survey that specifically asks staff whether or not they would like to volunteer to work additional time on Sundays during the suspension. This is a sensitive process that the people who we have talked to appear to be putting in place. We understand that one retailer has already made it clear to its staff that no one will be forced to work additional hours during the suspension period, and any request from management to change current Sunday working times will be done on a purely voluntary basis. So far, this store has had more than enough volunteers to work the additional time on Sundays during the suspension period. It will have no trouble resourcing its stores during the suspension. I would very much like to put names to these stores, but noble Lords will understand that, because they are in the middle of these discussions with their staff and the commercial arrangements around what they decide in terms of opening, they would rather their names were not made public in this debate.
In summary, for all of these reasons, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, is unnecessary. As I have explained, it is also unworkable. I appreciate that there have been constraints on time that may have contributed to it being less well thought out than might otherwise have been the case. It would be very burdensome for business and confusing for the shop workers that it is designed to protect. I ask the Committee to vote, if invited to do so, against the noble Lord’s amendment, but to support the government amendment, which gives proportionate protection in the context of this Bill.
1E: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Employer and employee duty to give notice regarding Sunday working during suspension period
(1) This section applies to any shop worker who is—
(a) employed to work only at an exempted large shop; and(b) not already subject of an opting-out notice under the Employment Rights Act 1996.(2) Where an employer wishes a shop worker to whom this section applies to work at an exempted large shop on a Sunday falling within the suspension period, the employer shall, not later than two months before the Sunday in question, give that shop worker a written, signed and dated statement of the request to work on that Sunday.
(3) A shop worker who receives a notice under subsection (2) who wishes to opt out of Sunday working during the suspension period shall, not later than one month after the request in subsection (2) was made, give a written, signed and dated notice that he or she objects to working on that Sunday.
(4) Where a shop worker gives his or her employer a notice under subsection (3), the contract of employment under which he or she was employed immediately before he or she gave that notice becomes unenforceable to the extent that it requires the shop worker to do shop work on Sunday during the suspension period.
(5) An “exempted large shop” is a shop to which paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the Sunday Trading Act 1994 would apply during the suspension period were it not for the disapplication made by section 1(1).
(6) In this section—
“shop worker” has the same meaning as in the Employment Rights Act 1996; and
“suspension period” has the meaning given in section 1(3).”
Amendment 1F not moved.
Amendment 1G (in substitution for Amendment 1F)
1G: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Opening hours during the suspension period
( ) An exempted large shop which opens on a Sunday during the suspension period, will be able to open only during the hours of 10am and 11pm.
( ) For the purposes of subsection (1), an “exempted large shop” is a shop to which paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the Sunday Trading Act 1994 would apply during the suspension period were it not for the disapplication made by section 1 above.”
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee that this is a manuscript amendment but the intention behind it is, as I indicated on Second Reading, that although we favour the extension of Sunday opening during the Olympic period, some limits should be put upon the opening hours of shops. The reason for submitting the manuscript amendment is that I discovered to my horror that the conclusion of the Olympic Games at the closing ceremony was not at 10 pm but at 10.30 pm. Given that the importance of the closing ceremony was germane to our case, I have submitted a manuscript amendment that extends opening hours to 11 pm.
We are of course in favour of the extension of opening hours, but there should be some limits upon the length of time that large stores and others can open during that period. The amendment goes some way towards recognising that Sunday is Sunday and is different from the rest of the week, and we are paying due regard to what is after all a widespread position held in the country on that matter. Our proposal to limit opening hours offers some protection to the workers. We have had a discussion on giving notice to people in the workforce of the intention to work on Sunday and the time in which they can reply. However, some constraint on hours offers at least an element of protection against possibly excessive demands made upon workers during the Games period.
The amendment also gives some recognition to the concern about this legislation that we discussed at Second Reading but was not germane to, or expressed during, our debate on the previous amendments—the concern of convenience stores and small shops that they will be adversely affected by the Sunday opening hours of large stores. The Minister recognises the difficulties that we all face, but the background against which the stores have been working is that the impact assessment provided by the Government is a fairly limited document. What is more, we received it after Second Reading and it is therefore difficult to make an assessment of its value. Moreover, if we are in that position, so are interests outside.
