House of Lords
Tuesday, 23 October 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.
European Defence Agency
My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Lieutenant Andrew Chesterman of 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Lance Corporal Matthew Smith of 26 Engineer Regiment, Guardsman Jamie Shadrake of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Guardsman Karl Whittle of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Sergeant Lee Davidson of The Light Dragoons, Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Sergeant Gareth Thursby of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Sergeant Jonathan Kups of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Captain James Townley of the Corps of Royal Engineers and Captain Carl Manley of the Royal Marines who died on operations in Afghanistan recently.
My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation. Once again, we are reminded of the immense danger that our Armed Forces operate in to uphold our safety and security. Their families and the whole country should rightly be proud of their heroic service and we shall always remember them.
Turning to the Question, Ministers are still considering the case for UK membership of the European Defence Agency with the aim of announcing the outcome of the review before the end of the autumn. As part of that review, we are looking at the activities of the agency’s four main directorates of capability, research and technology, industry and markets and armaments to assess the benefits received by our membership, including on our international relationships and what improvements there have been in the agency since 2010.
My Lords, we all join the Minister in those condolences and tributes to our brave soldiers.
The two-year period of review has now passed with no outcome. Does that mean there is some rift within the coalition? Will the Government now recognise, as indeed EU Sub-Committee C recognised, that we benefit from the pooling and sharing within the agency and that the agency does valuable work in niche areas such as counter-IED, medical support, helicopters and cyber warfare? Further, if there were not a positive response, there would be an almighty row with our French partners.
My Lords, there are no rifts and there is no hidden agenda. We said that we would review our membership after two years. We will then provide an Explanatory Memorandum and notify both Houses in the normal way as soon as possible. I am aware of the benefits that the EDA has delivered, but we need to review the full benefits and improvement goals that it has set for itself. In an age of financial austerity, we must ensure that every pound of taxpayers’ money counts for defence.
My Lords, did the Minister see the recent report of the same sub-committee which the noble Lord just referred to? The committee’s report said that given that the EDA,
“is deemed to be well directed under its current management, it should be given the proper tools and commitment to do a proper job. The UK and France should take the lead”.
Will the Government take that opinion into account in coming to a decision?
My Lords, does the Minister accept that, in the age of financial austerity that he referred to, there is a very strong case for common defence procurement if it can be done economically within Europe, and that potentially the agency has a huge role to play in making that work much better than it has in the past?
My Lords, first I wish to identify these Benches with the sad condolences expressed by the Minister. Does my noble friend agree that some of the successful examples of European Defence Agency initiatives are both the air-to-air refuelling and the helicopter training exercises which have been completed this week? Could he detail any other recent achievements of the EDA?
My Lords, the EDA has seen significant success in a number of capability areas; for example, as my noble friend said, helicopter training which has directly increased the number of pilots available for operations in Afghanistan. By enhancing the capabilities of smaller member states, we receive an indirect benefit through better burden-sharing in operations. I understand that 114 crews—that is 1,300 personnel—have been trained, of which 63 have been deployed to Afghanistan. My noble friend mentioned the air-to-air refuelling initiative. As part of pooling and sharing, the EDA is taking a lead in facilitating European capability development in this area. This has not yet delivered results but the initiative is at an early stage. This issue was highlighted in operations over Libya where the US provided the vast majority of air-to-air refuelling capability. If I may, I will write to my noble friend on the other achievements—European military air-worthiness, the requirements initiative, industry and markets, and the capability development plan.
My Lords, I went up to RAF Waddington a couple of weeks ago and saw for myself what the noble Lord has talked about. I cannot answer from the Dispatch Box whether the French will be involved in that. As I have said previously from the Dispatch Box on many occasions, I welcome as much co-operation with the French as possible. We are working with them in a lot of areas. Noble Lords may have seen in the Daily Telegraph today the photograph of our Royal Marines training off Corsica with the French marines.
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there would have been some benefits from the two companies joining up. However, having said that, I think that BAE will continue to thrive on its own. It has some wonderful products and Ministers in the Ministry of Defence do their very best to help BAE sell them.
My Lords, if the Minister and the Government had to choose between a row with our French partners and the lasting disengagement of the United States of America, which would they choose? When the Minister writes to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, listing all the glorious achievements of this agency, will he commit to putting a copy of the letter in your Lordships’ Library?
Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
My Lords, central government policy is to pay undisputed invoices within five days and to pass 30-day payment terms down supply chains. Moreover, the Crown representative team in the Cabinet Office is encouraging prime contractors to pay more quickly than the 30-day commitment on a voluntary basis. We have tasked departments across Whitehall to manage their contracts to ensure that prime contractors pay their subcontractors within 30 days.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. Will he and his officials look at the important reports and surveys carried out by the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce and note their recommendations? There is a lot of very good information in there. I am glad that the Government have improved their record on payment, but it is still not satisfactory that local councils and other departments are not paying as promptly as they should. I am encouraged by the Minister saying that government departments are going to look at their suppliers. I ask him to ensure that they sign up to the prompt payment code.
My Lords, I have it in my notes that the Local Government Association, in the form of no less an important person than the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has agreed that local authorities will be encouraged similarly to follow best practice in this regard. The Cabinet Office has among other measures introduced a “mystery shopper” service through which small contractors who are dissatisfied with the service they are getting, either from a department or from a prime contractor, can anonymously feed this information through to the Cabinet Office.
My Lords, does the noble Lord take assurance from the fact that, certainly in the health service, we have penalties for not paying small and medium-sized businesses first, before we do anything else, no matter where we are in the budget? I think that that ought to apply perhaps in other places as well. I had intended to save my question for the next debate but I just could not resist saying that.
Thank you. It is an aspiration of this Government to increase the proportion of government contracts which go to small and medium-sized enterprises. When we entered government, the proportion of government contracts going to SMEs was 6.5%. Our aspiration is to reach 25% by 2015. The latest figures we have are that we are almost at 10.5%, so we have some way to go but are going in the right direction.
The Minister has confined his answers so far to government or governmental bodies which owe debts to small and medium-sized firms. What about simply the failure of large firms to pay small firms the money they owe them? So far, it is left to the initiative of the SMEs. Since there is a significant Bill going through Parliament at the moment dealing with financial services, I wonder whether one might get more results if the public officials of those bodies that are to take over from the Financial Services Authority under the new Financial Services Bill had a responsibility to ensure that debts were paid.
My Lords, the Government are not yet convinced that we need to take legislative action, but we are thoroughly in favour of all pressure possible to encourage large corporations to pay their small contractors as fast as possible. There is indeed a new booklet produced by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Experian, the Forum of Private Business and the Institute of Credit Management which is a guide on how to ensure prompt payment and has been produced in co-operation with the Government. I must say that a number of newspapers, including in particular the Telegraph, have been very helpful in exposing the tendency of some large corporations deliberately to delay payment to their subcontractors. We all know that transparency and reputational damage are things which multinational companies are well aware of, supermarkets included.
My Lords, if my noble friend wishes to increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises which tender for and secure government business, will he have a look at the complexity of government tendering processes which tend to put off smaller companies from competing in those competitions?
My Lords, we are also well aware of that. My right honourable friend Francis Maude and others have been looking in particular at the complexity of the pre-qualification questionnaires. We are doing our best to get rid of those for all contracts below £100,000 per year and to simplify the pre-qualification questionnaires for all others.
My Lords, following the last question, I ask the Minister also to look at the contracts offered by the Department for Work and Pensions. In terms of getting people back to work, these contracts are going to very few, very large contractors, and as a result charities and voluntary organisations which in the past have done this work are now being pushed out of the bidding process.
We are well aware of this problem. We are talking about a culture change within Whitehall. We are conscious that it is often easier when drawing up a large contract to give it to a prime contractor who will then subcontract, rather than having to go through the more onerous processes of distributing it around the country. That is part of the culture that we are trying to change.
My Lords, the Minister’s earlier response on the problem with large companies was illuminating. However, if we are going to rely on investigating journalists to uncover such cases, would it not be better for the Government to consider forcing large companies to publish how many days they take to pay people in their annual reports?
My Lords, small companies in particular depend on prompt cash flow—indeed, it is their lifeblood. However, it is still true that many organisations in different areas, but particularly those in the public sector, are notorious for paying late. Despite the assurances that the Minister has given, I ask the Government to issue a firm directive to all organisations in the public sector stating that payments to SMEs are to be made within a short time after the receipt of an invoice.
My Lords, the Government have done that and are introducing a number of practices to ensure that that is done. The mystery shopper and other efforts are always feeding back to ensure that where it is not yet done, steps are taken to improve matters.
NHS: Accident and Emergency Services
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in relation to proposals to restructure NHS services in north-west London, the Department of Health has entered into dialogue with Transport for London regarding traffic levels and their impact upon speed of access to accident and emergency services.
My Lords, the reconfiguration of front-line health services is a matter for the local NHS, and any decisions regarding changes to services will be taken locally. I understand that the local NHS has worked closely with Transport for London and also with the London Ambulance Service in developing its proposals for the future shape of health services across north-west London under the Shaping a Healthier Future programme.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. My Question could really apply to anywhere in the country. The general principle is how long it takes to get patients to hospital, particularly in emergencies, when it is a matter of life and death in some cases. In London, there is only one air ambulance; I understand that in Paris, there are four and in Sydney there are six. We cannot rely on one air ambulance to deal with the problem. Will the Minister consider the general principle of a national view of traffic in relation to access for ambulances?
My noble friend makes some important points. As a general point, it is important to say that each ambulance service should plan to provide appropriate resources to meet local demand, because demand varies according to where you are in the country. Planning assumptions in meeting that demand should take into account the likelihood of severe traffic congestion. Plans of that kind may well include resources in addition to traditional ambulance provision, for example, using rapid response vehicles and motorbikes as well as utilising staff such as community paramedics or emergency care practitioners.
My Lords, how many accident and emergency departments in London does the Minister expect to close in the next four years? If he does not know the answer, can he say who is responsible for that and how they are accountable for making a strategic judgment across London about the level of accident and emergency services?
The premise behind the noble Lord’s question is that it is automatically worse to have fewer A and E departments in an area. I beg to disagree with that premise. In serious or complex cases, the noble Lord will know that patients need to access exactly the right care, so it is often better and safer for them to travel further to see specialists in major centres than to go to a local hospital. Although it may be closer, it may not have the right specialists, the right equipment or sufficient expertise in treating patients with their condition. The prime example of that has been stroke care in London, where 32 centres were reduced to, I think, eight and there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths following admission.
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that wherever there are improvements to patient care that involve restructuring not only of services but premises, the impact assessment in the consultation document should include general transport and ambulance access?
I agree with my noble friend. The planning assumptions made in north-west London, which is the subject of the Question, are a good example of that, where Transport for London is co-operating actively by producing some sophisticated analysis not only of ambulance transport times but of bus and car journey times to make sure that nobody loses out in any reconfiguration.
My Lords, I apologise. The Question on the Order Paper relates to north-west London, so I do not have pan-London figures in front of me. The answer to the question is as I gave it in my initial response: those decisions are subject to local determination. That is right, because it is only local commissioners and providers who can assess the situation on the ground properly. As the noble Baroness will be aware, there is a system for escalating decisions—ultimately to the Secretary of State, if necessary, who takes advice from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel in the most extreme cases—but normally, we hope and expect those decisions to be resolved on the ground in the local area.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that many patients have difficulties accessing their GPs and out-of-hours services? Does he realise that the only resource might be the A and E department? In a case of meningitis, that could be a death sentence if they cannot get that access.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. That is exactly why the Government are planning to roll out the 111 service, which will run alongside the 999 service for emergency calls. But where the situation falls short of an emergency, the 111 service will instantly direct the patient to exactly the right service, without a call back being necessary. I am pleased to say that that programme is on track and should be rolled out next year.
My Lords, I declare an interest in Barnet and Chase Farm, which is currently being restructured. Does the Minister agree that, with any restructuring of services in the health service, the public are very concerned? A lot of effort is being made by the trust to assure people, but one of the things that keeps coming back—certainly for Barnet and Enfield—is that the bus services do not always work in the way in which the noble Earl has suggested, and that Transport for London is not always co-operative. Very often it is, but sometimes it is not; we are having a great deal of difficulty reorganising bus services in cases where Transport for London will just not hear of it.
My Lords, in north London and Barnet in particular, Transport for London has diverted the 307 bus route into the grounds of Barnet Hospital, thus improving the link from Enfield. Transport for London has also installed new CCTV cameras in the underpass at North Middlesex University Hospital, in order to enhance its safety. There was a proposal to improve the local underpass at Silver Street station, and that was carried through. I am concerned to hear the noble Baroness’s perception, because all the briefing I have had indicates that Transport for London is very constructive in these situations and will often change bus routes in response to changes in service configuration.
Taxation: International Companies
My Lords, the vast majority of taxpayers pay the right tax at the right time. However, the Government are alert to the risk that some companies may try to structure their tax affairs so that profits from UK-based economic activity are not taxed here. The UK has specific tax rules to combat tax avoidance by international companies and fully supports the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development initiative on base erosion and profit shifting, which has been endorsed by the G20.
My Lords, I am very glad to hear that the Government are alert to the situation of international companies, but would the Minister agree that, when they are being assessed for tax purposes, they should be required to reveal every country in which they are operating and the tax they pay in each country, with full financial details of their own company and link-companies? In addition to insisting on this for UK purposes, would the Government be prepared to work for an international agreement so that all transnational companies were required to give a fully transparent country-by-country report for any country in which they operated?
My Lords, I certainly agree with the underlying premise behind the noble and right reverend Lord’s question, which is that there is still a lot more work to be done in this area. The international tax architecture was developed in an age of fixed factories and plant and machinery, with much less interconnectedness. Now we live in a connected, corporate world in which internet commerce and so on make it much more complex. That is why the OECD is again looking fundamentally at whether countries have the right weapons, whether it is tax treaties, under which the exchange of information would come; transfer pricing; aggressive tax planning; or harmful tax practices. I certainly agree that tax information is important to that but, as far as the authorities are concerned, that really comes under the tax treaties and the work that the OECD will be looking at.
Does the Minister accept that the Prime Minister’s, and indeed the Chancellor’s, definition of aggressive tax avoidance needs clarifying? In any case, does he accept that all tax avoidance schemes are always one step ahead of the Treasury and the Inland Revenue? Would it not be sensible and simple—all past Governments have always refused to do this—to have simple legislation to say that any tax avoidance scheme has to be approved by HM Treasury? Would that not solve the problem?
The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, always wants me to be clear and simple, so the answer is no to his first two questions. On the third question, he has an underlying, quite proper, concern, which is why the work that Graham Aaronson has done for the Government on a general anti-avoidance rule, the so-called GAAR, is a very important part of ongoing work.
My Lords, the noble Lord does not expect me for one moment to start commenting on the tax affairs of any individual taxpayer. As a general response, it may interest the House that the 800 or so largest companies that come under the large business service of HMRC to be assessed pay £136 billion in corporation tax, PAYE and VAT each year. Almost 50% of that tax comes from foreign-owned businesses, so I do not think we should have in mind that foreign-owned companies as a group are somehow doing something that we have to be vigilant about. We must keep this in proportion.
My Lords, a series of measures has been agreed internationally through the OECD over many years. The fiscal affairs committee of the OECD is having a new look at this, and this work was endorsed by the G20 at the Los Cabos meeting in June, to get those rules into a fit state for the 21st century. They are the rules that govern the relationships between countries and the base on which all companies should operate their tax regimes, but they need to be modernised.
My Lords, in responding to an earlier question, the Minister said that there was much work to be done in this area. Who is to do it? What is the point of the Government cutting Inland Revenue staff when there is so much work to be done? Staff concerned with revenue collection can collect 30 or 100 times the annual salary they receive.
I am very grateful, as I often am, for the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, because it enables me to tell the House, as I have done before, that £900 million has been reinvested in the compliance activities of HMRC precisely because we need to do more work to attack avoidance, evasion and criminal attacks on the tax system. Compliance revenue has more than doubled in six years so that by 2014-15 an additional £7 billion per annum will be coming in. The noble Lord’s concerns are quite right, and this Government are very actively on the case.
Because, forgive me, there are other Peers wanting to get in. I completely agree with the noble Lord that transfer pricing is one of the most serious areas that need to be looked at, which is precisely why each one of those 800 large companies has a dedicated tax professional looking at this area. The focus on transfer pricing has meant that in the past four years £4 billion has been recovered precisely by going after transfer pricing schemes. On average, £1 billion a year is coming in through effective action.
Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill [HL]
My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill, has consented to place her interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
My Lords, before we wave goodbye to the Bill, and in congratulating the Government on its provisions, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to ensure that the Ministry of Justice understands that this was only a very small step and that there are many other aspects of the Bill as they affect charities which could usefully and properly be followed through.
My Lords, I add my tribute to the work of the Law Commission in relation to the Bill. It is a short but useful Bill. In Clause 1 we say farewell to a number of old friends familiar to generations of law students, if to nobody else. Clause 4 is important since it gives greater flexibility to the trustees of charitable trusts. All in all, the Law Commission is to be congratulated on producing a valuable reform of the law and I look forward to its next instalment.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows.
