House of Lords
Thursday, 12 July 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.
Introduction: Lord Trees
Alexander John Trees, having been created Baron Trees, of The Ross in Perth and Kinross, was introduced between Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and Lord Owen, made and subscribed the solemn affirmation and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Drugs: Prescribed Drug Addiction
My Lords, treatment should be based on individual need, not the legal status of a drug. The Health and Social Care Act places responsibility for commissioning services to treat dependence at the local level. My honourable friend Anne Milton is leading work to improve the prevention and treatment of addiction to medicines, and has visited local areas where support for dependence on prescription drugs is an integral part of the local treatment system.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and I know that he and his fellow Minister are fully aware of the problem. However, there are only a handful of voluntary organisations and one or two primary care trusts dealing with this. The basic question is surely the control of prescription drugs. Does the Minister recognise that the British National Formulary guidelines are being routinely breached? Is there nothing that the Government can do effectively to control and monitor these prescription drugs, separately from illegal drugs?
My Lords, the report commissioned by the Department of Health from the National Addiction Centre brought together published evidence on the scale of the problem. That report suggested that while some GPs prescribed for longer than the recommended period, most prescribing in fact falls within current guidelines. I say to the noble Earl that what matters most in these circumstances is that patients should be treated according to the level of their need, regardless of what the dependence is and where it has come from.
My Lords, while there certainly is a focus on recovery for illegal drug users, does the Minister agree that the journey from being a drug user to becoming “recovered”—that is, to abstinence—is very complicated? It may require that person to have treatments, including methadone, Subutex and other drugs. It is not simply a matter of someone becoming abstinent, especially in the current economic climate. Does he agree that that is still the direction of travel?
Will the Minister ensure that whatever else is done, nothing shall prejudice the treatment of illegal drugs and of alcoholism, which is the greatest problem? Will he also take note that in the distant past, when I was a Home Office Minister and Roy Jenkins was Secretary of State for the first time, the use and possession of drugs such as heroin was not a crime and that this greatly facilitated the possibility of access to treatment?
There are no plans to revert to the former situation as regards heroin, but my noble friend makes the point that alcohol addiction is an extremely important issue. The commissioning of services to treat addiction will in the future architecture of the system be devolved to local areas. The all-party group on benzodiazepines on which the noble Earl sits has done some important work in exposing those areas where services are not as good as they should be.
I applaud the Minister’s comment that treatment must be based on need rather than on whether a substance is legal or illegal. Is he aware of the excellent work being done to treat heroin addicts in Switzerland, where a third of people are in employment and two-thirds of people are living legally within 18 months? Will he consider introducing to this country these highly cost-effective approaches?
My Lords, does the noble Earl think, as I do, that if the Department of Health were to be the lead department for the Government’s policy on drugs we would get better results than we have been getting with the Home Office as the lead department?
My Lords, the Home Office has a particular responsibility for drugs which is distinct from my department’s responsibility, which is to do with ensuring that those who are addicted to drugs get the proper treatment. The two are distinct and it would not necessarily be helpful to blend them together.
Will the Government ensure that the recommendations from the Royal College of General Practitioners for increased training in psychiatry is implemented in workforce planning after the new Act is in place? The inappropriate initiation of prescriptions is a major problem for those becoming dependent when alternative therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or simply better social support, would have avoided the inappropriate prescription of a drug on which physical dependence then develops.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right, and I am very pleased that both the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have been keen participants in the round table group on addiction to medicines convened by my colleague Anne Milton. The actions agreed by the group have included greater recognition of the risk and the treatment of dependence on prescription drugs within the core competencies of psychiatrists and the further development of training and guidance on this issue for GPs and other healthcare practitioners.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the biggest obstacles to recovery for people with addictions to alcohol and drugs is stigma? Will he confirm that there is no thought in mind of moving down the avenue suggested in the Question because that would lead to greater stigma?
I am well aware of the point that the noble Lord appropriately raises. Stigma is an issue and we need to take account of the risk of it. That means that quite often when treatment services are provided to those who are addicted to medicines, they take place in a different setting from those administered to addicts of illegal substances.
Will the Minister recommend that, given that withdrawal from legally prescribed drugs is every bit as dangerous as withdrawal from illegal drugs, more should be done, for example, to print warnings in bolder lettering on packaging, to put notices in doctors’ surgeries and to make the public and the patient more aware of this issue as well as making doctors more aware?
I agree that dependence on prescription medicines can be just as devastating and debilitating as dependence on illegal drugs. The round table on addiction to medicines has agreed actions to improve public and professional awareness of the risk of dependence. They include a review of the updated warnings on prescription painkillers by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the development of further materials for GPs and other healthcare practitioners to support patients in understanding the risks.
Schools: Copyright Exemption
My Lords, the Government’s recent consultation on copyright explored a number of options to update the current exceptions to copyright provided for educational establishments. None of the options considered has proposed a copyright exemption for schools. We are clear that any changes to the current exceptions should clarify the position for teachers but must not undermine the important incentives to creators of new works.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. I understand that the situation is still fluid and that decisions have not yet been made. That is why it is important to raise the issue at this time because in the autumn there will be a substantial opening up of the UK’s copyright exemption regime that is estimated to cost the writers of this country something like £12 million. Are the Government aware that where such exemptions exist in the vast majority of European countries, they are balanced by a fair compensation scheme which provides remuneration for authors? The Government’s own consultation paper states that,
“there is a danger that going too far will undermine the financial incentives that encourage the creation of new educational works”.
Will the Government bear in mind those words?
The noble Baroness was kind enough to give me an outline of what this Question was likely to be about. I know that there have been worries among writers, specifically of textbooks, who are people who do not make a great deal of money out of doing things. It is nothing to do with the fact that we do not want them to carry on writing. We absolutely want them to carry on writing these textbooks. I am delighted to reassure the noble Baroness that the Government have not proposed a copyright exemption for schools. They will still have to pay for their licences. The last thing we want is for writers to stop writing. If they keep writing, they will keep getting their money.
My Lords, does my noble friend realise that, reassuring as her first Answer was, Clause 56 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is now at the other end, has caused a great deal of anxiety, not only to authors but to composers, musicians and others who depend on copyright for their living? Does my noble friend agree with the advice that has been given to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society by the Intellectual Property Office that the clause has been introduced not in order to implement the exceptions suggested in the Hargreaves report? Should it not be made clear in the Bill that the new powers should be solely in the context of restricting the operation of the copyright exceptions?
My noble friend hits on a point that is absolutely right. In the other place at the moment, my honourable friend Norman Lamb is struggling with Clause 56, trying to clarify it and explain to people that they are worrying unnecessarily. The truth is that we know all about the questions that have been raised on this. As I look around today, I see people who represent those great societies. By the time the Bill gets here, I am absolutely sure that things will be clear. In the mean time, I am happy to write to my noble friend to give him clarification.
My Lords, I declare an interest as I receive tiny sums twice a year from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. Does the noble Baroness accept that, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, said, if in consequence of Clause 56 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill being enacted, the Government removed the requirement for schools, colleges and universities to have a licence in order to copy, it would take away £12 million per year in secondary royalties currently paid to writers and £15 million a year that goes to publishers? Is the noble Baroness further aware that if this were activated, high-profile writers such as Philip Pullman and others have said that they would seriously have to reconsider writing for schools?
I am very much aware of all the points that the noble Lord has made. Norman Lamb, my colleague in the other place, is also aware because those discussions are going on at this time. We must remember that the Hargreaves report was directly commissioned by the Prime Minister himself. He wanted to know whether we have an intellectual property office and system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. We have laws that we cannot enforce and technology is leaping ahead at enormous speed. However, noble Lords can be absolutely sure that we want to do nothing that will impede people earning a living. We are looking for everybody to make as much money as they can at the moment because we have hardly anything left in the coffers.
My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration of interest, as set out in the register. Will the Minister confirm that copyright lies at the heart of the creative industries, which are so crucial to the economic success and cultural well-being of this country? If she confirms that, will she explain why the Government propose, in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, to make important changes to copyright through secondary legislation rather than through the primary legislative process that would give this important issue the full scrutiny that it deserves?
This will all be discussed during proceedings on the Bill, which is in the other place at the moment. Of course it is important; that is why we have taken so much time to make sure that we get opinions from everybody, particularly on copyright. We know how important it is. We have other voices to listen to as well, including those of consumers and teachers. The original Question was about how teachers could get things on to boards when it is illegal to write something that is in copyright on a whiteboard in this country. It is a very complicated subject, as the noble Lord well knows. However, I am delighted that he still makes his living from writing.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of copyright exceptions for schools on the ability of bespoke educational publishers, particularly providers of specialist music education material, to continue to develop exceptional international products? I declare an interest as a writer of educational works.
I can only repeat again that nothing is under threat at the moment, certainly when it comes to schools. We are looking for teachers to take up the licences as they should but, at the same time, to be able to use the facilities that they have. At the moment, the law states that you can write something only on a blackboard—now called a chalkboard—although only 1% of boards in this country are blackboards. The whole law is a wreck as far as this is concerned. I can reassure noble Lords that nobody is taking away anyone’s living but we want teachers to have enough time to teach children. That is what they are there for.
China: Mineral Acquisitions
My Lords, the United Kingdom Government welcome increased foreign investment across Africa and South America, including investment from Chinese companies. The Government are working with African and South American countries to ensure that they secure the maximum possible social and economic benefits from resource extraction—for example, through direct support for and promotion of the extractive industries transparency initiative and the natural resource charter.
My Lords, given that Chinese nationals comprise not quite 20% of the world population and are 20 times as numerous as our own population, their ambitions and intentions are of immense importance to all of us. Does my noble friend consider their motives to be basically imperial, colonial or commercial?
My Lords, the motives behind the enormous expansion of Chinese investment across the whole globe—not just in Asia, Africa and South America—are mixed. In some cases the motives are purely commercial. At the head of the list, I think, one would put the Chinese authorities’ desire to acquire access to resources—minerals and particularly hydrocarbons—around the world to meet their enormous and very rapidly growing needs. There are also some direct concerns in investment to promote the welfare of the recipient countries. The British Government have in fact signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Government on poverty reduction in the low-income countries. This is one of many dialogues that we conduct all the time with the Chinese on these matters.
What assessment have our own strategic planners and those of our allies made of the dangers of China over a longer term gaining such a monopoly of scarce mineral resources that it will be in a position to manipulate prices and possibly to manipulate other users of those scarce materials?
Of course, these dangers of monopoly control exist in all extractive industries, particularly for scarce resources. We have to watch those matters very carefully. What might be behind the noble Lord’s question is the issue of rare earths, the use of which is essential in practically every mobile telephone and the production of which was very much under Chinese control until recently. However, any attempt to limit the export of rare earths and thereby to manipulate price has been met by the discovery and development of rare earths elsewhere. Therefore, provided that we watch these matters carefully, competition can usually weaken the monopolies. I am not saying that it is a Chinese aim to monopolise these resources, but in the case of rare earths that was a danger.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this country is hardly in the best historical position to lecture others about the morality of taking raw materials from Africa? In so far as we did so, if we had a policy in this area it might be better directed to advising others not to do it as we did it in the last century.
I think we all agree that we do not want to go around lecturing and hectoring, but we have our own values, we have had our own experience, and we have made our own errors in the past. It is possible that by sharing our values and not reneging on them in any way we can help other countries avoid some of the mistakes that we made. I do not think that there is anything much to apologise for in working with other countries to ensure that today’s and tomorrow’s standards for the extractive industries are developed and maintained. I believe that this is a matter that the Chinese Government, as a responsible member of the World Trade Organisation, fully recognise.
My Lords, is it not clear that the Chinese would not be spending vast amounts of money and a large amount of political capital in getting hold of hydrocarbon resources—in sub-Saharan Africa in particular—if they did not intend to use them? Given that, is it not clear that no global decarbonisation agreement is possible? Since it is not, is it not quixotic, to say the least, that the British Government should be forcing British industry and British consumers, particularly poor consumers, to have more expensive energy in the name of unilateral decarbonisation, which is completely pointless if there is no global agreement?
Well, it is not quite pointless. As my noble friend knows well, China, although reluctant to commit itself to legal binding global agreements for which some others have argued, is in fact investing enormous amounts in decarbonisation and low-carbon technologies. It is working very closely with the United Kingdom and our technologies and developing in those areas. All these are very valuable moves forward in the decarbonisation movement and, one hopes, effective moves worldwide against climate violence in the future. I think there is value in this.
The pursuit of international global targets that are legally binding is going to be a very uphill task in relation not merely to China but to other countries as well. The general message coming to us from Beijing and the vast Chinese industrial machine is that they are well on the path to low-carbon technologies, and we are going to work with them on that.
My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration in the register of interests. Is it not true that these are largely state-sponsored Chinese acquisitions? They very often come with promises of collateral benefits for the growth of infrastructure in the countries concerned, such as railways and roads. Have the Government done any assessment of the level of delivery from the Chinese on these collateral benefits? There is evidence that much is promised that will go along with access to these mineral resources, and very often not much is delivered. Would the Minister initiate looking at the evidence for what is really the benefit to the country concerned?
We follow these things very closely. The noble Baroness is entirely right that in some cases the benefits have disadvantages attached to them. I am not talking so much about their failing to deliver fantastic new developments in sports stadia, schools, railways, government offices and so on, although that certainly happens. In other areas, the benefit for local people turns out to be non-existent because labour is just imported from China and taken away again. There are lessons to be learnt by our Chinese friends, which, again, we can possibly help with, on the basis of our own experience in the past, as to how to conduct operations that bring real benefit to local people and do not just leave them feeling that they have been ripped off.
Family Planning: London Summit
My Lords, the UK was delighted to co-host the London Summit on Family Planning yesterday, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and participants from all over the world. UK support will provide access to family planning for an additional 24 million women who want to avoid or delay pregnancy. The UK is doubling its efforts on family planning to an average of £180 million a year between now and 2020.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Clearly, we would all welcome the summit yesterday and congratulate the Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on their efforts and welcome the commitments that were made globally as a result. All the contraception and family planning in the world would not have helped two girls whom I met in Liberia, who were 15 year-old mothers, one of whom had been raped during the conflict and the other sold by her impoverished family for sex. Those girls need more than access in some city or town elsewhere to family planning and contraception; they need more power over their own lives and an end to violence and conflict.
Will the Government, alongside the commitments made yesterday, continue to make efforts, first to combat sexual violence internationally but also to deal with the issues of conflict that can give rise to these impacts for so many young girls and women in so many countries?
The noble Lord is right. I thank him for his congratulations. For me, it was an incredibly optimistic conference; I was extremely glad to see the wide range of commitments that were being made, which addressed not only the financial need to make sure that access is there and available but also the kind of social and cultural concerns that he just flagged up. It is extremely important that women and girls have the chance to choose whether they are to have children and how they might space them—and it is important for the mothers, too. In the case that he mentioned, it would probably have helped if the mother herself had more control over her life, which then would have impacted on her own child.
Is my noble friend aware of reports from Nigeria of rural family planning clinics closing down through lack of resources for service delivery? Will these very welcome new plans include investment in long-term recruitment, training and employment of sufficient health workers who are dedicated to family planning service delivery as well as the provision of family planning commodities?
It is extremely important that the infrastructure is there as well and Nigeria made a major commitment yesterday. Hearing some of the speakers from developing countries was very encouraging. For example, the Malawi health Minister said, “No parenthood before adulthood”. That is extremely important and its delivery is absolutely key.
The United Kingdom is committed to the support of family planning in the UK. There should be, and is, comprehensive access to contraceptive services and supplies across the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, is quite right that education and information is important here as well as in developing countries.
My Lords, I add my congratulations on the summit yesterday which made some extremely interesting and innovative proposals. Since no one would deny that there is a large gap between policy and practice on equality in many of the countries represented at yesterday’s summit, was the need to enshrine sexual and reproductive health and rights in law discussed? For instance, South Africa has it in its constitution, as do Guyana and other countries. Was the need for laws to ban child marriage raised? Many countries have laws which permit marriage under 18 and, indeed, it is legal for a girl to marry at 15, which is a breach of the convention on discrimination against women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Were these important and critical issues discussed at the summit?
These issues were discussed. In fact, I heard the Malawian delegation saying that they would be committing to raising the legal age of marriage to 18—that is above ours. People were acutely aware of the challenges here and the number of girls as young as 12, 13 and 14 who are having their first children and trying to delay that.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, raised the question of drawing the importance of family planning to the attention of young girls. Surely the question arises equally in relation to young men. Much more pressingly for our society as a whole, how about telling them about the importance of families themselves?
The role of boys and men was also discussed. I was on a panel yesterday with a very impressive young man from Togo who was involved in this. When his brother died of AIDS, his family, who in the earlier stages had opposed what he had done, then took him to task for not having said enough.
Business of the House
Motion to Agree
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Administration and Works Committee
Motion to Agree
My Lords, this is a short and straightforward report. On 10 March 2011, the House agreed the committee’s first report, which recommended new rules to clarify where electronic devices can and cannot be used in the House. In that report, the committee recommended that Members should be able to use hand-held electronic devices when addressing the Chamber or Grand Committee. That report also recommended that,
“for a one-year trial period in the first instance, Members taking part in proceedings should be able to use electronic devices to access Parliamentary papers and other documents which are clearly and closely relevant to the business before the House or Grand Committee”.
This subsequent report recommends that Members should be able to use hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and Grand Committee,
“for any purpose, provided that they are silent and are used with discretion”.
This is in line with the rules adopted by the House of Commons. It also recognises the current reality and the impossibility of policing the purpose for which a device is being used. I see that the opposition Chief Whip is taking a close interest in this.
While reviewing the rules for Members, the committee also considered that the rules should be applied to officials advising Members in the Chamber and Grand Committee. The committee felt that it would be sensible to apply the same rules to officials as for Members, and therefore recommended that officials should be able to use hand-held electronic devices for any purpose, provided that they are silent and, again, used with discretion. Furthermore, the committee specifically recommended that officials should be able to use such devices to access information for use in debate and communicate directly with Members in the Chamber or Grand Committee. Nevertheless, these proposals would deprive the House of the innocent pleasure of observing the cavalry, in the form of the government Whip, riding to the rescue of a besieged Minister grasping a vital note from the Box. Similarly, Ministers would be spared the task—and I speak with some experience—of desperately trying to decipher an illegible note. I hope that both these factors will be of benefit to the House.
The recommendations contained in this report recognise and reflect the evolving use of electronic devices by Members in this House. I believe that the recommendations are a sensible and logical way in which to simplify the current rules and allow Members to use electronic devices in a way that supports them in their parliamentary duties, should they wish to do so. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord for that question because it gives me the opportunity to make an important clarification. The use of electronic devices should be used in the same way that notes are used. They should not be used as a means of presenting an entire speech.
My Lords, in the spirit of self-regulation, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the discretion exercised in the use of these devices should mean that they should not be used to receive and answer general e-mails but only for information that is relevant to the matter being debated at the time?
My Lords, I worry about the idea of Ministers standing at the Dispatch Box and reading out what officials are typing in. I know they are not supposed to read, but it is quite difficult. I suppose we could all try to see what is going on there, but I think it will change the way in which Ministers take advice from the Box—and not take it sometimes, which adds a bit of fun. It is quite important. I wonder whether a machine on the Box would still be allowed, even if one is not exactly reading from it. I would be grateful for the Chairman of Committees’ comments on this matter.
My other question is: what is the difference nowadays between a laptop and a hand-held device? My noble friend Lord Foulkes has a hand-held device. I have something called a laptop, but it has exactly the same screen size, although it is a bit thicker. I notice that paragraph 5 of the report talks only about hand-held electronic devices, without exception, whereas paragraph 1 says that laptops may not be used. Is the difference between them a little subtle? Should we not just call them electronic devices and not worry about what make or size they are, as long as they are used with discretion?
My Lords, I often think of the late, great Lord Weatherill, who said he was all in favour of progress, as long as it did not mean change. As I listened to the Chairman of Committees present this innocuous report, I thought that there was inexorable change here, which, over a period, is making a real difference to this Chamber and will make a greater one in the future. I, personally, regret it. I think it is a pity that electronic devices are so widely used. When we had a brief debate last year, I made the point that people could receive the racing results. That has clearly been conceded; as the Chairman of Committees says, you cannot police it. Nor can you adequately describe, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just indicated, what device is permissible and what is not. Although I would not dream of dividing the House on the matter, I want to put it on record that there are some of us who regret these developments.
My Lords, I wonder whether I could give a little reassurance on behalf of the Information Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing.
My noble friend Lord Cormack’s concern is well understood, and I respect it. There are significant gains to be made in developing services for Members that are delivered electronically. Speaking for myself, I think that we should take advantage of the new tablet technology, not laptop technology. Laptop technology reinforces my noble friend’s concerns about people using physical keys, which make a noise and create a barrier in front of them because they open a screen. For that reason, laptops are not wholly appropriate for the kind of services that we are trying to develop. I speak of tablets, not iPads, as the House must be very careful about not giving a commercial advantage to any particular manufacturer, although there are some specific security advantages to iPads at the moment, which we are taking advantage of. We are being very careful about how we progress with all this.
I give the same assurance to my noble friend Lord Cormack as I gave him last year: that we will be very careful about how we take the next steps in introducing these new services. Apart from anything else—and this goes for the wider public policy area—there is an important digital divide. There are Members of this House who will always be effective Members on a paper-driven basis. Contrariwise, looking forward to 2015 when we acquire new Members—howsoever they are acquired—they are much more likely to come in with an experience of tablet technology. The technology is changing on a nine-monthly basis. This institution would be left behind if we did not accept this important and small next step—the sensible approach recommended by the Administration and Works Committee.
My next point in attempting to console my noble friend is that there are savings to be made in the budget, if we move carefully in this direction, which can be redeployed in the Library service, for example. These decisions would not be taken by the Information Committee because we are not budget-holders. My noble friend is right to caution us about how we introduce these things, but the savings that we make from the successful introduction of tablet technology for the service of Members could be redeployed in a way that I think he would approve of. Therefore, the wider picture is a win-win situation.
My final point is that by the end of the financial year in March next year we hope to have enabled the entire precincts of both Houses of Parliament for wi-fi technology. That is a significant and wise investment on the part of the House authorities, and I support it because I am an enthusiast of the services that can be delivered. However, I am absolutely sensitive to the need to accommodate the concerns which my noble friend Lord Cormack rightly raises and should continue to raise. We need to take steps in a positive direction, but we need to hasten slowly to make sure that we do not leave other Members behind.
My Lords, perhaps I may also try to console the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about progress and change. My point concerns the advantages, as I see them, that would ensue from this technology helping Ministers at the Dispatch Box. During the processing of complex legislation, we have often seen Ministers in this place and the other place at a loss. The officials write too slowly for them to get the information and all too often Ministers have to agree to write in response to particular questions. This technology offers Ministers the possibility of being able to respond at the Dispatch Box, thus giving your Lordships the opportunity to scrutinise legislation more thoroughly and instantaneously, which, after all, is the historical purpose of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I am one of the people who has enjoyed being able to use a tablet in the ways described in the pilot. However, I ask the Chairman of Committees for an assurance. If noble Lords are to use this equipment in the way in which the committee intends—one of the considerable advantages being that we will save a lot of paper in this House—it will be necessary to make it easier for Members to navigate the parliamentary website so as to find more easily the kind of information that we use. Can the noble Lord give us any encouragement that progress is being made in that direction?
I support the recommendation. Until this Motion is passed, I am not sure whether I am breaking any rules by having this hand-held device here. I see that Black Rod has left the Chamber, so I am safe. However, just to illustrate how useful it is, I have been able to check on the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The House will not be surprised to hear that for many years he was a governor of the English-Speaking Union and is the founder of Heritage in Danger, so he really does do what it says on the packet.
My Lords, I shall deal briefly with a number of points made in the debate. There is a slight difference in emphasis between the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Wills. I come down heavily in favour of the latter because I think it is important that Ministers have immediate and accurate information to transmit to the House when we are discussing legislation. It is quite good fun to see the scuttling back and forth between the Box and the Front Bench and the Minister then fumbling over a note. However, it would improve the effectiveness of this Chamber if Ministers received accurate information directly.
I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. I suspect that we will go towards a tablet-based system very quickly. I look forward to that and am sure that people will take it up.
With regard to the parliamentary website, I have to agree that I sometimes find it less than completely useful and easy to use. However, I am sure that those responsible are always endeavouring to improve and I am certain that that message will get across.
I fully recognise that, although the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is a relative newcomer to this House, he is a doughty defender of the traditions and courtesies of the House. The whole House will agree that, as a courtesy, noble Lords in the Chamber should pay attention to the matters being debated. Along with many noble Lords, I deprecate tweeting, texting or other similar activities that indicate that the minds of noble Lords are otherwise engaged—heaven forfend.
On enforcement, as at least some noble Lords will be aware, the House has many ways of registering its displeasure if it feels that individual noble Lords are slightly overstepping or abusing their rights. I hope the House will accept this report. I think it is a step forward and brings us to a position where we are using technology without being dominated and mastered by it.
The noble Lord has effectively just destroyed the brief. According to the brief I have, the difference between laptops and hand-held devices is one of noise as you press the keyboard. If you move on to tablets of course—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood—that no longer exists. I commend the report to the House.
Arrangement of Business
Parliamentary Boundary Commission: Electoral Administration
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I start by apologising to the Cross Benches. In all my 11 years in this House, I have diligently avoided provocative party-political contributions, apart from on electoral registration and during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The latter was a blatantly political Bill, introduced for party advantage, with its proposed reduction in the number of parliamentary seats favouring the Conservatives.