It is clear that convenience stores feel that they may well suffer during the period of extended Sunday opening during the Olympic Games because of the superior competitive power of the large stores. At least this limitation on the hours proposed in the amendment recognises that.
The noble Lord, Lord Bates, said today that shops will open only when they think that there is market potential. They will open when they will be profitable. This will operate for a limited period and it will be extremely difficult for people to make such assessments. Therefore, we think that, at the very least, the legislation should indicate for what time shops should be open. I recognise the limitations that not opening before 10 am, in particular, represents, but it goes some way towards the recognition of Sunday being a less busy and challenging day than the rest of the week in the wider community.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will be prepared to accept the amendment. That might be a forlorn hope, but all along he has been keen to emphasise that this is emergency legislation to deal with a limited, restricted period and that it is no precursor to widening Sunday trading in future; it is solely related to the Olympic Games. If he gives fair wind to the amendment, that would indicate that we are concerned about the implications of this change for the wider community. While realising all the potential benefits of Britain being open during the Olympic Games, there should also be some recognition that on Sundays, special hours should obtain. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will not disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. The Government do not see favour in the amendment. As he explained, its effect would be to restrict the Sunday opening hours of large shops deregulated by the Bill so that they can open during the suspension period only between the hours of 10 am and, now, 11 pm, the intention being to prevent large shops from being able to open any earlier on Sundays than they can now or until too late in the evening. I wish that, along with all the other things that we discussed with the Opposition, we had been able to discuss this before, because we might then have been able to point out one or two of the difficulties with the proposal.
The starting point is that the Government have been clear from the beginning that the Bill is about flexibility. It is not about the Government imposing opening and closing times on large stores during the suspension period; it is about allowing shops to make their own decisions based on what is best for themselves, their staff and their customers. I do not think that it is right for your Lordships’ House to second-guess any of that. It is not that all large stores will suddenly open for 24 hours a day during the Olympic period; that would be absurd. We have discussed opening times with the large retailers and it is clear that there will be a variety of opening and closing times within individual groups. Some will deal with it on a regional, geographic basis. Within the whole group, some will stay open late, some will open earlier, and some will not change their opening times at all. The important thing is that the Government want that to be a decision for them.
The amendment is unnecessary. I do not want to overlabour the point, but as we have seen from the scrabbling around by the party opposite, they realise that putting a 10 pm stop would be before the closing ceremony had finished. Well, putting an 11 o’clock closing time after an event where 80,000 people have to get out of a stadium, adding an extra half-hour, is absurd if the change to the amendment is intended to reflect what is really going on at the events.
Even to reflect the situation at the event that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, identified, half an hour for 80,000 people to get to a large shop near the stadium is plainly not doable. There are events that will finish as late as midnight on a Sunday. The beach volleyball finishes at 10 to midnight on 29 July. What about all those events that start before 10 am? Why should not we allow shops, if they want to, to service all those people who will be going into events? Again, I could give a very long list, but if we just take 29 July, there is an 8.30 start for the badminton, 8.30 for the hockey, 9 am for the basketball, shooting and archery, and so on.
The amendment does not work in relation to the narrow Olympic events themselves. It does not reflect the fact that retailers are already taking individual decisions to open early, late or make no change at all. As with the other opposition amendment, I note that it does not impose any sanction or penalty for breach of the 10 am to 11 pm restriction, so large shops may well ignore it. It would be a duty with no sanction, which I suggest is simply bad law. That contrasts with large shops which breach the current restrictions, which can be fined up to £50,000, which is clearly a significant punishment in relation to the gain. It does not work, it is unnecessary and I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing his amendment.
As the Minister correctly notes, the noble Lord is not in his place. This is not a stalking horse or a Trojan horse; this is strictly an emergency piece of legislation. However, one has to note that the central thrust of the Minister's response about customers and shops having freedom of choice would be exactly the same argument that would be brought forward were the Government to be proposing a much broader exemption to restrictions on Sunday trading. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, was right to seek the assurances that he did.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on his prescience. I observed that the Minister’s contribution to the Second Reading of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill was the high point of his parliamentary career. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that that would not be the case but I have to confess that, even in talking to this amendment, the Minister has in Olympic terms established another personal best.