“Bovine tuberculosis is the most pressing animal health problem in the United Kingdom. The importance of the epidemic for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overemphasised. This was once a disease isolated to small pockets of the country. It has now spread extensively through the west of England and Wales. The number of new cases has doubled every nine years. Last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England at a cost of nearly £100 million. In the past 10 years bovine TB has cost the taxpayer £500 million. It is estimated that this will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.
The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex. The Government are committed to using all the tools at their disposal and to continuing to develop new ones as a package of measures to tackle the disease. In high-risk areas, herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are slaughtered. Restrictions on cattle movements have been further strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading from cattle to cattle. Only last week we announced plans for a new surveillance testing regime and stricter cattle movement controls. We also continue to look at ways to improve the testing of cattle for TB.
Research in this country over the past 15 years has demonstrated that cattle and badgers can transmit the disease to each other. Culling badgers can lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. That is why we believe that, based on the best available evidence, culling badgers to control TB can make a significant contribution. It is crucial that we get this right. The National Farmers’ Union has taken the lead on behalf of the farming industry to plan and organise the pilot culls. It has been working tirelessly over the past few months, signing up farmers and landowners in the pilot areas and ensuring that contractors are properly trained. I have been immensely impressed by the effort, commitment and determination that have been demonstrated by farmers in the two pilot areas. I am also most grateful to the police in the two areas for their support.
The exceptionally bad weather this summer has put a number of pressures on our farmers and caused significant problems. Protracted legal proceedings and the request of the police to delay the start until after the Olympics and Paralympics have also meant that we have moved beyond the optimal time for delivering an effective cull. We should have begun in the summer. In addition to these problems, the most recent fieldwork has revealed that badger numbers in the two areas are significantly higher than previously thought. This only highlights the scale of the problem we are dealing with.
Evidence suggests that at least 70% of the badgers in the areas must be removed. This is based on the results of the randomised badger culling trial so that we can be confident that culling will reduce TB in cattle. Despite a greatly increased effort over the past few days and weeks, the farmers delivering this policy have concluded that they cannot be confident that it will be possible to remove enough badgers based on these higher numbers and considering the lateness of the season. It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70% of the populations.
Today I have received a letter from the president of the NFU on behalf of the companies co-ordinating the culls, explaining why they do not feel they can go ahead this year and requesting that they be postponed until next summer. In these circumstances, it is the right thing to do and, as they are the people who have to deliver this policy on the ground and work within the science, I respect their decision. I have placed a copy of the letter in the Libraries of both Houses.
By starting the pilots next summer we can build on the work that has already been done and ensure that the cull will conform to the scientific criteria and evidence base. I know that this will be very disappointing for many, particularly those farmers in the two pilot areas, but I fully support the decision of the NFU to delay the start of culling operations.
I must emphasise that there is no change to the Government’s policy. We remain absolutely committed to it, but we must ensure that we work with the NFU to get the delivery right. We also remain committed to our wider TB eradication programme and to continuing to strengthen it, so that we can move towards our goal of a TB-free England. Vaccination is another tool and one that we would all like to be able to deploy more widely. Unfortunately, we are not yet there in terms of its development or practicality. If we had a viable and legal cattle vaccine, we would be using it. It will, however, be some years before this is the case and neither we nor the industry can afford to wait that long. It is for this reason that we must look at all the options.
The Government are determined to tackle bovine TB by all the means available to us. Now, in the next few months, we will ensure that the pilot culls can be implemented effectively, in the best possible conditions, with the right resources. Having looked at all the evidence over many years, I am utterly convinced that badger control is the right thing to do, and indeed the higher than expected badger numbers only serve to underline the need for urgent action. I remain fully committed to working with the farming industry to ensure that the pilot culls can be delivered effectively, safely and humanely next summer”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and for advance sight of it this morning. We welcome this statement and it is right that it should start by setting out the scale of the animal health problem, and the cost to farmers and to taxpayers of slaughtering infected cattle. This is an acute problem for farmers and I know from talking to them in the West Country over many years what a toll it is taking on them personally and financially. It is therefore also right that the Statement concludes with the need to work with farmers. But as the president of the NFU says in his letter to the Secretary of State,
“all decisions must be based on the science”.
Why then no mention of working with the scientists?
I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in his place. He is one of the leading scientific authorities on this issue. What meetings has the new Secretary of State had with the noble Lord and his colleagues? Did the Minister read the comments of the noble Lord in last week’s debate on scientific advisors? He said,
“it is still the case that the Government, perhaps too often, prefer policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy … The fact is that the overwhelming majority of scientific experts have concluded that the policy of killing badgers to control TB in cattle will have only a small beneficial effect, if any. It is essentially a waste of effort and money, and a distraction from the business of getting on top of a serious animal health problem that can have devastating effects on the livelihoods of farmers”.—[Official Report, 17/10/12; col. GC514.]
The truth is that this is yet another humiliating moment for the Government and for Defra because they put prejudice and ideology before science and evidence. Can the Minister confirm that this is more of an NHS Bill type of pause, rather than another government U-turn? It is certainly another in a chain of weekly incompetent humiliations: plebgate; the west coast main line fiasco, when they also got the numbers wrong; the energy policy on the hoof last week; the great train snobbery; and now this from Defra.
From Defra we have had the abandoned forestry sell off, chaos over circus animals, a U-turn on shooting buzzards to protect game birds and now a pause on shooting badgers. No wonder the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said this weekend in the Observer that the Government,
“seems unable to manage its affairs competently”.
He described it as a,
“dog of a coalition government”.
I do not think the noble Lord likes dogs. I suspect he would like the country to put it out of its misery and have this “dog of a coalition” put down. However, beyond the endemic incompetence in Defra and the Government there are serious specific questions to answer. As my colleague Mary Creagh MP said in the other place today:
“Labour has warned the Government for two years that the badger cull was bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife”.
The Secretary of State is right not to proceed because the cull this year could not deliver the 70% mortality rate needed for the possible positive effect on bovine TB—up to 16% over nine years. His decision is based on there not being enough time to cull that many badgers in the limited time available, particularly given the growing number of badgers in the pilot areas. However, the numbers and the limited time were predictable and demonstrate the incompetence in Defra and that this announcement was inevitable. His Statement blames the weather, the police and the Olympics for a limited time window.
Was it not the Home Secretary who ruled out policing the cull this summer, not the police? Was not the limited window therefore predictable and decided by Ministers? Is it not the case that in July last year Natural England gave Defra badger population figures that projected from the randomised badger-culling trial that the numbers of badgers in pilot areas was 3,300 per 350 square kilometres? This is broadly the same as the current estimate of 3,000 per 300 square kilometres, so the larger number of badgers was predictable too.
Why did the Secretary of State in the other place today say that it was only in September this year that Natural England determined deficiencies in the numbers of badgers to be culled? Is it just to cover Defra’s incompetence or is it that those projections last year were ignored because it was inconvenient evidence not policy-based evidence? Can the Minister tell us whether the estimates of badger numbers in the planned pilot cull areas were reviewed by the independent expert panel overseeing the pilots? I have heard not. If so, that is shameful.
What is the department going to do during this pause before doing the cull next year? Will it need to secure more money? The Secretary of State said today in the other place that the Government will compensate the police forces in Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire for their costs in preparing for the abandoned cull. If it is a more intensive cull of the larger numbers of badgers, will he need more than the current projection of £500,000 per cull area per year? Will there be any compensation for the two companies engaged to do the shooting? I gather £850,000 was to be spent on surveying badgers; £248,000 on post mortems; and £713,000 on checking the humaneness of the cull. Will those contractors be compensated?
Beyond the finance questions there are other areas of work between now and when the cull starts next summer. Will Ministers meet representatives of the tourism industry in Somerset and Gloucestershire? The notion of marksmen across the countryside that I know well shooting badgers at night has clear risks. Those risks are heightened because the location of shoots will be kept secret to frustrate protesters, but if the location of shooting is secret how will visitors in the summer months be warned to keep away?
How will Ministers work with farmers to maximise the effectiveness of the welcome announcement last week on changes to the testing regime and cattle movement restrictions? These sorts of biosecurity measures are a key component in controlling this dreadful disease. Can more be done with government support to improve biosecurity?
Finally, there is the core question of vaccination. The possible benefits of a cull are marginal. Sir John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser, has said that it will, at best, result in a 12% to 16% reduction in the disease after nine years. The Statement pays tribute to the tireless work of farmers and contractors in preparing for the cull and funding it. What is the Government’s estimate of what can be done on vaccination over nine years with the same unity of purpose? The emerging DIVA test is an encouraging development to allow a diseased animal to be differentiated from a vaccinated animal. Surely this now makes it possible seriously to engage with the EU in lifting the ban on exports from vaccinated animals. The vaccine itself is 50% to 60% effective. We need more efficacy but it appears that good progress is being made in finding a scientific solution. Surely it is right to focus on this rather than on what the 30 eminent animal disease experts writing in the Observer 10 days ago described as a “costly distraction”.
My party is clear that bovine TB is a blight on dairy farming and causes untold misery to dairy farmers. We take it very seriously and we all want a solution. We know that growing numbers of diseased badgers are passing the disease to cattle and costing the taxpayer a fortune, but, unfortunately, the logic of then culling them does not follow because the science tells us that that is most likely to spread the disease unless such a scale of geography and intensity is used that it is clearly nigh on impossible to then deliver the cull. We must be led by the science and the science leads us to vaccination with interim efforts on biosecurity. That is what we want. That is what the nation wants. I hope that, after reflecting on this shambles today, the Secretary of State will abandon his dogmatic view and get it right by listening to both farmers and scientists.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response to the Statement. I start by reiterating that bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem facing our cattle farmers. No one wants to kill badgers but we absolutely have to bear down on this terrible disease.
What has been announced today is a postponement until next summer of the pilots that were due to start this autumn. There is no change of government policy. We and the farming industry remain committed to taking forward this evidence-based policy. We are totally committed to tackling bovine TB through a range of measures, including a controlled cull of badgers. The cull in the two pilot areas will go ahead next summer when we are completely satisfied that all the arrangements are in place.
The leading experts whom Defra brought together last year agreed that the evidence shows that culling done in the right way and carried out over a sufficient area and length of time in a co-ordinated and efficient way can reduce the spread of the disease to cattle with benefits remaining for many years. The policy is firmly based on evidence from the randomised badger-culling trial. Using the results of this trial, culling over an area of 150 square kilometres could be expected to lead to an average 16% reduction in TB incidence in the local area. This figure was agreed by an independent panel of scientists at a meeting with Professor Bob Watson, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, on 4 April last year. We are clearly not saying that this is the whole answer but it is a very important part of the answer alongside testing and surveillance, movement restrictions and the removal and slaughter of affected animals. We wanted to be absolutely sure that we had the most robust data available to ensure that the right logistics were in place for an effective cull. The population estimates show the problem of badgers spreading bovine TB to be even worse than expected. The right decision has been taken, based on the available evidence.
Natural England’s figures were estimated on RBCT data and, in validating the estimates provided by the applicants, some gaps were found that raised concerns. Due to the importance of this data for the effectiveness of the policy, it was responsible, in taking a science-based approach, to check these numbers through further fieldwork. This further fieldwork has led to updated estimates of the badger population that are higher than originally expected. The discovery that there are far more badgers than previously thought shows the problem could be much bigger than we feared. All of the preparations for the pilot culls were geared up for a smaller number of badgers, so it is absolutely right that the NFU looks again at what resources it needs to make sure we get it right.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about policing. It was agreed with the Home Office that the cull should not proceed before the Olympics. The noble Lord asked about the costs of the culling operations and whether they would be met by the participating farmers. The costs that fall to Government are those to do with ensuring that the pilots meet their purpose. It is right to pilot the policy and confirm our assumptions about the effectiveness, safety and humaneness of controlled shooting. As regards costs more generally, the Secretary of State has said that he will have a comprehensive breakdown of the money spent so far prepared and laid before Parliament. The noble Lord specifically asked about policing costs. These will depend on the extent of protester activity and it is right that the Government should recompense the police for additional costs.
The noble Lord asked about vaccination, which is an important issue. Work to develop an oral badger vaccine and a cattle vaccine is continuing and is a high priority. Defra has been investing significantly in developing bovine TB vaccines for both badgers and cattle for a long time. We have a licensed, injectable vaccine that can and is used on badgers. The problem with it is, however, two-fold. First, it is very expensive to catch all the badgers. Secondly, it has to be done every year. So it is a very expensive process and is not really practicable on a wide scale. Since 1994, Defra has invested more than £43 million in badger and cattle vaccination and associated diagnostics and expects to spend another £15.5 million over four years. Even if these vaccinations were available, they are not a magic bullet and additional measures would still be necessary.
The Government fully support the NFU’s decision to postpone the culls as the responsible thing to do to ensure the pilots are carried out effectively. It would be irresponsible to rush ahead and risk making the problem worse if it is not carried out properly. This disease led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England last year and cost nearly £100 million. Without further action it would cost the taxpayer an estimated £1 billion over the next decade.
I remind noble Lords that ministerial Statements are made for the information of the House. Although brief comments and questions from all quarters are allowed, Statements should not be the occasion for an immediate debate. I am acutely aware that many noble Lords wish to get in. It would therefore be courteous if noble Lords could be as brief as possible, to enable their noble colleagues to get in as well.
My Lords, as has been said, bovine TB is a serious problem, and it deserves serious science to underpin policy. I do not want to take up too much time, but I hope that your Lordships will forgive me as an individual who has been involved in this over the past 15 years and, as has been said, instigated the randomised badger culling trial and took part in the review of the evidence with Sir Bob Watson last year. It is worth briefly repeating the facts: the long-term, large-scale culling of badgers is estimated to reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 16% after nine years. In other words, 84% of the problem is still there. To reflect on what that means, this is not a reduction in absolute terms but actually a 16% reduction from the trend increase. So after nine years there is still more TB around than there was at the beginning; it is just that there is 16% less than there would have been without a cull. The number is not the 30% that the NFU quoted; that is misleading—a dishonest filleting of the data. The other thing that the experts conclude is that culling makes the situation worse at the beginning so it will take a long time to emerge into this Nirvana of a 16% reduction, and 84% of the problem is still there.
That is just the background. I turn to questions that I hope the Minister will answer. Last Friday we were told by the Minister of State for Food and Farming that between 500 and 800 badgers would be culled in each of the two areas. The number, thanks to rapid badger reproduction over the weekend, is now 5,530 over the two areas—a fourfold increase. I am impressed. What this underlines is that if the policy is to cull at least 70% of the badgers, we have to know what the starting number is. This variation from just over 1,000 to more than 5,000 in the space of a few days underlines how difficult it is for us to have confidence that the Government will be able to instruct the farmers to cull 70% if they do not know the starting numbers. So my first question to the Minister is: how will he assure us that these numbers are accurate?
If we ask why the NFU has backed out, it is because it was due to pay those who were going to shoot the badgers on a per-badger basis. The NFU calculated it on the basis of shooting 1,300 badgers. Suddenly it is told, “It’s 5,500 badgers”. The farmers thought it was worth doing—but not that much. They have done their own cost-benefit calculation and say that it is not worth the candle. So my second question to the Minister is: in next year’s cull, who is going to pay? Are the farmers going to stump up on a per-badger basis to shoot 5,500 badgers or are we, the taxpayer, going to pay?
Finally and briefly, we have a pause and time to rethink. I urge the Minister to gather together scientific experts and rethink the Government’s strategy altogether, starting from square one.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, for whom I have a huge amount of respect. I am grateful to him in particular for confirming the 16% figure to which I referred in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Knight. On the question of whether culling is not a huge part of the answer, it is a very significant part of the answer but I said earlier that it is not the whole answer. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, will at least accept that.
He asked about the numbers. I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that previous estimates of the number of badgers to be removed from the pilot areas were based on the RBCT. We have recently carried out field surveys to look at the badger populations in the areas where the pilots are taking place. However, what is important in answering the question of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is that we have commissioned a national badger survey in England and Wales to quantify any changes since the previous survey.
The noble Lord asked about the cost and, in particular, whether the farmers will continue to bear the cost. Yes indeed, they will; that is entirely the plan. The bearing of the cost will be done in exactly the way that has been planned.
I should say to noble Lords, on the issue of the evidence and the science, that, following the March 2012 visit to the UK of the European Commission’s bovine tuberculosis sub-group of the task force for monitoring animal disease eradication, it stated:
“It is however of utmost importance that there is a political consensus and commitment to long-term strategies to combat TB in badgers as well as in cattle ... There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle”.
So the European Commission is pushing us and we have to deal with TB in badgers.
My Lords, I will be brief. Our priority on these Benches was always that the pilots were safe and rigorous in testing how effective and indeed humane the culling of badgers could be. However, given that the NFU does not have the resources to deliver this, we welcome the fact that the cull is being postponed. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will use this pause, before any evidence-based pilots proceed, to seek approval to use in the field the cattle vaccine and the diagnostic test, which has recently been approved, and in particular seek to use the EU animal health directive, which is upcoming?