This debate is a direct product of that legislation, which was introduced in the wake of the expenses scandal and led to the creation of IPSA and other measures that have so undermined the institution of Parliament. IPSA has so demeaned the role of MPs that they are reduced to scurrying around the Commons Tea Room gathering their receipts for food while they collect Starbucks-type points for refreshments. These are the people we elect to run the country and they are being humiliated. Weak politicians—no match for the great statesmen of the past—have swallowed a tabloid pill and, in many ways, stripped the Commons of the gravitas and dignity that has so characterised the past.
That is the background to this debate—a Parliament of 650, under tabloid pressure, to be reduced to 600. A dark shadow now stalks the lobbies, cafes, bars and corridors of Westminster. We have entered a world of dog-eat-dog as parliamentarians fight it out in what has been described as the largest and most profound redrawing of constituency boundaries in a century.
To those who think I am exaggerating, I say that they should step down the corridor and ask around. The anger is everywhere, with the result that the overwhelming response of MPs to news of this debate has been positive. As one MP put it to me: “Just say what we can’t say”. Young men and women who have been elected, and in some cases committed their careers to underremunerated public service, find themselves caught up in a debate so sensitive that open discussion is often quite impossible. It is not just the 50 seats involved, it is the fact that the whole country is being redrawn, causing deep anxiety. Despair and anxiety have become the hallmarks of many a political household in the land. While spouses fret, long-term political friendships have become clouded in suspicion. There is an overwhelming feeling of injustice among Britain’s MPs, many of whom have spent decades building up relationships with their constituents. At the stroke of a commissioner’s pen their lives, careers, family ties, political organisations and loyalties are to be disrupted, leading to widespread insecurity. It is all so unfair.
It is increasingly clear that the Liberal Democrats will ultimately be the main casualties. Many of them have had to struggle hard to win seats in Parliament, sometimes over decades, and a worried Mr Clegg is reported to have demanded that the commission reviews 69 seats in the south. I am afraid that he is a very late convert to the growing reality of political extinction. For example, Vince Cable must be finding his vital work as Business Secretary greatly disrupted by proposals to abolish his Twickenham constituency and force him into a run-off with Zac Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s bottomless pit of cash enabled him to displace the rising star MP Susan Kramer, who is now a Member of this House, in what can only be described as an outrageous campaign distorted by money over years. Mr Cable should beware.
Then we have Iain Duncan Smith, a man for whom I have much respect. Some of his policies may disturb us on these Benches, but nevertheless he is widely respected for his political courage. I understand that he is beside himself with anger over the carve-up of his seat. He has described the whole exercise as grossly unfair and in unrepeatable language in private. He now has to spend this Parliament worrying anxiously as he casts his eye over his shoulder in search of a seat while gazing blindly forward to the prospect of possible political oblivion in the Commons. His treatment is appalling.
What about Norman Baker, a Liberal Member of Parliament—a beacon of environmental enlightenment on the Liberal Democrat Benches? He has to fight in the most difficult of political circumstances to save himself from political extinction. He is surrounded by a sea of entrenched conservatism, so what will happen to him? How can he keep his eye on the ball as a progressive Transport Minister when he has to worry about the prospect of political survival?
Then we have George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose task is to steer the economy through a sea of international financial turbulence. Could it be that the distraction of a boundary review, which abolishes his seat, accounts for the somewhat erratic decision-taking under his watch as we move deeper and deeper into recession? What of his constituency neighbours? They must be worrying that he is to be given some unreasonable advantage under a Central Office-organised attempt at constituency seat allocation or fix, not because he is necessarily the best candidate—I do not know—but because he is the Chancellor. They might find themselves cast aside totally unfairly on a playing field of fix and manipulation.
What about the flamboyant Nadine Dorries—populist to the core? Some say she is the voice of hardcore Conservative Britain. She is an MP loved and loathed in equal measure—loved by an adoring Conservative public and loathed by many of her parliamentary colleagues who envy her willingness fiercely to spell out what she believes to be true. Her calculation is simple. Faced with extinction she has two options: to speak up, be heard and hope that some Conservative association decides that it wants her; or to keep her head down, be a good girl and sink without trace. She has chosen the former. What is interesting about her case is that her approach may be contagious.
It is not that the populist wing of the Liberal Democratic Party does not have its share of rumbling resentment. We have Mr Timothy Farron of Westmorland and Lonsdale who spends his time criticising the coalition in public in the media and then blithely votes for the coalition’s policy in the Division Lobbies of the House of Commons. He wants it both ways. Well, his constituency party is going both ways. It is the victim of one of the most ludicrous boundary changes in the country. The commission is taking out the lakeland town of Windermere and tacking it on to the constituency of Copeland on the west Cumberland coast, which is currently represented by the excellent MP Jamie Reid. To pass from Windermere to the body of the new constituency, you would have to drive over the highest mountain pass in Britain, the Hardknott, with its 1:3 gradient. When you drive over it—as I have done regularly—it is so steep that you cannot even see the roadway over the bonnet of your car. The proposal is utterly absurd and makes a laughing stock of the commission. I understand that, quite unusually, all the Cumbria parties are united in their desire for revisiting the Cumbria boundary proposals.
Then we have Mr Clegg himself. He is surrounded by a sea of Labour and Conservative MPs. Local Tories trumpet that he is out. He cannot, in some desperate attempt to survive, meddle in neighbouring seats to build a new constituency base. He has only the knackers yard to look forward to. I suppose he could seek election to an elected House of Lords or even move to an appointed one under the patronage arrangements he so strongly opposes, although, as the architect of current proposals for Lords reform—which I support—he may not find too warm a welcome. I suppose he could disappear to Europe as a Euroflunkey, an appointment which is likely to be opposed by a coalition of Conservative Eurosceptics and Labour MPs who resent his support for the austerity programme. However, is he being fairly treated? Or do we turn a blind eye and say that he has only himself to blame? Even Mr Clegg deserves fair play.
Then we have the appalling proposals for Delyn and the Vale of Clwyd in north Wales, where David Hanson, the decisive and highly respected Minister in the Blair-Brown years, is being set against one of Parliament’s most effective campaigners, Chris Ruane—two first-class performers forced into a duel, where the real casualties will be Parliament and the people of north Wales. As Mr Ben Wallace MP, who has to fight it out with neighbouring and fellow Lancashire MP Mr Eric Ollerenshaw, said, “My poor constituents are run ragged by these changes”.
However, ill conceived marriages in Lancashire are not unique. We have the Salford-Manchester marriage, the Rutland-Corby marriage, the Leigh and Makerfield-Westhoughton marriage, the Broxtowe-Rushcliffe marriage, the Chingford-Edmonton marriage, the New Mersey Banks seats, the City of Gloucester-Forest of Dean marriage, the Anglesey-Bangor proposals and the Devon Hall seat. The list is endless. Liberal Democrats in the Midlands have described their marriages as schizophrenic, unnecessary and haphazard. David Davis MP was reported to have claimed that,
“this process is highly corrosive of effective representation”.
A member of the shadow Cabinet wisely drew historic parallels, claiming:
“This is like the partition of India. Somebody has sat down in a room in London and drawn arbitrary lines through communities they know nothing about”.
What I really worry about are the implications for the quality of the membership of the House of Commons. The new regime, the humiliation of MPs, IPSA’s irrational decisions, the uncertainties over electoral registration, the use of the guillotine, the intimidatory approach of the press to MPs as exposed during the Leveson inquiry and the pay disincentive mean that men and women of real talent and potential public service contribution will refuse a role in our mother of parliaments. This is a shame. They notice one massive sense of insecurity that pervades our institution, realise that it is only further aggravated by ill conceived boundary review and refuse to join a system where the earning and retention of constituency loyalty can be destroyed on the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. They want security for their families. The result of all this is that we will lose many of the lawyers, trade union leaders, businessmen, doctors, strong leaders from local government and the exceptional that Parliament so desperately needs. All these changes are destroying the incentive to become a Member of Parliament. This whole project is wasteful of talent. We are playing a very dangerous game, and I say “Stop it now”.
My Lords, in putting down my name to speak, I took note of the title of the debate,
“That this House takes note of the implications for political representation and democracy of the current proposals of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission”.
I did so not realising the tenor which was going to be set by the mover of the Motion. However, I welcome the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as it provides an opportunity to revisit last year’s debates in what I thought was likely to be a calmer atmosphere than pertained during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
We have had a detailed description of the impact on individuals—and it must be very difficult—but I will not be dealing with any specific cases. I do not think that that is what this House should do. The role of this House is to scrutinise, not necessarily to engage in political developments in the other place. I am quite unprepared to take part but I will deliver the speech that I prepared and hope that it adds to the knowledge of, and interest in, the passage of the Bill.
As an aside, I was interested in the Bill passing through the House but could not face the endless, repetitive, emotional and pretty strident Sessions during the proceedings. I realised even then that there were some very strongly held views based on a lot of first-hand experience but I hope it is recognised that what is now the Act contains several improvements in the workings of the democratic process of the UK. I am sure that all of us are eager to see the recommendations of the boundary review when it is published in 2013.
I believe that the boundary review will be about equality and fairness. It is being conducted independently. The Boundary Commission published its initial proposals in September 2011. A 12-week process of consultation was undertaken and included public hearings. I am convinced that the democratic process will be improved by the reduction in the number of constituencies—I am not talking about the number of individual MPs—from 650 to 600 as it entails a much fairer distribution of the responsibility for each MP to represent a similar number of citizens. Every constituency will have an electorate that is no less than 95% and no more than 105% of the average UK electoral quota of 76,641 voters.
One surely cannot oppose an argument that proposes that all constituencies should be equal. This is fairer to the voters and also certainly fairer to the MP. Why should one MP have to deal with the concerns of 92,000 constituents and another with 55,000? The large variations are due mainly to population creep or population movements, but they are neither equal nor fair.
Noble Lords will remember the long drawn-out debates on the numbers. I particularly remember the debate about the Isle of Wight, where an exemption was made, the case for which was so ably put by my noble friend Lord Fowler, who unfortunately is not in his place. Similarly, an exemption was made for the Scottish islands of the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland.
The reduction of the number of constituencies not only resulted in equality and fairness but in a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600, as I have said. Let us not forget that at the current level of membership the House of Commons is the largest directly elected national chamber in Europe. This will bring us more in line with other democracies. The reduction was the result of agreement in Parliament that the size should be reduced from 650 to 600 Members.
An added benefit is that it is estimated that this change will deliver a saving of £13.6 million per annum. It is good to have legislation that will deliver a positive financial saving. This is a welcome development as we struggle in the constant battle of tackling deficit and debt. Therefore, in the words of the Motion, I believe that boundary review will improve both democracy and political representation.
However, we cannot just be smug and say, “Yes, good, we should be more democratic and we should reduce the cost of the House of Commons”, and leave it there without being seriously concerned about how to address voter apathy and disgraceful low turnouts at the general election. Even worse is the experience at both local elections and European Parliament elections. It seems almost unbelievable that, until our grandparents’ time, universal suffrage was but a dream. All but a tiny minority of the population were denied the right to have any say in who should govern us or what form that government should take. They also had no rights to influence laws affecting every aspect of their lives. I am reminded of this daily when—if it is not raining—I walk through Victoria Tower Gardens and pass the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. That is a reminder of the sacrifices made by the suffragettes and many others—including, from my own background, Countess Markievicz—in order that we could enjoy what they did not: the right to vote, the right to have our voices heard and the right to be represented by Members elected by us to represent us.
The greatest sadness I have on this subject is that these rights are of little or no interest to so many young people. In participating in the Lord Speaker’s school outreach programme, I invariably talk about the right and duty to vote. So frequently I can see that this is not exactly the most interesting part of my presentation. Eyes glaze over and boredom is palpable; but I am ready for them. I ask why they are so apathetic. The usual comments are made: “My vote will not count”, “Politicians do not do anything for us”, “My parents say that all politicians are rubbish”, and, “What about the expenses scandal?”. We have all heard these comments and many more. We know, and must admit, that the reputation of politics and by extension politicians is going through a pretty rocky phase. We know that politicians are blamed for everything—even, I suspect, the weather. This apathy, particularly among the young, is worrying but worse it is dangerous.
Several times during the outreach programme, I have had evidence and also a sense that some young people are turned off by the political attitudes adopted by older people in their sphere of influence—parents, friends, friends of the family and neighbours. In addition, snappy headlines in the press catch the eyes of the more alert teenagers. The press in general does politics and politicians no favours. We really have to engage with the young and impress on them that the future is in their hands, with all the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities that that entails.
To that end, I firmly believe that individual rather than household registration for electoral purposes is likely to engage this cohort more effectively in the electoral process. Despite what we may think, the younger generation do take responsibility, do actually like taking responsibility and do know about taking responsibility in many areas. We just have to encourage them to extend that to taking responsibility to engage in the political arena. As a small example, on an outreach visit to a school in Hampshire, I was told that one of the young teenagers there had been asked by his local council to attend council meetings and suggest ideas how the youth in the area could be helped by decisions made in council. I asked him how it went and he said, “I don’t seem to have made much difference”. I said, “Have you made any difference? Can you point to anything that you achieved?”. “Oh,” he said, “we got three skate parks put in”. There was a little titter around the audience. I said, “Why are you decrying this? He has done something that none of the rest of you has done. Have any of you others actually put in, or been responsible for putting in, a skate park that you all use? You have got to remember that you must start small and grow big. Large oaks from little acorns grow”. That young man—I call him a young man, because he was responsible—could be seen almost growing in pride. Suddenly, the attitude of his support group changed. They like the idea that they can have involvement and I think it is up to us to encourage them to have that involvement.
Similarly, this House—we know how it is regarded outside—has the Youth Parliament every year. That has made a huge impact on the people who have taken part. All thanks are due to the House authorities, the Lord Speaker, the Members here and all parties who have supported it. We should concentrate on the positive.
The Government have funded the Electoral Commission to conduct research into the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers. The report was published in December 2011, with data pertinent to December 2010. The results show that the register was only 85% to 87% complete, which means, in effect, that six million people are missing from the register. In 2000, the comparable figure was 3.9 million. That is most worrying and all of us must surely accept that anything that can be done to improve this should be done. We all know the reasons why. However, the research shows that while 90% of those aged 55 to 64 were on the register, only 56% of those aged 19 to 24 were. Again, it is people living in rented accommodation, students, or young people not yet on the property ladder, who do not register. I believe that, if we treat individuals as individuals and if people registered as individuals to vote, that could stimulate an interest in politics and a mindset which would make people realise that the more they get involved in politics, local or national, the more they can get and the more they can influence the way this country is run. I totally agree, therefore, that we should take registration away from households and give it to individuals and I hope that this will happen.
My Lords, the longest debates in which I have taken part in the House since I have been a Member were over what was then called the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I do not intend this afternoon to go over again all the arguments made during those very lengthy debates. However, I recognise that in this short debate we are dealing with some very serious issues. Some of the processes used by the Boundary Commissions are based on the electoral register. It is that issue of the work of Boundary Commissions that I wish to address. Many issues about the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register will be relevant to future parliamentary boundary reviews. This is an opportune time to concentrate on these issues, in advance of our serious consideration of the legislation to implement individual electoral registration.
Looking back to those debates 18 months ago, it is significant that at the time, we were assured by Ministers that the electoral register was estimated to be about 92% complete. However, the recent research referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain—research conducted by the Electoral Commission and paid for by the Cabinet Office—suggests that it may only be 85% complete. That is an average figure, suggesting that there may be many parts of the country where the electoral register is significantly less than 85% complete.
We recently debated in Grand Committee another round of orders for data-matching pilots. During that debate, my noble friend Lord Wallace, who I am pleased to see in his place today, assured us that the aim of the implementation of individual electoral registration was at least as much the completeness of the electoral register as its accuracy. The success of those data-matching pilots will be crucial to the successful implementation of individual electoral registration, on which boundary reviews will be based in future. There has been successful progress on the implementation of individual electoral registration since the publication of the original White Paper.
In particular, it is now accepted that we must retain the principle that it is a legal requirement to comply with the electoral registration process. The legal requirement for the household registration form will be retained and compliance will remain, as now, subject to a fine of up to £1,000. In the debate on 12 January initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I outlined at col. 238 the wide variety of wording on existing electoral registration forms, but what they all had in common was wording about returning the form being a legal requirement. What was inconsistent in those forms and must, I believe, be made common to all forms in future is a statement that not complying with the process could make you liable to a fine of up to £1,000. That statement must be very clear on all such forms in future. Can the Minister confirm, during this debate if possible, that when the household registration forms are standardised in future and under the direction of the Electoral Commission, they will all clearly state that returning them is a legal requirement and that not complying with the process is subject to a fine of up to £1,000?
We simply cannot allow different local authorities to adopt a pick and mix approach to the fundamentals of electoral registration processes, as these provide the database for our national elections, not only for electing Members of the House of Commons—and, perhaps one day, Members of your Lordships’ House—but for the European Parliament elections, police and crime commissioner elections, the Scottish Parliament elections, the London Assembly elections, the Welsh Assembly elections, et cetera. The process is not just for elections to that particular council, so uniformly high standards must be applied to the process in each local authority area. We need above all to avoid the situation in the United States, where those who are deliberately campaigning to reduce the level of electoral registration are able to adopt different measures in different states, aimed at denying certain groups the opportunity to vote in order to manipulate the outcome unfairly. I would call that cheating in the electoral process.
The principle of consistent best practice must also apply to the new form for individual registration. There will in future be a civil penalty applicable for those who do not return the individual forms to complete the registration process, but the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the House of Commons was not right to suggest that this fixed penalty should be £500. For a fixed penalty that would apply irrespective of whether failure to respond is simply a matter of forgetfulness or one of deliberately trying to avoid being registered to vote, £500 is in my opinion too high a fixed penalty. Registering to vote, and in the same process registering for jury service, is a significant civic duty and I am glad that it will remain a legal obligation. However, the penalty should be more in line with the level of fixed penalties for parking offences. I know how much it annoys me when I occasionally get a parking ticket.
Repeated failures to register should also be subject to repeat penalties. It would not be right if the fixed penalty could be used as a sort of one-off fee to avoid registration. I hope that anyone subject to the fixed penalty would subsequently register and thereby avoid further penalties. Perhaps the Minister can explain how it is envisaged that this process will work. If someone pays a fixed penalty and still fails to register, I assume that they would be subject to further penalties, just as a car parked illegally may acquire further parking tickets. However, would someone be able to avoid further penalties or even receive a discount on the penalty if they subsequently registered?
We will soon be considering the details of electoral registration in this House. In our consideration, we must look carefully not only at how the process will improve the register’s accuracy but at the fundamental issue of completeness, which is so relevant to the Boundary Commission processes. In Northern Ireland, the introduction of individual electoral registration has, by and large, been deemed a success. It has required national insurance numbers but I remain to be convinced that a signature should not be acceptable if national insurance numbers cannot be found. There are of course a small number of eligible voters to whom national insurance numbers have not been issued, as well as the difficulty some people have in finding their national insurance number. I hope, therefore, that the Minister, in consideration with his colleagues, might consider the use of signatures as an alternative to national insurance numbers, as we are bound to return to this issue. We should all want to ensure that everyone entitled to be on the electoral register is included on it, while respecting the fact that only those people entitled to be on that register should be on it.
I have no doubt that, during this debate, other noble Lords will want to talk about particular recommendations of the Boundary Commissions, about the number of MPs in the context of whether or not your Lordships’ House is reformed, and about how the Boundary Commissions are conducting their work. However, on the general issue I understand the long-standing case—originally put forward by the Chartists—that MPs should represent constituencies of roughly equal size. I hope that noble Lords will, by and large, respect that, as an important principle, MPs should have roughly the same number of electors.
We need to see the final recommendations of the commissions before we can say with certainty that the margin of variation allowed is too small for the creation of sensible constituencies, but the evidence of the initial proposals is that that may well be the case. We do not yet know exactly what the final boundary shapes will be, but we can tell, from some psephological analysis, that Conservative hopes and Labour fears about the current review may have been greatly exaggerated. Some estimates suggest that the advantage to the Conservatives may be to the tune of only 10 or so seats, if they receive the same level of support as in 2010. It seems that, for the Conservatives, the boundary changes could deliver a relatively small haul for a big upheaval in the nature of our constituencies.
Those who are concerned about the number of MPs—in particular the balance between the number of Ministers and Back-Benchers—will remember that during those debates 18 months ago, we agreed, following an amendment, that there must be a review of the number of MPs after the next general election. That amendment, which became Section 14 of the Act, provides for a review of the reduction in the number of constituencies. That review must take place before November 2015. It will be an important review and all these issues, neglected in many previous parliamentary Sessions, should be kept under constant review.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for securing this debate. In the speeches so far, we have already heard just how important are the issues that he has given us the opportunity to discuss. When the Government brought forward their proposals for redefining the criteria for constituency boundaries, they justified them on the grounds of high constitutional principle. For example, during Second Reading in the other place of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“If we together cannot deliver these reforms, we will have to ask ourselves what we really meant when each of us promised our constituents that we would seek to reform and strengthen our politics. We promised a new politics. Today is the day we must begin to deliver on that promise. We must make the system fair”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 44.]
However, we now know what this new politics actually means. We know it thanks to the interview given to the Independent last week by the recently retired director of strategy for that same Deputy Prime Minister. In that interview the recently retired director of strategy promised that these reforms, which, I remind the House, the Deputy Prime Minister promised would help deliver “a new politics”, would be sabotaged if the Liberal Democrats did not get their way on reform of the House of Lords—a reform which, if passed, would incidentally virtually guarantee the Liberal Democrats an entrenched position of power in Parliament. So we see that the Deputy Prime Minister’s much vaunted new politics in fact turns out to be nothing more than an old-fashioned backroom bartering of partisan pieces of legislation.
Today, however, I do not want to excavate any further the motivations behind that legislation. I want to look at the toxic consequences for our democracy of the interaction between the boundary reviews launched by that Bill—now Act—and the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill which is shortly to come before your Lordships’ House. I do not oppose the objectives of these pieces of legislation. Reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons and equalising the size of the constituencies that remain must be a reasonable objective. As a Minister I brought in the legislation which introduced individual electoral registration and which is the subject of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. But the way that the Government have set about delivering these objectives has abandoned long-established constitutional proprieties in the pursuit of partisan self-interest. There has been no serious attempt to establish cross-party working on radical changes of the boundary review process or radical changes in the system of electoral registration. Perhaps the Minister could say what happened to that cross-party working group on the introduction of individual registration for which, in January, there was such cross-party support in your Lordships’ House.
The Government have explicitly abandoned the cross-party approach to the introduction of individual registration adopted by the previous Government. I was the Minister responsible in that Government. When we brought in our legislation to introduce individual electoral registration we went to great lengths to consult other political parties and we secured Front-Bench agreement from the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats to our approach, which linked individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register. After all this time and after so many questions, we still have not had an adequate explanation from the Government of why they have abandoned such a cross-party approach.
When we look at the detail we can perhaps see a clue as to the consequences of the Government’s change of approach. We have already heard—it is generally accepted—that for all its merits the introduction of individual registration carries with it the severe risk and the great probability that significant numbers of people eligible to vote will not register and so be unable to vote. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that was the case in Northern Ireland when it moved to this new system of registration. In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons last year, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, said that,
“it is possible … that the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around, say, a 60% completeness”.
As we have already heard, there is a serious problem with electoral registration in this country. The latest estimate from the Electoral Commission suggests that at least 6 million people eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The fact that so many are not on the register who should be, despite all the measures taken by this Government and the previous Government, shows how intractable this problem is. It damages our democracy when so many eligible citizens cannot vote because they are not on the register. That is all the more so when we see that they are disproportionately concentrated in particular groups: young people, students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally, those living in areas of high unemployment and ethnic minorities.
The introduction of individual electoral registration risks making a bad situation significantly worse. That is why the previous Government delayed its introduction until a comprehensive and accurate register was achieved. We brought in a timetable and allowed for a phased introduction of the system by 2015. There was no undue delay about this. We gave the Electoral Commission power to oversee the process and Parliament the opportunity to monitor regularly what was happening. No one could say we were dragging our feet. We were trying to deal with the real problems that the introduction of individual registration was likely to bring.
This is the approach that has been junked by this Government, who want to bring in individual registration whatever the consequences on the register. I know that the Minister is going to rehearse in his reply all the measures that the Government are taking to increase registration. They are all welcome and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is largely responsible for removing some of the worst features of the Government’s proposed changes and for restoring the situation to the status quo ante. He is to be congratulated on his hard work. The changes that he has brought about are welcome, but essentially the measures that the Government are bringing in to increase registration are the same ones that I brought in when I was the Minister responsible. I hoped that they would reverse the decline in registration. I looked at these issues for months, but I could not guarantee that we would be able to halt the decline in registration that individual registration is likely to lead to. That is why we took the approach that we did. I could see no justification in advancing towards one public policy objective at the expense of another when I thought that it was possible to advance towards both at the same time.
What will be the consequences of the fall-off in registration to which this Government are opening the door? Most agree that those eligible voters who will not be registered to vote are most likely to vote Labour when they do so. The Liberal vote in the inner cities is similarly likely to suffer. The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration is only 90% complete in Labour seats and 94% complete in Conservative seats. When you look at the demographic make-up of these seats, the explanation is clear. That might be the reason why this coalition Government are junking the principle followed, for good reason, by successive Conservative and Labour Governments that fundamental constitutional change such as this should only proceed, wherever possible, on a cross-party consensual basis. That incidentally is the attitude that the Conservative Party is taking towards reform of your Lordships’ House.
The Government have taken some steps towards acknowledging this problem by allowing for a carryover from the household system of registration for the general election to be held in 2015. Significantly, they have not allowed for such a carryover for the constituency boundary reviews also due to take place in 2015. This means that those boundary reviews will be conducted on the basis of a profoundly flawed register.