My Lords, the Minister disappointed me and I am now going to retaliate by disappointing him because I shall not withdraw the amendment. He listed events that would go on beyond 10 o’clock as a point of absurdity in relation to shops being closed. I do not know how many people he thinks are going to go shopping after they have been in Horse Guards Parade watching beach volleyball on a Sunday evening after 10 o’clock, but to my mind such a notion beggars description. The Minister is always fertile with arguments that sustain his challenges but on this occasion I am going to disappoint him and test the opinion of the House.
Clause 2 : Duration, extent and short title
2: Clause 2, page 1, line 15, leave out “This Act is repealed at” and insert “Sections 1 and (Opting out of Sunday work) are repealed immediately after”
Amendment 2 agreed.
3: Clause 2, page 1, line 16, at end insert—
“(1A) Subsection (1B) applies in a case within section (Opting out of Sunday work) where—
(a) the opting-out notice was given less than three months before the end of the suspension period, and (b) section 42(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (which sets out the case in which the notice period is to be one month beginning with the day on which the notice was given) does not apply.(1B) For the purposes of section 41(3) of that Act, the notice period (which, as a result of the repeal made by subsection (1), reverts to being the period of three months beginning with the day on which the notice was given) is to be treated as ending immediately after that repeal.”
Amendments 3A and 3B (to Amendment 3) not moved.
Amendment 3 agreed.
Amendment 3C not moved.
Clause 2, as amended, agreed.
In the Title
4: In the Title, line 2, at end insert “; and for connected purposes”
Amendment 4 agreed.
Title, as amended, agreed.
Bill reported with amendments. Report and Third Reading agreed without debate. Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Afghanistan: Troop Levels
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Captain Rupert Bowers, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Sergeant Luke Taylor, the Royal Marines; Lance Corporal Michael Foley, the Adjutant General’s Corps; Corporal Jack Stanley, The Queen’s Royal Hussars; and Sapper Connor Ray, 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), who were all killed in operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.
The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, with your permission I would like to make a Statement on future UK force levels in Afghanistan.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the commitment, professionalism and bravery of the men and women of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces deployed in Afghanistan. Since UK forces first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, more than 100,000 personnel have served on operations there, many for more than one tour, and many more, military and civilian, have supported the mission. Since the surge in the international commitment to the mission as a whole in 2009, which boosted the forces available to ISAF by 30,000, the United Kingdom has maintained an enduring level of conventional forces in Afghanistan of 9,500, the great majority of whom are now in the UK area of operations in central Helmand.
This has been a critical period for the mission, for UK Forces, for ISAF and, significantly, for the Afghan national security forces—ANSF. Our combined efforts have arrested the momentum of the insurgency, diminished its capability, and weakened its strategic position. But it still represents a threat to the people of Afghanistan and to the security of Afghan territory. It retains the ability to launch significant operations, as the attack on Kabul on 15 and 16 April demonstrates. The response of the ANSF to that attack demonstrated just how far they have come in terms of their capability and their ability to undertake major operations autonomously. They are justifiably proud of their performance.
Our aim in Afghanistan is to build Afghan governance and security forces to the point where they are resilient in the face of any residual threat from the insurgency; confident in their ability to protect their own citizens; and able to deny safe haven to terrorists who seek to use Afghan territory as a base from which to threaten international security.
Significant progress is being made across Afghanistan, and the monthly progress report for March, published today by the FCO, DfID and the MoD, sets out more details. Nowhere is that progress more obvious than in Helmand. There are now 12 district governors in Helmand’s 14 districts, up from just five in 2008. Thirty extra schools have opened since 2010, with another 46 currently being built. Twenty-nine extra health clinics have opened. There are more roads and more bridges. Bazaars are reopening, meaning more commerce and opportunities for ordinary Helmandis. In the past year alone, income levels in Helmand have increased by 20 per cent. Prosperity will be a critical weapon in the battle against the insurgency.