Secondly, the Secretary of State confirmed today in another place that all options will be looked at in order to curtail this disease. Will the Minister confirm that those alternatives will not include looking again at the issue of gassing, which was condemned in a review by Lord Zuckerman, a Member of this House, in the 1980s?
My Lords, in view of the great success in controlling rabies in foxes in western Europe with an oral vaccine, has much thought been given to the production of an oral vaccine for TB in badgers? I realise, of course, that the organisms are entirely different; one is a virus and one is a bacterium. However, surely the same process of trying to select an organism that is protected before it gets into the gut and immunises the badger is worthy of investigation. Can the Minister give some indication of some of the work that is going on, if any, on the production of an oral vaccine similar to the one developed for fox rabies?
I am grateful to my noble friend because this is an important subject into which considerable work is going on. The evidence that he has referred to will of course be taken into account. Progress on the development of an effective oral badger vaccine relies, of course, on scientific breakthroughs in this field, and it is uncertain in outcome and timing. Compared to an injectable vaccine, an oral vaccine is technically more difficult to formulate, as my noble friend alluded to, and it requires bait, which encourages the uptake of the vaccine by badgers and minimises the potential of other species to eat it. Developing an oral vaccine against TB in badgers is proving more difficult than originally hoped, which means that I cannot say with certainty when one might be available for use in the field.
That is an interesting question. Although bovine TB is present in other wildlife, such as deer, badgers are the main species responsible for transmitting the disease to cattle because of their specific ecology. Evidence from the RBCT demonstrates conclusively that badgers contribute significantly to bovine TB in cattle. While deer in Britain are generally considered to be a sentinel or spillover host of infection in cattle, rather than a source of the disease in cattle, current evidence suggests that TB infection from deer is not a significant disease risk to cattle.
My Lords, as a farmer, my question is based on some history. I will be very brief. In 1944 we eradicated TB on my farm. In 1964, as a junior officer in the NFU, I had the privilege of announcing that we had totally eradicated bovine TB from this country. Since then, of course, history has shown us a different picture. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, posed a large number of questions, and I noted all of them. Those questions were posed more than 10 years ago, and we have gone through that period of time with few decisions being taken. To say, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, that farmers are dishonest is an insult to the farming community and I cannot accept it. That is not the reason. All the farmers concerned, particularly those who have been held up for 12 years, have been unable to sell one beast off their farms over that time. They do not see this problem as scientists see it; they see it as men who are concerned with the welfare of animals and they do not want to see their herds suffering, as they are doing and have done throughout this period.
My question is exactly the same as that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby. Surely we have to move towards vaccination. However, if the current vaccine is effective for only one year, that is a very expensive mechanism for doing the job. Surely to goodness we are in an age when an oral vaccine can be found to cope with this situation. It can be put in either the water or the food so that the affected animals are removed. Perhaps that would be a better way of dealing with the matter than the ways that have hitherto been thought of.
I can only say to my noble friend that we are pursuing vaccine options as hard as we can and as a high priority. We have been investing significantly in developing TB vaccines for both badgers and cattle for a long time. I have mentioned a licensed injectable vaccine that can be and is being used on badgers but, as I have explained, it is extremely expensive and needs to be repeated annually. As my noble friend says, we need an oral vaccine, which we are still searching for. We will continue that search and expect to spend another £15.5 million over four years.
My Lords, the Minister referred to other species that are affected with a similar strain of tuberculosis and specifically mentioned wild deer. Are not mice, particularly field mice, and rats also affected by the same strain and do they not come into closer contact with cattle?
My Lords, I agree entirely with the Minister, as indeed would most people in the country, when he says that this is the most pressing animal health issue facing the country. In the light of that, I welcome the announcement today because I think that it exposes how shambolic the Government’s proposals have been in trying to tackle this real problem. As scientists said last week, the policy was little more than a costly diversion and we will end up with more cases of TB in four or nine years’ time than we have at the moment. The four-year pilots have now, with the stroke of a pen today, become five-year pilots. I believe that we ought to follow the recommendations of the European Union representatives and, although it will not be easy, continue to seek political consensus so that we can move on to vaccination and increase the amount of money that we are spending on research in this field, especially in the form of cattle vaccination.
My Lords, the area in which I disagree with the noble Lord is clearly that of pursuing the cull, which I have said we are planning to do. The area in which I agree with him is that of vaccination, which is another tool in the box that we must find, and I assure noble Lords that we are continuing to work on that.
My Lords, the Minister may be aware that my former constituency was one of the areas that were being considered for this cull. For very many years, including 13 years of a Labour Government, I prayed that positive progress would be made by the Government in tackling this problem. I join the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, in saying that I bitterly regret the very party-political way in which the noble Lord, Lord Knight, intervened in this matter. His Government did nothing effective and left it as a problem to be tackled now. Some have had to live with the personal challenges of the issue—as my noble friend knows, there are suicides, despair and family breakups, so it is not just the financial consequences but the destruction of people’s whole lives that have followed from this. It is also not just dairy herds, which I think the noble Lord referred to, but anybody with cattle. Certainly in the West Country they have faced appalling problems. This should be pursued on an all-party, bipartisan basis, as my noble friend said, not by trying to score points and accusing people of dishonesty in filleting the statistics or anything else. We are trying to get a cohesive approach to this challenge because if we do not, in many parts of the country, it will destroy the whole cattle industry as we see it.
I absolutely agree with my noble friend about the effect on farmers and their families. Perhaps I may do something unusual and come to the defence of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who began by acknowledging how very horrible this disease is. If I may, I would like to pour a little soothing balm on the political argument.
My Lords, perhaps I may defend the previous Government, who undertook a long series of randomised trials and worked with scientists to try to find a scientific base for future action. Does the Minister accept that there is much relief in the Forest of Dean this afternoon as a consequence of this Statement? The majority of people in the forest, including many farmers, did not want a badger cull that was not based on scientific evidence, was not economic and would not provide the necessary solution to the devastating effect of bovine TB on herds and farmers but that would decimate the badger population. I should add that the police of Gloucestershire are also much relieved to have their leave restored. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government will now use the pause to pursue a firmly scientifically-based solution which will also have a sound economic basis? Will he also agree to update this House regularly so that we can try to find a solution on which there can be some political consensus? We all want to be involved in pursuing that.
My Lords, the Minister has rightly referred to scientific evidence, as has the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. It is clear that the scientific evidence that the Minister and his colleagues are getting is different from that which a significant proportion of the scientific community is getting. What reassurance can he give us that an independent group of scientists will be brought together to examine this process transparently and that a regular report will be made to this House, as the noble Baroness said, rather than waiting for another crisis until such a report is made?
My Lords, my noble friend will know that a great number of professionals, scientists and experts are already involved in this process. There is also, indeed, an independent panel which will monitor the results of the cull, and we are extremely grateful for all the advice that we get.
My Lords, there have been probably inescapable pressures on farmers to manage cattle as they do. Will the Government also look, among the options, at any evidence suggesting that the resistance of our present herds has been lowered not least as a result of inbreeding? For example, how many bulls are responsible today for our white cattle herds of Holsteins and Friesians?
Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill
Second Reading and Remaining Stages
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to open the proceedings on the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to help accelerate significant investment in major infrastructure projects and it will increase the number of homes being built and occupied.
Before I set out the main features of this legislation in more detail, I briefly remind your Lordships’ House of the Government’s commitment to delivering a sustainable, private sector-led recovery. This will be possible only by maintaining our credible fiscal stance and so keeping interest rates low. We want to see a recovery that is balanced across industrial sectors and across geographic regions. To achieve this ambition—
I hope that my speech will answer the noble Lord’s question adequately.
Firms will have access to the communications and transport networks that they need, wherever in the UK they happen to be, enabling Britain to compete on the world stage.
Our national infrastructure plan published last November sets out an ambitious but credible roadmap to deliver on that vision—a pipeline of upcoming investment worth £257 billion in crucial large-scale projects, of which more than two-thirds will typically be financed and delivered by the private sector.
A number of key infrastructure projects close to starting construction are being delayed because of the difficulties they face in securing the finance and investment required, and the housing market continues to suffer from an undersupply of homes to meet the UK’s demographic needs. Even under favourable credit conditions, raising the amount of private finance required to deliver these projects and to meet our overall infrastructure investment goals would be a challenge. However, the disruption caused by the instability of international financial markets and the adverse effect that this is having on long-term debt provision have not abated. Proactive, decisive action by the Government is therefore needed now. The Bill will allow us to take that action and will bring forward the investment needed.
The principal aim of the Bill is to make investment in major infrastructure and housing schemes possible. The Government have agreed in principle, subject to strict approvals criteria, to make financial support available to infrastructure projects using the strength and credibility of our balance sheet to support the investment that we need.
Through this Bill, guarantees provided by the Government will help to ensure that where projects are struggling to access private finance due to adverse credit conditions, these projects can now go ahead. It authorises the Treasury and, where appropriate, other Secretaries of State to incur expenditure necessary for providing financial assistance.
The Bill will allow the Government to support crucial investment in key areas of economic and public service infrastructure: utilities, such as energy and telecommunications; transport, such as railways and roads; infrastructure to provide public services, such as hospitals and schools; and housing development to deliver much-needed homes.
The Treasury estimates that up to £40 billion of investment in infrastructure and an additional £10 billion in housing investment could be accelerated under the guarantee schemes using the powers in the Bill. Importantly, we will put in place strict guidelines and eligibility criteria for the schemes to protect the taxpayer and ensure that the Exchequer does not take on unacceptable fiscal risks.
Any proposal that receives a guarantee from Infrastructure UK will as a minimum have satisfied the following requirements. It must be nationally and/or economically significant; financially credible; good value for money for the taxpayer; not solely dependent on a guarantee to proceed; and ready to start construction within 12 months. Any proposal that receives a housing guarantee from the Department for Communities and Local Government will, as a minimum, need to deliver an agreed number of new homes; undergo an investment appraisal and full due diligence and be subject to ongoing monitoring requirements; meet a risk capital contribution at the outset; and provide recourse to the secured housing assets.
Since the projects that we expect to back will be structured to minimise the potential losses to the Exchequer, there will be minimal impact on public sector net borrowing as a result. The exception is under the extreme circumstances that a guarantee is called upon or other forms of financial assistance are provided, but we expect such circumstances to be rare. Furthermore, the Government will levy a commercial charge. This will cover the services received by infrastructure providers and beneficiaries of the private rented sector housing guarantee. It will ensure that companies pay a fair price for the benefits that they receive, and that taxpayers receive a fair price for any risk being taken. It will also ensure that schemes do not fall foul of EU state aid rules.
The Bill raises a number of questions. The first and most fundamental is: will it work? Is there any evidence that the guarantee being offered will really facilitate the speeding up of infrastructure projects? There is already substantial evidence that it will. Infrastructure UK has received some 60 enquiries from projects that might qualify, and more are expected. There is also strong interest across the housing sector. Negotiations on these projects are ongoing so it would be inappropriate at this point to run down a list but, as an example of the kind of thing that is likely to benefit, we have indicated that the Crossrail rolling stock and depot services procurement meets the eligibility criteria.
A number of people have asked why the Bill is necessary at all. Can the Government not already do this kind of thing without explicit legislative cover? The Treasury and Secretaries of State already have common-law powers to make guarantees, make loans and give other financial assistance. In addition, some Secretaries of State have express statutory powers to support infrastructure. However, the Treasury does not have the authority to incur expenditure in relation to guarantees on the scale that I have outlined. Moreover, there is a longstanding convention—
The noble Lord was kind enough when I asked him why we needed a Bill to point me to an answer given in the other place, which I have to tell him I found completely incomprehensible. I am still stuck. Will he say in terms that we need a Bill because of the scale of the operations? Is he willing to place on record that that is the point and it is the size of the operations which requires legislation? I find that very odd but at least I would like to hear him say it.
It is partly the scale of the operations and the length of the guarantees, and also because the current rules have gaps in them, as I understand them, or there are certain parts of the whole infrastructure world, as it were, that are not covered by the existing rules. To finish my sentence, there is a longstanding convention known as “Baldwin cover”, dating back to 1932, that Governments should not rest significant and regular expenditure under common-law powers on the sole authority of general supply legislation. That is the noble Lord’s point. It is significant and regular guarantees, not expenditure, that could have a very long period of operation.
Questions have also been raised about what kinds of project can potentially be covered by this legislation. In particular, the Institution of Civil Engineers has asked about what constitutes a nationally significant project—a phrase that does not appear in the Bill but did appear in last year’s national infrastructure plan. I should make it clear that projects that could potentially benefit from this Bill are not limited to the nationally significant projects identified in the national infrastructure plan. In addition to the areas covered by the plan, we will be prepared, for example, to look at waste management and university projects that are economically viable and simply want for finance. As to the scale of project that can potentially benefit, again there is considerable flexibility. A project does not necessarily have to be valued at several hundred millions of pounds to be considered.
The Bill is one part of the Government’s overall approach to ensuring that the United Kingdom invests in the infrastructure that it needs for the future. I look forward to our debate today and I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
I am very grateful to the Deputy Chief Whip for explaining the Bill and I am delighted to be debating with the noble Lord for whom I have the highest regard. I am also very glad that Paul Deighton is to become Minister for Infrastructure. It was specifically to shadow him and his vitally important work that I have returned to the Front Bench and I much look forward to engaging with him. I understand that Paul Deighton will not be joining the Government until January so this is an unusual, if not unprecedented, case of the shadow materialising three months before the substance, which sort of sums up the Government’s infrastructure problem: all shadow, no substance.
If I can continue the metaphor, this Bill is one of the most shadowy I have ever seen. Its four clauses simply give the Government power to spend up to £50 billion on infrastructure in very broad areas—water, electricity, gas, telecoms, sewerage, railways, roads, health, education, courts, prisons and housing—with little indication in the Bill or in the debates in the House of Commons beyond a single announcement about Crossrail trains of what real infrastructure projects it is intended to assist and when.
The Minister did not enlighten us much further, saying that,
“it would be inappropriate … to run down a list”,
which is a phrase redolent of Sir Humphrey at his very best. Our consideration of this Bill is a mere shadow since it is a money Bill which we cannot amend or even debate amendments to. However, before this phantom passes into law, I should like to set out some issues for debate and would be grateful for the Minister’s response.
In 2009, expenditure on infrastructure was at the highest real-terms level for about two decades. Three years later, the Construction Products Association is warning that infrastructure is in free fall. It is expected to decline by 13% this year compared to last. The CPA is projecting even bigger falls in key sectors—for example, a 40% drop in road construction this year—not least because of the coalition’s wholesale cancellation of road schemes in 2010. Will the Minister confirm these figures and tell us whether, in retrospect, it was wise to cancel essential schemes of national importance such as the dualling of the A14 east-west route from Felixstowe port to the Midlands and the dualling of the A21, a key route from London to the Kent and Sussex coast?
In the case of the A14, this project has now resurfaced as a proposed toll road. My officials told me that tolling of the A14 was unworkable when I was Secretary of State, but the coalition clearly has a higher source of wisdom. So, could the Minister tell me, first, whether the Government are considering a state financial guarantee for the privately financed A14 project, as it will surely need one; secondly, what tolling scheme is proposed, because I can find no reference anywhere to a scheme that appears even vaguely workable; and thirdly, when the tolled and dualled A14 will be open? If the work had gone ahead as a conventional road scheme in 2010, the opening would be taking place in stages from now. The only reference that I can find on the web is to a tolled scheme that will open from 2018.
Equally concerning is the delay and prevarication over energy policy, which is holding up investment in new infrastructure, including the £210 million Siemens investment in a wind turbine factory in Hull and huge investment in new wind farms and renewable energy. There are big delays, too, in rolling out superfast broadband and 4G. When I was on the Norfolk coast earlier this month, visiting Statoil’s new Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm, a particular concern was the lack of fast broadband and the poor quality of mobile phone reception. Britain’s lack of 4G mobile phone provision is pushing us behind the United States, Germany, Sweden and parts of Asia. As for broadband, the Country Land and Business Association recently described the superfast broadband situation as lamentable saying:
“It is becoming clear that the Government’s strategy will not meet the target date of 2015”.
The shadowy case for this Bill is that it will help unlock the capacity of the private sector to invest in infrastructure, but it is important to understand that a critical obstacle to infrastructure investment is the Government’s own failure to lead and deliver.
I mentioned road schemes a moment ago. It is the same story with airport capacity in the south-east, where the Prime Minister has just appointed a review which is going to take three years. It is now three-and-a-half years since the previous Government announced their decision on airport capacity in the south-east. In the House of Commons, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that any decision on airport capacity would be taken by the next Government. In other words, this Government have given up. If I may say so, that is one of the most brazen abdications of responsibility that I have ever heard from a Government.