What are the consequences of that likely to be? Labour constituencies are likely to see disproportionate declines in those on the register, because those less likely to register are disproportionately concentrated in such constituencies. Because of the tight numerical limits on constituency size and flexibility imposed by the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act, that is likely to mean fewer Labour seats. Because of the way in which Labour constituencies are often surrounded by strongly Conservative constituencies, that is likely to mean that more Labour safe seats will become more marginal and more marginal Labour seats will become marginal Conservative ones.
I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said about the likely psephological implications of the boundary reviews but, with respect, that has not properly factored in the interaction between the decline in registration and those boundary reviews. It is clear that this Government are hijacking our electoral arrangements in the interests of the Conservative Party’s. They are turning these electoral arrangements into a matter for partisan dispute for the first time in over a century. This is potentially toxic for our democracy.
I have asked your Lordships to consider the situation before and I ask your Lordships to consider it today. What is the impact on the health of our democracy if it turns out, as it may do in 2020, that the outcome of a general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so and that this was the result of a government policy deliberately pursued despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence?
We will return to these issues on 24 July when we debate the Second Reading of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. In the mean time, I conclude by asking the Minister two questions and should be grateful if he will reply directly and without equivocation. First, can he guarantee—I use the verb advisedly—that there will be no decline in electoral registration with the introduction of individual electoral registration? Secondly, why will the Government not allow for a carryover from household registration for the purposes of boundary reviews in 2015?
My Lords, the House is greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for bring this matter before it today. I shall talk about only some of it. That is to say, I am not going to talk about individual registration because my noble friend Lord Wills has said clearly everything that needs to be said about that. I am not going to talk about the still undealt with disaster whereby people who went to the polls in 2010 were not able to cast their vote because of failures in electoral law. I will instead confine myself to the matters included in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act which occupied your Lordships’ House for a few hours in 2010-11. Those few hours were criticised on some sides and they have been criticised again today. Now, as the car crash that legislation is presenting us with becomes clearer, my regret is that we did not spend longer and were not more successful in persuading the Government that what they planned was bad for Parliament, bad for democracy and bad for our country. We told you so, o Government, but you did not listen.
As Members of another place are slowly coming to realise, the Government’s Act and the boundary review it has set off are having consequences more serious than it is easy to imagine. They come about as a result of three features of the Government’s scheme, each in themselves damaging but, taken together, representing a perfect storm which undermines the very basis of our democracy. The three are: equal-sized constituencies within a very tight 5% margin either way; a reduction of 50 in the size of the House of Commons; and the decision that reviews of boundaries should take place every five years.
Each of these proposals, taken individually and pushed less far, can be defended. Yes, of course, we want more or less equal constituencies; yes, of course, if we can manage with fewer MPs, great; yes, of course, we do not want ossified constituencies, but those were not the reasons the Bill was introduced. It was introduced for one main purpose: to reduce the bias in the electoral system towards Labour. As it happens, although I am a Labour Peer, I applaud that purpose. I do not think electoral systems should be biased and I do not think my party should need bias in the electoral system to help it win elections, but the Bill was frightfully ill designed for the purpose. According to most psephologists, having constituencies all the same size deals with only a third or less of the bias. If you really want to deal with bias, you have to do something quite different.
Anyway, that is what was done, and the Boundary Commissions are now seeking to work to these new, absurd rules under the truncated consultation procedures also introduced by the Act. They have not helped themselves, in England at any rate, by the self-imposed constraint of respecting all ward boundaries. The results are, in many cases, absurd. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours dealt with individuals, and I will deal with some individual cases. Gloucester Cathedral is no longer part of that proud city but has been mysteriously relocated to the Forest of Dean. My God, not since Birnam Wood marched on Macbeth’s castle has there been such a takeover. Sheffield seats cease to be Sheffield seats—have you noticed, Mr Clegg?—as you get seats which are part Sheffield, part Rotherham and cross the Ml. I will not go on, although I could. If the House did not forbid visual aids—I am not sure whether they are forbidden on electronic aids—I could wave before Members present a sheaf of constituency maps. At least, I am assured that they are constituency maps, but they look more like the shapeless, pointless scribblings of a one year-old or a Rorschach ink blot test. The existing constituency map of our country is a map of recognisable communities; the new map represents no recognisable communities whatever.
Many more electors than usual after a boundary review will find themselves with a new constituency and a new MP. Without getting too techie, psephologists use an index of change to measure the extent of differences, based on what percentage of constituents after a review has changed and what has remained the same. According to the definitive paper by David Rossiter, Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie in Parliamentary Affairs, after this review, 204 English—only English—constituencies will be changed by 50% of voters or more, compared with just 77 in the previous review in 2007. That is to say, there will be three times as many utter upheavals in constituencies and communities. This matters. What keeps our people attached to Parliament? When you ask people what they think of politicians in general, they say they are rubbish, but when they are asked about their MP, who has helped them with their problems and has worked for them day in, day out, they take a very different view. They respect their local Member although they deny respect to Parliament generally.
It gets worse. Originally, there was at least the hope that this would be a one-off. However, another review starts as soon as the next election is over. It will be based on the numbers on the new registers, which will be based, if the Government get their way, on individual registration, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, pointed out. The numbers are going to be different. We do not know how different, but they will pretty different from the present numbers. What you have to understand is that it takes only a very small shift in the numbers to require a very large upheaval in the constituency. Constituency A goes a little bit under quota because not many people have registered there, so it needs to pinch a ward from constituency B, which needs to pinch a ward from constituency C. In the end, the whole map is up in the air, there is chaos before the next general election and, thanks to this domino effect, new chaos after it.
A study by Mclean and Johnston for the British Academy concludes that in Britain until now, a majority of constituencies remained substantially unchanged, giving continuity of representation, that in future there will be much less of a sense of place with which a constituency’s MP can identify and that that will be disadvantageous—this is academic understatement—to MPs, parties, electoral administrators and the electorate. In other words, the grassroots of democracy are being destroyed by this coalition Government. That is loony.
Fortunately, there is ray of hope, an unconvenanted bonus of the omnishambles which is Lords election, whose end was, I trust, signalled with the Prime Minister’s address to the 1922 Committee last night. It is possible, just possible, that not only has Lords election been prevented but so, too, has this catastrophic boundary reform. It is a double whammy for the coalition, but a frabjous day for all those who care for Britain’s democracy.
Let me explain. For the boundary changes to happen, both Houses of Parliament have to pass the necessary orders. These have to be laid before those Houses. The Act states that the Boundary Commission must submit reports setting out its proposals before 1 October 2013 and that:
“As soon as may be after the submission of a report ... the Secretary of State shall lay the report before Parliament”.
It should be with us in November 2013. Now, as we have heard, we have had threats in the run up to the Commons Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill that the Lib Dems will refuse to vote for those orders, which would be very strongly in their interests. The previous local elections showed one crucial fact about Lib Dem performance, which will have been noted by every member of the party in another place: they did much better in areas where the local MP was a Lib Dem, and much worse where he was not. If the next election is fought on current boundaries and that phenomenon is repeated, Lib Dem MPs could hope to hold even seats that they look sure to lose on present polling. However, if it is fought on the new boundaries, more of those MPs will face voters who are not the same as those who backed them in the past—wipe-out looms. From my long experience in politics, I note that when self-interest beckons and, as in this case, it accords with sensible principles, the results are generally predictable.
We have, thank God, an emerging coalition in another place against the boundary changes. It includes Labour, of course for entirely principled reasons, the Lib Dems, because it will mean the likely decimation of their party, and many Tories who face the prospect of spending the next couple of years squabbling with colleagues over selection for new seats. A no vote to boundary changes now looks more likely than ever before.
Even in the unlikely event that David Cameron revives his dead parrot, the boundary change orders are not safe. I make no threats but this House must also approve the orders and it will by then be doomed. It might decide—no threats, as I say—as a last favour to our democracy to refuse to pass the orders when they are laid before it. Therefore, it is possible—I am a dreamer—that boundary reform will go down the pan. Aside from any connection to Lords reform, a very good thing that would be too.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is clearly still on very good form and on something of a high from having delivered an Exocet into the Government’s costings for House of Lords reform. His speech reminded me that 10 days ago I saw a great production of that wonderful play, “Close the Coalhouse Door”, in which the socialist alphabet is sung. I think it includes the line, “G is for gerrymandering, which the Tories all think of first”. I wondered whether my noble friend had also been to see it.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours on initiating this debate. I echo and reinforce what he said about the damage that has been done to our democracy by attacks on the integrity of Members of Parliament when we all know that the vast majority go into politics for the right reasons and stay in often at great sacrifice to themselves. They should not be pilloried as they have been. I am only sorry that party leaderships across the board have not done more to support the good membership that we have in all parties.
This is a very timely and important debate, many aspects of which have already been raised. My main concern is the importance of this issue for the nature of our democracy, especially when there are so many challenges and other unco-ordinated changes that individually—and especially when taken together—could have very significant unintended consequences. As has been mentioned, we see a reduction in the number of MPs, fixed-term Parliaments and individual voter registration. Who knows what will come of the separation referendum in Scotland, or what the outcome of deliberations on the future of this House will be? The combination of all those things, which have not been thought through in any integrated way whatever, could undermine the fundamentals of our democracy in a very serious way.
Turning to the boundaries themselves, I entirely acknowledge that boundary changes are never easy. They will never satisfy everyone and there will always be winners and losers. I speak as someone who has been on both sides of that while a Member of another place. Boundary Commission reviews always raise big issues that are important to everyone and small issues that can be very important to individual constituents who identify with a constituency and its Member. They can raise tempers and concerns very much.
I shall say a little about my experience of Boundary Commissions and my experience in another place. I have given evidence to boundary inquiries on several occasions. My old constituency of Bolton West was subject to significant change in the 1980s and my constituency of Dewsbury, which I represented from 1987, was redrawn in rather an unusual way. I have always given evidence to the effect that I believe that community and identity should be the main consideration and that, although numbers matter, they are secondary to having a community that you can represent and that can identify you as its Member of Parliament. It is important that people can identify in that way and that that relationship can be developed. No one likes losing an election, but it is one thing to lose an election because of the electorate, which is a risk that you take. If you lose an election because your constituency has been carved up by some arbitrary figure, it is far more difficult to take and no one understands it, including the electorate.
In Bolton, I had a straightforward third of the area—an easy, homogeneous group in which everyone could identify who their MP was and the areas that I represented. Later, in my Dewsbury constituency, there was a different situation. The town of Dewsbury was too small to have a Member of Parliament of its own. So was the next-door town of Batley. They had a lot of common interests because they were the heavy woollen industry district. Had they been put together, there would have been one community and one identity, but that never happened. Dewsbury’s three wards were put with Mirfield, which was just down the road on the ribbon development. There was some logic to that because there was some community of interest in work patterns, travel to work, shopping and so on.
However, the Dewsbury constituency also had two wards that are very familiar to my noble friend Lord Clark. He used to represent one of them, Denby Dale. I am sure he would agree that Denby Dale and Dewsbury did not have much in common. There were some rather large hills between them, very few people travelled from one to the other to work, there were no school links, direct bus routes or direct train routes, and people did not go from one to the other for shopping. There was no community of interest whatever. It was like having two parallel constituencies. I enjoyed representing that whole area, but people in Denby Dale and Kirkburton never understood why they were in the Dewsbury constituency when they had no connection to it. As a Member of Parliament, I would rather have had a larger constituency that had an identity than a smaller one that was chopped up and meant representing lots of different areas.
Those are my opinions and my experiences. However, today I want to mention the consequences of the recent proposals and an article in a journal that will be very familiar to the Minister, Parliamentary Affairs. It was published on 3 July and the article is “Representing People and Representing Places: Community, Continuity and the Current Redistribution of Parliamentary Constituencies in the UK” by David Rossiter and Ron Johnston from the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield and Charles Pattie from the School of Geographical Science at the University of Bristol. I am glad to see that the Minister has it and hope he will come to the same conclusions. It has no political axe to grind; the authors are geographers, not politicians. They give a very useful history of the geographical basis of constituencies. Before 1944 there was no set procedure for redrawing boundaries. They show that, from that time until these recent changes, community and identity always took precedence over numbers. Obviously there were guidelines, but community and identity were the most important things.
The Boundary Commission was also given a great deal of discretion and judgment about what was appropriate in different areas. The latest changes are probably the biggest ever. The article shows some of these changes and some of the difficulties. Mention was made of the national quota of plus or minus 5% that has now been established, because other factors can be taken into account only within that size constraint. It is not the same as in previous boundary distributions when people looked at communities and adjusted to try to meet guidelines, so I think that this will prove really difficult in the future. Many existing constituencies fell into that plus or minus 5% range, so many MPs, when this was going through, thought that there would be no change whatever to their individual constituencies. Unfortunately many have had to see very significant changes because of the knock-on effect from neighbouring seats, which my noble friend Lord Lipsey touched on.
In summary, this study says that these boundary changes,
“incorporated much less continuity in the pattern of constituencies”,
“most existing constituencies were dismembered and many new ones incorporated parts of two, if not three, local authorities”.
Many MPs know that dealing with many local authorities is really very difficult. The report goes on to say that,
“the fracturing of the country’s electoral map was much greater than many … MPs … expected”.
That is clearly true and it is clearly a significant difficulty for many people.
Following on the point that my noble friend made, I point out that this study also shows that,
“The greatest fracturing has been in England’s major urban areas”.
I suggest that those are exactly the areas where we need to engage people more in the political process, and I believe that all that has been said previously about individual voter registration by my noble friends Lord Wills and Lord Lipsey mean that we are going to see a very difficult situation. I fear that it might be appropriate to use the word “toxic”, which my noble friend used.
I will finish by quoting again from this report, which is, as I said, not political. It says:
“If the Commissions’ proposals are implemented—or some variant of them with very similar characteristics ... it will start a process whereby—because a numerical criterion is paramount and geographical criteria secondary—the MPs’ representative role will change. The long tradition that UK MPs represent places and communities will be rapidly eroded; many will just represent numerical aggregates”.
That is dangerous for democracy and why these boundary changes should be opposed.
My Lords, I am very pleased to participate in this debate, which is turning out to be a very thoughtful debate with a great many knowledgeable contributions. I, too, am indebted to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for enabling us to have this debate and for launching it in a very fearless manner. It is ironic that we, in this House, are able to raise some concerns—indeed, many concerns— from another place. My noble friend described the concerns absolutely accurately and has done democracy a great service today by permitting this debate and by launching it as he has done.
Although one’s first thought is that this debate is about parliamentary boundaries, my noble friend mentioned electoral administration matters because he has recognised that we cannot examine boundaries in isolation. They are affected by many other factors that were raised so well by my noble friends previously. One thing on which we all agree is that the democracy in this country and in this mother of parliaments, so long seen as a paradigm of democracy, is in severe difficulties at this moment in time.
Only this week the report on a study by the Democratic Audit concluded that democracy in this country is in “long-term terminal decline”, that the British constitutional arrangements are “increasingly unstable”, and that the UK is below average among the wealthy democracies of the OECD. I am sure that those conclusions concern us all; they need to and they do. We all continually bemoan the fact that fewer and fewer people participate in voting, and more and more people say, “It does not matter what we do”. There have been attempts by both the previous Government and the present Government to address the problem. The conclusion must be that very few of these initiatives have actually worked. There have been certain suggestions this morning that are obvious and which in times past we perhaps followed as a norm. We ought to look at those again.
Much more effort ought to go into cross-party, consensual agreement. This is not to the advantage of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat party or whatever party. This is our democracy, and it is crucial that we work together to try to find a way out of the morass that we are in at the moment. I go along with colleagues who have made the point today that no party leader has been very helpful in the way in which they responded to the crisis in the other place a few years ago. Too many good, honest politicians were left to hang out to dry. We in Parliament are at a loss because of that. It is time to look again at the current state of our democracy.
I can understand that, in opposition, this Government decided that they had to have a new approach. I think that it was a bit simplistic in some ways. They talked about the big society and they wanted to progress localism, and no one can disagree with those ideas; they are very good ideas. In a democracy, no one can be against trying to be more inclusive and to bring more people into the running of the system. Informal arrangements on occasions can work better than a more formal structure, but I think that what we have seen is a substitution of one for the other. I rather deplore the way in which it has been quite commonplace to deplore and to demean the role of the state. The state has a critical role in the way in which society functions and the way in which the quality and the standards of life, and indeed our rights and liberties, are protected.
I cite an example from today. We see on the news the necessity of the state being brought in to ensure that there is security at the Olympics, because G4S, the private company, has failed. At the end of the day, we need the state. I use that as a very pragmatic example. It is not the best of examples, but it is a timely one.
I do not blame this Government, because I believe that generally their response to tackling some of the problems of democracy is well meaning. On occasions, too much stuff is done on the back of an envelope, and things are seen in isolation and not as a whole. I blame my own party in government for how it increased the amount of money spent in constituencies at election time. I used to boast that anyone could stand in Britain at a general election, because all you needed was a couple of thousand pounds. I used to boast in particular to my American colleagues, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to contest elections. Access to stand for elections is important.
Quite frankly, I was very shocked indeed when I looked at the constituency in which I live and from which I take my title “of Westmorland”. I was staggered to find that at the last general election the Liberal MP, Mr Tim Farron, who is a very good and active Member of Parliament, in the long election campaign period of six months spent not £2,000, £5,000 or £10,000 but £41,241 in getting elected. His Conservative opponent was not far behind, on £38,000, while the Labour candidate spent less than £3,000. That makes the point. I am not saying for one moment that people buy seats, but the competition and need for financial resources are clearly quite crippling—and I do not blame this Government for that. This is in addition to the normal parliamentary expenses, which rightly the sitting MP claims. That is an example of where we have rushed in to take decisions that have not been helpful.
I was going to say a few words about registration, but I shall refrain from doing so because my noble friend Lord Wills dealt with it very adequately. It cannot be right that we are sleepwalking into a system where millions of people will be removed from the electoral register. We need to be reassured on this balance of accuracy versus completeness, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us in his response today that we will get completeness as well as accuracy before the new system becomes completely incorporated at this point.
My noble friend Lady Taylor highlighted something that is absolutely critical. Our system of democracy in this country is representative. In the past we may have rejected or attacked alternative systems of democracy. We attacked the communist system of democracy, where the farm workers, trade unions and state industrialists had representatives. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had representatives. We said, “Well, that’s not democracy, because we believe democracy to be representative”. We are now seeing with this boundary review, as my noble friend Lady Taylor said, that numbers are the key. If you start from Cornwall or from Cumbria, you come up with a different conclusion. Because of their nature, if you reduce numbers and stick to a quota with very little movement, the ramifications of where you start are great.
I believe that we have lost a great deal in the notion of representative democracy and the sense of place that is so important. In every country in the world, the identification with a locality is very important. That has been a strength of our democracy. I hope that when the Government look again at the boundaries and come back to us next year, something can be done to work out a system where a sense of place in a representative democracy becomes the centre of the constituency and not just sheer numbers.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, who has done us a great service in allowing us to do so. What we are discussing—the proposals of the parliamentary Boundary Commission—is based on what I can only describe as a Faustian pact entered into May 2010, in which in return for an alternative vote referendum the Liberal Democrats agreed that they would support proposals to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies in this country from 650 to 600. I have read in more than one place that that was based on naked party-political interest, in that there would be a guarantee of an extra 20 Conservative seats should those proposals be implemented.
The tragedy for the Liberal Democrats is that they will be the greatest casualty from all of this, because my experience after a lifetime of politics is that what has guaranteed many Liberal Democrats a seat in the House of Commons is what has been described as incumbency. They have indulged in what has been called “pavement politics”, whereby you are more concerned with dog mess than with China’s position in the United Nations. Actually, there is a lot to be said for that—but that is how they established themselves.
I worked 30 years ago as the regional organiser for the Labour Party in the south-west of England. I remember going to the Yeovil constituency Labour Party in 1981 when everyone was talking about the forthcoming election as if it was a dispute between it and the Conservative Party. I pointed out how misplaced that attitude was. I said, “Do you know there’s a chap called Paddy Ashdown who lives in Norton-sub-Hamdon, who has bought himself an offset litho duplicator, and he is going to snatch this constituency from under the noses of the Tories in doing so?”. And of course he did—I congratulate him. A few years ago I found some of the then Paddy Ashdown’s leaflets, which he distributed to the good people of the Yeovil constituency, which helped him to win the seat. I sent them to him and he was very grateful, because he did not have copies himself.
The success of Liberal Democrat MPs has been about what my noble friends have called a sense of place rather than electoral mathematics. However, I have been told on what I think is reasonable authority that, at an angry meeting of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament after the proposals of the Boundary Commission were published, Mr Clegg promised those Liberal Democrats currently sitting in the House of Commons that should they not be successful in being elected, they would be at the top of the party list for the new senate. We can probably work out what that is about.
I want to talk here about the implications in the proposals for democratic representation. In doing so, I want to focus on two proposed seats from the Commission. The first is the Forest of Dean, which is probably one of the most enclosed and identifiable communities in this country. It covers what Dennis Potter used to call the “blue remembered hills”. If noble Lords want to know whether the Forest of Dean is special, they should just speak to my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon, a proud Forester herself. I have a long association with that part of the world going back 30 years. The new seat is going to include the centre of the city of Gloucester. One of my noble friends recently referred to what would happen to Gloucester Cathedral, but I point out that the new seat will contain not just the cathedral but the Gloucester docks, the county cricket ground, the city’s ancient gate streets, the council headquarters, the police buildings and the law courts. Everything which is identifiable as what has been described locally as the “historical centre of their city” will not be represented by anybody who is sitting for Gloucester. It will tacked on to the Forest of Dean, and anybody representing the Forest of Dean who has any sense is not going to spend as much time in Gloucester as they do in the Forest of Dean, a seat currently held by Mr Mark Harper, the Minister taking some of this legislation through the House of Commons. Such is the anger in Gloucester about these proposals that not only were 400 of the 503 submissions to the commission implacably opposed, but there was a protest march through the city of Gloucester with banners saying, “Save our city centre”. Anybody who tells me people do not care about this is profoundly misguided.
I now want to talk about the new seat of Mersey Banks. Mersey Banks is, as the name suggests, two areas on opposite sides of the River Mersey. They do not cover the mouth of the estuary; you have to drive right round the estuary to get to the other bit of the seat. It includes three local authorities—two have comprehensive school systems and one has a selective system—two police authorities and two fire authorities. There are absolutely no historical links at all. Nor are there any road links, because you cannot get from one bit of the constituency to the other without leaving the constituency in three places.
I do not blame the commission for what it has come up with because it was given a poisoned chalice. If all you care about is numbers, you are going to have constituencies that make absolutely no sense. It is a bit rich to have Conservative MPs repeatedly criticise the Boundary Commission—as they have done—because it was given an impossible job to do. As many noble Lords have said, electoral representation is not about numbers: it is about a sense of place. I was proud to represent part of the city of Bristol. When the local government financial settlement was announced each year, I looked to see what happened to Bristol. I could get up in the Chamber and fight Bristol’s corner; I could write to Ministers on behalf of Bristol; I could speak in the Bristol media and in meetings in Bristol about the treatment of the city. Just suppose my constituency had covered areas of Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and Kingswood. What would I have done when the local government financial settlement was published? I would have been a disinterested observer and I would have tried to hold the ring. If anybody from Bristol had complained, I would have said, “Oh well, Kingswood’s not doing very well either” and vice versa. The great thing about being a Member of Parliament is the way in which you identify with the people in that sense of place.
It might sound a bit fanciful, but when I left the other place for health reasons not of my choosing, giving up a constituency—and I am sure it is the same if you are defeated—was like giving up a child for adoption. Even now when I drive down the M32 I look left and remember that that was the place I used to represent. That is an aspect of being a Member of Parliament which is probably ridiculed in the media and not understood, but it enables you to be an effective member because of the possibility of that personal engagement.
Finally, I want to remind colleagues that electoral legislation is based on the Representation of the People Acts from 1949. That is what this is about. It is not about some notion of geographical parity, it is about the sense of representation. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, people do identify with their Member of Parliament. There is a great analogy with the NHS. If you ask people what they think of the NHS, they think it is not very good: if you ask them what they thought of the treatment they had a few weeks ago when they had a hernia operation, they say it was fabulous. Many times, people would say to me, “I don’t think much of MPs, Jean, but you’re okay”. There is a huge opportunity being missed here and huge damage being done to the fabric of our political life. All I fear is that there will be even more disengagement and even more trauma down at the other end of this place for people who do not deserve it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Corston who served for some years, with great distinction, as chairman of our parliamentary Labour Party and is now doing sterling work in this Chamber. As she knows only too well, I have not—unlike our noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—eschewed party political discussions and debate since I came in here. In fact I quite enjoy them: relish them even, perhaps. I hope that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and others will forgive me if I stray a little into party politics.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and to anyone else from the other side, that I am getting a little fed up with people on the other side lecturing us and saying that we need boundary reviews to try and get an equal number of electors in each constituency. Of course we do. That has happened again and again under Labour Governments and Tory Governments. There have been little problems at the edges and arguments at Boundary Commissions where, incidentally, we were properly heard, with appeals procedures which have now gone. The problems were relatively mild compared with what is being proposed now because then the number of seats stayed roughly the same at about 650. The Boundary Commissions were also given flexibility. They were not given the straitjacket of being obliged to have exactly 600 seats. If they wanted 655 or 652 or more or less, they could use that degree of flexibility to try to take account of geographical communities and natural boundaries and so on.
What we have now is a totally arbitrary figure. What is magical about 600? If they want to save money—although I am not sure that the Liberal Democrats necessarily do—and if money is everything, why not 500, 400 or 300 or any other figure? Why 600 and why no flexibility as we had in the past?