All of this social and economic progress has been made possible by the improvements in security across the province. This has been facilitated not just by the surge in ISAF troops but by the increasing number and quality of Afghan national security forces. The size of the Afghan national army in regional command south-west, which includes Helmand province, has increased by 30 per cent in the past 18 months. Two of the three districts in Task Force Helmand’s area of operations have now entered formal transition. The security situation in those districts is unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006.
The whole of Lashkar Gah district and the most populous 60 per cent of Nad-e Ali is now completely under Afghan control. The ANSF has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to provide security in these areas and, as a result, 36 of Task Force Helmand’s checkpoints, patrol bases and military positions have been handed over to the ANSF in the past six months, while a further 16 new posts have been constructed and occupied by Afghan forces. This has enabled Task Force Helmand to reduce its basing footprint by 50 per cent and, as circumstances allow, UK and ISAF forces are progressively moving towards the support role of training, advising and assisting.
During 20 Armoured Brigade’s recent tour, the campaign moved to being run on an Afghan-formulated campaign plan, written in Dari by the Afghans and executed by them. Seven major operations were carried out in central Helmand over the six-month period of Herrick 15—a pace that, in the words of the UK brigade commander, ‘sometimes left us running to catch up with our Afghan colleagues’.
In the recent Operation Now Roz, over 1,000 members of the ANSF, supported by British forces, cleared insurgents from a key heartland within the Helmand River valley. While UK forces secured the flanks, the Afghans cleared more than 200 compounds, made safe 44 IEDs, found seven bomb-making factories and confiscated over 145 kilograms of homemade explosives. This is the fourth major ANA operation in central Helmand in four months, and the largest and most complex so far. The success of the operation further demonstrated the ANSF’s increasing professionalism and capability.
Helmand remains difficult and challenging, and the insurgency remains a constant threat, but the progress we have made demonstrates that we are on target to meet the transition objectives agreed by President Karzai and the international community at Lisbon in November 2010. Maintaining that momentum will be the challenge of the transition process between now and the end of 2014. There is no room at all for complacency, and much work needs to be done to maintain the momentum of progress in building ANSF capability. But the reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. This allows ISAF, including UK forces, to gradually reduce force levels and to change their role.
The Prime Minister announced in July last year that we would be drawing down UK forces by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. The Chief of the Defence Staff has now provided military advice on how these reductions will be achieved. The House will understand that it is not appropriate to go into exact operational details or to talk about specific capabilities, but I am able to give the House a general overview of how the manpower reductions will be achieved.
First, I can confirm that, reflecting the reduction in the need for ISAF ground-holding capabilities as transition progresses and the Afghans take over positions, the majority of the 500 being withdrawn will be combat troops. Secondly, we will merge the UK Forces Headquarters in Nahr-e Saraj North and Nahr-e Saraj South to better align with the increasingly important Afghan administrative boundaries and the civilian control structure. This will deliver efficiencies and manpower savings.
Thirdly, there will be a reduction in support personnel and enablers commensurate with the changes I have set out. Finally, we will withdraw some combat support capabilities for which there is no longer an operational need as a result of the availability of alternative weapons systems in theatre. These measures will reduce the United Kingdom’s enduring conventional force levels to 9,000 and will be completed by the end of this year.
I can also inform the House that, in addition to the overall reduction in numbers, a further 200 combat troops will be transferred from a ground-holding role to security force assistance teams working with the ANSF. For avoidance of doubt, I should be clear that, whatever role is being fulfilled, including the training of ANSF forces, British forces in Afghanistan will retain combat capability until the end of 2014.
The details I have announced today are consistent with our intention to move out of a combat role by the end of 2014. They demonstrate our commitment to the process of transition, and the increasing capacity and capability of the ANSF, reflecting its real achievements on the ground. As it grows, and gradually takes lead responsibility for security across the country, ISAF’s military footprint will reduce further, including that of the United Kingdom, and we will keep the House informed of future plans for further reductions in UK troop numbers as conditions on the ground permit.