It is the same story on HS2—another project that I know intimately—where dither and delay since 2010 have put the project back by at least two years and may again delay the key decisions until the next Government. It is a similar story too in London, where one of Mayor Johnson’s first cuts in 2008 cancelled the desperately needed Thames Gateway Bridge which would have provided another Thames crossing in east London, for which both planning and funding were already secured. Instead, all we have is a new cable car offering a tiny fraction of that capacity and—you could not make this up—the beginning of a planning process which might ultimately lead to a new bridge not far from the one which was cancelled for short-term political reasons. It is the same story now with the extension of the Northern Line to Battersea, a key development area. In June, a Treasury source told the Evening Standard:
“The entire weight of the Government is being thrown behind the extension of the Northern Line”.
Now, Transport for London can only say:
“Subject to funding being in place and permission from the Secretary of State for Transport, the new stations could be open by 2019”.
So much for transport, energy and broadband. Let us look at education. One of the Government’s first acts in 2010 was to slash to ribbons the school building programme. If that had not happened, hundreds of schools would be being built or refurbished as we speak, pumping billions into the construction industry and providing modern school premises which will now have to be built at far greater expense hereafter. It is the same story too with housing. The number of housebuilding starts fell by almost a quarter between March last year and March this year, with starts by housing associations, in the quasi-public sector, down by a similar proportion.
I have always taken it as a golden rule that the state should not preach to the private sector until it has got its own act together. Well, let us be clear: we are now confronting a situation where the state itself has slashed or delayed infrastructure spending across the board, and failed to agree planning decisions for key privately funded infrastructure projects, while deploring delays in the private sector. That is not leadership, but complacency masquerading as concern.
It is not just on investment that the state is failing to lead. The Government talk constantly about reducing planning delays, something which is within the power of the state to determine. Yet I note that last year only 60% of major planning applications were processed within the target date of 13 weeks, a big reduction on the 68% determined within 13 weeks in 2010.
Turning to the national infrastructure plan, which the noble Lord said was “ambitious but credible”, I note that in the latest reissue, 63 projects have disappeared without explanation from the 2011 plan—I assume that they were ambitious but not credible. Of the 357 projects in both the original plan and the updated version published this April, almost two-thirds were in pre-procurement stages. Only 38 had proceeded to procurement or construction. More than 300 projects in the national infrastructure plan therefore are still mere shadows, and 63 have vanished into thin air. Honing down to the most important projects, the British Chamber of Commerce identified 13 critical infrastructure projects before the last election. There has been little or no progress on eight of those 13.
Will the Bill help with any of this? It entirely depends what the proposed assistance is going to be used for. The Bill simply says that the Government may provide any kind of financial assistance up to the absolute limit of £50 billion. The only further limitation suggested by Ministers is that projects should be of “national significance”, a definition which looks to be in the eye of the beholder. Will the Minister give us just a few examples, beyond Crossrail trains, of projects which will now go ahead through the proposed guarantees to the private sector, as the CBI has said that we need urgent action from Ministers to identify further projects?
Will the Minister also give us an indication of when the first project financed under this guarantee scheme will actually go ahead? When the Crossrail trains announcement was made, the Financial Times said:
“The government appears to have relaxed one of its key criteria for guarantees—neither the super sewer”—
another possible project for this scheme, funding for which is apparently stuck in the Treasury—
“nor the Crossrail rolling stock schemes will be ‘shovel ready’ within 12 months”.
Will the Minister tell us about the relationship between the Bill and the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which was published last week? The Bill was supposedly going to unlock a string of major infrastructure projects. Now, before it is even enacted, another appears whose Explanatory Notes state that its purpose is,
“promoting growth and facilitating provision of infrastructure”.
There are to be yet more changes to the planning system intended—and have we not heard this before?—
“to enable applicants to avoid delays in local decision-making”,
while respecting localism. The next Bill also includes changes to the infrastructure financing regime, which overlaps directly with this Bill: for example, removing so-called unviable Section 106 agreements for affordable housing.
The CLG blurb accompanying the Growth and Infrastructure Bill states that those further changes could:
“Unlock investment decisions across a range of technologies, bringing thousands of new jobs and billions of pounds of investment”.
Those are almost precisely the same words used to justify the present Bill and a host of other initiatives over the past two years, each of which has been succeeded by another intended to achieve precisely the same objectives before it has even been enacted, let alone implemented. They are also the justification for the regional growth fund, only a tiny fraction of whose allocated funds have yet been released to businesses, as catalogued in the highly critical report from the Public Accounts Committee.
I have asked a lot of questions, and I entirely understand if the Minister writes to me about those to which he cannot get answers by the time he replies. I fully recognise that it may take longer than two hours —perhaps two years or even two centuries—to come up with a viable scheme for tolling the existing A14.
Let me end on a broader note. When the Bill was debated in the Commons, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that it would,
“facilitate headline schemes for infrastructure and housing investment, accelerate and bring forward investment in major UK infrastructure projects and increase the number of homes being built and occupied”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/10/12; col 121.]
Those are fine words, but what we need now is action. At the moment, we are simply chasing shadows.
My Lords, I am glad that infrastructure is defined in Clause 1(2), as it is a word that has such a wide meaning and without it I would not feel entitled to speak on the Bill, because I do not have expertise on the financial aspects of it. Guarantees are of such importance and relevance at present, when we need jobs to be created. I believe that the guarantees under the Bill will enable works presently delayed to be carried out so that they will be of benefit both to the nation and to individuals. My comments will be directed towards subsection (2)(e), housing, which will also automatically involve subsections (2)(a), because of the linkage of services, and (2)(b), roads and transport.
For a good many years, until I reached their retiring age, I was a vice president of the National House Building Council. I hold it in high regard and it provides an excellent service for small builders and individuals. When I had to rebuild my own home in the 1980s—sadly, it had split asunder due to subsidence—I valued the security provided by its guarantee, which I believe covered the first 10 years after construction.
Later, I learnt of the wide support that it gives to the home building industry and I know that it plays a very necessary part in the provision of homes which are again so badly needed. Awards were given annually to various categories, such as small builder of the year, rather like a mini-Oscar ceremony. I hope that the NHBC will, among others, encourage builders to produce commonhold developments. It is time that we got rid of the antiquated leasehold system for residential property, which exists only in England and Hawaii, I believe.
In the Housing Reform Act 2002, we introduced commonhold, but it has hardly been used at all. I believe that the main reason is that developers prefer to make more money by selling the freehold to one body and the leasehold to another. That means that owner-occupiers, particularly in blocks of flats, have little or no control over the work carried out on their properties or the costs of them. I am sure that your Lordships are aware that I have spoken about leasehold reform many times. I still have my flat in Australia, where our commonhold is called strata title. Under that system, all flat owners are members of the body corporate and all decisions about the block are made collectively. I am convinced that once a reputable company such as Persimmon—and lots of others—builds and sells one commonhold block, it will see how popular and effective the system is; once it takes off, there will be no turning back. Getting the advantages known to the public will prove the value to home owners.
In our 2002 housing Act on this matter, there is provision for leaseholders in existing blocks to apply to convert to commonhold, but the provisions of the Act make it almost impossible, as 100% of leaseholders must agree. Apart from the fact that more often than not one owner is not contactable, it is open to abuse by any superior landlord not wanting to change. They need to buy out only one person’s vote to secure retention of the property for the superior landlord. Would it not provide a wonderful example if the Government were to support commonhold as the choice of tenure for the buildings to be converted to residences on the former Olympic site? This would provide a real legacy for the Games.
Returning to the wider issues of housing, we are all aware of the desperate need for more housing. Finance has been in short supply and mortgages have been almost unobtainable. Small builders cannot employ staff or begin construction unless they are sure of financial backing. From the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, I thought that the flexibility in this scheme should clearly mean that small builders can be supported in the same way as anyone else; it does not have to apply only to huge construction firms. Many of these small builders have huge skills and capabilities.
A lot of noble Lords will remember the late Lord Taylor. He told me that his career began when he built one house—I think in Liverpool. Selling that house provided him with the funds to build two houses and he went on to head Taylor Woodrow, which was a great achievement for him and a wonderful example for anyone looking for a future in the industry. We should not overlook that; we should support small builders who are ready and able. I like the expression “shovel ready” used by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and builders are shovel ready and often desperate for work at the moment. If they cannot employ staff, they cannot get going.
There is another aspect of housing on which I must comment. At present, there is a great argument about green belt and non-green belt land. I made this point during the passage of the Localism Bill, but consider it worth repeating in the context of this debate and all recent debates on the subject. There are small pockets of land in so-called green belt land that are sited in the midst of fairly built-up areas. These infill sites already have all the infrastructure in place and homes could be built on them without the delay of waiting for services, such as power, roads, and so on. This would mean that builders could get working much more quickly. Naturally, whoever owns the adjoining house will not want new neighbours, but nimbyism is not to be encouraged. Providing the new build is in harmony with the neighbours, it would rapidly become acceptable.
Reading page 3 of the Library note on this Bill today, I was disappointed to see the negative comments from the Opposition in the other place. To speak as pessimistically as Rachel Reeves did for the Opposition—in col. 689—is most disturbing. Surely we should all welcome this hope of producing not only more jobs, but also more homes. All parties must surely support the principle of this Bill. To oppose it, which in fairness she said she would not, would be to kill off hope for people who would definitely benefit if this finance made the difference between action and no action on infrastructure.
I can better understand Nick Raynsford’s remarks about “deep scepticism” and his wondering whether the Bill will deliver all that is expected of it. We have heard similar comments from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. We all hope that it will deliver, but no one can know these things for certain. Without this Bill, I believe there is no hope for this necessary progress. It is a money Bill and I understand the significance of that, but I do not mind speaking on it. It is not something that we have any right to do anything about. We must go ahead with this financial assistance scheme; we must look to the Government to ensure that the money is put to good use to provide homes, systems, schemes and developments to the benefit of those needing work and homes.
I found many of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, very interesting, such as his comments on toll structures. I have just come back from Australia, and I was very interested to see how well the toll roads work out there. Whether they are appropriate for here, I do not know. That is not my field of expertise. The noble Lord said that things have not progressed but perhaps this Bill will help them to progress. We have to look at this positively and go ahead with this action by the Government. The important thing is that the money has to be spent wisely on guarantees. No one seems to be able to get a guarantee now from a bank for pretty well anything, particularly for major projects but also for small projects. My appeal today is that we try to help small builders to get going so that homes can be built immediately for those who desperately need them and so that builders can provide employment. I support the Bill.
My Lords, as I came into the Chamber this afternoon, I was told that I had missed the U-turn on the badger cull, but I am glad that I am here to see the U-turn on the Treasury’s economic policy. Unlike the badger cull, it is as if only some badgers are not going to be culled, but others will be. It is a very minor regression from their policy by the Government. I guess it will do no harm to spend £50 billion doing something, although I still do not quite understand why it is necessary.
There are two problems. The Government’s economic case—I thought I was one of the few people who understood it—was that they would withdraw from spending money because we do not have any money, which is fair enough, and the private sector would take over investment. The private sector is flush with money. There is absolutely no shortage of funds in the private sector. The balance sheets of private corporations are very generously funded. Therefore, if these infrastructure projects cannot get money from the private sector, one needs to know what the market failure is. If the market failure is that the Government should have been spending this money anyway, why are we doing it? If the problem is that the Government have to spend money because projects will not be funded by the private sector, I understand that. I grew up with that argument and have no problem with it, but in that case, £50 billion is not enough. As my noble friend Lord Adonis pointed out, there are many more things that could be done.
The Government are not doing that, but are doing this. I still have not seen an intellectual case or any evidence that significant numbers of people are unable to get money, although it may be the case. One reason could be that people need some kind of pump-priming investment so the Government have to start something for other people join in. The Government have to show some confidence in the long-term prospects of the economy by, for example, starting a third runway, upgrading the A14 or whatever, and then there would be supplementary investment. But this says that the Government will not do anything except stand there because in 1932 Baldwin prevented the Government doing it. I find it very surprising that the Government cannot do this in any case, but that is a bureaucratic thing, a regular Treasury thing, and so I will never understand it.
I find it intellectually impossible to understand why it is being done now, why, if it is being done now, it could not have been done two years ago and why a much more ambitious scheme could not have been done many years ago. Why have the Government waited two years and had a massacre of infrastructure projects before we got to this? Lastly, have the Government any idea whether this is going to work? I still do not know which projects are stuck because they cannot get a bank loan. If they cannot get a bank loan, is it because the project will not make money? If that is the case, is the taxpayer about to lose more money than before?
My Lords, I always enjoy the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. This is an important Bill, particularly for housebuilding, which is what I shall concentrate on. It was interesting that Radio 4 yesterday morning highlighted rapidly rising rents in the private sector and highlighted one of the reasons for this—the shortage of homes that we face in the United Kingdom. Housing is a vital part of our United Kingdom infrastructure. Not only does housebuilding help to boost the economy, particularly the construction industry—a point made by my noble friend Lady Gardner—it also solves a number of other significant social problems, including social housing waiting lists, high rents, the affordability of homes for first-time buyers and overcrowding, which is becoming acute in housing in this country. However, despite this, the coalition Government inherited a housing crisis in May 2010.
Under successive Governments, the number of homes being built has been declining. In particular, social housing stocks have been extremely badly hit. The coalition Government are committed to building more homes. We have already said that we expect to build 170,000 new social homes by the end of this Parliament. However, while the Government are investing state money in many of these projects, there is also a real need for support for private developers to get housebuilding projects under way, a point made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. The Bill will allow the Government to provide loans, guarantees and other financial support for infrastructure of up to £50 billion. As I understand it, £10 billion of this could be used to support housebuilding.
One of the problems of our housing infrastructure is its age. Very many of our houses were built in the last century, the century before and even before that. This means that our housing stock is incredibly energy inefficient and this does not help other matters that we are trying to deal with in reducing our carbon emissions. We just do not have enough houses. As I understand it, in 2011 390,000 families were created, but we managed to provide just in excess of 100,000 new homes.
The previous Government, despite the wide-ranging but scathing opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, did not do a lot for housebuilding. Housing construction—perhaps it was not all due to the previous Government—actually fell off a cliff during the financial crisis. In 2008-09, fewer than 100,000 new properties were started. Although the number has increased since then, we are still a long way off building enough new homes. I understand that the revised figure for 2011-12, as I mentioned earlier, is something in excess of 100,000 properties. Despite this positive news, a far higher percentage of these new starts were public sector-led, either by housing associations or local government, than were privately funded. In 2010-11, 24% of constructions were publicly financed compared to between 9% and 13% in the decade before.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, did not talk too much in his opening comments about his own Government’s record on housebuilding. During 13 years of the Labour Government, the social housing stock fell by well over 400,000. Although they had ambitious targets, they did not meet them in the 13 years. In fact, they consistently failed to meet their social housing target and, in their last year of office, they missed it by 78,000.
The lack of social housing and delivery of new private sector housing has led to a number of very serious consequences. Average house prices in January 2012 were estimated to be under £200,000, and for those of us who spend our time in London, we know that here—and particularly in Westminster—the position is even worse. This is an increase in the past decade of almost 70%. An average of 21,658 properties has been deemed to be overcrowded at any one point in the past three years. The lack of supply has also meant that homes cost more to rent. The mean rent of the private rented sector in 2010-11 was £160 a week, and that has risen considerably, leading to very large bills for housing benefit. That bill has increased from £11 billion in 2000-01 to £21 billion in 2010-11. If we look at other figures to do with the private rented sector, which is where a lot of people have to find their homes now, because we have not built so many social properties, there has been an 86% increase in working families claiming housing benefit. We now have more than 400,000 people receiving housing benefit. What is more worrying is that we have another 10,000 applying for housing benefit in the private rented sector every month. The total number has risen by 37% in three years. We can see why it is important that we find some way in which to support the construction of more homes in our country.
I shall spend a very short time on the area I come from, the north-east of England, where housebuilding numbers have suffered greatly since the financial crisis. They have slightly improved on the latest figures, but again in the north-east it is housing associations and local authorities that have taken up the greater number of starts. That shows a real need for more support for private sector housebuilding.
I have spoken on housing matters in this House for more than 20 years and in that time housing has never been really high up the political agenda. For many years we have not had a Housing Minister sitting around the Cabinet table, which is one reason why housing has been a little bit down the agenda. Instead of having its own department, it has been part of another, now called the Department for Communities and Local Government. In my time in Parliament, that is the fourth name for that department. It is not one of the highest performing departments, yet housing and housing infrastructure is such an important part of what happens in our country and in our economy.
I am very glad that the Government have brought forward this Bill. If there are technical details about why we could not do it before, that is a good reason to have it. We need to do all we can—and personally I want to see greater progress in the number of homes keeping up with the number of people and in building homes that produce less carbon. I give my support to the Bill.
My Lords, I hesitate to disagree with two distinguished professors of economics from the same institution as me, the London School of Economics, and with my noble friend Lord Adonis. Actually, I do not mind; it is good to have a bit of controversy in these debates, even from the same side of the House. Anyway, I feel more positive about this Bill than they do.