I see the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, on the Benches opposite. He will know that, for many years, I represented a constituency in Ayrshire. I had a very good, co-operative relationship with the neighbouring Member of Parliament, George Younger, for whom I had the greatest respect. We had Boundary Commission reviews and we put our views to them. During the reviews I got a little bit of Ayr sometimes and Annbank and Mossblown moved backwards and forwards. There were two boundary reviews while I was Member of Parliament from 1979 to 2005 and I survived them. In fact, my majority went up from just over 1,000 to just over 22,000, so perhaps more than survived, although not as a result of the boundary changes.
I say to people opposite—although there are not many Tories here—that there is now no such thing as a safe Tory seat in Scotland. There used to be many of them—or at least they thought they were safe—but Labour took a large number of them and the SNP took others. That is a lesson to our colleagues in England. Do not assume that every Tory seat is safe. We can win it by fighting the right kind of fight. Do not assume that if there was, for example, a devolved English Parliament, it would always be dominated by the Conservatives, because that is not necessarily the case.
Returning to the boundary issues, why were those reviews less acrimonious? It was because we always knew that there were about 72 seats in Scotland. The number went up or down, but it was about 72. There was not the reduction that has created the problems here. However, in 2005, the number of seats in Scotland was reduced from 72 to 59. That created the problems. In Ayrshire, the number of seats was reduced from five to four. That is when I took the opportunity of retiring. It seemed right to do so because I was the longest-serving and oldest Member of Parliament in the county, and the other four MPs were younger and elected more recently. That process was therefore relatively painless, but in other parts of Scotland, as the Chairman of Committees and others know, there were acrimonious fights and divisions because of the reduction.
Now the number of seats in Scotland is being reduced to 52 and we will have even more acrimony and concern. That is nothing when compared with Wales, which is being really hard done by because there are effectively two reductions in the number of seats—first to take account of devolution, and now to take account of the arbitrary reduction to 600 in the number of seats at Westminster. Wales will suffer and it will be very difficult for Members of Parliament in Wales. I endorse what has been said by others on that.
I want to use Scotland to illustrate why the whole situation is a mess. The development of the electoral and boundary structure has created problems for us. Let us take our electoral systems, where there has been a piecemeal approach. Our Government, I am afraid, was to some extent responsible for a number of the problems. A piecemeal reorganisation and reconsideration of our constitution have taken place.
We have four completely different electoral systems. We have the list system for elections to the European Parliament. Earlier, we heard about lack of participation. When we had Members of the European Parliament representing constituencies, we had a relatively high turnout. Now that they are on a list, people do not know who they are, there is not the same kind of enthusiasm and the turnout reflects that.
For elections to Westminster, we still have first past the post, thank goodness. A number of us here have been fighting to ensure that, because we believe that democracy is not just about—as the Liberal Democrats think—a simple arithmetic relationship between the number of votes cast and the number of seats. It is also about accountability, which is an essential part of democracy. The great thing about the first past the post system is that the Members of Parliament are accountable. I knew that when I went back to the electorate I was the one who had to convince them to vote for me again, which, thankfully, I was able to do.
In the Scottish Parliament, we also have the additional member system, which has become discredited. As I have said to the House before, I was elected to the Scottish Parliament by mistake. It was an astonishing situation. I did not spend a penny on the election campaign. I did not seek people’s votes, but because I was top of the list and was campaigning for the constituency candidates—sadly, some of them did not get elected, not necessarily because I was campaigning for them—I was elected automatically. This absolutely crazy system must be reviewed.
For local government in Scotland we also have the single transferable vote, which was the result of a deal made when we had a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Sadly, the Labour Party conceded the single transferable vote for local government. As a result, we do not have councillors who are accountable to their wards and are well respected there. We have three or four councillors in much larger wards, which creates huge problems.
That is an illustration of the problems of the electoral systems but there has also been piecemeal constitutional reform. I supported devolution but it has thrown up the West Lothian question, and we now have Sir William McKay—I call him Bill McKay and get told off—looking into the issue of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs voting on English-only matters. We still await the results of that. We still await the referendum on Scottish independence. In England, we now have elected mayors and police commissioners. We have had a fixed-term Parliament forced upon us. We of course have Lords reform—in inverted commas. All of those are outstanding issues that have to be dealt with. At the same time, we have what my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has put on the agenda today causing further problems.
The Clock has been very helpful to me for some unknown reason. I did not realise that time was on my side. I think I am using my noble friend Lady Corston’s extra time. I wanted to make three final points. In relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and others have said about the electoral register, I hope that the Minister and others will look at what was done in Glasgow about canvassing by sending people to knock on doors—“chap on doors”, as we say in Scotland—and getting the register filled in there and then on the doorstep. If people are not in, the canvassers go back to make sure that people are registering. There needs to be active participation by the Government to ensure that people register.
Returning to the mess that I was talking about, the minority report, or alternative report, that came out on Lords reform recommended setting up a constitutional convention. Day by day, issue by issue, it becomes more and more attractive, logical and sensible to look at our constitution in a coherent way that will pick up all these loose ends and do something about them.
Finally, I want to ask the Minister another question. I hope, by the way, he answers the questions he was asked today a bit better than he answered my Written Question, in which I asked what the ministerial responsibilities of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, were. Rather than answering the Question, the noble Lord sent me a document with a list of all ministerial responsibilities. However, I looked through the list and it is astonishing that she has no ministerial responsibilities. When I received a phone call the other day from Conservative Central Office inviting me to tea with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, I had to say, “I think you have got the wrong Peer. Will you try Lord Faulks? This is Lord Foulkes”. She is spending our money inviting Tory Peers to tea, and I know that only because I have a similar name.
I hope that the Minister will answer a question that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in his erudite and splendid contribution to the debate. The order for the boundary changes has to be approved by both Houses. Let us suppose that it was pushed through because of the coalition majority in the House of Commons but we were able here to persuade the Cross-Benchers and maybe some others of the unwisdom of the proposals in the order—that the boundary changes were wrong—and we voted it down. Will the Minister confirm that that will be the end of it? I hope that he will. That would show that even—I was going to say “in our dying days”, but I think we will be here a little longer than some people would like—in these next few months we have some power. Let us hope that we might seriously consider wielding it.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Foulkes, and I will make sure that I do not get his name wrong or mix him up with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.
This has been a really interesting debate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He has done the House a service by his contribution and by bringing this issue before it. Particularly given recent constitutional debates in the other place, and in the political media—although not, I suspect, in the pubs, the clubs and the school gates around the country—the Government’s legislation on constituency borders and electoral registration leads us into a wider debate about what we mean by democracy and political representation. What are the implications of those changes that have been, and are being, legislated for? There seems to be a lack of clarity about whether we will see all those changes, but it is right that we look fully at the implications.
It has been quite clear in the first debates in your Lordships’ House and the other place, that whatever the textbook definition of democracy, there are many different interpretations. I do not think we can see democracy as something we can pick and choose, or pick and mix, which was the phrase the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, used. We cannot choose the parts we like best. There are certain core elements that we have to sign up to. The first and most basic is accountability. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and others pointed out that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was unprecedented legislation with regard to the changes of MPs and boundaries, which may or may not take place. At its core was the Government’s promise to reduce the size and cost of Parliament, and allow for a referendum on the voting system, to get rid of our current first past the post system and replace it with a system which would count the proportion of votes for each party. To the horror and surprise of some, and the delight of others, the public rejected the change in the voting system. I am sure that the reasons why could fill a debate in your Lordships’ House on their own, but I offer one thought: most significant constitutional change comes from the grass roots up. If we think of women’s suffrage and universal suffrage, we think of the campaigns that took place, the marches, and the demonstrations. Politicians of those times wrote and spoke about the lobbying that took place on those issues.
In knocking on doors during my 21 years as an elected representative—13 in Westminster and eight on a county council—I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times the issue of PR or an alternative voting system was mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, hit the nail on the head as to why that is. The first past the post system is understood, it is straightforward, and it clearly gives a relationship of accountability between the elected representative and the elector. That can also apply to another debate that is taking place at the moment.
There is a real danger that the electorate feel enormous frustration and disengagement at the drive for such constitutional change coming from above, from the Westminster elite, rather than by public demand. Part of accountability is understanding and knowing those issues and the concerns that most affect our constituencies. I do not want to imply that there was some kind of golden age, when boundary changes were always easy, when no one was ever upset by them, and there were never any difficulties caused, because we know that that is not the case. However, the Government’s legislation creates a very different situation, and very substantial changes of a kind we have not seen before.
The most substantive point about the Bill and accountability is that for the first time ever Parliament decided how many constituencies there should be, what the approximate size should be, and imposed on the Boundary Commission—again, for the very first time—strict rules on the variation in size of seat: just 5%. All the other factors that were taken into account before—geography, history, natural boundaries and communities, and that sense of place that we have heard so much about today, of local wards and parishes—came second to playing the numbers game.
My noble friend Lord Wills spoke of the high constitutional principle that was at stake, as mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister, in the necessity of boundary changes. However, we now know that those boundary changes are subject, not to high constitutional principle, but whether the Liberal Democrats get their Bill through to change or abolish the House of Lords and create a new body.
I recall the debate during the Second Reading and passage of the Bill. I am not wedded to a particular number or size of constituency. However, we have to have a justification for change. I recall asking the Minister, as did other noble Lords, what their reason was for the choice of 600 constituencies. What was the significance of the number? I was told, as were other noble Lords, that it was a nice round figure. That is not good enough for such a significant constitutional change.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, quoted the Chartists and the size of constituencies being similar. In the same way that he spoke about pick and mix earlier, perhaps we should not pick and mix when we talk about the Chartists. I notice that although the proposals for the elected House of Lords were for 15-year terms, and fixed terms of five years for the House of Commons, the Chartists argued for annual elections. There is greater credibility for annual elections than 15-year elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, was the first today to talk about the relationship between MPs and constituencies. That is well rehearsed, and it is genuine, as my noble friend Lady Corston says. I represented a seat from 1997-2010; Members of Parliament identify very strongly with their constituencies and feel a great affinity with them.
We have also heard a considerable amount about the impact these changes have on the work of a Member of Parliament, and how towns feel about changes. I would like to say something about the impact on voters and constituents when constituencies change. My home town in Basildon is known as Pitsea. I represented Pitsea on the county council, although in 1997 when I was elected to Parliament it was taken out of the constituency of Basildon which I represented, and into another constituency, Billericay.
Until 1997 Pitsea was in Basildon. It was in the Basildon council area, the main shopping area was there, and Basildon was the focus for services. There was a distinct community of which it felt part, and it knew who its MP was. From 1997-2010 it went into Billericay. It did not feel as if there was much of a common link with Billericay, and there were difficulties, but it was part of the district of Basildon, and there was some logic to it. However, Basildon took in the East Thurrock area. The constituency name remained Basildon, which was totally unfair on the people of East Thurrock, who had no named identity and no connection for their constituency.
In 2010, Pitsea was back in Basildon. In 2015, Pitsea, under the proposed boundary changes, will go to Rayleigh. It has no common links with Rayleigh, no shared services, and no common councils, and it is really hard to understand what links these areas, other than the numbers game. In 2020 who knows what will happen, because under the new legislation the boundaries will be reviewed for every general election? This means that every time there has been or will be a boundary change, the voters of Pitsea have had, and will have, no opportunity to hold their Member of Parliament to account, because they are at the margins of the constituency and are the ones most likely to be moved for every single election. They did not have the opportunity in 2010 to hold their MP to account, and they will not have it in 2011.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark, made a comment about disengaging people. I have already spoken to a number of people in that area who tell me, “Why should we bother to vote? We don’t know anything about Rayleigh. We are not connected with Rayleigh”. Instead of engaging people in the political system, we are disengaging them from the political process completely. The Government say that the changes are at the margins, but it is those margins that move from constituency to constituency each time. Rather than being more democratic, it reduces the accountability of MPs to their constituents.
I have great admiration for most MPs, and I believe that the majority of MPs will faithfully represent all of their constituents whenever there is an opportunity to do so. However, for some MPs, such as the lazy and the overworked—and they will be overworked because of the larger area they will represent—or those in the most marginal of seats, there will be an opportunity to prioritise the areas they know will be in their constituency at the next election, and whose votes they will need.
Accountability is also about the individuals’ and communities’ abilities to participate in the political process. I want to say something about wider participation, but part of that participation means being able to vote. We all know—politicians have been saying it for many years—that turnouts at both general and local elections are too low. Governments constantly say that they want to increase turnout, but I fail to understand how the accelerated process for individual voter registration does that.
We support individual electoral registration. We argued for it and legislated for it in 2009. However, I can do no better than refer the noble Lord to the speech of my noble friend Lord Wills, who spoke of the very different approach now being taken by the Government compared with the approach that we took when we were in government. It was a measured and cross-party approach and it allowed time for the changes to come in properly to ensure accuracy and fairness. I urge the Government to take note of the comments that have been made today. If they fail to act properly in this regard, not only will they deny thousands of their right to vote but they will be accused of blatant political manipulation, because there is no good reason for the process to be speeded up in this way.
I also want to say something about access to elected representatives. A mistake that politicians sometimes make is to believe that everybody is interested in politics and that they know who their MP is. I can tell the Minister that people in my area would regularly go to the local council or the local library saying that they lived in Basildon, and they were told that I was their MP, regardless of where they lived, because that was the sense of place that they had and understood.
I take on board the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who said that it would be easier for MPs if constituencies were of the same size. I say to her that it would not be easier for MPs in the slightest. Better representation, both for the elected and the elector, comes from people knowing who their MP is, being able to contact them easily and sharing a sense of place and community. That is what makes the difference.
In my case, it would have been much easier. If I had had the whole of Basildon as my constituency, rather than part of Basildon and part of Thurrock, the constituency would have been bigger but I would have dealt with two local authorities and one police force. It is dealing with different agencies that complicates matters. I was very lucky in that I enjoyed both parts of my constituency, but to say that it was easier because it was smaller in terms of numbers would be completely incorrect, and I would be doing a disservice to my former constituents if I did not confess that it was harder dealing with two sets of agencies.
I think that I have a couple of seconds of injury time in which to finish. A democracy is more than just a cross in a box or a type of voting system, and it is more than ensuring that constituencies are the same size. Democracy has to be about political engagement, representation and accountability. That is how we get to the sense of place that we have heard about today. Unfortunately, the Government have ignored the latter—the political engagement, representation and accountability—in favour of the former.
My Lords, this has been a rumbustious debate. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as fearless. I felt that in many ways it was a tub-thumping speech. I feel the pain coming from past and present Labour MPs at the way they have been treated by IPSA and by the threat of boundary reviews. In terms of economy, I have to say that I feel moderate pain in the current Government. I go around saying to people that this is the leanest Government we have had for many years because we have cut the government car pool in half and we walk more. With regard to economy but not humiliation, perhaps I may share with noble Lords the occasion on which I went with an official to represent the Government at an international conference. At the end of the conference, the government car collected us, delivered us to the VIP lounge at the airport and, from there, the protocol officer took us to the front of the easyJet queue for us to fly back. That is an approach to economy that Members of the other place may need to share.
With regard to spending on elections and on politics between elections, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that over the past 25 years the amount provided to sitting MPs for assistance with casework and allowances for communications has given in-built advantages to sitting Members against challengers. That, again, is an issue that we may need to talk about in more detail.
With great respect to the Minister, I think that I should correct him on that. There were very clear rules in the other place. The expenses given to MPs were solely for discharging their duties as Members of Parliament. They were explicitly excluded from any kind of campaigning purpose whatever. I can speak for myself and for the great majority of my former colleagues when I say that we scrupulously observed those rules. I just wanted to correct the Minister on a point of fact.
I merely referred to the advantages of incumbency and strengthening the advantages of incumbency. I think we both know what we are talking about.
As this Question refers to democracy and political representation, I thought that as an academic I should go back to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and look up the definition of democracy. It says that democracy is a descriptive term synonymous with majority rule. It goes on to say that the plurality rule, as opposed to the majoritarian rule, which selects the candidate with the largest single number of votes, even if that number is less than half the votes cast, may select somebody whom the majority regard as the worst candidate. It says that, nevertheless, countries using this rule for national elections, such as Britain, the United States and India, are normally described as democratic.
The question of how we choose representatives and the place and size of the electorate is something that we have tried very hard to balance over the past 100 years and more. The issue at stake, after all, is the balance struck by the Boundary Commission between the sense of place and the number of electors. The position taken by the coalition Government is that too great an emphasis had been placed on ensuring a sense of place at the expense of ensuring fairness and equality in the size of constituencies. In terms of numbers, noble Lords may know that in 1922, when the Irish left, Parliament consisted of 615 Members and in 1950 of 625 Members, and it has grown slowly to the current number of 650. Of course, all these numbers are arbitrary.
Certainly, and I also acknowledge—this is very important—that there has been an enormous degree of centralisation in the way that British politics, and particularly English politics, has operated. Fifty or 100 years ago, certain casework was conducted by local councillors. However, as the central state has taken on what the local authority used to do, so people have come to their MPs more and more, and that has led to a tremendous growth in the amount of MPs’ casework.
I do not entirely recognise a golden age of constituencies in which every constituency represented a long-term and clear place. The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, will know that the Colne Valley as a constituency has changed very radically over the years. The first constituency that I fought—Huddersfield West—disappeared very rapidly and is now part of Colne Valley, whereas Saddleworth has long since gone somewhere else. The constituency in which I live, Shipley, has a moor down the middle of it and part of Wharfedale, which is occasionally cut off by snow in winter, is part of the constituency. I found myself at my first election as a candidate there having to explain to people in Wharfedale that they were part of the Shipley constituency and not connected with Ilkley or Pudsey.
One could take many examples of this. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, talked about some of the Kirklees constituencies. When I first started thinking about politics in that region, the Spen Valley was a constituency. We then had Batley, Brighouse and Spenborough, and Batley and Spen. In the 2005 general election I spent an afternoon standing in Huddersfield marketplace meeting people coming in from Heckmondwike, Gomersal, Cleckheaton and elsewhere who said, one after the other, “Can you help me? I’m not sure what constituency I’m in”. I realised how little I knew about the changing boundaries of those West Yorkshire constituencies. As we all know, MPs identify very strongly over time with their constituencies, but their constituents very often do not identify so closely with them in return.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is there not a slight contradiction in what he is saying? A minute ago, he was saying that the incumbency factor was very significant. Does that not mean that constituents must recognise their MPs?
Some do, some do not. However, we have a larger problem which we should also address. More and more constituents—including those who used to vote Labour, according to my experience in Bradford—do not identify with the constituency, any political party or politics as such and, indeed, do not wish to register. We will return to that wider issue in 10 days time, when we discuss the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked me to guarantee that there would be no further decline in registrations in the move to individual electoral registration, but of course the Government cannot guarantee that. We know that between 2000 and 2010, the number of people not on the register is estimated to have doubled from 3 million to 6 million. I am sure the Labour Government that were in office at that point had no intention of allowing that to happen—it happened, as we know, for a range of reasons to do with political attitudes and social change. We will be doing everything we can to maximise the completeness of the individual register, but the accuracy and completeness of the household registration system has been going down, which is very much part of the reason for the change.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he recognise that there is a big difference between a Government who are, on the one hand, doing everything they can to improve the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the register and a Government who are doing their best on that but are none the less proceeding with legislation that is undoubtedly going to damage that register even further—and in the interests of one particular political party? That is the difference. Does the noble Lord accept that?
I do not accept that and I do not accept that we have not been consulting the Labour Party. The noble Lord and I have discussed this at great length, Mark Harper has discussed this with a number of people on the Labour Front Bench and we are continuing to discuss this as we go on. I have so far dealt with several statutory instruments about the data-matching exercise, which is part of the way in which we are testing the completeness of the register. We know that this will get a great deal more difficult and will be talking with others in the Department for Education and elsewhere about how far we can use school registers and student loan registers to get at some of the mobile young people who are among the most difficult to catch for the register. We will return to this area at some length at Second Reading and in Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. We will come back to that, and to the question of carrying over the registration from May 2015 to December 2015, in that context rather than in this one.
This will be my last intervention for today. The Minister has made a very important point and I want to be sure that I have understood it, because it will obviously inform the approach of many noble Lords to the Second Reading of that Bill. Is the noble Lord saying that the Government remain open to a carryover for the purposes of the boundary review in 2015? Are the Government now prepared to consider that?
I was not saying that, I was simply saying that we would need to discuss it further in that context, because we will be spending a good deal of time on the Bill. However, I was saying that a number of continuing experiments are under way with the government statistics authority and with the Electoral Commission about how best to ensure that, as we move to a new register, we maximise the number of people on it. He will know, as we have rehearsed it before, that the argument in respect of the December 2015 register is that maintaining a carryover from a register made over two years before risks carrying over a large number of additional names, particularly in the inner cities, of highly mobile people and those from multiple-occupation residences. There will be a post-May 2015 canvass of all of those who are in doubt on this. We think that the occurrence of a general election in May 2015 should produce the maximum registration available then, but that the question of accuracy and completeness is not best served by maintaining, even after the election, names that have not responded to several attempts personally to canvass them.
The joy and passion that members of the Opposition have for the single-Member constituency is striking. I remind them that the single-Member constituency and the electoral system that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, went for are not necessarily part of the ancient British constitution. The official with whom I travelled to a conference last weekend admitted to me that his grandfather had been one of the two Labour MPs for Blackburn between 1945 and 1950. That was one of the last two-Member constituencies. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is perhaps not quite old enough to remember the three-Member combined Scottish university seat, which was there until 1950. However, I am sure he remembers the electoral system used for that, which was of course the single transferable vote. We now regard the single-Member constituency as the only possible thing for Britain, but other things have been tried before and might be tried again in the future. This Government’s commitment to decentralisation and the revival of local democracy means that we see casework in future more often going to the local councillor, and not always, perhaps, all the way up to the MP.
There have been suggestions of gerrymandering. Looking through my preparatory notes on this, I see that in 1978-79, the then Labour Government postponed the introduction of boundary changes. There were accusations in the right-wing press that this was “jimmymandering” by the then Prime Minister, as a means of ensuring that Labour should not lose those relevant seats. I am conscious, as we all are, that the integrity, accuracy and completeness of the register, for the next election and beyond it, matters to all of us. We are also concerned that some of the underlying causes for the decline in the completeness of the register—political disillusionment and disengagement—need to be addressed, and on an all-party basis.
I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord and all those on the other side for their sympathy for the position of the Liberal Democrats. We are a coalition Government and bargain every single day on a whole host of things. I have no knowledge whether what Mr Richard Reeves said as he left for the United States—very unwisely, and without any authorisation or standing, I thought—relates to anything that is being discussed between the two parties.
I hope that I have covered most of the points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked about the application form, which again we will return to when we discuss the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. I understand that the application form that will be designed by the Electoral Commission must include a statement about the possibility of a fine and the size of that potential fine. We were discussing that in the debate in the Moses Room yesterday on the question of behaviour change and how one designs forms best so as to influence people to do the right thing.
One question that the Minister has not addressed was raised first by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, and to which I have often referred, about the order when it comes to both Houses and that if it is approved by one House but not the other, it will fall. Will the Minister confirm that that is the position?
I am trying to answer all the questions. It is not the first time that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has jumped up to ask why I have not answered a question just as I am about to come to it. It is, of course, the rule that statutory orders have to go through both Houses. What would happen if one House said yes and the other said no is a matter that would have to be negotiated between the two Houses. I know that some Members on the Labour Benches sometimes want to suggest that we are not part of the legislature, but for these purposes we are, and we will take part in that decision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, talked about current changes threatening to undermine the very foundations of our democracy. I have to say that from many of the debates we have had in recent months, there are large questions about the future of our democracy and the characteristics of our representation. I was slightly shocked the other day to listen to the greatest parliamentarian among us, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, promoting the idea of referendums, which are not entirely compatible with the idea of parliamentary democracy. The balance between representative, deliberative democracy and direct democracy, as we slide towards more calls for more referendums, is one of the fundamental issues that we need to address.
I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clark, when he calls for a wider debate on the crisis of British democracy, the role of the state and the balance between state, society and market. I would also add the balance between the central state and the local state where the coalition Government believe that we have slipped far too far towards overcentralisation. Our system of democracy is not working very well; our public are increasingly disengaged and disillusioned; and we need to think about a whole series of changes in how we behave towards and relate with the public and about the best way in which to engage them again in local and national politics. That goes far beyond the issues raised in discussing representation and democracy in this Motion.
My Lords, we have had an interesting, indeed excellent debate, unlike in the House of Commons where there has been almost no debate on these matters since the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and a debate that took place on the problems in Wales in Westminster Hall only last week.
I regret that more Conservative Members felt unable to participate in our debate, apart, of course, from the courageous noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who is known for her preparedness to stand up and say what she thinks. She argued valiantly in defence of an impossible case. Equally, the Liberal Democrats are hardly overrepresented. We have their electoral guru, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who has substantial knowledge on these matters, although it was noticeable that while he argued for equalisation of electorates, he did not oppose the reduction of seats from 650 to 600 for the next general election. He should impress on his prominent Liberal Democrat colleagues, and Mr Hughes in particular, who have been peddling the line, “No Lords reform, then no boundary change”, that they are not helping the case for Lords reform. They fail to realise that many Conservative MPs, as against the Conservative Party organisation, do not want boundary changes, so their mantra is an invitation to Conservative MPs to block Lords reform. It could all backfire.
I was, as ever, greatly amused by the comments of my larger-than-life noble friend Lord Foulkes, on my self-denying ordinance on the generality of legislation, but he need not worry. The excalibur is as sharp as ever. My noble friend Lord Wills referred to the failure of the Government to establish a cross-party group on electoral registration and the immense danger of underregistration. The latest Bill has just completed its passage in the Commons, so let us hope that by the time we get it in the Lords it will be suitably amended to deal with the looming and inevitable difficulties.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, drew attention to the startling proposal that the electorate of 204 constituencies be changed by 50% or more, tearing up identifiable communities. My noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton expressed her deep concerns over the lack of a detailed assessment of the combined effect of all the changes on the health or democracy. My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere was so right when he said that too many people were left out to dry and that party leaders should have been more supportive of Parliament when the institution was under attack.