Our combat role will end by December 2014, but the United Kingdom’s commitment to Afghanistan is for the long-term. This is demonstrated in part by the announcement I made last week at the NATO ministerial meeting that we will commit £70 million per year to the future funding of the ANSF after 2014, and by our commitment to run the Afghan national army officer training academy, which we are currently building outside Kabul.
Each nation has its own constitutional processes in which to consider its contribution as transition moves forward, but all agree that ISAF cohesion must be maintained. The UK will continue to work and plan closely with our ISAF partners, particularly those operating alongside us in Helmand, including the United States, which provides the bulk of coalition forces. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday: ‘The speed of the reductions between now and the end of 2014 will be in accordance with the conditions on the ground and with what is right in terms of transitioning from allied control to Afghan control—and at all times, of course, paramount in our minds is the safety and security of our brave armed forces’.
That safety and security will be best assured by working with our allies in a co-ordinated drawdown as responsibilities are handed progressively to the ANSF. That is the way to honour and protect the legacy of our involvement in Afghanistan, and of the sacrifice made by the 409 service men and women who have given their lives, and the thousands who have suffered life-changing injuries.
I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I start by associating these Benches with the condolences extended to the families and friends of the five soldiers who died recently in Afghanistan. I thank the Minister for reading out the five names. This has been a long and expensive mission, but above all we must bear in mind when we discuss these matters the enormous price paid by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in this campaign. I also join the Minister in his reference to the wounded who will be paying for this mission for the rest of their lives.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and join unambiguously in the tribute contained in it to the commitment, professionalism and bravery of the men and women who have served, are serving or are yet to serve in Afghanistan. I also repeat unambiguously the consistent support of these Benches for the mission in Afghanistan and, indeed, our general support for the careful reduction in forces that this Statement touches upon.
I want to touch on three areas on which I think the House needs reassurance. The first is the safety of our troops in this period of withdrawal, the second is the planning for the transitional period and the third is something that we must continue to bear in mind, which is: what sort of Afghanistan are we trying to create?
Touching first on the safety of our troops, the Statement states that,
“reflecting the reduction in the need for ISAF ground-holding capabilities as transition progresses and the Afghans take over positions, the majority of the 500 being withdrawn will be combat troops”.
I do not have an in-depth knowledge of the military, but from my experience, it seems very difficult to withdraw from combat and to hand over not to troops that you have trained with or of the same philosophy but to a brand new army. It seems to me that this is an area where a flank is exposed and where there is real risk. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that we have meticulously planned this transition from our securing the combat situation to the Afghans securing it and are doing it in a way that does not expose our people to new dangers?
The Statement speaks of withdrawing some combat capability. Will the Minister outline what combat capability is being withdrawn and assure us that the withdrawal of that combat capability in no way endangers the troops we will be leaving behind and that appropriate combat support capability will remain so that the 9,000 troops still there will be properly protected?
The Statement also speaks of 200 combat troops being transferred from ground-holding roles to security force assistance teams working with the Afghan National Army. Can we have an assurance that proper procedures are in place to protect those people from the very unfortunate incidents that have occurred with troops working with the Afghan army? Do the Afghans have the right procedures in place to make sure that there are no rogue individuals putting our people at risk?
Can I have an assurance that our people are not going to be unreasonably exposed by the proportionately more rapid rundown of other ISAF nations’ troops? One particularly thinks of the US, but in France there is about to be a presidential election and there is every possibility that as a result of that there may be a discontinuous commitment from the French. Is that taken account of? Are our people going to be secure?
Moving into the transitional period, we have put a great deal of money into Afghanistan and a significant amount of the equipment of the Army, in particular, is in Afghanistan. How advanced are the plans to withdraw that equipment, particularly in the light of the delicate and fragile relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbours? Are routes being secured? Will they be robust? Is there sufficient diversity to make sure that that considerable investment in equipment can be safely withdrawn?
Turning to the future of Afghanistan, the Statement says that we are going to run—quite a strong word—the Afghan national army officer training academy. That sounds like a very considerable commitment. Will the Minister give us some feel for just how big a commitment it will be? At first sight, it seems like building Sandhurst in Kabul. Is it a commitment of that order? If so, we welcome it because this army has to take over a very difficult task when ISAF withdraws.