To me, the Bill is quite interesting, set against a background of previous government policy and the Government’s previous approach to cuts. It seems to mark something of a move away from the Government’s formerly—if I may say so—somewhat primitive approach to cuts, which everyone accepts have to be made. In many areas the Government have looked for cuts in a simplistic and even counterproductive way by not analysing their knock-on consequences. As a result, we do not even know in some important areas whether the cuts that are made truly are cuts.
I will give an example from the sector that I know best, the university sector. In this country we have a number of world-class universities. However, the consequences for the economy of the Government’s migration policy are very debatable. I have looked at the figures provided by the country’s main university groups, and it seems to me that these measures have cost the country money, not saved it. If you do not look at knock-on consequences, you simply do not know what a cut amounts to.
It is also very important to say that the obverse applies—renewed investment does not necessarily imply more borrowing, even in the short term. Again, it depends wholly on the economic consequences for jobs, revenue and demand. Whatever the limitations of the National Infrastructure Plan 2011, it seems to make clear that infrastructure spending can have a multiplier effect on productivity, employment and demand. The Government should always seek to balance these things when looking to produce a more effective system of savings and growth for the economy.
Infrastructure investment is a key area for other reasons. The professor at Oxford, Dieter Helm, a writer I much admire for his work on energy and infrastructure, has recently edited what seems to me to be the definitive book on British infrastructure, which rejoices in the sexy title of Delivering a 21st Century Infrastructure for Britain. I do not know how many copies it will sell but it is a pretty good book. He makes the point forcefully that not many businesses would want to locate in the UK because of its infrastructure which,
“is not fit for the digital age and much of it is very carbon-intensive”.
It depends which ranking system you chose but in the most well used one, the Competitiveness Index, the UK ranks only 24th in the world for competitiveness in the area of infrastructure. The outgoing Labour Government must shoulder quite a bit of the blame for this situation. Even though I am a Labour supporter, the Labour Government’s record—my noble friend Lord Adonis will forgive me—in transport, energy and housing was not impressive.
I have four questions to ask the Minister. I know that he is going to want to reply to the bombardment from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but he might perhaps spare a bit of time for my pathetic little inquiries. First, infrastructure is a very wide category and the Bill makes it open to a diversity of investors. How will balance be achieved if too much funding concentrates on certain areas? How will priorities be determined? There is a lot on priorities in the national infrastructure plan but I cannot see the relationship between that and the Bill at the moment, especially if it is driven too much by who is actually prepared to stump up money rather than by an overall plan.
Secondly, the Government claim initial successes for their pension infrastructure platform but the problems of linking pension funds to infrastructure investment are well known. Only 1% of pension funds globally are invested in infrastructure projects—for good reason, as there are often high risks in the early stages of such investment and pension funds are not normally geared to such risk-taking. How will the Government confront this issue?
Thirdly, and importantly, where will the burden of risk end up? As these are long-term projects, will the burden of risk in the Bill end up with the public sector in most cases, and therefore will they, as I said earlier, involve far greater cost to the public purse than might appear in the system that is set out?
Fourthly, energy is mentioned often, but what will be the relationship between this Bill and the new Energy Bill, which I believe will be published next month? At the moment energy policy seems to me, and I think to most people in the industry, pretty chaotic, with the Prime Minister saying one thing and other Ministers saying something else, with the Treasury apparently holding different views from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Do the Government recognise the need for at least a 20-year planning cycle for core energy supplies? Does this not imply getting well away from a strategy based largely on short-term market fluctuations? In other words, I do not see from this Bill and the plan how long-term planning is to be achieved. We know that it cannot be achieved by the methods of the 1960s and that it is difficult to plan on a long-term cycle when technological innovation and other innovations are inherently unpredictable. Planning there must be, though, and the Government should devote a lot more attention to what form this will take if their interventions in infrastructure are to be at least a little bit more successful than the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, thinks is possible.
My Lords, as someone who has never been averse to having a go at the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I start by saying how idiotic and puerile it is for newspapers to make a lead story of which ticket he used for his journey from Chester to London. It is George Osborne’s stewardship of the economy, not his travel arrangements, which deserves censure. However, we have an infantile press.
Three big mistakes stick out over the past two and a half years. The first was the belief that cutting down government spending would automatically produce recovery. I know the Government now claim that they never believed anything so simple or idiotic, but they did, and there is plenty of evidence to prove it. Austerity is not a recovery policy.
The second has been the Chancellor’s failure to distinguish between current and capital spending. This has made the deficit seem more dangerous than it was. The prime example of this blind spot was the £50 billion cut in capital spending. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has drawn attention to the devastating consequences of this for the construction industry and for house, transport, education and hospital building.
The third was the Chancellor’s belief that without a severe fiscal contraction Britain would go the way of Greece: that is, interest rates would go through the roof. This was doubly wrong. First, with an independent central bank able to buy government debt in whatever quantities were needed there was never any chance of gilt yields rising to the levels experienced by Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, a reduction in the cost of government borrowing is no guarantee of a reduction in the cost of commercial loans sufficient to offset the collapse of the private demand for loans. That is the explanation of a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, regarding cash mountains sitting in corporations.
All three mistakes were interrelated parts of the wrong theory of the economy. Anyone who is interested in economics must start the analysis there. I am not going to go into it, but it is well known to those who are economically literate. The results have been zero growth since George Osborne took office. That was entirely predictable and was predicted by some of us. I have been saying for two and a half years—and I am not alone—that austerity would not produce growth and it has not produced growth. Now the international agencies are saying the same thing. Slowly but surely, the Government are being driven to plan B, though the Prime Minister prefers to call it plan A-plus.
It is against that background that I give a cautious welcome to the proposals in this Bill. Better late than never, better too little than nothing at all. As I understand it, the Bill aims to do three things. First, it provides for the Government to guarantee up to £40 billion or £50 billion of “nationally significant” private infrastructure investments which have to be ready to start within 12 months of the guarantee. As the Treasury explains it, the aim is,
“to kick start critical infrastructure projects that may have stalled because of adverse credit conditions”.
That is Treasury language. The guarantees might cover key project risks such as construction, performance or revenue.
Secondly, the Government will lend money directly to private investors to enable 30 public/private partnership projects worth £6 billion to go ahead in the next 12 months; I do not think that has been mentioned yet in the debate. Finally, a £5 billion export financing facility will be available later this year to overseas buyers of British capital goods; in other words, an export credit guarantee scheme of the type we are all familiar with. I would like to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said. Having cancelled about £50 billion of certain public capital spending, the Government are hoping to replace it with an equivalent amount of private capital spending, much of which will never happen. That is completely illogical.
The main difference between this Bill and the British investment bank, which I have been urging, is that my bank—I call it “my bank” because I feel a certain sense of paternity in the idea, having been floating it for the last three years—would actively raise money in the private markets for its own investment projects whereas UK Guarantees, the government scheme, merely provides some finance for projects initiated by the private sector. In other words, the government scheme is still governed by the ideology that the private sector is more likely to pick winners than a state investment bank and that that is sufficient justification for waiting for the private sector to produce its projects.
My Lords, the logic of what is being said is not that it is more likely to pick winners but that it already has all those winners. The only things holding them back are the risks of the projects which the taxpayer is taking over. It is a new theory to replace classical economics which—as the noble Lord well knows—says savings cause investment. Now we have loan guarantees causing investment and it is just as nonsensical as a serious piece of economics.
The noble Lord is quite right. The argument can be developed, but my point about picking winners and losers is that there is no empirical evidence for it being true, as a general proposition, that the state is more likely to pick losers than the private sector. We have had many examples of that not being true. The economic collapse of 2008 is a very good one.
Would the noble Lord accept that there is actually evidence that the state is quite often better? If you look at the history of energy industries and most technological innovations, they have normally been kick-started by government investment. This applies to all the major technology that has transformed our lives over the past 20 or 30 years.
I am happy to accept that. I was making a more modest claim.
A mere guarantee for privately initiated schemes is bound to be less successful, apart from in the efficiency of the schemes, at securing the required volume of investment than a commitment by the Government to a definite infrastructure programme. So while I wish UK Guarantees well, a certain amount of scepticism is in order.
In the final part of my speech, I want to consider what is happening to the economy. When an economy is crawling along the bottom, any small wave is likely to lift our spirits. Over the past three quarters—that is, the past nine months—the economy has shrunk by 1%. Even if, as now expected, it achieves a positive growth of about 0.8% this quarter, that still leaves it in roughly the same place as it was a year ago. Moreover if, as commentators suggest, this boost is due to the Olympics, it will be in the nature of a windfall. However much we may rejoice in the achievements of our athletes, 28 gold medals is not enough to turn the British economy around.
However, there is still a puzzle, which is that unemployment has been static in the past few months, and even falling slightly, despite the fact that output is flat and the economically active population has increased by 550,000 over the past two years. You would therefore expect unemployment to have increased. Why has it not done so? That is the puzzle. There are several possible explanations, none of them conclusive, because the facts necessary for a convincing answer are buried in a labyrinth of tricky statistics and slippery definitions. It may be that employers have been hoarding labour, but that becomes less plausible the longer the recession goes on. Part of the answer at least must be that productivity—that is, output per hour worked—has been falling. As the Guardian put it,
“it now requires many more of us to labour away to churn out the reduced volume of stuff”.
Falling productivity is just as serious a problem for the economy as rising unemployment, and a greater problem in the longer term.
The Prime Minister claims that 900,000 extra jobs have been created in the private sector over the past two years. I never know how many it is—sometimes it is 900,000 and sometimes it is 1 million; it goes up every day, but I am sticking to the 900,000 figure for the time being. That is not of course the net increase in jobs, given that 400,000 jobs have been lost in the public sector. The net increase in jobs has been 500,000. Can the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, tell us how many of the net gains in employment are full-time? Labour market statistics suggest that more than half of them are part-time or self-employed. Can the Minister also say whether those registered on government work programmes count in the Prime Minister’s extra 900,000 private sector jobs? The point is this: if a lot of the private sector job creation consists of part-time low-skilled jobs at the bottom end of the service sector, it would explain the decline in productivity that limits the rise in unemployment, but it is a poor omen for that vibrant, high-value economy that is supposed to secure our future prosperity.
I wish the Government well in these plans because I wish the country well, but we will need much more solid evidence than we have seen so far to believe that we have turned the corner and started to repair the damage of the past two and a half years.
My Lords, I will return to the narrow interpretation of the Bill, which is about infrastructure rather than employment figures. We all know that this country needs investment in our infrastructure which is second class. Our housing stock is too small. The Government are trying to address these problems. The Bill is a welcome contribution, although it is just one of many measures now being implemented, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, pointed out. However, as I listened to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and their criticism of projects postponed, I had to disagree. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, may well term me an economic illiterate, but it was right to postpone these projects because it was a simple matter of the accounts.
When the Government came to power, they were faced with a dreadful deficit, and their priority, quite rightly, was deficit reduction. However, not only were they seen to be reducing the deficit, but they had to persuade the financial markets that they were serious. Clearly, they have succeeded in persuading them of that and that is why we have the ratings we now have. Under the previous Government there was much talk about prudence, and prudence with a purpose, but profligacy was the reality. We now have a more prudent approach, and it is only because of that approach that the Government are now in a position to bring forward the scheme in this Bill.
We heard much talk from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about the rise in rents and the problems that this is bringing to housing benefit. Providing housing benefit for those who cannot meet their rent now costs taxpayers almost twice as much as it did three years ago. We cannot afford that bill, let alone more. We need more affordable homes to rent and we need to enable those who want to own their own home to get a foot on the housing ladder. This Bill will help by giving backing to those who will provide the new homes. However, our needs go far beyond housing. If we are to compete as an economy, we must make long-overdue improvements to our road and rail networks, to our energy supplies, and to our airports. We cannot wait too long for that.
This Bill pledges some useful support for projects that need a helping hand, but the private sector can, and should, finance most of the infrastructure projects, with the Government in the role of enabler. I am glad to say that, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the Treasury is looking at £257 billion worth of projects to come forward over the next five years. I gather that 180 projects are now earmarked for development. These include the new, and crucial, nuclear power stations. Negotiations with the suppliers have now reached a very critical stage, when they have to be persuaded that there will be some guarantee of long-term price stability. I do not know how that can be done, but it is clearly extremely important that we should have nuclear power. The question is: how are these to be funded? The Government are now striving to find some innovative ways of securing that funding, because banks will not provide long-term funding. Five years is the longest that many of them will now contemplate.
We are due to hear more about these funding plans in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. It is interesting that, thanks to the Indian summer we have just had, autumn now comes in December. Apparently, the Statement will include details of the new-look PFI. I do not want another PFI. They are profligate, foolish, and inept, and we will be paying through the nose for many years to come for too many of those schemes that came forward through the old-style PFI.
The public were duped into believing that we could have new schools, hospitals and bridges without paying a penny. If it looks too good to be true then it is; and it was. Too many of the investors, many of them offshore, have made fortunes out of PFI, while the public have been saddled with long-term future commitments. These were heads-I-win, tails-you-lose commitments. We do not want PFI again, or anything like it. We need something new and innovative, and I hope that the Government will come forward with some means of providing funding that will not leave the public sector on the hook, as it has been. For example, as regards roads, the need for improvement is clear; there are potholes everywhere. However, if we are to have new roads, someone has to pay, and the Government simply cannot afford to. Surely it is right that those who use the roads pay; whether through tolls or through other electronic means of road pricing. That is surely the way forward. We have to avoid things such as the M6 toll road, where Macquarie, in its various guises, is now said to be making a return of about 150% a year.
There are sources of long-term financing that we need to tap into for such projects. The insurance and pension funds have long-term liabilities which could fit neatly with these schemes. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made mention of the pension funds. Clearly, they are right to have some qualms, but the Government are working with various trade bodies, including the Association of British Insurers, to try to devise ways in which the funds with long-term liabilities might come together to provide funding for major infrastructure projects. I hope that we will be able to hear more about that in the Autumn Statement. The talking has gone on for a while; it would be good if we were soon to see some action.
Finally, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, for reminding us that this country can do infrastructure rather well. We should not lose sight of the fact that the Olympics were a great success, and the gold medal tally was pretty good too. However, we can do infrastructure and we need to get moving on it.
My Lords, I thank Ministers for briefing some of us about the Bill last night. It was a very interesting introduction to it.
First, I should like to spend a few minutes examining the wider problems, beyond the financing, associated with getting projects off the ground, such as the approval process, planning and, of course, the appraisal criteria. I think it was two years ago that Infrastructure UK published a report comparing the civil engineering costs of big projects in the UK and Germany. The costs of construction were remarkably similar, but what was different was the enormously greater cost of getting projects off the ground in this country. It was very interesting that in his introduction the Minister said that one of the criteria for financing was that you had to get the project off the ground within 12 months of obtaining the finance. That is quite a challenge. First, presumably one has to get through compliance with the Treasury Green Book, which is an incredibly complicated document. You need lots of consultants’ reports to support your case, which costs time and money, and sometimes the results are such that you wonder whether the exercise is worth while. A similar document is required for transport projects and, again, it is incredibly complex. It goes down to fractions of a second, timing millions of cars, and that decides whether you build a motorway, a road or something else. Again, that costs an enormous amount of money. What will the criteria be for allowing these projects to be financed in this way? At the same time, does the Minister agree that it is about time that the Green Book and the equivalent transport document were reviewed to make them cheaper and simpler?
The next issue is planning, alluded to by my noble friend Lord Adonis. Planning delays are getting longer and longer. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Some rail freight terminals in the south-east have gone through two planning inquiries. The Minister lost the last judicial review on one of them, so he is now thinking of a reason for having another planning inquiry. One might suggest that, in considering these things, Ministers should obey the law and look at these things objectively, as I am sure their legal advisers will have asked them to do. However, it all adds up to an enormous cost for developers and enormous time delays. Getting planning permission for some of these projects can cost £10 million or even £20 million because of all the consultants involved. Therefore, while I welcome the finance in the Bill, I am not sure how much it is going to help things to go ahead.
Secondly, I want to cover briefly what the Minister said about this Bill having minimum impact on the public sector finances. I would say that I have not been speaking for 10 minutes yet; that may be wishful thinking on someone’s part. There are so many here who are experts on finance that I deign to tread there, but if we have a £50 billion fund for investments or guarantees, does that not affect the PSBR somehow, if it still exists? A couple of years ago I asked the Secretary of State for Transport—it was Philip Hammond, who was two Secretaries of State ago—whether he had any views on whether Network Rail’s debts should be on the government books. He said that he was agnostic about it; I do not know whether that still applies. There is also said to be a debt liability of £1 billion on the Channel Tunnel going back 25 years, so I do not know how all this works. However, I cannot believe that a £50 billion fund or guarantee from the Government has no effect on government finances. I am sure that the Minister will be able to put me right on that.