My noble friend Lady Corston drew attention to the ludicrous proposals for Gloucester and the Forest of Dean, and the Mersey Banks constituencies. They are but two of hundreds of similar anomalous examples where local people are objecting. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon in winding up from the Front Bench stressed that local ties and the integrated nature of communities were cast aside in favour of a numbers game. How very true that is. As for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I have to say that I was not altogether convinced by his arguments justifying the seat reduction or by his attempt to assure my noble friend Lord Wills that electoral registration will be successfully introduced.
I can only repeat my proposed concern over what all these changes are doing to Parliament, as set out in my earlier contribution. I only hope that some way to reverse this whole policy of constituency reduction can be found. I believe that all these proposed changes can bring nothing but harm, worry and disruption to the whole parliamentary arrangement. I am indebted to the House for the opportunity provided by this debate.
Olympic Games: Security
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to an Urgent Question in the other place. It is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, the Government’s overriding priority is to use all resources necessary to deliver a safe and secure Olympic Games. That is what the public and the House would expect. The security operation has been meticulously planned. It will be the largest and most complex security operation in this country since the Second World War. Police plans and those of the security and intelligence agencies are well advanced. The success of the policing operation around the nationwide Olympic torch relay gives confidence in the robustness of police planning. Contingency planning has always been central to our security work, should any changes be needed at this late stage. The Games security picture can change rapidly, and so we have deliberately built in flexibility to respond to any challenge.
As the Defence Secretary has already told the House, we had always intended to deploy 7,500 military personnel to support the venue security operation organised by LOCOG—the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. These military personnel have already started to deploy to venues to support the rolling search and lock-down process between now and the start of the Olympics. They are already working alongside the police, LOCOG, the commercial security provider G4S, and accredited volunteer staff. As the venue security exercise has got under way, concerns have arisen about the ability of G4S to deliver the required number of guards for all Olympics venues and within the timescales available. The Defence Secretary and I, along with other Ministers, have been constantly monitoring this situation and the security contracts over many months. In consultation with LOCOG and G4S, we have now agreed that it would be prudent to deploy additional military support to provide greater reassurance.
I therefore requested additional MoD support, and the Defence Secretary has authorised the deployment of a further 3,500 military personnel. This will bring the total number of military personnel supporting the safety and security of the Games to 17,000 in a variety of roles, including military deployed on wider functions than venue security. The Chiefs of Staff support an increased deployment and have confirmed that the deployment will have no adverse impact on other operations.
The Government have committed £553 million for venue security and remain confident that we will deliver within that budget. Ministers across government recognise the burden that this additional short-notice deployment will impose upon individual service men and women and their families, especially over the summer holiday season, so we will ensure that all those taking part receive their full leave entitlement, even if it has to be rescheduled, that no one is out of pocket due to cancelled personal arrangements and that all deployed personnel are appropriately supported.
We have agreed with LOCOG that there will be 10,000 Olympic and Paralympic tickets donated to the armed services via Tickets for Troops. Access for 2,000 to spectator areas in the Mall for the Olympic cycle road races and Olympic marathon will also be made available, as will the right to buy 2,000 Olympic park tickets. In addition, a total of 7,000 tickets have now been offered to the troops for the dress rehearsals of the opening and closing ceremonies—a significant increase to recognise the extra commitment of military personnel.
I can confirm to the House that there remains no specific security threat to the Games and that the threat level remains unchanged. Let me reiterate that there is no question of Olympic security being compromised. In this country, we have the finest military personnel in the world. They stand ready to do their duty, whatever the nation may ask. Our troops are highly skilled and highly trained. This task is the most important facing our nation today. I know that we can rely on our troops to help deliver a safe and secure Olympic Games that London, the country and the whole world can enjoy”.
That concludes the Answer from my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for coming to the House to make a Statement. It may have been better had the Home Secretary made a Statement to the House of Commons rather than there having to be an Urgent Question. We are 15 days—just over two weeks—from the Olympics. We have enthusiastic and excited athletes, and their families and friends, all over the world. Some are already in London. Many are now making their way to London. I appreciate that an event of this scale presents enormous challenges in terms of security, sporting arrangements and logistics. Obviously, no one can guarantee that there will not be the occasional minor hiccup. However, I wonder what is going on at the Home Office.
We have already had an announcement this week that the Home Office cannot guarantee that all the desks at border control at Heathrow will be staffed as visitors arrive. This, however, is of a very different order. My understanding is that, on Monday, when she was very specifically asked about recruitment at G4S, the Home Secretary told the other place:
“The Home Office has put in place a number of assurance processes to ensure that we have effective and robust scrutiny of venue security planning. We have been testing our plans thoroughly and are confident that our partners will deliver a safe and secure games”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/12; col. 9.]
That was on Monday. Today is Thursday and we have a very different position. This morning I heard James Brokenshire MP on the radio, talking about his conversations with G4S, in which he said that he kicked their tyres. I am not quite sure what that means, but clearly it was as effective as the last time I kicked a tyre when I had a flat travelling to work.
Are the Government now satisfied that all G4S staff are fully and appropriately trained? Has she seen the BBC reports today from recruits who are saying that they are in limbo? They have been appointed but not contacted; they have not been trained, and do not really know what is going on. Also, when did the Home Secretary—or the Home Office—first become aware that there was a problem of this scale and that action would be needed to employ additional troops? What are the implications and penalties of the G4S contract? The number of personnel that have been needed in security has been a bit of a moving feast. There are some planning issues. My understanding is that the contract originally signed in December 2010 with G4S was worth £86 million for a certain number. Then LOCOG received further advice about the security needs and the contract increased to £284 million. What discussions have there been about the nature of that contract and if its terms and conditions have been broken?
I listened carefully to the noble Baroness’s Statement. I had a copy of it when the Answer was given in the Commons, and hope that she can help me with something. She said that it was always intended to employ 7,500 military personnel to support the venue security operation. She also said that there would be an extra 3,500 military personnel deployed and that the total would now be 17,000. I was not quite sure how the original estimate of 7,500, plus 3,500, came to 17,000. Either there have been other increases between the first announcement and the one today, or it is significantly more than 3,500 in addition to the original 7,500. When did the Home Office first have discussions with the Ministry of Defence about the possibility of having to deploy extra military personnel? The Statement says that discussions have been going on with G4S for months. When was the potential for further thousands of troops being required raised with the MoD?
What notice of the loss of leave will the soldiers receive? My understanding—mainly from press reports—is that military personnel are being recalled from leave after serving in Afghanistan. The Statement says that they will not be out of pocket for any personal arrangement that they have to cancel. What other arrangements will be made for them to continue to have leave? It is one thing not being out of pocket. However, I suspect that the value that they place on being with their friends and families on leave is greater than not being out of pocket. Can the Minister tell me if, having cancelled the leave arrangements for service personnel, the Government will give them further leave arrangements? I hope that they will. What impact will that have on future operations in Afghanistan?
All of us want the Olympics to be an enormous success. There is enormous distress over the Home Office’s statements this week. I seek an assurance from the noble Baroness that somebody has got a handle on this, that they know what they are doing and that the Home Office has a knowledge of all security arrangements, knows how many staff it has, know what is required and can guarantee that it can meet those requirements.
My Lords, first, let me make it clear that the Home Office took decisive action yesterday once the matter with G4S that we are discussing today crystallised. We were able to do this because we have monitored progress closely and had contingency arrangements in place, so there is no question of our security needs not being met. I stress that we were in a position to act yesterday because we were prepared to act should that be needed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked a range of questions and referred particularly to a statement that the right honourable Home Secretary made on Monday. On questions about when the Home Office was aware of the issue, I can say that over the last few months the Home Office has been doing its job properly in monitoring the way in which arrangements for security have been developing. In the last couple of weeks it became apparent that, as we were getting nearer to the Games, some issues might require a different and additional contingency action. That only crystallised yesterday and, because we already had arrangements in place to take action, that is what we did.
The noble Baroness referred to those who have gone through the process of applying to G4S to take up the opportunity for employment in security at the Olympic venues. I share her concern for anyone who has gone through a process of application and is left in a state of uncertainty as to whether they will be called upon and employed to do the work they had hoped to carry out. Although we have taken the action we have because G4S cannot confirm that it is able to deliver all the manpower that it is contractually obliged to deliver, it is not yet the case that it will stop recruiting. The process of getting ready will continue through to the Games. The nature of security deployment is such that the agencies which employ people in this kind of work do so at short notice. Therefore some of the people who are still uncertain as to whether or not they will be employed may yet be contacted. However, that is a matter for G4S.
The noble Baroness asked about the contract with G4S and whether its failure to meet its terms would lead to penalties. I will make a couple of points in response. The contract is between G4S and LOCOG, not the Home Office, so it is a matter for LOCOG to ensure that it is rigorous in its pursuit. Obviously we will make our views on this very clear to LOCOG: that it has the responsibility for deciding and acting on the terms of the contract and for making sure that G4S is held accountable for any deficiencies in the delivery of that contract.
As to the noble Baroness’s questions about troop numbers, perhaps I may offer a little further information by way of explanation. The total number of military personnel that will be deployed for the Olympic Games is 17,000—that is the total number, including the additional 3,500 announced today. However, that 17,000 is for a wide range of activities. The numbers for venue security, which is where the additional troops will be deployed, will now be 11,000. So, of the 17,000, 11,000 are for venue security; the remainder will be deployed on specialist activities which would not be carried out by anyone other than military personnel.
The noble Baroness raised questions about the effect of the announcement today on the military personnel concerned. I restate and reiterate what I said when repeating the Home Secretary’s Statement: we value very highly our military personnel, all of whom do excellent work for the nation both here in the UK and overseas. Clearly we want to make sure that any inconvenience experienced by the military personnel who were not expecting to be deployed but who will now be deployed is taken care of. However, the units that will be deployed were aware of their contingency role. These units were already designated as part of the contingency response to be called upon.
As far as leave is concerned, all military personnel will get the leave to which they are entitled, even if this may involve rescheduling their leave. I realise, of course, that that does not address any disappointment that people may feel when they are required to make changes to their arrangements—I respect that—but we are trying to ensure that any inconvenience or expenses incurred are addressed without any question whatever.
My Lords, when my noble friend replied she referred to the fact that two weeks ago we had an inkling that this was not happening. Can she give a better guide to the process of the information that was being fed to and fro, and give the House an idea of what was happening and when? When did we know there was going to be a problem? That is the core of this situation. We have a reserve and are deploying it, but when did we know that we might have to call on it? That is the big question. Secondly, will anything that goes wrong be brought front and centre in a review process of what happened in the Games? A legacy of learning from mistakes will be important.
My Lords, as I said before, this has been an ongoing process. The Home Office and other departments have been properly and actively involved in ensuring that the arrangements for security have progressed in line with our expectations, in order that our security needs are met. However, it was only yesterday that it became clear that the right decision to take was for the Government to deploy additional troops so that there would be no question whatever of our security being compromised, as indeed it will not be due to the action that has been taken.
As to my noble friend’s other point with regard to review, of course after any major event such as the Olympic Games there is a process of review where any lessons will be learned. The most significant point is that the Government have acted decisively. We have been able to act decisively because we have been prepared to do so and can do so. As a result, there has not been any compromise of security at the Games.
My Lords, does not the Minister agree that it is tragic that £553 million has to be spent on security at the Games—especially if one thinks back to the way Games were in earlier days—and that ground-to-air missiles have to be placed as a defence on top of blocks of flats? That sum would solve our problems in relation to legal aid and many other matters. Is it therefore not puzzling that the Government have not thrown their weight behind the request from many quarters that the origin of these problems should be remembered—namely, that there should be a one-minute silence in memory of the athletes who were killed at Munich? That was the origin of the problems that we have today in relation to security. In the light of the terrible history of 1972, can she assure the House that the accommodation of athletes will be properly secured?
I obviously share the noble Baroness’s concern and consideration for the events of 1972 and their associated history. As to her question about accommodation, while I do not have any specific information today, I am quite confident from the briefings that I have received that arrangements for the athletes are comprehensive and that they will receive all the support and facilities they need to make their stay here successful from their own individual point of view, comfortable and secure. We all hope that they will enjoy their experience in London, which I am sure they will.
In thanking my noble friend for repeating the Statement, I immediately declare an interest because I am a director of ExCeL, where a significant number of Olympic events will take place. The Statement the Minister has made today comes as no surprise to anybody who has been trying to organise and see that there is effective security. I say very simply, and as a strong supporter of this Government, that the Home Office must sharpen up its communications with LOCOG and G4S. A number of people identified for some time the scale of the challenge for G4S in recruiting that number of people who had to be cleared, trained and available. It was a massive undertaking and warnings were clearly given.
Having said that, and wearing another hat, I welcome the fact that troops are to be available. The Minister rightly distinguished between the numbers when the noble Baroness raised the question: the Typhoons and HMS “Ocean” and the famous surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of flats are one lot, and then there are the unarmed, venue security searching parties who will do us nothing but credit. A lot of visitors to our country will meet some of our servicemen and find out what excellent ambassadors they are for our Armed Forces. I am delighted that they are to be offered these free tickets, which is only right.
We still face a major challenge here. The remaining people needed have to be properly trained and checked. I hear one or two very worrying stories about that. Is it essential that they can all speak English? I hope that that is a requirement. There have been one or two stories about that which do not seem very satisfactory. The challenge is just starting now. Having recruited all these people who have agreed to serve for G4S under temporary contracts, they have to turn up on time and they must be there early in the morning, well ahead of the opening of the venues so that they are ready to do their work. They will have to face the challenges of transport in London at that time to get to work. The simple answer is that there needs to be not just the numbers that have been announced today—if those are the numbers that have been precisely calculated of the military support—but also a further strategic reserve of people for the accidents and problems that may well arise with the difficulty of making sure that these temporary people working for G4S are there on time and doing their job. We all wish the Olympics well. It is an amazingly big challenge. However, we need to sharpen up communications and build in now contingency reserves for that.
My Lords, I share with my noble friend the warm words of tribute he paid to our Armed Forces. I agree with him that the sight of our Armed Forces in London during the Olympic Games, the work that they will do, and that they will be part of the security effort for the Games—it has always been planned that they would be—will mean they are an important element of the welcoming tone, nature and discipline and the kind of effort and efficiency that are necessary.
On my noble friend’s points about the Home Office, of course I will relay back to the department his comments about the need for improved communication. There is always room for people to improve in that area. However, as I have said before, this is a contract between LOCOG and G4S. LOCOG is the commissioning body with regard to the contract. The Home Office has been very closely monitoring the way in which it has progressed and, because we have been doing that and liaising closely with other government departments, we have been able to act, taking the necessary decision that was made yesterday.
On the effectiveness of those who have been recruited, G4S has rigorous selection processes. My noble friend is absolutely right that everybody needs the right skills to do the job. If they are in a role that has contact with the public, they must be able to communicate with them, which of course requires them to speak English.
My Lords, it is complete nonsense for the Government to suggest that they discovered this problem two days ago. It was two years ago that they realised the deficiencies in the security at the Olympics and transferred private contracts to LOCOG to develop the personnel for security. I have raised in the House of Lords this matter of the deficiencies in contracts and the inability to provide sufficiently trained and well-paid people to do the job. I wrote to the Home Secretary protesting about this matter five weeks ago and asking her to investigate it. She referred me to LOCOG as the body with the responsibility. I wrote to LOCOG in July and it told me that the criterion for contracts is value for money. There was nothing about security or safety, only value for money.
Will the Minister recognise that it is not only G4S that has failed? Other companies at the moment are failing to fulfil their contracts. Will she now review those contracts that exist with LOCOG and see what they contribute? During that review, will she reconsider this whole idea of outsourcing public security to private companies? However eminent they look with their boards of chief constables, eminent people and Members of this House, that does not guarantee that there will be security or safety for the public. It only guarantees the prime responsibility of those companies: to make profits. That is the essential difference here. That is what the Minister needs to look at if she is really concerned about the security of the Games.
My Lords, as I have already said, the arrangements for security at the Games involve a combination of different participants—the police, the military and the commercial provider, G4S. The noble Lord talks as if only G4S had been commissioned to provide security. That is not the case. As I said, the approach involves the police and the military. That has always been the case.
On the point he made about the other company, about which he wrote to the Home Secretary following the Jubilee weekend, that is a separate matter. The people he referred to in that contract are not part of the security arrangements.
But they are not part of the security arrangements. I restate what I have already said because it is important: the Home Office has been reviewing the way in which things have developed. As issues started to develop over the past couple of weeks that made it necessary for us to be ready to act, we took the necessary steps so that we could act. We acted yesterday. The security of our Olympic Games is not compromised because of that.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Ministry of Defence started thinking about and planning for a military contribution to the Olympics over four years ago? At that time, it was told that the requirement would be relatively small, limited to a number of specialist personnel and certain discrete capabilities such as air defence. Of course, nobody believed a word of that and two things were predicted with complete confidence: that there would be a requirement for a large number of military personnel and that at least elements of the requirement would emerge only at the last moment.
The Ministry of Defence will not have been surprised at all by this latest development but it will have been very unwelcome—particularly the very late notice. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be sufficient time for these military personnel to be trained in the specific requirements of their duties? Since, I assume, they will be filling tasks that would properly be done by G4S personnel—and, to some extent, still will be—what are the command and control arrangements for these personnel? Who will be in charge? Will there be a military chain of command or will they report through a G4S chain? This is extremely important if we are to ensure the maximum degree of security.
I am obviously interested to hear what the noble and gallant Lord says about the initial expectations of the Ministry of Defence about troop requirements for the Olympic Games. I cannot comment on them because they would have been formed during the period of office of the previous Government. I can say that, during the time the coalition has been in power, and as we have got closer to the Games, the process of reviewing and scrutinising these arrangements has been very thorough and has allowed us to take the decision that we did yesterday.
As to the noble and gallant Lord’s question about training, I can be clear that, of course, those who will be deployed will receive the necessary training to do the task that is asked of them. They will be doing a similar kind of work—venue security—that is planned for those military that are already deployed to do it. They have not been called in to do something that is in addition to the kind of work already planned. That would include search of people and vehicles, and perimeter control. As to his question about command and control, the military will have their own command and control arrangements but will work very closely with G4S staff and LOCOG venue general managers. This will have to be a properly integrated operation. By that I mean that there will not be a separate arrangement for different contributors to the security of the sites.
My Lords, will the Government learn a wider lesson from this experience, which is the tremendous resource that the military offers of getting governments out of holes they are in from bad administration? The Minister may not remember, although I certainly do, the way in which the military had to sort out the shambles of the foot and mouth crisis, when there were piles of rotting corpses all over the country that were getting bigger and bigger. That was dealt with. However, will the Government realise that, particularly with the reduction of the number of people in the Armed Forces, there are very competent planners at senior level from all three forces who could be available to do a lot of these sorts of public sector jobs? To give one obvious example, the shambles of the UK Border Force could be taken over and dealt with very rapidly if they found a two or three star recently retired military officer to run it. I also think that there is a quite a lot in what the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, said. One of the things that government is very bad at doing, still, is writing waterproof contracts and monitoring them with the private sector. It is not so much the private sector being wicked; the public sector is extraordinarily bad. An obvious example of that is the failure to monitor the people who are given contracts to clean our roads or to make them do the job which they are paid for.
I certainly share my noble friend’s view of our Armed Forces. We are all in their debt for the way in which, from time to time, they step in and take control of situations. My noble friend is absolutely right to make that point and we keep that very much in mind. On this specific issue—notwithstanding the points that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, made a few moments ago—the involvement of the military at the Olympics has always been planned for. Some contingency was built in to our expectations and we are deploying that contingency in order to ensure that we meet our security needs. However, the manner in which we have carried out our decision on this has not been in any way short of what I would have expected it to be. As to the noble Lord’s point about contracts, I will take that on board. I remind him, again, that this contract is not with the Home Office; it is with LOCOG. None the less, he makes some powerful points and I will give them consideration.
My Lords, given that the first consideration of security is to prevent an event happening and that the second one is that if an event does occur, people are kept as safe as possible, will the Minister undertake to verify that there is co-ordination with all the emergency services, particularly with the London Ambulance Service and London’s Air Ambulance, which is a charity? Will the Minister inform the House whether there has been consideration of supplying a second helicopter to London’s Air Ambulance over the period of the Games? It has only one helicopter for a population of 10 million and we have a large increase in the number of people coming in. During the 7/7 bombings inquest, its important role in rescue was highlighted. If anything happens, the air ambulance will be critical to survival.
Co-ordination of the emergency services is, of course, essential and arrangements are in place to ensure proper co-ordination. As to the noble Baroness’s question about a second helicopter, I am afraid that I do not have the answer, but I will write to her.
Housing: Rented Sector
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in introducing this debate on private renting, I declare an interest as a vice-president of Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity. The renting of one’s home, the place in which one spends most of one’s time, is a big and in many ways dismal subject. The private rented sector in England has grown by almost 1.5 million households in the last decade. High demand has pushed rents up by 66%, while wages have increased by only 35%. In some parts of London, agents report annual increases of 16%. This is at a time when home ownership and social housing have been in steady decline, for the United Kingdom can no longer be called, as it was 30 years ago, a property-owning democracy.
The public—no longer so much the man on the omnibus as the couple in the Prius—generally think of private tenants as young professionals or students, yet of the almost 3.5 million households now renting privately, more than 1 million are families with children. Many of these people are now in the direst straits, a condition that looks likely to get worse. There are 4 million people on council housing waiting lists, many with no option but to rent, possibly for the rest of their lives.
Ideally, private renting could be a beneficial system for both landlord and tenant, but with people planning to augment their incomes by buying or building property specifically to let, and a rising generation locked out of home ownership by rocketing house prices and crippling deposits on house purchase, the situation is far from that. Unless things change, an extra 1.5 million 18 to 30 year-olds will be forced into renting in eight years’ time and a further 500,000 will be forced to stay with their parents into their 30s. Going back to live with one’s parents, once looked on as to be avoided from the moment one leaves to take up further education or an independent existence, is becoming some young people’s only option.
Those back in the parental home are the lucky ones, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in that while finding their solution to the housing problem, they can put money aside for a deposit on a future home of their own. Currently, 24% of people between 20 and 45 have moved back to the parental home due to the state of the housing market. But what of young people who are homeless due to a breakdown in their relationships with family? They face grave difficulties in securing and living in affordable decent housing. Even if they are fortunate enough to be in work, they may well receive only the minimum wage and be forced to live in transient accommodation with no real place to call home, or no home at all.
If properties to rent were well maintained and offered at reasonable rents, matters would look very different. As it is, the scale of problems in the private rented sector raises serious questions about the suitability of private renting in general. This is particularly so for families who have few other options open to them or none. The students and young professionals I mentioned earlier can, if unwillingly, move to find different accommodation. This is often not a choice that is open to a couple or a single parent with, say, three children. Shelter is concerned about the state of the private rented sector. The sector is blighted by a large number of amateur landlords failing to offer good standards to their tenants and a small number of rogue landlords who deliberately prey on the vulnerable.
While local authorities are aware of some 1,477 serial rogue landlords, in the past year only 270 were prosecuted, so many bad landlords are not receiving a clear message that bad practice will be prosecuted. A fairly recent development has been the conversion of sheds in back gardens to house one, two or more tenants. Converted sheds and garages, as well as breezeblock constructions to let, have become an increasingly mainstream, if illegal, part of the London property market. They are becoming known as sheds with beds.
Forty per cent of private rented homes are classified as non-decent. Shelter has found that 12% of private rented households experienced housing problems last year, including harassment by landlords, unsafe conditions and landlords failing to carry out repairs. No formal licence or training is required of private landlords in England, but the Housing Act 2004 allows councils to take action where they consider housing conditions are dangerous to health and safety. For instance, landlords must arrange an annual gas safety check by an authorised gas safety engineer and protect tenants’ deposits from being unfairly withheld at the end of a tenancy, while the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 make harassment and illegal eviction criminal offences.
However, some tenants fear negative reactions from landlords, including retaliatory eviction, where a landlord will evict a tenant in response to a request for repairs. The fear of losing their home presents a major barrier for tenants bringing complaints about conditions or practice. Many private tenants have little power to change the practice of their landlord. While landlords value reliable tenants who pay their rent—that is, after all, what their business is about—tenants face significant financial and social costs in moving, particularly in a tight market with rising rents. They may not easily be able to find another home in the area, which is a particular concern for the numerous households with children attending a local school. It is easy to see why tenants put up with poor conditions if the fear of eviction is real.
A case study is that of Sam and his partner, who rented a house that turned out to be riddled with damp. Their small son, who had been free of asthma, had the illness return soon after they moved in and their daughter also suffered from illnesses related to the damp. A huge gas bill resulted from attempts to keep the property warm. Sam asked for repairs to be made but the consequence was that the family was asked to leave, a week before Christmas, while the agent kept more than £100 that Sam had prepaid on the electricity meter. The family is now living in temporary accommodation, having been accepted as homeless by the council.
Another example is that of Lisa, a working mother from Brighton with a 12 year-old son. Lisa has moved five times in five years due to landlords selling up and rent increases. Her current home, a flat costing £750 a month, has had problems with cockroaches, rats and gas leaks. Each time the landlord is served a notice, he does a quick job and the problem comes back. A couple, also in Brighton, have three children aged from three to 11 and pay more than £1,500 a month for their three-bedroom home, which is in a poor state of repair. Their household income is £2,000 a month, so after rent and bills life is a struggle. Shelter regularly comes across cases where tenants have promptly received an eviction notice after making a complaint to their landlord about conditions or the need for repairs. Tenants often do not risk complaining because they are anxious about bad reactions from landlords.