Although I am not suggesting the policy is wrong, there is another area of concern. Will the Minister detail what combat support capability will be left from ISAF and the UK after the end of 2014? Is it none, and do the Afghans have appropriate high-technology support capability to support themselves—I think particularly of air power, other precision weapons and other technically difficult areas—or will we have a remaining role in that area?
An area about which there is widespread concern in the wider debate on Afghanistan is whether we have done enough on governance. We have clearly done a pretty good job on the army by now. We and our allies have worked at that, and it seems to be bearing fruit, but the root of the Afghan problem seems to be a wider issue about governance. Have we done enough to help build governance? Will the systems of administration and law be robust enough against the slings and arrows that will inevitably be thrown at them when ISAF withdraws from its combat role?
An even bigger question is whether we have done enough, or has enough been done, to secure a political solution, a political agreement, between the parties in Afghanistan, which have to be more than just the present Government, to secure agreement? It is seen as a prerequisite that this must be achieved before ISAF’s combat withdrawal. Particularly, it is seen as a prerequisite that such a political agreement must not only take account of the Afghan Government and the Afghan people who are not presently in the political regime—almost inevitably drawing in the Taliban—but the key relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbours that must be secured if we are to have stability in that country in the future.
Finally, I agree with the Minister that in all these deliberations, we must have regard for our brave men and women who are serving in Afghanistan now and those who will serve between now and the end of 2014.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Opposition’s continued support for the Afghan mission. It is hugely reassuring for our Armed Forces to know that they have cross-party parliamentary support.
I was in Afghanistan in late February, and I was able to see for myself that real progress is being made in Helmand. The morale of our Armed Forces was very high and there was a tangible sense of ongoing progress. Our goal will be to leave Afghanistan looking after its own security, not being a haven for terror, and without the involvement of foreign troops in combat roles.
Turning to the noble Lord’s questions, he first asked about the safety of our troops in this period of drawdown. The safety and well-being of our Armed Forces is at the forefront of our military strategy and will never be compromised. The decision to reduce our force levels by 500 was taken on the basis of military advice and reflects the security situation on the ground. I can confirm to the noble Lord that we have meticulously planned the drawdown.
The noble Lord asked about the 200 troops who will be working with the ANSF and, I imagine, the issue of “green on blue” attacks. It is important to note that these tragic incidents involve only isolated rogue elements within the ANSF, the vast majority of whom continue to demonstrate strong commitment to their partnership with ISAF. Nevertheless, a range of security measures has been taken to reduce the threat, including steps to improve the vetting of recruits and more assiduous monitoring of those returning from leave, especially in areas where there is greater insurgent influence. The Afghan national army has committed to making substantial improvements to its counterintelligence capabilities.
The noble Lord asked whether UK forces will be put at greater risk as the US and other allies draw down. There are no plans for UK forces to take on new combat tasks outside our area of operations during the transition process. We and our allies are reducing our forces as transition progresses and, where it is appropriate to do so, we, like our ISAF partners, keep our force levels in Afghanistan under constant review. I can confirm—and I saw it for myself—that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead as transition progresses. This is creating the conditions to allow the United Kingdom and other ISAF partners gradually to reduce our force levels.
The noble Lord then asked about exit routes and how we are going to get our equipment out. A range of exit routes from Afghanistan are subject to continuous review and development. While the ground lines of communication through Pakistan remain closed, sensible planning to identify alternative ways to move our freight, equipment and supplies into and out of Afghanistan continues. This includes negotiations with the central Asian republics to further improve our resilience.
The noble Lord asked what we might leave behind. Planning for the recovery of our equipment is at an early stage. Decisions have not yet been made on what equipment will be retained. Therefore, it is too early to state what the value of our recovered equipment might be. Work is ongoing to ensure that the redeployment of equipment from Afghanistan is conducted in a way that represents value for money.
The noble Lord then asked about the officers’ academy. As part of our enduring commitment in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom will lead coalition support at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy. At the peak, approximately 120 coalition troops will work at the academy, providing leadership training to the officer cadets—although I understand the normal figure will be more like 90. The UK expects to provide roughly three-quarters of this manpower. In addition to this, there will be a number of personnel working in a force protection and support role.