While everyone is encouraging projects to go ahead with a kick-start, I find one in particular a bit odd. This is the second Bill this year that would authorise government funding for the Thames tunnel. The previous one was the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Act 2012. Why is there this enthusiasm for pouring public money into a Chinese-owned so-called public-private sector utility? Are the Government not aware that on 18 October the European Court of Justice, in its judgment C-301/10, found that the UK had not complied with directive 91/271 in respect of the Thames and another river somewhere up north, but that in seeking to comply the Government should look at the best known technology that does not impose excessive costs? I think that £4.2 billion—the equivalent of £80 every year for 30 years on every water payer within the Thames Water catchment area, which goes as far as Oxford and beyond—is probably excessive if there is an alternative. Paragraph 64 of the relevant judgment says:
“The concept of BTKNEEC”—
that is what it is called—
“thus enables compliance with the obligations of Directive 91/271 to be secured without imposing upon the Member States unachievable obligations which they might not be able to fulfil, or only at disproportionate cost”.
Even without this government money, then, the Thames tunnel will put all that money on. It may or may not comply but the judgment requires the Government to look at this again and at alternatives, which I believe exist. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, said that money should be put to good use and spent wisely. This is an example where, if it goes ahead, it certainly will not be. I hope that the Minister will impress upon his colleagues in Defra the need now for an independent review of the different options for complying with the ECJ ruling and for mitigating the fine which, at its worst, I am told could reach £1.5 billion. There is big money at stake here and a lot of it could be saved by looking at different options a little creatively. I will be meeting the Minister in a couple of weeks’ time to discuss this, when I shall expand on it further.
My Lords, as predicted this has been an extremely interesting debate. I think I have been grilled by three LSE professors, which is probably par for the course in your Lordships’ House. I will do my best to respond to many of the questions raised. As an introduction, I have two points for the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. First, as far as I am aware, under the previous Labour Government’s plans there was an intention to have significant reductions to the deficit, about which not one word escaped the noble Lord’s lips. Presumably, had he had some ongoing responsibility he would have been trying to make sure that all that reduction had no impact on infrastructure spending. But that was wishful thinking. There would have been significant changes in infrastructure spending, even if the noble Lord was still in his former position.
Another point was made earlier by my noble friend Lady Maddock. Labour's record on housing and other areas of infrastructure expenditure, particularly social housing, hardly stands forensic scrutiny. It has certainly left us with a legacy on housing which we are struggling to put right.
The noble Lord asked a plethora of questions and I can respond to only some of them. His concern for the A14 is touching. I can confirm that it is a priority project. The Government announced in July that there will be support for an upgrade of the A14. As he surmised, the proposed scheme involves tolling. We are continuing to work on the funding package and are focusing on finding ways to bring forward construction earlier than 2018 by, among other things, streamlining the planning and procurement processes and identifying local contributions to the costs of the scheme. As my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said, although circumstances are different in Australia, if other countries can do tolling it should not be beyond our ability.
The noble Lord asked about airport capacity and was scathing about the fact that we have now embarked on a review. Sadly, he did not tell us what Labour’s policy was in terms of hub airport capacity. The fact that I do not know what it is is no doubt a failure on my part. He also asked about HS2 and I can assure him that we are expecting a Bill on HS2 in the next Session. The Government are pressing ahead with the scheme.
The noble Lord referred to the fact that some 63 of the projects in the national infrastructure plan had vanished. That is true. It is the nature of large projects: some are brought forward and disappear and others come forward that were not there then. He will be relieved to know that next month there will be an update on the national infrastructure plan and he will be able to see not just which projects have dropped out but which new ones have dropped in.
The noble Lord asked why a second Bill concerning infrastructure was coming forward with infrastructure in the title—the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. That Bill has a completely different purpose from this one, although they have a single objective, which is to bring forward economic activity. That Bill deals with the planning and other non-financial constraints around getting housing in particular going. This Bill is purely a financial Bill.
My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes raised the desirability of getting more small builders operating. We agree. There has been a big reduction in the small building sector. We intend to support the establishment of a debt aggregator, which is an inelegant phrase. Such a body will be able to raise relatively large volumes of finance to lend to organisations such as builders needing smaller amounts of funding than a typical bond. It acts as a collective that will allow the money to filter down.
My noble friend also asked about the green belt and infilling. We are committed to safeguarding the green belt, but we recognise that there is some previous developed or brownfield land in many green belt areas that could be put to more productive use. We are encouraging councils to make best use of this land while protecting the openness of the green belt in line with the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, accused us of doing a U-turn, or perhaps he congratulated us—I am not absolutely sure. He said that one of the problems is that the system is flush with money and he asked what the market failure is. There are two components, possibly. First, many companies are short of confidence to invest, largely because of the international economic situation. And secondly, the banking sector has not fully recovered from the great heart attack of 2008 and long-term lending in particular has not returned to the conditions that we saw before the crash. This is trying to help make it easier for banks which are very unwilling at the moment to lend in the long term, even for projects which in normal times they would lend on. As I mentioned in my opening speech, the volume of interest we have had suggests to us that this will be effective. The noble Lord said that many people are stuck because they cannot get a bank loan, which is undoubtedly the case. That is because of the problem that I referred to that the financial markets are not in a normal mode for long-term lending.
My noble friend Lady Maddock helpfully referred to the fact that the Government are committed to building 170,000 new social homes during the course of this Parliament. But she made the point that there are 390,000 new households being formed every year. We have a big problem and it is partly a cultural problem across the political parties. In the 1950s parties had in their manifestos figures indicating the number of houses that they were going to build. This was one of the key things that made Macmillan’s career. Housing has slipped down the political agenda and different sectors—health and education, for example—are vying for funds. We are all having to reassess the urgency of the need to get more funding into housing. It is a long-term issue and it is becoming more and more clear that it is a difficult issue; all parties, if you look at their performance in recent years, have tended to give it a broadly equal degree of priority, but it has probably not been a high enough degree of priority.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, asked me four exam questions and I will do my best to answer at least some of them. He asked about priorities and how Infrastructure UK decides between all the proposals coming forward. We have set out a menu of things, all of which are important, but there is not any artificial predetermination of priorities before we see what the applications say. Every application will be looked at on its merits.
That is a philosophical question, almost. When is a menu a plan and when is it not a plan? If I am making a dish, it very often lists a number of things that are absolutely required to make a successful dish but it does not necessarily say in what order I need to chop them up. The menu taken together would undoubtedly represent the implementation of a very significant plan.
I am always in awe of the culinary skills of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and am extremely grateful for that way of looking at it. However, whether it is a plan, recipe, menu, or none of the above, the key thing is that, as far as risk is concerned, which was the second question that I wanted to address, the Treasury will be responsible for managing the risk and assumes the contingent liabilities. Value for money, as I said earlier, is key.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, asked about the pension infrastructure platform, about which I should perhaps have said more. As he may know, last week, seven pension funds announced that they would be initial subscribers to the platform. They will each invest at least £100 million. We hope that the system will be up and running early next year and that it will be the first element of a much larger fund. As to why we think that pension funds might now get involved in this kind of investment whereas they have not in the past, the answer is that, in the past, they have been able to get better returns through conventional means of investing the money. At the moment, with interest rates so low, they are getting very low returns. The other problem that they have had is that, where they have gone via private equity houses which have managed infrastructure programmes, they have often found that the programmes have not worked very well and that they have been charged an arm and a leg for it. So this is a way for the funds, with support from the Treasury, to get into what could be very important new form of investment without what they have seen as being the unreasonable cost of going down a purely private sector route.
The noble Lord also asked about the relationship between this Bill and the energy Bill. The purpose of the energy Bill is to set a framework for investment in the energy sector over the medium term. Once the energy Bill, which will come forward relatively soon, is enacted, and against the framework that that Bill sets out, people looking to invest in the energy sector can form a view about what they want to do and individual projects will be eligible for support under the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, started with three nonsenses and will not be surprised that the Government do not agree absolutely with everything that he said. I find it almost incredible to think that if the Government had not been seen to get the fiscal position under control, interest rates would not have gone up. Even if they had not gone up to the levels that they are at in Greece or Spain, a single percentage point increase in interest rates, among other things, costs mortgage holders in the UK an extra £12 billion a year and would over the course of a Parliament, with all other things being equal, cost the Government about £25 billion. These are very important considerations. Interest rates would almost certainly have been higher if we had turned on the tap.
On his proposal for a British investment bank which would raise money in the private market, the noble Lord will not be surprised to know that the Treasury view is that, if that bit of the state is raising money in the private market and conventional government borrowing is happening in the same private market at the same time, the markets will judge the pair of them together as a common pool of demand from the UK Government. Therefore, we could not segregate borrowing for a British investment bank without it having consequences for the way in which all government borrowing was viewed.
The noble Lord asked how many of the net gains in employment were self-employed or part time. There is a false assumption that working for oneself or working part time are somehow second-class things to do or things that people do not necessarily choose to do. Some people are forced to do one or the other. However, when I was made redundant in the last property crash in 1992, I in effect became self-employed by setting up my own company and it was one of the better things that I have ever done. It did not mean that I was economically out of the market or that I was not able to grow anything. Many people who become self-employed find that they are successfully self-employed. Equally, many people who work part time—and even the Guardian accepts that the figure is at least 80%—do so through choice rather than because they are forced to.
Would the Minister be kind enough to answer my question? What proportion of the Prime Minister’s 900,000 new jobs are part time and what proportion are full time? Further, are those employed under government work schemes included in the figure of 900,000?
I am afraid that I do not have those figures to hand but I will write to the noble Lord.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, raised concerns about continuing the old system of PFI. Many people share her concerns about the way that PFI has worked, and in any future schemes I know that the Government will seek to avoid the problems of the past in that respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked several questions, one of which concerned the criteria were for which projects come forward. As I said in my opening remarks, the five principle criteria are that the schemes be nationally or economically significant, financially credible, good value for money for the taxpayer, not solely dependent on a guarantee to proceed, and ready to start construction in 12 months. He asked whether the £50 billion affects the PSBR. The answer is that it affects the PSBR only if guarantees are called upon. My understanding is that if it is a contingent liability, this does not affect what I still think of as the PSBR.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, also asked about the Thames tunnel and whether we might have an independent review. Living as I do on the Thames and being subject to many public meetings about the Thames tunnel, it seems to me that the current programme of proposals on the tunnel involves a huge amount of consultation and much discussion of alternatives. Having got this far on what seems to be an unavoidable necessity, I certainly would be extremely loath to think that we had to go back to the drawing board and start again with an independent inquiry.
It will not be abolished. I will pass on the noble Lord’s concerns to my colleagues in the Treasury, who I am sure are already aware of them.
This is an important and much needed Bill. It will allow critical infrastructure projects that are being held back by adverse credit conditions to proceed and will support much needed investment in the rented housing sector. It contains measures that will support growth, jobs and families, all at minimal cost to the taxpayer. It will help to unlock the investment that the UK urgently requires to make it one of the predominant places in the world to do business, and to support sustainable growth that is balanced across sectors and regions. I request that the Bill be given a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.
Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules
Motion of Regret
That this House regrets that notwithstanding welcome but limited measures to ensure the deportation of foreign criminals and tackle sham marriages, and notwithstanding the importance of greater protection for the taxpayer, the Government have not demonstrated that the specific minimum annual income requirement which has been introduced through the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules (HC 194) is the most effective way to protect taxpayers and deliver fairness for UK citizens who wish their spouse or partner to settle in the United Kingdom.
Relevant document: 6th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, I should say at the outset of this debate that we support the Government in their efforts to address and manage levels of immigration to this country and to make it easier to deport foreign criminals, but my Motion of Regret is on the specific aspect of HC 194, that part of it which sets an income threshold of £18,600 for British citizens and people settled here who wish to sponsor their spouse or partner to come to live with them in this country and of £22,400 for couples with children. I would also like, during the course of the debate, to raise with the Government the issue of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights—that is, the right to respect for private and family life—and the Government’s proposal to find greater legal clarity by balancing Article 8 with public interest considerations.
On income threshold, of course it is right that if an individual wishes to bring their family to settle here in the UK, they should not assume that the state will support them. That is why it is already a requirement for an individual to demonstrate that they have access to sufficient funds at a level that will put them in a similar position to someone on income support here in the UK, so that they will not seek recourse to benefits. Unlike a blanket income threshold, the current position allows authorities to take into account the different ways in which a couple may be able to demonstrate that they can meet that requirement. For example, currently, the joint income of a couple can be taken into consideration when assessing whether their funds are adequate, as well as the likely employment prospects of one or both of the parties. Couples are also able to use an undertaking by members of their family in the UK to provide them with adequate funds for maintenance as evidence that they will be able to support themselves without recourse to the state.
I understand that that leaves a level of discretion in decision-making, and we support efforts to provide greater clarity in the rules, to eliminate opportunities for abuse, but we must also recognise that, nowadays, we live in a world where it is commonplace to travel, to study, to do business and to work abroad, so it is only natural that people from here in the UK will travel, fall in love and form long-term and permanent relations across borders. Family circumstances are not always as straightforward as government policy assumes. Many in your Lordships’ House will know of couples of different nationalities, friends and family members, who have established long-lasting relationships through living and working abroad.
When my Motion of Regret was published, I received several letters by e-mail and fax from those who have been affected by government policy. I do not know the circumstances of all those who have contacted me, but as a generalisation, I would class those who have contacted me directly as strivers—a term that the Prime Minister has used. They are people who work hard to provide for themselves and their families, not rich or wealthy people, but often people who work hard in useful jobs on wages lower than most of us in your Lordships’ House have come to expect in our working lives.
I want to refer to a couple of examples that I think may help your Lordships’ House in considering the issue. I shall call one family Mr and Mrs M. They are a married couple. She is from a Commonwealth country; she is Canadian. Both of them have children from previous marriages. They married in 2005 in the UK and lived in the UK for a year, when she went back to Canada to go to university to complete her education, which would no doubt lead to a better job. As she puts it to me in her correspondence, it was,
“short term suffering for the long term benefits”.
Her husband visited Canada a couple of times and they then decided that they would settle in Canada. For a number of reasons, not least being his responsibilities to his family here in the UK, including his parents, who were getting old, he moved back home in 2010 and they agreed that she would follow him once he found work. In the mean time, his wife sent him money from her earnings in Canada to buy household items for the new home that they were going to set up here in the UK. Again, these are people trying to do the right thing in seeking to support themselves. Alfred got a job; he was doing well and she started to complete the visa application form. However, in July 2012, their world just fell apart because he did not earn the £24,800 that the Government said he had to before his wife and two children could join him. His father was a miner in Wales; he had a low income—both were proud men and proud of their work. They estimated that his wife—when they thought she was going to join them—would get a job in the region of £18,000 to £24,000. Yet despite all their planning, and all their efforts to provide for themselves, they have fallen foul of this rule and are now living on different sides of the world.
There is another lady who contacted me, Miss BF. She and her non-EU partner plan to marry in December 2012. She wrote:
“I do not earn £18600. I work part time as a healthcare assistant for the NHS. I am unable to work full time as I have a 14 year old son … If I worked in London I could earn the £18600 however the cost to rent in London would probably be triple the cost of my current mortgage. The income threshold does not allow for variations in circumstances. It does not allow for the earning potential of single parents, or for women in general. Our wedding plans are now on hold”.
So no regional variation—or, again, partner’s income—is taken into account.
Mr S—a highly qualified man who has worked in government in the past—also outlines in his letter to me the perverse incentive of an absolute threshold. He lives some distance from London. He says:
“I’m desperately trying to find a job that would make the required £18,600 a year. In this area, that scenario is a difficult one, so I’m looking for work in London. If I secure such a job, earning the required salary, it’s likely that most of this would be spent on the high costs associated with living in London. Yet the government deem this ok. However, I could probably find a job in this area earning around £14-15,000 and would have more disposable income to support my family whilst having the assurity of living with my parents in the short term.”.
All these are people trying to do the right thing—trying to support themselves. As there is now no flexibility in the system, but a very blunt policy of a blanket income threshold, the rules can unfairly penalise couples like Mr and Mrs M, and people like Mr S and Miss BF. Can the Minister confirm that we have members of the Armed Forces serving overseas who, if they were to marry somebody they met on duty overseas, would have an income that would fall below the level expected by the Government and who therefore would not be allowed to bring their new wife or husband back to the UK with them?
People who are trying to do the right thing and who are strivers—and the Prime Minister has used both those terms—and who would so easily be capable of supporting themselves and are determined to support themselves without relying on the state, are being turned away. We need a system that delivers protection and fairness for existing tax payers, but also fairness to families like this who will ultimately be net contributors to the system.
This is about the right to family life for British citizens and those permanently settled in this country. That is not an absolute right but one that is rightly qualified by the public interest test. None the less, it is of the utmost significance to the lives of many British citizens who wish to settle their families in the UK. Did the Government properly and adequately examine all the options for the most effective method of delivering fairness to both families and taxpayers? We contend that the Government have failed to do so. The Government have relied on the response of the Migration Advisory Committee for justification of the policy and the level at which the income threshold has been set.
So, what was the question that the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee, which provided the evidence that this was the correct policy? Did the Government ask: “Is an income threshold the most effective way of delivering fairness for the taxpayer and families and preventing abuse of the system?”. Perhaps the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee: “What would be the best way of ensuring that those bringing a spouse or dependent children into this country would not have recourse to public funds?”. It was neither of those questions. Instead, the initial question that the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee was framed in a way that made it clear that they had decided the policy before asking the question. It was,
“what should the minimum income threshold be for sponsoring spouses/partners”.