However, complaints about the most serious health and safety hazards have increased by 25% in the past two years. Local authority officers believe that the complaints stem from amateur landlords not understanding their responsibilities and that a small minority of rogue landlords are exploiting their tenants without fear of punishment. Widespread problems with amateur landlords and exploitation by a small minority of rogues are a major concern for professional landlords, whose good reputation is undermined by this poor practice. Local councillors and officials should also be concerned about the volume of problems they face and the financial consequences of not addressing them.
Another fallacious belief, commonly held, is that everyone living in rented property is doing so on housing benefit and is therefore out of work. On the contrary, as the Smith Institute discovered, 95% of the £1 billion rise in housing benefit is paid to people in work. Just one in eight of the people drawing the benefit are unemployed. A relatively new fear will come to tenants when the housing benefit cap may make the difference between being able to pay a rental of £700 and being forced to move out to a less expensive area. A £50 reduction in benefit may not seem much, but to many it can be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Once the benefit cap is introduced in 2013, a migration of poor tenants is expected by Westminster City Council to poorer areas, which are becoming known as benefit ghettos. As a result of these changes, a reduction of 20% is expected in the number of school pupils across the borough. However, it is difficult to see what action can be taken over this, especially if these people are professional landlords complying with their responsibilities and offering good quality homes and management services.
Amateur landlords—and, even more, rogue landlords—are a different story. Around two-thirds of local authorities now offer landlord accreditation as a way of educating well intentioned landlords, helping them to improve their business and giving them a market advantage and access to incentives. Rogue landlords are those who show no willingness to improve their approach to letting and who knowingly let dangerous, poor quality accommodation or carry out illegal management practice. Local authorities should make it clear that they will get tough on those who breach their responsibilities and offer substandard accommodation. Shelter wants to see local authorities taking tough action against rogue landlords immediately, but many of the problems that local authorities face come from tenants who may not come to them complaining about standards or their landlords’ practice. Local authorities dealt with more than 86,000 complaints from private tenants in 2010-11, yet wider research finds that over 350,000 experienced housing problems in the same year.
It was good to see that the Government have recently promised to take firmer action on rogue landlords, the Housing Minister Grant Shapps pledging to set up a dedicated rogue landlord task force, invest £1.8 million to deal with sheds with beds, remove limits to the fines imposed on rogue landlords and send out guidance on rogue landlord enforcement to all local authorities in England. This is a step in the right direction, but more remains to be done. Shelter has stressed that one of the biggest challenges is getting senior local politicians and officials to see enforcement on rogue landlords as a priority. The Government will have to think hard about how they effectively communicate their proposals to local leaders.
Will the Minister agree that the Government need to set up a fund to support local authorities who take enforcement action against rogue landlords, such as criminal prosecution? ARLA, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, has produced a five-point action plan to support the private rented sector. It advises the introduction of government regulation of letting and sales agents. It suggests that investment in the private rented sector should be encouraged by treating rented property as an entrepreneurial business activity for capital gains purposes and reintroducing rollover relief for landlords looking to reinvest in the private rented sector. It recommends building more homes to increase the supply of properties for rent and stresses the need for the removal of VAT on purchases of material and labour for capital expenditure. It recommends the introduction of capital allowances for improvement to property and an increase in the scope of the landlord’s energy saving allowance to include the installation of central heating systems and extending the scheme past 2015.
Estate and letting agents are currently unregulated, meaning that anyone can set up an agency without the appropriate qualifications or knowledge. ARLA believes that full mandatory government regulation of sales and letting agents is the quickest and most effective method to eliminate unprofessional, unqualified and unethical agents from the rental market.
Will the Minister consider the need for the Government to develop a comprehensive regulatory regime to ensure that consumers are protected across the United Kingdom? With government figures estimating that approximately 750,000 homes in the private rented sector are below standard, which roughly equates to 25% of properties in the sector, it is clear that this situation must not be allowed to continue.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for securing today’s debate. Her commitment to this issue and to Shelter in particular is well known. Her passion, conviction and knowledge have been much in evidence this afternoon.
I will focus on questions of how the private rented sector is provided for, financed and regulated. First, I ask the Minister a few questions about the overall supply of housing. For some years, it has become apparent that the supply of housing is not keeping up with the growth of formation of households. While arguments about whether housing should be for owner-occupation or social or private rent are valid, unless we increase the size of the cake we end up creating new problems elsewhere. Can she say something about overall housing numbers and particularly how government are planning housing growth now that top-down targets have been removed?
What progress is being made to deal with the issue of empty homes, estimated last year at 720,000 across the country? What is the Government’s policy towards conversion and change of use back to residential? High streets are shrinking,and this is not just a short-term problem caused by the recession. There is an underlying issue caused by the huge growth of online shopping. Areas where many shops are boarded up would probably benefit from a change of use.
When I was first elected on to Mid Suffolk District Council more than 20 years ago, my children were still quite young. Neither as a mum nor as a councillor did I come across many families who lived in private rented accommodation. At that time, it seemed to be the preserve of young people, or of people in some temporary situation. On the whole, families seemed to be living in either owner-occupied properties or social rented housing. I wondered whether this was some false rosy memory on my part, but in researching for today’s debate I found the Treasury figures that showed that 1991 was the lowest point for the private rented sector.
The English Housing Survey, published last week, has shown that the private rented sector has just reached parity with social rented housing. Each has a 17% share. There are now 1.1 million families living in the private rented sector and, according to a Cambridge University study, the number of families with children in the sector has risen by 86% in the past five years. The Rugg review, although carried out only in 2008, is already vastly out of date. It simply did not envisage this rise, and it needs to be re-evaluated.
Does that matter? In one sense, it does not. What really matters is having secure, affordable and decent-quality homes for families, but the trouble is that we know that you are much less likely to have that if you are living in private rented accommodation. For many families, for all those reasons, it is not an option they would choose, but they take it because they have been priced out of owner-occupation and cannot get social rented accommodation.
Affordability is a key issue. Tenants have to find a deposit, a month’s rent in advance and fees for letting agents. It is bad enough if you are trying to do that every five years or so, but in a volatile market people are often having to do it every year. Rents are high relative to the incomes of people in the private rented sector. The English Housing Survey estimates that the cost of housing accounts for 19% of the weekly income of owner-occupiers and 43% of the income of those in the private rented sector. Those figures need to come with a little warning, because the figure for owner-occupation is averaged out and includes those who have small mortgages because they have owned for a long time. Nevertheless, the figures are stark.
In its 2010 report, the Treasury referred to rents being 24% to 40% cheaper than a mortgage on an equivalent property and concluded that renting is a more affordable option. I think that the Treasury is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. It must look at affordability relative to income, not the cost of buying a similar property.
Tenant satisfaction in the private rented sector is much lower, and we all know the horror stories about poor quality accommodation, failure to deal with even serious and life-threatening problems and rogue landlords in general. On top of this, the high turnover rate means that families have little sense of permanence,with all that that means for the education of their children and their general well-being. Concentrations in certain areas mean that there are localities where a significant proportion of residents have no real stake in their area.
We make a big mistake if we think that the growth of the private rented sector is a blip caused by a temporary lack of social housing and the unavailability of mortgages. These problems are here to stay, and so is a more mobile population in an increasingly flexible job market. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published a study about housing and young people which showed that by 2020, 1.5 million more young people will be going into the private rented sector, most with their own tenancy and the rest living with their parents, as we have heard. These young people will very soon become parents, so the number of families in private rented accommodation will also increase.
We cannot continue to think about the private rented sector in the rather piecemeal way that we have in the past. I recognise that organising a sector dominated by individual landlords is difficult. Seventy-four per cent of properties in the sector are in the hands of individuals, and two-thirds of them own fewer than five properties. Nevertheless, local authorities, in their planning and social roles, need to think about how they can engage with the sector. The Treasury needs to think about smarter incentives. Changes to stamp duty have been welcomed, but measures are needed to encourage new building in the sector. It can and should be made conditional. There are schemes in France and Germany which offer tax breaks, but only in exchange for longer, more stable tenancies. Chris Norris from the National Landlords Association recently wrote that a third of his members would be happy to employ tenancies longer than 12 months. Will the Government look at how that might be encouraged and, in particular, work with mortgage lenders, who often will not permit people to let for more than a year?
I know that there is a perception that rents are being driven ever upward by greedy landlords, and having seen what people are asking for accommodation during the Olympics, I am sure that they exist, but I am not convinced that it is such a golden goose because if it were, there would not be such a shortage. I think the truth is rather more complex. Landlords have relied on a combination of capital gain and rental income to give good returns, and that model has broken down. A recent article in the Investors Chronicle suggested that returns on buy to let are currently about 3% to 4%, which is too low to justify people investing when you think about all the work and risk involved.
The idea of rent control is very popular with tenants and the public, which is not surprising, but evidence from around the world suggests that it simply drives down quality and is being removed. Other forms of regulation appear more successful. LSE research points out that most European countries have regulation without limiting the amount of accommodation available. In Germany, the private rented sector accounts for more than 50% of all housing. There is growing support for the notion of accredited landlords, so perhaps the Government could look at that on a more systematic basis.
I have long thought that the obscenity about housing benefit is not its amount but that taxpayers’ money is used to pay bad landlords for poor accommodation. Institutional investment in the UK housing market is low because investors tend to get better returns on commercial property. The current returns in the residential sector of about 3.5% fall well short of the 6% to 7% that investors require. Real estate investment trusts were launched with a fanfare in 2007 to provide a tax-efficient investment vehicle for large-scale housing for private rent, but they failed to meet expectations. Companies such as Aviva have dipped a toe in the water, and there is a view that property unit trusts might be a better vehicle. Sir Adrian Montague is currently reporting on this aspect of private rented accommodation. When can we expect his report?
Other barriers to institutional investment have been identified. They include difficulty in finding sufficiently large investments—about 200 properties are needed. This is where working with planning officers and authorities might also come in. In addition, the sector lacks the housing management skills needed to run such schemes. Is there a role here for housing associations to offer a commercial service, managing the properties and generating profit that they can then reinvest in their social housing?
The private rented sector has now become far too important to be left to chance, as successive Governments have done. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today but also to some action in future.
My Lords, the current Reith lectures rightly emphasise the need for a healthy society to promote the intermediate institutions between the individual and the state. Healthy participation in civic society itself depends on the stability and place of families and family life in society, in whatever form family life might take. That in turn depends on the proper availability and provision of housing. People generally relate better to others and to society as a whole when they feel secure in themselves and in their home life. That is why this debate is so important. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on securing it and on introducing it so powerfully. I shall follow the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, in a slightly different way but very much in the same spirit.
There is little doubt that the UK has a housing crisis and that it is likely to get worse. However, there is also a housing benefit crisis, with 5 million claimants, half of whom are in work. As was said, those who are added to the list are mostly in work. There is a very large annual bill. As I understand the figures, the number of people in work who are forced to claim housing benefit has doubled in the past three years, mainly due to the increasing cost of rent. Around a third of households in the private rented sector receive housing benefit. The problem facing households in the rented sector, especially the private rented sector, is rising rents due to a lack of housing supply and the capital cost of new-build housing. The situation is acknowledged in government documents. In Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England, launched last November, the Prime Minister acknowledged in the foreword that,
“for decades in Britain we have under-built”,
and that the,
“economic and social consequences of this failure have affected millions”.
The housing strategy’s emphasis is on unblocking the housing market, which will help to address the housing crisis, boost economic activity and create jobs. However, as I read it, it is primarily focused on improving the supply of owner-occupied housing. I acknowledge the efforts that are being made to simplify and free up the planning process and to assist first-time buyers in particular to get on to the housing ladder. However, I very much doubt that the problems we face can be solved by promoting a return to greater levels of home ownership. The rented sector will also have a vital role to play, but how, and where will the capital finance come from? The fundamental problem is the lack of supply of new houses for rent because of the lack of finance to provide them.
The number of houses constructed for rental over the years provides a telling story. The post-war construction of houses by local authorities peaked in 1953 at 198,000. This is a poignant figure for me as I moved into one of the new council houses that were constructed in 1953, when I was three years old and it remained my home for 15 years. Of course, that house has now been sold off and would probably be unaffordable to the equivalent of my parents with a young family.
Local authority construction declined to a low point of 50—just 50—in 1999 and remained very low until last year, when 2,300 units were built by local authorities. To some extent, of course, local authority construction was replaced by housing association new-build units, but that never exceeded 31,000 units and last year was under 25,000 units. Housing associations just do not have access to the necessary capital; I assume that that must be the underlying and main reason.
Private enterprise construction of houses in England has only twice exceeded 200,000 units a year, in the 1960s, and in 2011 it had fallen to 82,000 units. I invite the Minister to comment on these figures, which I have taken from the DCLG website. I believe that the private sector and housing associations alone are unlikely to be able to respond to the housing needs as set out over the next 10 or 20 years.
I am all for market-based solutions if they work. However, sometimes they need augmentation or stimulus by government investment, especially where long-term strategies are needed, and housing is a classic example where a five-year horizon just is not enough; we have to have horizons that go beyond a particular Government. Given that such investment would produce real assets in the form of houses and flats, which in the future, when circumstances have changed, could indeed be sold off and turned into other forms of resource, as many council houses were, is there not a strong economic case for investment by the Government alongside their other schemes and the private sector in general? Is this not reinforced by the argument that the best way to address the burgeoning problem of housing benefit is to increase the supply of rented houses and thereby reverse the remorseless rise in the level of rents? I say that independently of the view one might take of the Government’s policy of introducing a benefit cap.
I speak as a fool, no doubt, but could not some of the money created by quantitative easing be invested in real assets, rather than just being shunted on to the balance sheets of banks and then apparently not being lent? Perhaps we should compare the benefits of investment in social housing with, for example, the £32 billion planned to be spent on the new High Speed 2 railway. The recent housing strategy reveals that, for a government investment of £1.8 billion, some 80,000 new homes will be delivered under the affordable homes programme. When I do my sums, that suggests that a government investment of £32 billion would equate to nearly 1.5 million new homes. These things have to be compared, but what would the benefit of 1.5 million new affordable homes be compared with high-speed rail? At least it stimulates the imagination. No doubt I can be accused of the economic equivalent of heresy. If so, I look forward to a tutorial on economics from the Minister when she replies.
I should acknowledge at this point that the Church of England, through the Church Commissioners in particular, used to provide capital for social housing, especially here in London. I very much regret that we are no longer in a position to do this, although there is a growing number of examples of small-scale, local church projects across the denominations to build affordable housing, echoing many schemes in the past that produced local almshouses and so forth. Whatever the source of capital finance for new-build housing might be, the key issue, I think, is the price of land for development. The difference in value between agricultural or social use and development use is quite staggering; it is of the order of 20 or 30 times more, which, it seems to me, cannot be right. There must be something wrong if the value of land for development is that much more than the value of land for other uses.
Perhaps we will not see the construction of affordable housing on the scale that we need, either for purchase or rent, until the price of development land comes down. Reading through the Government’s housing strategy document of last November, I saw no reference to the problem of the price of land.
Perhaps easing planning controls will lead to the necessary readjustments. For my part, I have long been convinced that our planning policies have been far too restrictive. I accept that there are particular issues in a rather overcrowded south-east of England, but in the north-west of England and Cheshire, the area that I know well, communities would generally speaking benefit from a much more open approach to development, subject to the proper planning process and controls on quality, and so forth. There is now a presumption in terms of sustainable development in the planning process. Most of the communities that I know would best be sustained by having some development and a greater range of housing, especially with affordable housing being introduced.
I end, appropriately for the noble Baroness, on a philological or linguistic note. The Greek word “oikos” meant house, household or home; it gave us the root of two important words—economy and ecology, as well as ecumenical. Homes are vital to how we live and the health of society as a whole. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I come to this debate with an interest to declare. I chair the board of Midland Heart housing association. I add my name to those congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on securing this timely and important debate.
The debate is timely because it provides for your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider the collective failure to address equitably the challenges faced by families in the rented housing sector. To inform the debate, we have the benefit of the English Housing Survey, published a few days ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The report states that social housing and privately rented accommodation are currently on a par, each supplying some 17% of the housing market, with 66% owner occupied. It is likely that since 2010 private rental has overtaken the social housing sector; in fact, the size of the social housing sector has fallen by more than 1 million homes in England over the past 30 years due to a combination of investment cuts, demolition and right to buy. A recent Joseph Rowntree report suggested that 1.5 million young people between the ages of 18 and 20 will be locked out of access to social housing and forced into private renting. It is also estimated that more than 3 million young people cannot afford to leave the parental home.
One consequence of those changes is the growth of a largely unregulated sector to meet the increased demands created by the decline in social housing and the inability of individuals to access affordable home ownership. This fosters an environment of poorer housing stock and a market where rogue landlords are likely to flourish—and many landlords in the private sector are less than keen to consider people who are on benefits for renting.
Traditionally, housing associations prioritise those with greatest need; people who are vulnerable, disadvantaged and out of work tend to be concentrated in this sector. Unsurprisingly, homelessness is reported to be on the rise, and I am told that in Birmingham the waiting list consists of more than 30,000, and the waiting time is approximately five and a half years.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has acknowledged the risk of families becoming homeless, and figures released recently show that children are increasingly at risk in those situations. The Government’s proposal to discharge their homelessness duty to the private rental sector potentially diverts more families from access to social housing and a less secure form of tenure. The problems for those in social housing are increasing.
As we recently debated in your Lordships’ House, the Government’s proposed bedroom tax will affect working-age social tenants who are in receipt of housing benefit by an average of £14 per week. If there happens to be more than one spare room, it goes up to approximately £25 per week. Speaking for my organisation, Midland Heart, I am told that this will affect about 3,000 of our tenants.
The figures for 2011 show that worklessness affects some 56% of social housing tenants, with the numbers of households in which no adult has ever worked rising by more than 5% in a year to some 370,000. In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified a wide range of workless people including those with poor basic skills, physical and mental health problems, substance usage, homelessness, childcare needs and a history of offending. In addition, there is a worrying skill deficit, with 11.6% of the working population in the UK holding no formal qualification whatever. The figures also show that social housing tenants of working age are three times more likely to be economically inactive than those in other sectors. Approximately 80% of new housing association tenants under 25 are workless and the number of people considered as NEETS—not in employment, education or training—has exceeded 1 million.
According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, disposable income generally fell by 3.1% over the period 2010-11, the biggest fall since 1981. As a result, the cocktail of recession, benefit reduction and price rises means more and more families are having to make the painful choice between paying the rent, securing the fuel bills or, indeed, buying food. There are frequent reports in the media of growing evidence of family poverty where children are going without food and families are becoming reliant on food banks which are now struggling to cope with the increasing demands. Up and down the country, food banks are reporting that they are supporting more and more families who are struck by the problems of unemployment and benefit stoppage. Working families on low incomes are at the receiving end of all that.
The Guardian reports that responses from teachers to its survey show that the number of children arriving at school with empty stomachs has increased during the past year or two. Head teachers and senior doctors are so concerned at the extent of child malnutrition and hunger that they are calling for children who receive school meals also to be given a free breakfast each morning. Charities, including Action for Children, the NSPCC and the Children’s Society, predict that children in vulnerable families are set to top the 2 million mark by 2015. Meanwhile, what is the Government’s response? They are seeking to redefine child poverty. In this House, and in another place as well as in the media, we hear much about the importance of neighbourhoods and communities. Taken together, however, policies such as the bedroom tax, benefit cap, affordable rent and mixed tenancies will do nothing to sustain strong and stable communities.
Following the riots of last year, the Church of England’s report sounded a clear warning about the social consequences of austerity. Looking at the economy all over the country, the fact of the matter is that the austerity programme is like playing golf with just one club. The response by my organisation, Midland Heart, to the riots in Birmingham was its development of a modest programme called Back on Track. The project was aimed at early intervention and diversion for young people and their families into more productive pursuits. The interventions went beyond merely addressing poverty, and recognised that there were many interlinking factors such as lack of skills and education, social exclusion, poor community cohesion, peer pressure and, of course, poor housing. The Back on Track project has engaged just 24 young people in apprenticeships and business start-ups and has offered mentoring and support to families, including a family jobs club, as well as a family intervention project for troubled families. I am proud to say that a number of our young people have been fortunate in winning major contracts from the authorities to supply more than 50,000 cup cakes to athletes in the Olympics.
Many voluntary organisations have supported projects for families, and many will continue to do so. At the very heart of the need for good citizenship and making a contribution stands the need for good housing. Ironically, funding for all these much-needed projects is subject to the austerity cuts.
In this debate, we have heard much about the problems faced by families in the rented housing sector, yet I sense that the issues that have emerged are, in reality, so far only the tip of the iceberg. We await the full force of the deprivation that is being created. While we wait, I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for leading this timely and important debate.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, and I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for sponsoring this debate.
I want to talk, rather more narrowly, about the particular problems in the part of the world where I live, but I associate myself generally and, in most cases, specifically with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market who provided a more general overview.
We are talking about problems faced by families in the rented housing sector. I want to talk about that sector in the area I know best, which is east—or Pennine—Lancashire, the borough of Pendle, the town of Colne, and the ward of Waterside, which leads me on to declaring my interest as a councillor for that ward. I specifically want to talk about that part of Colne and similar parts of Nelson, such as Southfield, which are typical of many areas throughout the north of England and other parts of the country.
We are talking about areas of cheap terraced housing—houses in my ward that are now selling for, depending on location and condition, anything between £30,000 and £65,000, and which at the height of the housing boom might have cost between £50,000 and £75,000. Ten years ago they were selling for between £20,000 and £50,000, and in 1970 you could pick up quite a decent two up, two down, well looked-after modernised terraced house for £1,000. This is cheap housing, and it is no wonder that it has been attractive to buy-to-let landlords in more recent times. The rents in such areas now might be around £400 a month—£80 a week, or of that order—which local people think is outrageous, and everyone else thinks is quite cheap.
These are traditional areas of owner-occupied terraced housing. They were built perhaps 100 to 140 years ago for the people who worked in the mills. They were bought through a form of rental purchase, through deductions from people’s weekly wages. When you had paid enough through rental purchase, you got the deeds, so there is a tradition of working class owner-occupation in those areas.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a massive programme of improvement of those houses. In 1970, in the ward I was elected for then, which was a bit smaller than the present ward, 70% of the houses had outside lavatories, and most of those were the famous tippler toilets, or long drops, or waste water closets. I have explained to noble Lords in the past exactly how they worked, and I will not do so today, but WCs they were not. The houses had no bathrooms, and some of the worst had one cold water tap, and perhaps a little plastic geyser to heat water. That was all.
Since then there has been a huge programme of improvement, through a programme of standard and improvement grants in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, which were provided by local authorities but for which up to 90% of the subsidy was provided by central government. A huge amount of public investment went into those privately owned houses, together with area improvement schemes such as general improvement areas and housing action areas, and the associated environmental improvements. It is not an exaggeration to say that large numbers of those areas were rescued from the bulldozer by such schemes. More recently we had the Labour Government’s housing market renewal scheme, which again provided investment, although in a different way, into some of those areas.
Forty years ago, the private rented sector in these areas was limited, but it existed. They were mainly slum landlords. I say that without any qualification. You could get a house 40 years ago for a rent of 50 pence a week, but what you got was not very nice. The improvement schemes I have talked about by and large drove out those private landlords. Some of their houses were the worst in the area and were knocked down and cleared. Large numbers were purchased by the local authority, either voluntarily or by compulsory purchase schemes, and were often either improved by housing associations or have been subsequently transferred to housing associations, and are now providing perfectly decent accommodation.
Since the end of the 1980s, the private rented sector has made a reappearance. One noble Lord said that 1991 was the low point of private rented accommodation in this country. In the whole of Waterside ward, which I represent, in the census 10 years ago there were 17.6% privately rented, and in the ward in Nelson that I am talking about, Southfield, there were 16.9%. It is significantly more than that now. I suspect it is about 25% in both of those areas. In critical areas, where it is causing real problems, it is now up to 30%, 40% or 50%.
The causes are well known: the deregulation of rent, for instance. My noble friend said that rent control had, in the past, resulted in poor conditions. There is no doubt that that was the case, and it was one reason why rent controls were abolished. However, the deregulation of rent has allowed people to move in on a market basis. The second factor is the relaxation of security of tenure.
The third is the large amount of finance available for buy-to-let schemes. Let us not think that buy-to-let purchases are no longer taking place. People who do not live in areas such as Pendle look at these prices and think that the houses are incredibly cheap. They work out how much rent they can get and still make quite a substantial profit from a buy-to-let purchase. Many are absentee landlords. I have to laugh at some of them. From time to time, I get an absentee landlord from, typically, London or the south coast ringing me up. They say, “We’re ringing you because we understand you are our councillor”. I say, “No, I’m not. You live in London”. They say, “Yes, but I own a house in a particular street in your ward. I had these tenants who weren’t nice people and they wrecked the house. Then they just moved out and I’m left with a real problem. I can’t let the house because of the condition it’s in. What are you going to do about it?”. My answer is, “If you will donate your house to the local authority, I will do something about it. Apart from that, it’s your responsibility. You bought the house and you know what the street is like”. They reply, “Oh no. I’ve never been there”. They probably bought it at an auction without seeing it. They “manage it” through a local letting agency and that is the extent of their personal involvement with it. I say to them, “I consider that you are an anti-social person and you deserve an ASBO”. They do not like that and they put the phone down.
That is the difficulty that we have. We have had people living in Johannesburg, Jerusalem and all over the world—it is quite astonishing—but, in particular, they live in London or on the south coast for some reason, and they have been causing real problems with these houses.
The laws and rules that govern private rented accommodation, as with so much else in this country, have been designed for London, the south-east and the big cities. They have not been designed for areas such as ours, where the problems and consequences are quite different, and they have been a disaster. Of course we have good local landlords who own a house in the same street or who let out a house where elderly relatives have moved on or whatever, and we have lots of good tenants. However, the situation with private landlord accommodation in areas of cheap terraced housing where the market is not buoyant, where it is difficult to sell houses and the vacancy rate is high, is entirely different from the situation in London, in particular, where the main problem is a shortage of housing.