The noble Lord then asked what combat support capability would be available after 2014. This is a very good question, although I have to be very careful how I word my response. The Prime Minister made it clear that there will be no United Kingdom forces in a combat role in Afghanistan post-2014. NATO’s strategic plan will be discussed in Chicago next month, and we are in regular discussion with NATO and our other ISAF partners about the role that NATO will have in Afghanistan after 2014. NATO allies have agreed that NATO’s post-2014 role should focus on training, advising and assisting the ANSF.
The noble Lord then asked a very good question about good governance. I went to Kabul in February, and having been there last February and the year before, I can say that there is marked improvement in the feeling of good governance. Diplomats I spoke to feel much more optimistic about that. There is obviously the issue of corruption, which is of concern to everyone. The United Kingdom is helping the Government of Afghanistan to tackle corruption across a range of areas, including improving public financial management systems to reduce the scope for misuse of public funds, and giving support to law enforcement. We are also helping to strengthen Afghan civil society organisations to enable them to hold the Government to account.
Finally, as I understood it, the noble Lord asked whether a political settlement involving regional partners was a prerequisite for withdrawal. We will adhere to the strategy agreed by ISAF nations in Lisbon in 2010 and gradually hand over responsibility to the Afghans, who will have security responsibility for all provinces by the end of 2014. In parallel with this, we need a political process that ensures that all Afghans, if they give up violence, can play a part in building a strong and democratic country. We of course hope—and where possible will work to ensure—that Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional partners support this process.
My Lords, first, I join these Benches in paying tribute to those who have fallen in Afghanistan recently and also, of course, to the wounded.
In the Statement, my noble friend lauded the progress that has been made by the Afghan security forces. However, this huge investment that we have collectively made in the expansion and training of the Afghan security forces will be put at risk if it is not properly financed post-2014. The £70 million that it is intended we will be contributing seems to be a very small figure indeed relative to the amount that in these final years the whole Afghan operation is costing us, let alone all the investment we have made in terms of finance and human sacrifice over the years. How has that £70 million actually been arrived at, and what total commitment are the allied countries guaranteeing for the future resourcing of those very sizeable Afghan security forces that we have built up?
On the question of the withdrawal of equipment, I read very recently that it is estimated that it will cost the Americans around £16 billion to bring back the vast majority of their equipment. As I understand it, presently they have about 50,000 vehicles in Afghanistan; I believe we have about 3,000. Has any broad estimate—obviously it has to be a broad estimate at this stage—been made of the total costs of the equipment that we will be bringing back post-2014?
My Lords, first, I agree entirely with my noble friend how really important it is that enough money is raised to keep the Afghan national security forces as a strong and potent force. The Statement mentioned the figure of £70 million. I understand the aspiration to be discussed in Chicago is a figure of $4 billion a year, which will be needed to keep the Afghan national forces going.
My noble friend’s second question was about the withdrawal of equipment and whether we have a broad estimate of the value of all this. There is still a lot of work going on in my department and it is really much too early to say how much kit will be brought back and how much will be left. A lot of the cost of this will depend on the route and whether it comes out through Pakistan or through the north. It is much too early to answer that question.
My Lords, I join others in extending my personal condolences to the families of those who have bravely lost their lives in the Afghan campaign. On that matter, are the deaths of civilian staff who are part of the UK contribution reported to Parliament? If so, in what form are they reported? I ask that question in the light of reports in the weekend press that that is not the case. I am sure the Minister would wish to clarify that position.
Will he also tell us what proportion of all UK personnel involved in the Afghan campaign are involved in front-line operational combat duties at any time? Is there a rough percentage? In addition, to what extent are the comments of Frank Ledwidge in his book Losing Small Wars an accurate portrayal of what is happening in Afghanistan? Has the Minister read that book? Have departmental officials studied its comments, some of which may need denial?
My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Lord about the terrible price that a number of members of the Armed Forces have paid with their lives and the tribute we should pay to their families. I am not sighted on the number of civilians who have died and whether their deaths are reported to Parliament but I will undertake to write to the noble Lord and to put the letter in the Library. Again, I do not have figures in terms of a percentage or a proportion of the number of civilians working on the front line but when I was in Camp Bastion recently I saw quite a number of them. I do not have the slightest idea of the percentage, but, again, I will write to the noble Lord.