The policy of a single income threshold had been decided, and the question was asked in such a way that it could only be answered with an assessment of the amount. The Government pre-empted any independent advice from the Migration Advisory Committee on what would be the most effective and fair process for determining adequate means of support without reliance on the state because they had already unilaterally decided on an income threshold policy.
Why did the Government think it unnecessary to consult widely on other options? I am not passing judgment or commenting on the merits or otherwise of alternative options. I am not aware of the evidence that would allow your Lordships’ House to make a judgment. However, it seems to be a flaw in policymaking if other options were not fully considered—such as a bond or taking a couple’s combined salary into account, and of course there will be others. An income threshold or an even higher level of savings should be independently judged against other options to see which best delivers the Government’s policy objective, because this measure is flawed.
In the current economic climate, an individual earning £40,000 today might lose their job tomorrow. Is an income threshold for just one member of the family really the most reliable guide to whether a family will be a net contributor to the state over time? Can the Minister confirm that the net reduction in migration via the family visa route from this policy will be around 15,700 individuals and that net migration is still around 220,000? In advising on the level, the Migration Advisory Committee acknowledged that a large proportion of current applicants via the family visa route would be unable to meet the requirement of the income threshold set out by the Government. Leaving aside the amounts required for dependent children, it is considered that the threshold of £18,600 for a spouse or partner would exclude some 45% of applicants who are currently successful and currently bound by the same obligation not to have recourse to public funds. Given that the Government’s policy objective is to ensure that families should not become dependant on the state, can the Minister inform your Lordships’ House whether there is evidence to show whether any, or what proportion, of the 45% who will no longer be eligible have broken that obligation in the past and sought recourse to public funds?
We agree that Article 8, regarding the right to respect for private and family life, is a qualified right and must be balanced against other public interest considerations, the first of which is public safety. People who reside here on a temporary basis and do not respect the laws of this country should not be able to expect to stay here. It is right that we as a Parliament should seek clearly to establish how Article 8 should be balanced against the consideration of public interest in such cases. The Home Secretary, in a Motion before the House of Commons on 11 June 2012, stated:
“Article 8 is clearly a qualified right, but Parliament has never set out how it should be qualified in practice. So, for too long, the courts have been left to decide cases under article 8 without the view of Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons 11/6/12; col. 49.]
If the Home Secretary believes that Parliament has a duty to clarify the position, why did she table a Motion in the House of Commons but not in your Lordships’ House?
When questioned about this approach the Government responded that if a debate on this negative resolution was not triggered by a prayer against the Motion, the Government may consider alternative options to ensure that a debate was held in this House. However, if the Government recognise that they need to have a debate in both Houses to ensure that the courts get the clarity they are seeking, why did the Government not table a Motion for debate in both Houses?
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised serious concerns about this approach in its sixth report. It said:
“We also question why the Home Office is taking a different approach in the two Houses: seeking the Commons’ explicit approval of a motion; but relying in the Lords on the negative procedure”.
On what evidence have the Government judged that this lopsided procedure will be considered by the courts as trumping case law? The committee raised similar concerns, saying that:
“While the Home Secretary’s intention is clear, questions remain about whether the Government’s approach can deliver it. The Home Office provides no evidence to support its view that the procedural approach it proposes will lead the courts to react in the way the Home Office anticipates … Accordingly we draw this aspect of the policy to the special attention of the House on the grounds it may inappropriately implement its policy objective”.
Why have the Government not done their job properly in this regard and sought to bring forward primary legislation to grant both Houses of Parliament the opportunity to properly debate this issue and provide the courts with proper clarity on the will of Parliament?
I said at the beginning of my comments that it is right that the courts have greater clarity and my right honourable friend the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, has said in the other place, and we entirely concur, that she would be happy to work with the Government to achieve that end. The Government have recognised the lack of legal clarity surrounding the need to balance Article 8 considerations in considering the deportation of foreign criminals and yet our great fear is that they have chosen a method about which many people have serious reservations that it will make any difference at all. The number of foreign criminals deported increased every year under the previous Labour Government. That number is now falling by some 18%.
Of course it is right that we crack down on sham marriages; that we seek to prevent abuse in all areas of the immigration system; and that we seek to deliver fairness for taxpayers in this country. That is why we supported an increase in the minimum probation period before settlement under the family visa route and limits on the family members who can come to the UK under this route. However, the Government have not demonstrated that the income threshold is the most effective policy to protect taxpayers and deliver fairness for those legitimate couples in this country, such as Mr and Mrs M, those I have mentioned tonight and others who have written to me and to other noble Lords, who simply wish to live with their partner or spouse in a country which they consider home and not seek recourse to public funding. It seems to me that in bringing this forward the Government are fiddling around the edges while avoiding the biggest issue; tackling the thousands of people who overstay once here and get lost in the system, often to work in the black market, undercutting the wages of people here and living in exploitative and often dangerous conditions.
The Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules does a disservice to the taxpayer and to your Lordships’ House. It does not address the problem as the Government seek to say it does.
My Lords, I join this debate briefly because I was intrigued by the noble Baroness’s Motion. I have discussed it informally with the noble Baroness. Having looked at this and made a study of average wages, I think it would be helpful if my noble friend in replying could confirm what is in the instrument, as was drawn to the attention of the House by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in its report back in July. The committee said:
“The changes to immigration rules contained in HC 194 are extensive although mainly intended to strengthen or clarify the current position and reduce overall numbers claiming a right to settlement on the basis of family life”.
I welcome the fact that we are having a much more open and honest debate about immigration than perhaps we would have had three or four years ago. I read the memoir, Back from the Brink, by the right honourable Member for Edinburgh South West, Mr Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he confirms that perhaps things were not spoken about in the past. Immigration is an issue, and it is something about which we should be a lot clearer and have a discussion.
If it is the intention of this rule that we are to reduce overall numbers, which is how I have interpreted it, equally the rule changes before the House in this instrument seem to make it absolutely clear that financially, among other things—and it is among other things, because the financial aspect of this minimum threshold of income is part of a package of rules—people who live in this country and have dependants can afford to maintain them as well as live an average life. I always think that it is difficult when we talk about averages. Therefore, the bar has been set at £18,600, although the appendix to the instrument refers to a,
“minimum income threshold of £18,600 for those who wish to sponsor the settlement in the UK of a partner of non-European Economic Area nationality”,
and says that a,
“higher threshold will be required for sponsoring any dependent child under the age of 18 in addition to the partner: £22,400 for one child and an additional £2,400 for each further child sponsored before the migrant parent qualifies for settlement”.
It would be helpful to the House if my noble friend could clarify how that threshold was set. If I have understood it correctly, it is the sort of policy that one sees elsewhere. It is a level set to ensure that people are not dependent on the state. But, equally, there is another dimension to people’s wealth within the family. I wonder whether my noble friend could touch on something that was debated in some fullness, along with the economic impact of immigration, by the Economic Affairs Committee of this House. I have a copy of the committee’s report from the Printed Paper Office. In 2007-08, noble Lords discussed the question of capital. Apart from the threshold of income, how is capital considered? I realise that the noble Baroness, in tabling this Motion, looked at those on low incomes and the impact that this measure might have on them, equally there are families for whom capital can be a substantial part of their income. Will my noble friend say a few words about those who sometimes would be regarded as capital rich but income poor? Capital does not seem to be mentioned here at all, so, going back to that very good report that came out of the Economic Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House in 2007-08, will my noble friend touch on that issue?
In adverts that encourage people to migrate to other countries, one often finds a focus on certain occupations. In English-speaking Commonwealth countries, they are particularly focused on people with certain skills, who are able to carry out certain occupations. Presumably, apart from the need to recruit those skills into those countries, there is also a focus on the ability to be financially independent. I thought that I would contribute to today’s debate as earlier in the week I went through some research that looked at levels of pay. I realise again that we are dealing with these dreadful averages, which are never quite what our personal experience is of individual cases. For example, if we look at teachers’ pay, the scale point for people newly qualified starts at £21,588. Looking at the salary bands that might apply here, we are looking at professionals and we are probably looking at people who have gained qualifications in a trade or a profession that would make them employable on coming to this country.
I also took a quick look at regional variations, particularly the average salaries in cities and the different categories there. In London, the average salary is £33,000 a year, which is not typical perhaps because of the nature of London. I went up to Aberdeen and found it was £33,000—no different from London. In Bristol, in the south-west, the average was £27,900. I will not read them all out to the House but I did not find any figures in the average city salaries below the £18,600, or anywhere near it, that would sustain a family with two children.
I want to ask my noble friend this question and I ask for a frank reply to it. If we are reducing the number of people allowed to come to live and work in this country—which is what the instrument is about and this is an open policy as we realise these matters need to be brought under control—are we gauging it at £18,600 plus the additional amounts for dependent children on the assumption that people will have qualifications or professions in which they can work which would add to the British economy? Is that what is steering it? Can my noble friend give some indication as to whether that figure is to recruit people where we have skills shortages or just a bar that has been set to make sure that in opening our shores to people from abroad we are not encouraging dependency on the state?
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. She has raised some very pertinent questions. While I want to focus on the income thresholds, I want also to draw attention to the concerns raised by BID, Bail for Immigration Detainees, about the implications for children of measures to ensure the deportation of foreign criminals.
BID’s experience is that wide powers already exist to deport foreign national ex-offenders, and in the very few appeals against this which are successful it is often because the courts have found that grave harm would be caused to a child by deporting the parents. It says that the Government are now seeking to prevent the courts from upholding the law to protect these families. In the view of BID, the measures do not allow for adequate consideration of the child’s best interests. For example, it does not follow that it is in a child’s best interests, if there is another relative that they can live with in the country, to live with that relative and to be permanently parted from their parents; or, say, if the parents have been in prison and the child has been living in foster care, for them to be deported with their parent to a country that they have never visited before.
Liberty, too, raises concerns about the implications of the changes for children and concludes:
“It is clear from the Government’s proposals that it is paying little more than lip service to the importance of UK children’s interests in immigration decisions … Far from placing children at the heart of immigration decisions, the proposed changes seek to relieve officials of the responsibility for weighing up the interests of a child in any but the most clear cut cases”.
I would welcome the Minister’s response to that and his explanation of how children’s interests will be safeguarded.
As we have heard, the Home Office’s human rights statement and the Home Secretary have emphasised that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on the right to respect for privacy and family life, is a qualified right. As my noble friend Lady Smith has already said, we accept that. However, as Liberty argues, there is,
“a delicate balancing exercise to be struck between the rights of the individual and wider social interests in, for example, the reduction of crime and disorder and the protection of the economic interests of the UK”.
Liberty and I do not accept that the proposed changes,
“properly accommodate the fact-sensitive balancing exercise that the right demands”.
Liberty argues that instead they,
“represent a one-size-fits-all approach to complex immigration decisions. … Far from better reflecting the proportionality required under Article 8, the proposed changes seek to circumvent the crucial fact sensitive consideration of decisions involving fundamental rights”.
The Government argue that the income threshold is proportionate in meeting their legitimate aims of safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK. It is a sad day when the economic well-being of the UK depends on keeping apart a few thousand poor families each year without adequate attention being given to safeguarding the well-being of children and their families.
The Migrant Rights Network points out that, because of differences in earnings across different social groups, the new income requirement will disadvantage women, who we know are still on average paid less than men, some minority ethnic groups and people living outside the south-east. My noble friend gave an example that illustrated the unfairness of that fairly arbitrary or one-size-fits-all limit.
The Home Office human rights statement acknowledges that the income threshold may be challenged under Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights in terms of its equalities impact, particularly with regard to whether this constitutes unjustified indirect discrimination against these groups—for example, women and those nationalities who the evidence shows are likely to have lower earnings. Having raised this possibility, the Home Office’s only answer was that this will be mitigated in some cases by the exemption from the income threshold of those in receipt of carer’s allowance, and that certain contributory benefits such as maternity allowance will be allowed to count towards the income threshold. That is welcome as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Otherwise, the Home Office considers that any indirect discrimination is proportionate to public policy objectives. We will see, but I imagine that this will be tested in the courts.
I find it repugnant that we are going to means test family life. Means-testing generally purports to target help on the needy and exclude the better off. This is a reverse means test that excludes the needy, as if people on low incomes have nothing to contribute to this country. The existing “recourse to public funds” rule is already designed to prevent the supposed burden on the taxpayer that we hear so much about. According to Liberty, and as my noble friend has already said, it is being replaced by a far blunter instrument.
The impact statement makes a virtue of the shift from a more discretionary approach, which it says is complicated for caseworkers to operate, yet in other areas of policy the Government favour more discretionary approaches and say that we have to get away from a one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, as Liberty argues, the proposed changes as a whole contain an armoury of blunt instruments which, far from better reflecting Article 8 and the Immigration Rules, may well leave the rules in breach of it.
The changes reflect badly on a Government who claim to be the most family-friendly Government ever and who are supposed to be applying a family test to all their domestic policy decisions, as they suggest that some families are considered not to matter because of their immigration status and their poverty.
My Lords, this is a very important debate, focusing as it does on family and children’s rights. We have all heard from organisations such as the ones that have been mentioned, including by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister—Liberty, Bail for Immigration Detainees, and so on—and I shall rely on the evidence that has been given to them in my later remarks.
Since these changes were published, a further three sets of changes have appeared: HC 514 of eight pages, HC 565 comprising 56 pages and Cm 8423 with 276 pages. These latter two statements spell out in detail how decisions on leave to enter or remain are to be made, following the rulings of the Supreme Court in Alvi. To summarise, at the risk of oversimplification, Alvi said that statements in guidance and elsewhere that were not in the Immigration Rules, such as particular types of evidence that have to be submitted with an application, were unlawful because they had not been laid before Parliament as required by the parent Act. I realise that we are not talking about these subsequent statements of changes this evening, but obviously the legal advisers and their clients who are considering the effects of HC 194 will have to look at these other instruments as well. It would be astonishing if, given the length and complexity of all the changes taken together, there were not a steep rise in the number of applications rejected because of some minor omission or mistake.
My first example is from the organisation BritCits, which defends the interests of families who are affected by this set of changes. Rob is a British professional musician with a first-class degree in music. He has taught music and performed at concerts, has an eight year-old son and lives in a detached house in Huddersfield. He fell in love with and married an Indonesian woman and his wife applied for a spouse visa on 26 June. As a self-employed worker, he submitted three years of bank statements—originals and copies—and everything as requested, leaving no stone unturned. For over two months the message was that the application was under process at the British embassy, until early September when an e-mail arrived asking for the spouse to take an SELT English test. The e-mail indicated that if she did not submit this within seven days, the application would be rejected. Despite the short notice, the wife took the test and submitted it on time. A month later, they received a message saying that the application was refused because of the English test. Rob was amazed because his wife’s English was extremely good. On inquiry, they found that she had passed the reading, writing and listening requirements but had inadvertently omitted the speaking part. A lawyer advised them that the only remedy was to lodge a fresh application, at a cost of £900. The same thing happened to a friend of mine. It is not an uncommon experience for people to make a minor error and find that the whole application has been rejected. The UKBA does not give applicants a chance of remedying minor omissions of this sort.
The Motion says that the Government have not demonstrated that the specific minimum financial requirement is the most effective way to deliver fairness. That stricture can also be extended to the provisions dealing with savings. This may answer part of the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning: I quote the example of a woman with three children applying to join her husband who would have to show evidence of savings of £62,500, which is well beyond the resources of most young families.
A four-page guide produced by UKBA tells applicants that they need to read Appendix FM-SE, another 26 pages of dense prose, which was added to the rules on 20 July, specifying what supporting documents may or not be supplied as evidence of compliance with particular financial requirements. The sums involved are undoubtedly substantial and they mean that many spouses and children who would have been able to satisfy the previous requirement—that they could be supported and accommodated without reliance on public funds—will now be denied entry. That is, indeed, the letter of government policy. The Migration Advisory Committee estimates that if the financial requirement in this set of rules had been in force in 2011, it would have excluded 45% of successful applicants, even though all those spouses and children were assessed as not needing access to public funds.
The £18,600 limit is to be applied to the sponsor alone—no account being taken of the potential earnings of the spouse, the support provided in many cases by third parties such as the spouse’s parents, or the provision of free accommodation by parents or other relatives. Aaron, a British citizen who is married to Kano, a Japanese woman he met when she was in the UK on a two-year working holiday, lives in Bristol where all his family and friends are also based. It is an area of low pay but also of lower living costs, and Aaron earns just under the £18,600 threshold. With his wife’s potential earnings, the couple would be easily able to support themselves without recourse to public funds, but that cuts no ice under these new rules.