What are the consequences? Despite what I have been saying, people buying to let have kept prices higher than they would otherwise have been. Noble Lords may think that the prices I have quoted are ridiculously low for housing but they are higher than they would have been. Ours is a low-wage area and, like many others, it is struggling to keep going in the present economic circumstances. That, together with other factors, such as the impossibility of getting a mortgage, has pushed down the potential for young couples to buy these houses.
I have talked about absentee landlords letting through agents and having no personal, hands-on involvement in the management of the houses. A lot of these properties have a high turnover of tenants. People move in, live there for a year and move on to the next town or to another part of the town to a similar property. This has huge consequences for the area and for local schools, for example, where pupils do not stay for very long and move away, often missing schooling in between. This results in some problem tenants.
I do not suggest that all people living in private rented accommodation cause problems. Clearly, they do not. My daughter lived in a house in my ward last year. It was a very nice little house and she is a very nice tenant. However, you need only one problem family to cause real problems in a street. While they are being moved on, persuaded to move on or whatever, those problems are there. It results in other people in the street saying that they have had enough and moving out, whether they are owner-occupiers or tenants, and in the deterioration of some properties. If you then get two or three of them together, and particularly if the empty properties get vandalised, the problems in those streets are huge and the only way they can be solved is by the active intervention of the local authority. That costs a lot of money and a lot of resources—and there is not a lot of that around at the moment. Councillors, the council, other agencies, residents and, indeed, the residents’ groups that exist in many of these areas are waging a defensive battle. It is damage limitation against what is, in these areas, a lose-lose situation.
There have been lots of initiatives over the years. Housing market renewal came and provided hope on the horizon, but that has all gone away. We now have an empty homes initiative from the present Government, although we do not know whether it will work. Local authorities grasp whatever is offered to them, but one problem is that there is no consistency. I keep saying that local authorities are presented with one lot of schemes and solutions, which then goes away and they have to grasp the next one. It is about always running to keep up.
A few years ago, the Housing Act 2004, I think, introduced the concept of selective licensing of private sector landlords. We looked very hard at this, in both the areas I am talking about, but in the end the council felt it could not go ahead with it. That was partly because it did not stack up financially and the council would have had to substantially subsidise it and partly because it was no way to tackle the problem of empty houses. Poor landlords could simply opt out of the scheme by leaving properties empty, which was obviously a lot worse than having tenants in.
Following the Rugg report, the previous Government talked about a national landlord registration scheme. It is interesting that the Welsh Government have—only last week I think—issued a consultation paper suggesting one in Wales. That would go some way towards tackling the problem, because it would at least provide people with facts and information and provide councils with a way of relating directly to landlords. Voluntary accreditation schemes do not work because the people who join them are the good landlords. They are worth while for them but do not tackle the ones we really want to tackle.
I do not know what all the answers are. I am absolutely certain that solutions developed for areas such as London where the housing market is grossly overheated have very little relevance to us. We need the flexibility to tackle things in different ways in different parts of the country according to the circumstances of the housing market in those areas.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for introducing this debate and the manner in which he did so. This is an important issue for all of us. I speak as a Londoner, from where the problem of housing families is particularly acute. In my area of Camden, the local council has exceptional difficulty and priority is given to housing families with children. That priority is often criticised, although not by me—we cannot have children homeless and on the streets.
When I first moved into the area in which I live, over 40 years ago, West Hampstead was not regarded as particularly posh. It is adjacent to Kilburn, which was long recognised as a working-class area. However, there has been an enormous change. The large houses have all been transformed into flats, with many let at very high prices—£500 a week is quite normal for a one-bedroom flat. Ordinary working families simply cannot afford rents at this level. If the family is on housing benefit, the cost to the taxpayer is quite substantial, although that is not the fault of the family, as the money just goes straight to the greedy landlord. There are now new rules about benefits and strictures about underoccupancy have been issued by the Minister. Extra rooms are restricted, except for a carer who actually lives in, and the number of bedrooms is limited in line with what is felt to be appropriate for the family size. This has all made families feel very unsettled, particularly if the benefit is related to the market rent for the accommodation. They may think that they have no alternative but to move to somewhere cheaper. In fact, that attitude is encouraged by some councils.
People often do not want to move to a different area, particularly if it would no longer be possible for children to attend their school. People with a disability may have problems about moving as well. Often they will need support facilities where they currently live and it may not be easy to move to an entirely different area. Poorer people moving out of areas and then leaving them to be accommodated purely by the better-off has social consequences that we should be careful of. The well informed charity Shelter does not think that underoccupancy is a problem. It is more concerned that, in many poorer homes, the families are too crowded and often children have difficulty doing homework and other work in such situations.
All these problems arise because there has been too little social housing built over the past 30 or 40 years. It is true that this is now recognised belatedly. The Mayor of London recently announced a programme of social housing for London, but how long will all that take and how much will it all cost? In the mean time many families are worried and distressed, and contemplating possibly moving or trying to get by on much lower benefits. Just after the last war, there was of course a terrible problem of housing shortage because of the bombing. Rents, however, were set by a local tribunal. The then Government took a very bold step and introduced a system of rent control. If tenants thought that the rent was too high they could get a ruling from the tribunal. Had this set-up not existed, most of the population would have been forced to sleep on the street. As it was, poorer people managed to get by because the rents had some relationship to the wages that they were then earning. There is a case for something rather similar to be done now. Indeed my noble friend, in introducing the debate, hinted as much and outlined a system.
There are really two problems for which the taxpayer is paying: rents are too high; and wages are too low. Something could be done about the first. On the second, as a former trade union official, it is a matter of regret to me that trade unionism in the private sector has declined. I would like to see that reversed and people in London paid at least a living wage, which most of them do not get. Benefits, incidentally, are mostly paid to people in employment but who are badly paid, so the taxpayer subsidises low-paying employers. That could be improved by introducing the living wage and inspectors to ensure that it is enforced. In my view something should be done and I am grateful to my noble friend and others who have spoken in the debate this afternoon. We have all agreed that something has to be done and that there are things that we could do immediately, which I hope the Minister will take seriously.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for initiating the debate. We all know her lifelong commitment to the problem of housing, particularly her work with Shelter. It is very important that we give our time and energy to debating this important issue.
I have an interest to declare. I am not the chairman of anything or a councillor, but I am a member of the angry brigade. I feel quite angry about this, as do lots of people of our generation, although it is hard to be angry in your Lordships’ House at quarter past four on a Thursday afternoon when it is not very heavily populated. Some of the speeches, to which I have listened very carefully, have reinforced my disposition. Although they might not be described as angry speeches, they have been passionate about a commitment to doing something about the hugely serious problem that we have with young people in almost every sense of the word.
When I was a young trade unionist, which was nearly 50 years ago, we used to march with our banners, which had two things on them: homes and jobs. Those were the two things that we had least and wanted most. We were never able to get them. I thought about that this week when I noticed the Shard building that has shot up near London Bridge and read that there will be £50 million flats available for people to rent. I do not suppose that many people in your Lordships’ House will be putting their name on that list. Looking down from the £50 million flat to the kind of problems that we have in London—and beyond, as apparently you can see beyond from the Shard—it occurred to me that nothing has really changed. For a lot of young people things are much worse than they were when I was young myself.
The average age in your Lordships’ House is, I think, 69. It is important that we, as the older generation, work hard to understand and sympathise with what it is like to be young—and there has been a really strong display of this in the House this afternoon—and do everything that we can in whatever way we can to help young people with both jobs and housing, because that help is welcome and very much needed. It is one of those days—they occur to me sometimes—when I wish we could get young people on these Benches debating the issues; let us hear what they have to say. If this happened, the House would probably be fuller than it is today. I might be joined by some other members of the angry brigade if we were able to do that. We recognise the very tough time that young people are having.
The old deal that we were all used to was this: work hard at school, get a job, save a deposit for a mortgage, pay your pension and, at the end, you will probably be okay and, if not, there will be a welfare state that will support you. I am afraid that this paradigm has gone. The new deal is this: work even harder at school and borrow a lot of money—£30,000 to go to university, which you pay back when you get a job, if you get a job, which many cannot do. Pensions are even more elusive, as are mortgages without a wealthy or generous parent, which is probably not available to the majority of people. This is a very different paradigm to the one that we experienced.
What happens at the end of this? What will it be like for these young people in 30 years, with no mortgages, not-so-good jobs and no pensions? Where will they get £100,000 to pay for their care? What will they have to sell? They will not have any equity or pensions. It will be a huge burden on the state. This is obviously not a subject for today; it is for another debate but it is very important. Fast-forward the problems that we are talking about today 30 years and what sort of consequences will we see?
This is what our generation of young people are faced with. I do not think that any of us have a strategy to deal with it. We have piecemeal initiatives and schemes, which have often failed. As people have said this afternoon, sometimes they are flawed but the model itself of actually helping young people either to buy or to rent is broken. It cannot deliver the kind of decent homes for future generations that we need. I have looked carefully at the Department for Communities and Local Government housing strategy to find a big picture. Is there a five-year strategy, as the right reverend Prelate indicated would be very helpful in these circumstances? My conclusion was that there was not. It was cloaked in the language of choice, flexibility and community. A lot of initiatives do not add up to what we want. I do not say that they are not worthy or not worth trying, but they are not adequate to meet the situation and the problems that we face.
The basic problem is that young people between 20 and 35 cannot any longer afford to buy a home in lots of parts of this country. Why is that? It is because there are not enough homes being built for people to live in. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has made this point very eloquently. Will the prices, therefore, of renting existing limited supply be higher or lower? It will be higher because it will mean high rents in some places, particularly London, where the amount of money that young people have to pay to live is disgustingly high. If we were to build more homes and bring down prices, the savings that young people had would make adequate deposits. However, with the present price of private homes, most young people have no chance of ever climbing the housing ladder. They have no choice: they have to go to the private rented sector.
There has been an eloquent debate today about what that sector is like. It is a mixed bag. It is unregulated, by and large. Although councils have a role there, it is not regulated successfully. As to individual landlords, I know decent people who have buy- to-let properties. I do not agree with it but it is a matter for them. Decent people buy to let and we need people to provide rented accommodation. However, there are also the worse kind of rogue landlords, about whom we have heard today. Whether they are decent people or rogues, they are all there for a reason: they are all making very good returns in one of the few growth areas of the British economy.
How are rental levels determined? They are determined by the market, which in a country which fails to build anything like the number of homes needed to house its population is going to be fairly buoyant. It will be a good market for sellers of accommodation but not such a good market for buyers. Landlords can charge what the market will take. Tenancies are normally short term, six to 12 months being the average.
Rent levels next to earnings are cripplingly high. In London, a small two-bedroom flat in zone 1 and 2 can cost £15,000 to £18,000 a year, not in the high-quality areas but in the poorer areas. Outside London, in major cities you would be lucky to find a two-bedroom flat under £5,000 a year. That is a lot of money for people working in the kind of jobs that are very important to us. How does a nurse, a postman or a teacher on a salary of between £15,000 and £30,000 afford this kind of rent? It is impossible to do so. We have to wake up to that fact and do something about it.
In London, in the main, unless young people share or live in one room, as many do, they move back to the suburbs and join those families affected by housing benefit. They pack their bags and they have got to go. What does that mean for the nurses that I was talking to when I was a patient recently in Guy’s Hospital? It means that they have unaffordable travel costs and it is difficult for them to go to work and meet the shift patterns. The nurses come crashing in, worn out by the travel before they even start to look after their patients. That is an anecdote, of course, but it is part of the reality of why we have not got nurses living in London: they cannot afford to rent accommodation.
All these problems arise before we examine the space and quality of accommodation, for which we have no standards. We know that standards are certainly very poor at the bottom end of the market. Some landlords seriously overcrowd their properties and only a few good local councils have the money or the political initiative to do anything about it. The quality of the space in which you live is as important as the street in which you live, and I get angry about young people being shuffled into small, inadequate accommodation without proper facilities and having to grow up in that kind of environment. It never happened to me and I do not see why it should happen to this generation.
Rightmove has said that in a double-dip economy there is a rent rise bubble as landlords push through even higher rents, God forbid. One in three tenants now spends more than a half of their take-home pay on rent. Can you believe that? Rightmove, which wrote the survey, says that there is,
“unique evidence of a rental squeeze that may be leaving some tenants with little or no headroom”.
Few are renting because they want to. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, put forward different figures, although we can all look at different reports. However, according to the Rightmove report, 56% of people are trapped as renters and forced to pay landlords because they cannot access a mortgage. It is really serious if that is the case. If 40% or 50% of tenants do not want to be in rented accommodation but want their own home, should we not tackle that situation as a society?
It is now said that housing benefit may be removed from the under-25s. If that happens, it will hit about 300,000 young people, remove a vital safety net and push more young people into the ranks of the homeless.
What will happen to this problem? It will get worse, I am sad to say. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation forecasts that the number of new home owners will fall from 2.4 million to 1.3 million in eight years. This will mean a need for 1 million more private landlords because the public sector is not going to house people, and 1 million more young people looking for private rents, which will probably be unaffordable.
What are we to do? With respect, it is probably too late for this Government—I am not saying that the previous Government were brilliant, either—to have a major housebuilding plan of the kind called for by the right reverend Prelate. I am confident that a new Labour Government would at least have a chance of putting tenants in private rented accommodation which would include longer-term leases, registration of landlords and decent space and accommodation standards, among other things. I address my remarks to my noble friend on the Front Bench, with whom I am glad to say that I have been friends for many years, almost since I was marching with my banners—not quite but not far off. We really need to accept that the present model does not work. In opposition, it is time to think about the bigger picture and to ask the questions.
What would we need to do to provide a home for all those who wanted to own one? What would we need to do to give those who did not want to own a home a choice of high-quality options at affordable rents? Those are two really simple but very important questions. I hope that the Labour Party in opposition will work on this and that we will not go round the same paradigm, doing the same things and trying to patch things up when, in reality, nothing much really changes and for many people things get worse. I honestly believe that this debate is more important than bank reform. It is more important than the Leveson inquiry. It is even more important than House of Lords reform.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of one flat that is rented but also as the mother of three members of the very angry brigade. I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Rendell for initiating our debate today with her customary passion and insight. The debate is important for individuals and families but also for our urban and rural communities, and our society as a whole. My noble friend raised fundamentally disturbing issues affecting thousands of people up and down the country. A house or flat is not just a matter of bricks and mortar; it is a home. It provides shelter, sanctuary and safety, and has a profound effect on physical and mental well-being. It is a place that should give an individual and families security, and a nest from which to thrive.
As we have heard, exorbitant house prices and a scarcity of good-quality social housing have forced many families to rely on the private rented sector, where many fall prey to unscrupulous landlords and are compelled to reside in abysmal living conditions that fail to meet even the Government’s decent home standard—based on the statutory minimum standard for housing. The fact that this basic standard is all too often not met is a national disgrace. Shelter warns that even satisfactory-quality homes are too expensive for many, particularly now in the era of the double-dip recession. I recently met a family with two children living in an ex-council flat in Paddington for which the private landlord charged £2,100 a month. That cannot be a fair rent. They relied on the help of housing benefit but of course it was the landlord who derived the greatest benefit. Just over two in five homes in the private rented sector in England, or 44%, fail to meet even the decent home standard. This represents a major housing issue, which is undoubtedly contributing to the deterioration of quality of life for many families and individuals in this country.
Poor living conditions create a plethora of social problems that affect all members of society and strike at the cohesiveness of the family unit. Substandard accommodation leads to an increased risk of ill-health and chronic health conditions, and can lead to poor school performance, particularly for those struggling on the lowest incomes. These are the people least able to escape from poor living conditions as they have fewer, and in most cases absolutely no alternative, housing options. Earlier this year, I met a woman who had been moved into privately rented rooms which she had to hoover three times a day because of the cockroaches that covered the floors and other surfaces.
It is reported that the private rented sector is home to approximately 1 million families with children—twice the number of a decade ago. Save the Children warns us that almost 2 million children in the UK are growing up in cold, damp, temporary or overcrowded housing. That is the latest official estimate from the DCLG. Bad housing has potentially irreversible effects on children’s health, well-being and educational achievement, restricting their life chances indefinitely. A child’s future health and life prospects are built upon the foundations of the quality of care it receives as a young child and the quality of the housing in which it lives. The problems faced by families will undoubtedly increase because of rising levels of families and individuals forced to rent in the private rented sector and declining owner- occupation. Of particular concern is the fact that the private rented sector remains subject to inadequate regulation.
In order to strengthen the rights of tenants, Shelter has called on the Government to make a number of crucial changes to housing policy, including working more closely with local authorities to prioritise the prosecution of rogue landlords, and strengthening the law to permit the banning of people from being landlords if they have unspent convictions relating to previous landlord offences. Indeed, should not unscrupulous landlords who force families to live in squalid conditions be permanently banned? Save the Children reminds us of the 2008 Rugg review by the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York, which proposed PRS regulation, including a national register of landlords, mandatory licensing for letting agents and written tenancy agreements.
It is imperative that the quality of private rented sector housing is better regulated, particularly as the significance of the sector continues to rise. Home ownership levels fell from approximately 70% of households in 2001 to 65.2% by 2010, while private renting grew from 10.1% to 17.4%, and social renting decreased from 20% to 17.5%. The exponential rise of the private rented sector, combined with the poor regulation of landlords and the substandard condition of many properties, has created abysmal living conditions for many families and individuals.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to what I regard as very good practice in the Labour council of Newham, led by the excellent Sir Robin Wales. On the basis of a successful pilot of a neighbourhood improvement zone, Newham is now expanding a licensing scheme to include all private landlords in the borough. This is the first ever borough-wide licensing scheme and will give an unprecedented ability to drive up standards across the borough. The licence carries conditions which the landlord or managing agent must abide by, mostly around the management of the property. The system is financially fair to landlords. A scaled fee structure is being introduced so that compliant—that is to say, good—landlords do not have to carry the costs of licensing “rogue” landlords. The licensing scheme will allow the council to identify and engage the non co-operative landlords, which simply is not possible with voluntary schemes. It will enforce on a “worse first” basis, focusing activity on non-compliant landlords. Landlords who abide by the conditions of the licence will be able to get on with their business without intervention.
That is exactly the sort of scheme that, as a Labour Government, I hope we would introduce across the whole of this country. We would all agree that the need for security of housing tenure is pivotal to a stable home environment. Private tenants are typically provided with negligible security, due in part to the prevalent assured shorthold tenancy, which is widely used by landlords. Many examples have been given this afternoon of families having to move on many occasions because of the whims or greed of private landlords, who refuse to make the appropriate repairs to their properties. Such instability is a nightmare for families and can contribute to both insecurity and chaotic lifestyles. How can children thrive academically who have to move four or five times within a couple of years? How can they thrive in a stable condition in schools if they have to move time after time?
The Localism Act opened up the prospect of reducing security of tenure for social housing, yet security of tenure in the private rented sector is very weak; it is essentially six months. Dreading eviction, families often do not feel that they are able to report instances of disrepair or problems with damp, for example. In the event that they do complain, these requests are frequently ignored, and there is very little recourse for these families.
Recent changes to the housing benefit system—now setting the limit at the 30th percentile—is causing those reliant on benefit to be restricted to the cheaper end of the market. These are the very properties that typically do not meet even the minimum decent homes standard. The underoccupation rules for social housing will force some families out of existing accommodation and into the private rented sector, adding yet greater pressure. Research by Shelter and other housing organisations indicates that a large proportion of private rented properties bar housing benefit claimants from private tenancies. That is especially a problem in London.
The policy mooted by the Prime Minister, that housing benefit should be denied to young people under 25, shows a profound lack of understanding of the lives of real people. Many young people who receive housing benefit are on low wages. They are working and trying to contribute to the economy, but they simply do not have enough money to pay the rent. My noble friend referred to food banks; sometimes it is precisely these young people who now have to resort to food banks. Just last week, I heard of a food bank in Salisbury that focuses on people who are in work but receive such low wages that they cannot afford to buy the food that is necessary to provide for their families.
We hear whispers that a government-commissioned review of the private rented sector by Sir Adrian Montague is likely to recommend sweeping changes to planning and funding rules. It will favour the private rented sector over building new affordable homes, which will further exacerbate the limited opportunities for home ownership. It is also suggested that this may extend to recommendations to the Government to offer loans, in place of grants, to support large-scale new build private rented sector schemes. This could have devastating consequences for the nurturing and development of the affordable housing sector. I would be grateful if the Minister could give me an assurance that the Government are not abandoning an affordable housing strategy, nor seeking to replace social housing with wide-scale private rented housing, and a promise that they will not be distorting housing policy towards private rented housing at the expense of the protection of social housing.
The degree of housing need in our country, driven by longer life expectancy and an increasing tendency for people to live in single households, must be addressed. At least 240,000 new homes need to be delivered per year to meet the formation of new households. In 2008, a National Housing and Planning Advice Unit assessment showed that a minimum of 240,000 homes would be needed annually to keep pace with demand. Just 102,730 new homes were built in 2010, which represents more than 15,000 fewer homes than the previous year. It is certainly fewer than were built in the last year of the Labour Government. Government initiatives are simply not delivering.
Labour made some significant progress when it was in government; our decent homes programme made a significant difference to the quality of council housing. We also planned to improve regulation of the private rented sector, but these plans have since been abandoned by the coalition. However, I readily admit that in government we did not do enough to provide housing for people. Housing must and will be a priority for the next Labour Government, and I assure my noble friend Lord Sawyer that we are indeed working on that issue now.
The quality of living standards for families and individuals must be addressed, as must the plight of those living in substandard accommodation. Poor housing and living conditions create a plethora of social problems that will touch and be detrimental to all parts of society. Sadly, poor housing and anti-social behaviour are often linked. This affects individuals and families, but also the wider community. The growing housing crisis will not abate without action. Steps need to be taken now to address that crisis, including the dismal and sometimes desperate problems suffered by those who live in expensive—and too often substandard—private rented accommodation. It could be said that all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon belong to the ageing angry brigade, and we look forward to the response from the Minister.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, very much for having initiated this debate. I am sure that she did not sound like somebody from the angry brigade, but she spoke very forcefully and with her usual cogence. I thank her for that and I thank other noble Lords who have taken part. As one might have expected with this debate, it has wandered widely around the subject of housing but, as noble Lords have said, you cannot really think about a house without people or about those people without their conditions. It is perfectly understandable that that is how it should have developed.
We have had some particularly moving examples of bad practice and things going wrong. I do not think any of us would sit here and pretend that everything in the private rented sector was glorious. It is not possible to believe that. I have read the recent report by Shelter with great interest. The key points in it are about the difficulties that some families have in managing within the private rented sector—the insecurity of short tenancies and a general feeling of difficulty over the renewals of rent—have been touched on by noble Lords today.
For a number of reasons that have been raised, many more people are now accessing the private rented sector. There is increased pressure on affordable housing. There are those who could possibly afford a mortgage, but who cannot raise enough for a deposit on a house. That slows down home ownership. Those people enter the private rented market as well and are increasing the need for it.
Many people can not only afford private renting but find it a useful short-term or long-term way of living because of its flexibility. I recognise that those are probably not the people we are talking about this afternoon. We are talking about those on low or medium incomes, many of whom access housing through assured shorthold tenancies. These give initial terms of six months and in general these terms are renewable after the six months expire. At the outset, tenants and landlords can offer initial fixed periods. Shorthold tenancies play an important role in the housing market. There is sufficient flexibility in them, but I would not say that everything was perfect.
The constraints of renting are understood and some of them have been mentioned. However, only 8.2% of tenancies are stopped by tenants by mutual agreement. While it is true that families with children are having to rent, this has not in most cases meant constant upheaval and disruption. However, I accept that there are times when it does, and the 8.2% refers to the people who are giving up tenancies.
We have not heard a lot about the English Housing Survey report today, though the noble Lord, Lord Morris, did mention it. We can all extrapolate and take out the little bits which interest us most, but that is what surveys are about and is one of the advantages of having them. The report shows that most tenants are reasonably satisfied with their accommodation. Where they are not there are regulatory ways by which problems can be dealt with. I will briefly go through some of these.
For example, where there are concerns about the level of rent, people have access even in affordable short-term tenancies to rent assessment committees. People should not therefore feel pressured about increases in rent as there is a perfectly reasonable route to have the rent reassessed. Once it is fixed by the committee, that is the legal maximum that people can be charged. A number of noble Lords referred to the standard of property. If a tenant feels that the landlord is not maintaining it and is failing to carry out repairs, the local authority has powers to deal with that. It can deal with it not only under its own enforcement powers but under the health and safety rating system which could result in the landlord being required to carry out repairs if he will not do them voluntarily.
We have heard quite a bit today about rogue landlords. We recognise that in some places they are a significant problem. Rogue landlords include those who are doing the beds-in-sheds renting that we believe to be completely unacceptable. The Government have been working with local authorities, Shelter and other organisations to deal with the problem, which we recognise. As I think was mentioned, we are shortly going to publish guidance for all local authorities to provide them with advice on how to take action against these rogue landlords, including prosecuting them. Local authorities can deal with rogue landlords, and we have to be really clear about that. They have legal powers to do so, and that will be in the guidance. My department has provided more than £1 million to nine local authorities where beds in sheds is a particular problem to help increase their enforcement activities. Action can therefore be taken.
The private rented sector is a major source of housing and will continue to be so and to have an essential role in the housing market as this Government continue to work to increase the supply of affordable housing, which I confirm we are doing, and to find ways of making land available for development of all kinds. Making land available includes getting every government department to identify its surplus land and make it available for the housing initiatives that are coming up and are in the housing strategy to ensure that there is extra housing. We will not take lessons from the previous Government about the amount of housing that has been provided. One of the reasons why we have less housing than we should have is because there was not quite enough built previously. Of course, houses finished in 2010 were started previously. We are working very hard indeed on increasing the amount of property, and at the moment there is provision for more than 170,000 homes between now and 2015.