The noble Lord’s third question about Losing Small Wars was interesting. The answer is no and yes. Interestingly, while I was being briefed on this Statement, an official asked me whether I had read this book and I said that I had not. He had just read it and said that I must read it. Certainly before the next Statement I will have read that book.
From these Benches, I also express our continued concern for those who have lost their lives in this conflict, and for those who are suffering as a consequence and will do so for the rest of their lives. Perhaps I may advise the Minister that as a church we are committed to the well-being of service personnel and all others who are working in the Afghan scene. In my own diocese, when troops from all the departments come home, my colleagues are very much involved with them, as well as with their families during their periods of deployment and so on. It is our continued prayer and hope that this war will be brought to a conclusion satisfactory to the well-being of our service personnel and that we will take very great care in making decisions about where we should engage ourselves in times to come.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for what he said about the church’s commitment to the well-being of the Armed Forces. All my life I have had great respect for Army padres and likewise for the Navy and the Air Force. When I was in the Army I was married by my padre for whom I had the highest respect. I share exactly the feelings of the right reverend Prelate.
My Lords, it is a matter of some regret to me that for an important Statement such as this we do not have more representatives from our Armed Forces in this House. Perhaps the opportunity will come when we get to the Chicago meeting. Considering the size of the problem and the commitment of our Armed Forces, we are all personally touched. I have friends who as young marines have been out two or three times. In the House, we do not give enough attention to Afghanistan. We are slipping away even as our troops are being withdrawn. I hope we can keep up the momentum that there was at the beginning of this exercise, which was now nearly 10 years ago.
To follow up on a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about co-ordination with regional allies, what efforts are being made to inform Pakistan and India of withdrawal and how will that fit in with their own programme? Will they be able to step up support even as we are withdrawing?
We have had a recent serious attack in Kabul and many international and national organisations are under threat. We were closely targeted and could have suffered casualties. Has anything been done to improve the situation in Kabul? The airport has always been vulnerable and rockets have been fired. Is it still at risk, as it was in the past, or has something been done to improve the situation?
First, the noble Earl was sorry that noble Lords with Armed Forces connections are unable to be here today. I am confident that a large number of them will speak in the Queen’s Speech debate on 17 May. Secondly, I can assure the noble Earl that discussions are taking place with Pakistan. It is vital that ISAF and Pakistan, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, have good relations. The noble Earl used the word “withdrawing”. We would prefer to use words such as “transition” or “draw down”.
Thirdly, the noble Earl asked about Kabul. I was in Kabul in February and I am assured that incidents are very rare. Of course, when they happen they get a huge amount of publicity but on the whole it is fairly safe. There was an incident the other day. The Afghan national security forces dealt with it very quickly and competently. As was said in the Statement, they are hugely proud of what they did.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I promised I would come back to the House after a short debate after Questions to explain how we would deal with the debate on the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on Monday. Those of us who were here will have realised that the House wished to sit not just on Monday but on Tuesday so as to complete the debate without going into the small hours of Tuesday morning. I am delighted to inform the House that we will sit as normal on Monday at 2.30 pm. After Questions the debate will begin and after a named speaker the debate and the House will adjourn, which I hope will mean that we do not need to sit into the small hours of Tuesday morning. The House will meet at 10 am on Tuesday morning and we shall complete the business in time for Prorogation to take place at 1.30 pm. I know the House is extremely thinly attended at the moment, but I hope that it will feel that this is an entirely sensible way to go and that it will be pleased that we have given plenty of time for this debate to be completed.
My Lords, I am happy to give advice or for the Chief Whips to give advice on a rough timetable so that we can complete it by, say, 11 pm or midnight on Monday. Of course, any guidelines will be advisory and not mandatory, and that is how it should be. I think there was an impression this morning that I was somehow trying to stop debate on this subject. I am really not; I am very happy for there to be full debate on it.
House adjourned at 3.20 pm.