I shall develop what the Government are doing at the moment because it has been suggested that we are not doing very much. There is the new homes bonus, which will encourage and help pay for affordable housing and more private housing. We are also marketing new build-to-rent pilot sites through the Homes and Communities Agency. There are the First Buy and NewBuy policies to help with mortgages, and there are mortgage incentives with the banks to help with deposits. We are also putting in place an independent review of barriers to investment in private homes to rent. There is a lot going on. The housing strategy that was published last year goes into much more detail than I can, but if noble Lords go through it, they will realise that the Government expect that with either the public sector, the New Homes Bonus, the private sector or with institutions, we will provide or start to provide the housing that is necessary.
We are working with the industry to build up standards and, as I have already said, we are encouraging local authorities to make full use of the robust powers they already have to tackle dangerous and poorly maintained homes. I was asked about the decent homes standard. We continue to support it to ensure that those properties that fall outside the decent homes bracket are brought up to standard.
It was also mentioned that we have commissioned a report by Sir Adrian Montague on encouraging institutional investment. It is due to be published very shortly and either will or will not include the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. However, it will be an influential report that will help us to get institutional investment into housing.
With the limited availability of mortgage finance, there must be an important role for new homes that are built to rent. More homes mean better conditions and less pressure on people to have to live in unsatisfactory and overpriced housing. The point was made today that one of the reasons we have high rents and inadequate housing is the shortage of housing in terms of the size of the population. There are several reasons why demand for housing is increasing, not least of which is the larger number of single-occupant homes while the population is increasing. We also need better homes for older people. There is a lot of demand on housing supply but, along with everybody else here, I accept that that housing supply must be of a decent standard.
I am very sympathetic to the issues that have been raised today. A number of points were made. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, mentioned tenants’ deposits and of course they are protected. There is now a requirement for all landlords to ensure that deposits are put into two schemes and that they are returned at the end of a tenancy.
Those on housing benefit account for around 30% of rented housing. While I understand the concern about the cap having come down, housing benefit will be available to most of that 30%. It is mostly in London, if at all, that that has to be reassessed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester raised the point that most people on housing benefit are in work. I cannot dispute that but, again, housing benefit is available up to the cap.
I thank the right reverend Prelate for acknowledging that the housing strategy is in place. I should add that the housing associations that he mentioned access money and have their own ways of doing so. However, we are also trying to open up institutional investment again to try to increase the number of properties.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the difficulties of young people, particularly those aged 18 to 20. Yes, I absolutely accept that many young people now have to live with their parents for a lot longer than they might like to have done. I had my children living with me for quite a long time, and I am glad to say that they have now moved on. In most families, children do not now find it easy to move out. I hope that I have covered most of the points that have been raised.
May I make one comment? I am sure that the noble Baroness is delighted that her children have now flown the nest but I am equally sure that, when her children lived at home, they had a bedroom each. The problem for so many families is that those of their children who have to live with them are probably sofa-surfing because they have their other children living in the house. The tensions that are placed on these families can be immense. That is why we on this side of the House are extremely concerned about the proposals to cap housing benefit for those aged under 25. The tensions that could be exacerbated in those families could break them.
I thank the noble Baroness for that contribution. Before I finish, I want to state that the Government are investing £4.5 billion in funding new affordable homes over the next spending review period—not an insignificant sum—and that the private sector funding contributed by providers to deliver these properties is some £15 billion. So there is huge monetary investment in housing, which I am sure noble Lords will recognise.
Again, I thank the noble Baroness for her debate and I thank all those who have taken part. If there are any points that I have not answered satisfactorily, I will write to noble Lords.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response, which shows an intention to build more houses so that there are more homes by 2015 and to improve existing homes and bring them to a decent standard. I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate, giving thoughtful and well researched speeches. My noble friends Lord Morris of Handsworth and Lord Sawyer showed justified anger at instances of injustice and unfairness, and my noble friend Lady Turner spoke from her personal experience of her own area of London.
Again, I thank all noble Lords who took part in this debate.
Coastal Access in England
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am not sure whether I am an ageing member of the Angry Brigade but, unfortunately, in about a fortnight’s time I will pass the average age of Members of this House. That must be a step too far, I think. I am probably not at the median yet.
I remind the House of my interests in the Open Spaces Society and the British Mountaineering Council. I thank the small group of noble Lords who have agreed to come to take part in the debate; the end of a Thursday afternoon is never the best time to get a full House. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of King’s Heath, who has come in at the last minute as a “gap man”, for which I am very grateful.
The proposals for coastal access in England are derived from Part 9 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which some of us have fond memories of dealing with at some length in this House. It is unexpectedly timely that I am asking this Question today—although I tabled it some time ago—because the first stretch of the coastal path was opened for access on 29 June in the Weymouth area of Dorset. I will not say any more about that; the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, may fill us in on some local details. It is very nice to see him here this afternoon.
The press release issued by Natural England referred to,
“the first stretch of the new national Coast Path around the entire English coast”.
That is a matter for rejoicing for those of us who have championed this scheme from the start. It was very nice indeed to see the Minister, Richard Benyon, being so effusive in his congratulatory comments on it, and I congratulate the coalition Government on continuing to promote and carry out the work on coastal access in England. Indeed, Section 296 places a duty on both Natural England and the Secretary of State to do that. Five further projects under way at the moment were initiated under the previous Government but are being continued by the present Government, and we can look forward to Cumbria and Durham probably being the next two to be rolled out, as they say, and to the five that are under way being completed by the end of 2025. Concern was expressed in a lot of quarters that the new Government would drag their feet on this, and I congratulate them on the fact that they are keeping going—right on to the end of the road, one hopes, or at least to the end of the coastal path.
My first question is: what is now the target for completion around England? Originally, it was going to be done in 10 years, although I must say that I always thought that that was ambitious due to the complexity of the scheme. It would be interesting if the Government could give us a target. Wales has completed a path—but it is only one path, and I feel that a lot of people in Wales feel that Wales will have to go back to revisit the whole question of coastal access, as opposed to a path around the coast, and particularly access to the foreshore.
Natural England issued a very welcome proposal in May this year, which was headed England Coast Path Programme Vision—I was not sure about that as a nominal clause, but never mind—Next Stretches and Future Direction. There is a very interesting map on the Natural England website, setting out proposals for another five stretches of coast to be started very soon and then some longer-term ones to be started by 2017. Again, that is very welcome, and the areas that they are choosing are very sensible ones. They are the ones that will be most in demand and where there is most need for the path. That is all very encouraging.
My second question is whether the programme vision of Natural England has the full-hearted support of the Government. The work is directed by the coastal access scheme, which was published in March 2010. Under Section 299 of the Act, the first review has to be completed within three years, and that is due to take place this September. Will the Government confirm that the review will be used to improve and clarify the scheme and not to scale back the proposals? I hope that that is an easy question for them to answer.
After the work on the Dorset stretch, Defra carried out a limited “lessons learnt” exercise, which was a sensible thing to do. The main result is a change in guidance on the so-called spreading room—the access land on the landward side of the path. The whole scheme is based on the designation of new access land under amended provisions of Part 1 of the CROW Act 2000. The path itself is access land, as is the land between the path and the sea, apart from some excepted land, and some land on the landward side of the path where sensible, due to the nature of the land or a sensible boundary.
On the effects of the changes, which involve a more restricted view to declaring the access land the spreading land on the landward side, the Government’s communication to Natural England states:
“The general approach should be that the interests of the public in having access to such landward spreading room are likely to outweigh the interests of the landowner only in exceptional circumstances”—
“or where in the absence of any more restrictive clear and natural boundaries of the spreading room it is justified by strong convenience in establishing a clear and natural boundary”.
That is a different system from the one that we have had so far; it is not clear what difference it is going to make in practice, in a lot of places, but there are some particular concerns that it will not be used to undermine the status of any existing access land under Section 1 of the CROW Act, which adjoins the path on the landward side; that it will not result in new barriers, such as fences, along the landward side of the path where they do not exist at the moment, so resulting in a deterioration of the local amenity; and that access to crags used for climbing which are on the landward side of the path should not be restricted.
In other words, if there are clear crags used for recreational climbing, they should not be blocked off and that should be regarded as being a matter of convenience. A crag is often a natural boundary, which can sensibly be used, particularly if the boundary is at the top of the crag so that the cliff face itself is within the access. The British Mountaineering Council has produced a list of more than 50 such crags. Will the Minister confirm that serious consideration will be given to such evidence from climbers when making decisions on exceptional circumstances and strong convenience in establishing a clear and natural boundary?
I ask the Minister briefly about the Isle of Wight. Under Section 300 of the Act, the Secretary of State has the ability to specify that an island should be part of the coastal access provision. The Minister will remember that we discussed the Isle of Wight at some length when we were going through the Marine and Coastal Access Act. When will the consultation due on the Isle of Wight start? Do the Government agree with the statement in the frequently asked questions on Natural England’s website that,
“the Isle of Wight is expected to be included”,
or are they completely neutral about it?
My final question is about the recent year-long review of the management of national trails and the recent consultation by Natural England on the review. National trails—I am not talking about coastal trails now, I am talking about all the rest, such as the Pennine Way and the Cleveland Way—consist of 2,500 miles of walking with lots of opportunities for horse-riding and cycling in many places. The review of national trails raises a lot of questions which are not directly relevant to the question of coastal access, but how will the English coastal path be integrated into the plans for national trails, given that the English coastal path will, when complete, double the total length of England’s national trails—a mind-boggling statistic in itself. How will the coastal path be integrated into future systems for management of national trails generally?
I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s answers to these questions. I am sure he will have them all at his fingertips. I repeat that, taken as a whole, this is not a critical Question. I am delighted, as are a lot of people in the country, by the way in which the new Government have come round to support for this extremely important and exciting project.
My Lords, after that extensive debate on the noble Lord’s Question, it is my great pleasure to speak briefly in the gap. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, because, in the many months that we spent debating this Act, he was an assiduous attendee and mover of amendments, for which we were all grateful. My only regret was that for part of the time the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was involved with a local government Bill in Grand Committee and was not, alas, able to join us. However, when he did he certainly made his presence felt and I thought he made a very persuasive argument today about the benefits of that legislation. He did so in a supporting vein, encouraging the Government to get on with it a little more than they have done previously.
I also recall fondly the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on the then opposition Front Benches. We always liked to see him on the opposition Front Benches and look forward to that again in the near future. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, made an extremely important contribution to our debates and, if I recollect rightly, he was always suggesting that the Government were not getting a move on and were not making as much progress as possible. I am glad that he is now able to account for his own stewardship in that regard.
I also pay tribute to the support given by the officials at Defra and to the agencies that come under it. I remember the extraordinary experience of having an introductory meeting with the stakeholders in that glorious conference room at Defra. About 70 people turned up and I realised that I was in for a very considerable challenge. I do not think I have ever come across a piece of legislation where so many stakeholders had taken so much interest and worked together to cause considerable challenge to the Government. At the end of the day, I believe that collectively a very good piece of legislation was produced. What is happening in Weymouth is great news, and I hope that my noble friend will give us a little more information.
I wanted to ask three questions of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. He will know that there is some disappointment. First, we are glad that progress is being made, but my understanding is that there has been some delay in the original timetable for the completion of a coastal path around England. Can the noble Lord now give us an indication of when they think the whole of the English coastal path will be completed? Perhaps he will take from this debate encouragement for the Government to look at that timetable and make sure that it is completed as quickly as possible.
Secondly, can the noble Lord tell me whether the economic benefit of the new pathways, as they are opened, is going to be monitored and recorded, because that would give great encouragement in terms of the economic value of the pathway?
Thirdly, I should like to come back to an issue that we discussed extensively in relation to public transport access. We all had in mind the Cornish pathway and its brilliance, as well as, certainly in the summer months, access to a bus service that meant that people could walk along the pathway, catch a bus back to where they were staying, and then resume their walk later on. Clearly, there is a big issue about public transport in rural areas. It would be very helpful if the noble Lord said a little more about what the Government are going to do to encourage rural public transport to work in conjunction with the pathway.
My Lords, I very much welcome the debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for initiating it. It is a subject dear to my heart and I am glad to have the opportunity to talk about it for up to 10 minutes.
As has been trailed, I should like to start on the Jurassic coast. For those who do not know it, it is a one of the very few natural world heritage sites in this country. It covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from east Devon to Old Harry Rocks near Swanage in my former constituency in Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the earth’s history. That means that with every mile that you walk westwards, the land you are walking on ages by 2 million years. Just on the section from Lulworth to Portland you can enjoy dinosaur footprints, fossil forest, the extraordinary natural coastal arch of Durdle Door, a pint of Badger ale—if it has not been got rid of by the Government—at the Smugglers Inn, and, from there, with a view across Weymouth Bay, you can proceed to and enjoy Weymouth beach and the historic Georgian seafront where seaside holidays were more or less invented by King George, and from where, in a matter of a few weeks, you will be able to watch Olympic sailing on large screens for free. There is also Nothe Fort, from where you can enjoy watching the Olympic sailing, if you have a ticket. Then there is Chesil beach and the unique natural feature of the lagoon, Portland Castle and what is arguably the best view in the world from the Portland Heights Hotel down over Chesil beach and Weymouth Bay. It is an extraordinary natural jewel and I would recommend that the many Members of your Lordships’ House who are present today go and enjoy it.
We have new rights for people to enjoy these 32 kilometres of coastline around Weymouth Bay, which came into force last month, as the first stretch of the new national coastal path. It is an initiative that I am proud to say I began when I was a Minister. At the first meeting I had with the access officials, they said, “What about a coastal path for England?”. I said, “That sounds like a good idea; why don’t we get on with it?”. They certainly did so.
Natural England in partnership with Dorset County Council has moved the existing south-west coast path from Rufus Castle on Portland to Lulworth Cove closer to the sea in several places. It is important for noble Lords to understand that there is a difference between the coastal path for England and the existing south-west coastal path. For the first time, there are also access rights over beaches, cliffs and other suitable land beside the route, where walkers can leave the path to rest, picnic and admire the view. Crucially, the path will now be able to roll back as the cliffs erode or slip, solving longstanding difficulties which are particularly pronounced as you go along the Jurassic coast towards Devon, closer to Lyme Regis. Cliffs erode and there are landslips, and if a continuous route is to be maintained along the slumping cliffs on this stretch of coast, we need the powers in the Act for the coastal path.
The route opens in time for walkers to enjoy stunning views of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games sailing events. Today, indeed, I am afraid that I am missing the torch relay coming to Weymouth in order to attend to my duties here. I am sure it will be a great celebration and a prelude to a wonderful summer. I hope there will be some decent weather. My house got flooded this weekend, and I certainly hope that that sort of weather desists. It is worth noting that it is not too late to book accommodation and enjoy the free screens on Weymouth beach for one of our most successful Olympic sports, where we are contenders for medals in every category.
I am passionate about my stretch of coast—or rather, the stretch of coast on which I live, as I do not actually own it—as are the general public. Access to our natural heritage for walking, riding, relaxation and inspiration is fundamental for us. However, as the Ramblers say in their briefing, despite this the extent and quality of public access to the coast in England is patchy. Good quality access exists in some areas, but in others is confined to narrow cliff tops, or paths and roads that take visitors far inland, away from the sea. Some areas are simply off limits.
Contrast this with Wales. Its path was officially opened on the 5 May and fulfils a long held ambition of our party in Wales to ensure public access to the whole coastline. The New York Times listed the Welsh path as one of the 45 places to visit in the world in 2012, and it will bring visitors, jobs and a much-needed boost to the rural economy in Wales, in a country where unemployment stands at 9%. The Welsh path was praised by an editorial in the Observer as having
“set a standard in coastal path designation”.
In times of recession, tourism and leisure can bring economic benefits to rural communities facing unemployment, as well as providing a healthy, cheap day out for families.
I would suggest that Wales stands in some contrast to the lack of progress being made on England’s coastal path. The dream of a coastal path around our island has been the dream of ramblers and walkers for generations. In April we marked the 80th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, which in 1932 sparked the movement to open up our countryside for all to enjoy. The Labour Government legislated for the right to roam as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. We also passed the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Hunt. I pay tribute to the noble Lords who were a part of the debate in improving that legislation, and laid the foundations for a coastal path around our shores. In doing that we were happy to have the support of the Conservative Party in opposition, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.
A coastal path would provide a much needed tourism boost to many rural and coastal areas struggling with recession. As the Ramblers say, the south-west coastal path is often taken as the blueprint for the English coastal path, and is estimated to generate £307 million a year for the regional economy. If only half of these benefits were to be gained elsewhere, it could completely rejuvenate the social and economic life of our coastal towns. Yet, the cost of developing the path is put at £4.5 million, plus staff costs for Natural England.
Is this not the sort of investment in growth that we all want to see? Yet progress on the next step for the coastal network is proceeding too slowly. On 10 May the Government finally launched the public consultations for Durham and Cumbria, but there is an insufficient sense of momentum. Work was planned to start on the five new adjoining stretches of coast during this year and next in Cumbria, Dorset, Kent, Norfolk and Hartlepool. These are expected to be open to the public for use by the end of 2016. Natural England has also set out a vision for implementing the path up until 2017.
Therefore, by 2017—in five years’ time—it should be possible to walk from Hull to Dorset as long as you go anti-clockwise and via Wales. However, as Ramblers say:
“It is now clear that implementation will take longer than the initial estimate of ten years … and we still do not know when the entire path will be completed”.
This is reinforced by the fact that Natural England’s budget was cut by 21.5% in the comprehensive spending review, leaving it struggling to promote public access or leisure opportunities. The current Defra consultation on the future management of national trails, which we heard about from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—for example, the Pennine Way or the Norfolk coastal path—shows a Government who, I would say, would like to offload them on to the big society. I worry that that is how we will end up.
This is part of a pattern which has become worryingly familiar. Last year, the Government tried to raise £100 million by selling off England’s forests but were forced to back down by the huge weight of public outrage. Their plans to sell off the national nature reserve were quietly shelved after that. Next, they began unpicking planning laws that have protected our countryside, casting aside carefully calibrated pages of guidance with a one-size-fits-all document. After more public protests—most notably from the National Trust—plans to place a duty on the national parks to promote sustainable development have also been quietly shelved. Conservationists and campaigners are punch drunk from the constant assault on nature and wildlife, and they wait in fear to see how far the Government will go to divest any strategic vision for the countryside.
Therefore, I look forward to the Minister reassuring me. I look forward to him telling me that I am just an old political cynic and that everything will be okay. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Hunt asked: when will we see a timetable for the whole thing? When will it be finished, and what are his plans for other users? The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about climbers. Last summer, I had a stunning day climbing on the cliffs of Portland. What about horse and bike riders? The last time I rode a horse was to gallop along the sands at Lindisfarne—a stunning experience, the like of which should be available to more people. I also repeat the question put by my noble friend Lord Hunt regarding transport. On the Jurassic coast we have the brilliant X53 service that runs along the whole coast and is actively used not just by pensioners with their bus passes but by walkers with their dogs. More services like the X53 would be most welcome.
Many hands make light work, and that is about as much detail as I shall give.
The Government’s lack of realistic ambition to realise an accessible path around England’s coast speaks volumes about their approach to nature and their understanding of the economic, social, environmental and health benefits of opening up the countryside for the public to enjoy. Ministers would do well to heed the lessons from Wales: green infrastructure could be just the boost that England’s rural economy needs. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response.
My Lords, when I saw the speakers list, I recognised the quality but was rather disappointed by the number of contributors. I suggested to the usual channels that, rather than have this debate, perhaps the three of us could go down to Weymouth and enjoy the torch and indeed have a walk along the new coastal path. Unfortunately, the procedures of the House demand that we are here, but that has encouraged the introducer of the legislation into Parliament, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, to be here with us. We were a very happy band of brothers dealing with that Bill, now the Act on which this debate is founded. We worked together to improve the Bill and there was no lack of enthusiasm from either government or opposition. Indeed, although the discussion was lengthy, it was a good experience for us all.
We have good news to tell on this story. Had the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and I been walking along the coast, he could have vented all this frustration of being in opposition and not engaged in this. I can tell him from our point of view that this is an energising project for the Government. The prospect of a coastal route linking communities, encouraging tourism and drawing people to one of the finest coastlines in the world—wherever you are in this country, it is magnificent—is something that I hope all can agree with and aspire to achieve. Opening up many miles of coastline for the enjoyment of all will help to support local economies. We already make over 70 million trips to the coast each year, spending over £1.4 billion, which helps support myriad small businesses on the coast and, indeed, in many seaside towns. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, all this started with George III going down to Weymouth.
As my noble friend pointed out at the very beginning of his speech, the new right of access was implemented for the first time on 29 June on the lovely stretch of coast between Rufus Castle on the eastern side of Portland and Lulworth Cove. There has been real enthusiasm locally for what has been achieved. It is not surprising that celebratory events have been held by the local authority and the Ramblers to mark the opening of the Weymouth route. The new coastal route will bring a number of key improvements to the existing arrangements for coastal access at Weymouth Bay. The existing south-west coast path will, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, mentioned, move closer to the sea in several places and away from a road in two places. For the first time, there will be secure statutory rights of public access to world-famous areas of beach, cliff and other coastal land on this magnificent part of the Dorset coast.
It has been a delight to listen to the local knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. He knows and loves that coast—and, indeed, owns it, in the sense that we all own, through public access, the opportunity of sharing in it. Crucially, as the noble Lord pointed out, the new coastal path will be able to roll back as the cliffs erode or slip. This will help to solve long-standing difficulties with maintaining a continuous route around the slumping cliffs between Weymouth and Lulworth Cove. The coastal route will make a huge difference, even in this area, which is served by an existing coastal national trail.
Weymouth is, of course, just the start of an opportunity that we have seized, which I want to emphasise. Natural England is progressing its proposals for the coastal route on a further five stretches of coast, totalling another 190 miles. It has recently issued draft reports with proposals for two new stretches of coast in Cumbria and at Durham, Hartlepool and Sunderland. These draft reports, which are not required by legislation, none the less demonstrate the highly consultative style in which improved coastal access is being delivered. That is a theme of the Government’s approach to their responsibilities under the Act, which will be found throughout this speech.
Next month, draft reports will also be issued by Natural England for the lead stretches of coast in Kent and Norfolk. The draft report for part of the Somerset coast will follow in spring 2013. Natural England has already started preparations, along with local authorities, on a further 190 miles of English coast, building on the existing stretches in Cumbria, Dorset, Kent, Norfolk and Hartlepool.
Over the next five to seven years, Natural England will continue to roll out the implementation programme in a planned and sequential way, providing improved coastal access and linking to some of the existing national trail network—I can reassure my noble friend Lord Greaves on that—and to the Welsh coastal path. By 2016, for example, even if noble Lords have to walk in an anti-clockwise direction, we expect it to be possible to walk on the national trails from the start of the south-west coast path at Poole to the first Severn Bridge, and there join up with the Welsh coast path and the southern end of the Offa’s Dyke path. We congratulate the Welsh Government on what they have achieved in opening that path and we seek to emulate them.
There is no lack of government will to implement the coastal access programme. Clearly, we need to be realistic as to the speed of implementation, alongside available resources. Noble Lords would expect that. Implementation activity must be cost-effective and proportionate to local need and operationally efficient. I am not in a position to give a deadline. Indeed, when the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was taking the Bill through he was reluctant to give a deadline for this project. But we will achieve our objective to have a coastal path around the coast of England. I believe that our approach needs these requirements, as it must do at a time of scarce resources.
I want to address the concerns that some landowners, coastal businesses and residents have raised about the possible impact on coastal access. It is in our interests to ensure that coastal access proceeds sensitively with care and does not damage livelihoods or businesses. Just as importantly, it should not put at risk or damage nature conservation or heritage interests. Noble Lords have asked a number of points. My noble friend Lord Greaves asked about the cliffs. The British Mountaineering Council, of which he is an active member, has provided quite a lot of information about access to cliffs along the route, and I am sure that it will continue to do so. It is seen as a body that Natural England will consult. My noble friend also asked about the existence of a path on the Isle of Wight. We will be consulting in the next four weeks on the possibility of bringing the Isle of Wight into the scope, so there is an opportunity for it to be equally served by a path.
My noble friend asked if we would review the scheme. I can reassure him that Natural England has written today to key national stakeholders outlining its plan for the review, which will start on 5 September and last for eight weeks. It will look at the implementation that has developed at Weymouth and the stretches that are currently under protection, and it will learn the lessons that there are to be learnt. Indeed, it will be looking at the economic benefits and the issue of transport access. I am sure that because of the involvement of local authorities, transport access will be encouraged so that walkers can make the most of these situations. My noble friend also asked about the linkage with National Trails. I think that I have indicated that they are designed to be incorporated into this great facility.
In many ways consultation is a key element of the process in completing the national route. It is crucial to get the balance right between the new right of coastal access and the needs of those who live or work on coastal land. In the future rollout of the coastal access programme, we will take forward the lessons that we have learnt from our experience at Weymouth. Natural England will look to work even more closely with landowners and occupiers in the future rollout of the programme, recognising the significant knowledge and expertise that they have to offer.
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate the enthusiasm of the Government for this coastal path. We see it as a great asset and amenity for all the citizens of this country. It will improve the nation’s sense of ownership of its beautiful landscape and will provide for the well-being of the citizens of this land. In particular, as we know, the coastal route around the whole English coast is a huge challenge, and we all have to acknowledge that. We intend to show that it is achievable and I assure noble Lords that there will be no dragging of feet.
House adjourned at 5.35 pm.