Then there is the treatment of elderly parents, which has not been mentioned so far. Sonel is a British citizen living in the UK for more than 12 years. She has worked for the British Government, paid her taxes and never claimed a penny in benefits. She now wants the right to bring her elderly parents here from Australia, where they have no family, so that she can look after them in their old age. However, the new rules state that if you have two parents living together in another country, you can bring them here only if they are so incapacitated that they cannot dress, wash or cook for themselves. Even that is not enough, though; I believe that the rule has been designed to prevent any elderly parents being able to join their children here, although every other country in Europe allows it, and I ask my noble friend to say how many have actually managed to get past this rule—or how many he thinks will get past it.
The Government want to get total net immigration down to below 100,000 by hook or by crook, and they do not care if in the process they divide thousands of families by excluding spouses and elderly parents. In doing so, they have gone as far as they dared towards the limit set by Article 8, taking into account the qualification set out in the Explanatory Memorandum.
The former Minister for Immigration, Damian Green, said rightly that no set of rules can deal with 100% of cases, but he was wrong to suggest that genuinely exceptional circumstances could be dealt with by means of discretion exercised outside the rules. In the case of EB (Kosovo) in 2008, the House of Lords declared:
“The search for a hard-edged or bright-line rule to be applied in the generality of cases is incompatible with the difficult evaluative exercise which article 8 requires”.
The inference of the new rules is that an evaluation of private and family rights under Article 8 is not necessary because they are already taken care of in the text of the rules. There will be no exceptionality test because, as the Supreme Court and the House of Lords have said repeatedly, there is no such thing. There is no specific requirement, for example, to consider the best interests of the child or to have regard to the age, health or vulnerability of any person affected by a decision. Where there have been significant delays by the UKBA and the weight given to the public interest in favour of a person’s removal has thereby diminished, there is no scope to vary the decision dictated by these Procrustean rules.
The Home Office points out that in assessing the proportionality of decisions under Article 8, decision-makers were not able to rely on the rules to ensure compliance with Article 8, but the Home Office is wrong to conclude that the practice of the courts and the inadequacy of the rules prior to the statement that we are discussing,
“led to unpredictability and inconsistency which are anathema to good administration”.
One of the main causes of this unpredictability and inconsistency was the Home Office’s failure to accept and implement the judgments of the courts, both domestic and European, and to issue corresponding guidance to the decision-makers and presenting officers so that they would refrain from trying to advance long-rejected arguments about the application of Article 8 and, latterly, the best interests of children. This was one of the reasons why UKBA lost 36% of the cases that went to appeal in 2010-11.
It is also not clear that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is satisfied by the absence of any discretion. The Explanatory Memorandum states at paragraph 7.5 that,
“where a child would have to leave the UK as a consequence of the decision to remove their parent … the best interests of the child will normally be met by remaining with their parents and returning with them to the country of origin, subject to considerations of long residence in the UK”,
and any exceptional factors.
In many of the deportation appeals that currently succeed on Article 8 grounds, children will have been separated for periods of years from parents serving prison sentences. They may have formed strong bonds with their foster carers, and being suddenly separated from these carers could be very harmful to them. At the same time, though, the involvement of their parent in their daily care could be of vital importance to the child’s well-being. If so, it is unlikely that the child’s best interests will be served by reuniting her with this parent at the boarding gate of a flight to a country where they have never been before, as part of a forcible deportation. In these and other situations, the best interests of the child may be served by giving her the chance to re-establish a relationship with their parent in the UK, while still having the support of the foster parents. Yet there is no allowance for this in the Statement.
The policy vacuum that the Home Office says is caused by keeping proportionality decisions outside the rules could easily have been remedied by changes in the rules that reflected the decisions of the courts. I would be grateful if my noble friend could say how it plans to deal in the future with decisions that go against it on grounds of proportionality, as may well occur. Just because Parliament says that it has drawn lines saying what the boundaries of proportionality are does not mean that those boundaries are unchallengeable, or that the courts will treat them as sacrosanct.
My Lords, I do not mean to detain the House for long, but I would like to echo some of the concerns that have been mentioned today, particularly on the inflexibility of the income test. Looking at what is laid before us —a specified gross annual income of at least £18,600, an additional £3,800 for the first child and an additional £2,400 for each additional child—a clergy family with three children would not earn enough stipend to meet that test. The reason why they survive very well is because their housing costs are met, as are their council tax, and there are other means of keeping them housed in areas where the Church wants them to live and minister.
I can think of two examples of a UK passport holder, a member of the clergy, whose spouse holds a foreign passport outside the EU, one of whom has three children. Whatever you think of the mission of the Church, which is of course promoting the Christian religion of the Church of England, one of them also lives in an extremely deprived area, and the social capital that he has added to that area is considerable. This is not simply someone coming to take advantage of the state but someone who has given an awful lot, which has been recognised by local authorities.
Inflexible rules cannot deal with these sorts of difficult anomalies, and so discretion needs to come in. The overall thing that I would like to echo is: how is this now being monitored? How is it being applied, and is it applied fairly? When UK Border Agency hard cases come into the public domain, anxiety is always raised, and of course it is easy to do that. I appreciate the fact that these are hard-working officials, and indeed, when given an opportunity to meet some of them I appreciated their frankness and their willingness to look at how they might help. Nevertheless, there are too many stories of the difficulty that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, described as happening in some of these applications. I can think of another member of the clergy, a UK passport holder, who was going through the whole process to help his spouse to get leave to remain. They were told that they could not apply before a certain time limit. They applied at the time limit and then, when they applied for a slot for her interview, they were told, “There are no slots left”. These are intelligent people who can cope with that sort of thing, but there are many people who cannot.
I do not think that anyone in this Chamber would want to deny the scale of the problem that we must face as a country, but against that background, having realised the problem, where are fairness and justice going to be helped to be seen to be done, and how is the UK Border Agency being monitored to see that it is applying standards of fairness to the best of its ability?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, very much for bringing this regret Motion before the House. In fact, if anything, I regret that it is only a regret Motion. I would certainly have followed her through any Lobby if it were more of a fatal Motion because I feel that there are some fundamental issues here.
It is interesting that this regret Motion has been put forward this week. My weeks are often imaged by the cover of the Economist, which I read most weeks. This week it is inaccurate in one way, although accurate in another. It says:
“Immigration. The Tories’ barmiest policy”.
Of course, that is wrong. It is not a Tory policy; it is a coalition policy. It includes my party as well. Its argument is that the policy on immigration very much restricts the economic and financial potential of this country, but here we have pinpointed an area where we are restricting the moral, ethical and family aspects of our society within the UK.
I say to the noble Baroness that I was probably one of the few people in this country to be very disappointed that the leader of the Opposition apologised for Labour’s “migration mistakes” in 2004, which allowed the best talent from the new European member states—which in many ways we had treated treacherously in the settlement after the Second World War—to come to this country, because they were restricted in going to other EU states. They repopulated much of Scotland, and in the south-west, where I come from, they manned much of the tourist industry, which had found it difficult to find talented and energetic workers. Therefore, I regret that that happened.
I understand entirely that sham marriages exist. They are a cancer on the institution of marriage and they are probably growing in number. That has to be stopped by whatever means possible. I also agree that there cannot be limitless migration. However, our society is becoming more and more international. Taking my family as an example, some of my wife’s children live in Singapore and others live in Argentina. Her grandchildren have mixed religious affiliations and mixed nationalities. People meet other people more and more on an international basis, particularly when they are youngsters and in their first areas of work. Therefore, this problem is going to get worse.
I say to the Minister that I believe this matter comes down to two important issues. Those are fundamentally moral and ethical, with human rights perhaps coming third. First, it must be fundamentally in the DNA of the UK that its citizens can marry whomever they want. That has to be a basic right of our citizens, who have one of the greatest and deepest histories in terms of being able to exercise individual rights. I also say to my Conservative colleagues—perhaps not the ones who are here but some of the others—that it is absolutely wrong for the state to intervene so strongly in deciding whom you are able to marry and live with. It is wrong that the state should be able to intervene to that degree. If the marriage is a real one—and that is always the important question—then people should be able to marry exactly whom they like and to live exactly where they like.
My Lords, I confess to a number of areas of confusion, the first being what the rules actually say. Other noble Lords have referred to their complexity. For me, looking at any set of Immigration Rules is a quick route to a migraine. I have been used to reading rather more than glossy magazines in the course of my career, so if I find them difficult—without wanting to be too big-headed—then so will many, many others.
I was reassured, in a sense, by the briefing from the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association but that reassurance is very limited. It tells us that it is running advanced courses for solicitors and barristers on the financial requirements that are a part of these rules and has sent noble Lords an extract from its training notes, just to give us a glimpse of the complexity. Our laws should be accessible. Immigration is so difficult that legal practitioners have to be specially licensed. I, for one, am very grateful to the organisations that have briefed us. They helped me to short-circuit the work for this debate quite a lot, but that is not good enough when you are actually advising individuals.
The second area of confusion is on procedures. I do not normally like getting hung up on procedures, because it is the substance that matters, but this is something to which the noble Baroness referred because it is within the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member. It commented that it was important to know the basis of a debate because that affected the “steer” that the courts would take. Since the rules are now in force, the distinction to which it drew attention between a general debate and a prayer may be history, to an extent. However, that is probably history which will repeat itself in the future. I certainly agree that how we deal with Immigration Rules—I would use both an upper and a lower case “r” for that—leaves a good deal to be desired.
Thirdly, I have to say that there is a little confusion about the Motion itself. It is not like the noble Baroness not to be straightforward. I think I read in her Motion that the rules are welcome, but not welcome enough, on deportation and that “protection for the taxpayer” is important. However, I then get a bit stuck on the phrase,
“notwithstanding the importance of greater protection for the taxpayer”.
I am not sure where the noble Baroness was pointing your Lordships with that reference. I think I am rather more critical than she is on that basis, and in two respects. First, the taxpayer has an interest in the system working well on its own terms—there must be a question of whether one so complex actually does so—and, secondly, in the value for money of its administration.
There is also the wider interest of the taxpayer: yes, in value for money but this taxpayer, for one, believes that being in a country that welcomes immigrants and what they bring in terms of their culture as well as their skills is important, as is being in a country which recognises the breadth and depth of its moral responsibilities and is conscious of its reputation. I am instinctively uneasy at the implication that a restrictive immigration policy is the best way to protect taxpayers. There are of course few subjects more emotive than immigration, although noble Lords who have had anything to do with local government will know that dogs and trees are up there with it. I believe that it really would put the wider debate on immigration policy on a much firmer footing if responsibility for immigration statistics were in the hands of the Office for National Statistics.
I understand that the Government are seeking to provide clarity and certainty around the application of Article 8. However, Article 8 does not really lend itself to certainty—certainly not to complete certainty. It is not absolute, being conditional and circumscribed, so the rules themselves provide, to quote the ones on deportation, “only … in exceptional circumstances”, and “normally” to be proportionate. My noble friend Lord Avebury has reminded us that Lord Bingham said:
“The search for a hard-edged or bright-line rule to be applied to the generality of cases is incompatible with the difficult evaluative exercise which article 8 requires”,
because each case, being different, requires judgment and discretion.
Many of the rules throw up a particular concern about the interests of any child who is involved. The 2009 Act places a duty on the Secretary of State to put in place arrangements for ensuring that “regard” is given to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child in the UK in relation to immigration. I am not entirely clear how much of the concern arises from the rules and how much is underlying the rules from that primary legislation. But it is certainly the case that the interests of the child are not paramount in this area. “Regard” is only a point along the spectrum, and we have been given a number of examples of how family life and the interests of the child have been and will be affected.
Liberty has drawn attention to its concern that:
“Far from better reflecting the proportionality required under Article 8, the proposed changes seek to circumvent the crucial fact sensitive consideration of decisions involving fundamental rights”.
There are, of course, real concerns about the impact of the rules. Having read the statement dealing with the presumption that a person is liable to deportation if the public interest requires it—which covers a lot more ground than just when there has been a criminal offence—something occurred to me. Without wanting to condone criminal behaviour, because my party has made it very clear that we seek to prioritise the deportation of criminals, could some immigrants, being destitute, have been driven to petty crime? Have we placed them in that situation?
Rule 399 seems to be very tough, but it includes discretion. It states that “leave may be granted” and that a,
“person may qualify for further limited leave”.
I do not understand whether these provisions are giving the Secretary of State a discretion. I do not know whether the Minister will be in a position to amplify this tonight because I have not given notice of this question, so perhaps he can do so later. But do Rules 399B and 399C, from which those extracts come, give the Secretary of State a discretion or do they do something else? I would be glad to have an explanation at some point.
Turning to those who seek to come into this country and the financial requirements, I recognise that £18,600 is at the lowest end of the range in the Migration Advisory Committee report. I am pleased that, as a result of my party’s influence, the figure was not predicated on earning the median wage. But they are complex figures. The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, referred to the question of capital and the rules give us a multiplier of 2.5. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how that figure was arrived at. I must say to the noble Baroness that Aberdeen, in both its income levels and housing costs, is very close to London, but the rest of Scotland is mostly rather different.
I am concerned about the probationary period. As I read it, a couple who have lived together overseas for four years have to live together for a further five years when they come to this country to qualify for leave. That takes us beyond the seven-year itch. The qualifying periods seem long. When I say long, I mean that they do not recognise the closeness of a relationship to which my noble friend Lord Teverson referred. The English language requirements are something to which my noble friend Lord Avebury drew attention and about which he expressed concern in a debate earlier this year. I will not talk about those any further but they are on the agenda in this context, too.
As almost all noble Lords have said, and the noble Baroness was very clear about this, we live in a world where people meet partners from overseas, but the rules do not seem consistent with the Government’s express support for marriage and family life. My own personal example is of a young woman, not an EEA national, married to a British man. She is a human rights lawyer, employed by an international agency a long way from the EEA, and she wants to join him here. The five-year probationary period will make it very difficult for her because the sort of job that she would be looking for—ironically, in the human rights field—would be likely to be in somewhere like Geneva or Brussels, and she would jeopardise her UK status if she were to pursue her admirable career in that way.
The changes will not, as the Home Secretary has acknowledged, mean big differences in terms of a reduction in migration so I close by repeating my call for migration statistics to be—if I can put it this way—migrated to the Office for National Statistics.
My Lords, I welcome this debate. The Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has given us an opportunity to debate this matter in this House. It has been a good debate and a lot of very interesting aspects of these rules have been raised. I am sure that noble Lords will not expect me to comment on individual cases. My noble friend Lady Hamwee did me a good turn by referring to the complexity of the rules because they are indeed extremely complex. If I fail to cover particular aspects of the points made and questions asked, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I address them in correspondence after the debate.
These new rules are a major reform of the requirements for family migration by people of non-European Economic Area nationality. They form part, as noble Lords have said, of the Government’s overall programme of reform of all routes of entry into the UK. The new family rules have three aspects, and I thank my noble friend Lady Browning for her welcome of these three aims. My noble friend Lord Teverson pointed out that the coalition has taken a different view from his own. I accept that but I think he will agree that the coalition is being consistent in its approach of this vexed problem of immigration.
I would also like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for her general support of elements of these rules. First, they tackle abuse; for example, by extending from two to five years the probationary period before partners can apply for settlement to test the genuineness of the relationship concerned. My noble friend Lady Hamwee questioned that, but I believe that it is a reasonable expectation which should help to deter applications based on sham marriages.
The new rules also make it harder for foreign criminals to prevent their deportation from the UK through weak claims to a family or private life here under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The rules now correctly reflect the strong public interest under Article 8 in seeing foreign criminals removed from this country. I welcome the support that the noble Baroness has given to these measures.
Through my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad—who is not in his place at the moment—and the members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for drawing the rules to the attention of the House. The committee has reviewed the new rules and made some important observations about the relationship between them and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Immigration Minister, Mr Mark Harper, has written to the committee in response. I cannot be sure that noble Lords will have seen that letter, but, with the leave of the House, I shall place a copy in the Library.
Perhaps I should comment on why there have been different parliamentary procedures in the Commons and in the Lords. It was explained by the approach of the Home Secretary in her Oral Statement to the House of Commons on 11 June. The House of Commons had a four-hour debate on this issue; we are having a debate here, too, to address these important issues because the rules of this House enable a Prayer to be tabled against rules of this nature. I am pleased that we have had the opportunity of doing so. I hope that we will continue to scrutinise this important area of government policy.
I may return to the purpose of these changes. Our second aim is to promote the integration of family migrants into British society; for example, by requiring those applying for settlement from October 2013 to demonstrate that they can speak and understand English at intermediate level. I do not think that any noble Lord has criticised that proposal, although my noble friend Lord Avebury pointed to a situation where somebody had fouled up the test by not completing it properly. I think that it is a reasonable expectation which enhances the rules.
The third objective, which has aroused considerable debate, is to reduce burdens on taxpayers, in particular by introducing a minimum income threshold of £18,600 a year to be met by those wishing to sponsor the settlement of a partner, with higher amounts for sponsoring dependent children. I do not think that I paraphrase the noble Baroness too much in saying that this was really at the heart of her Motion.
Those who wish to establish their family life here must be able to stand on their own feet financially. Family migration needs to be on such a properly sustainable basis, which is in the interests of migrants and of communities in the UK as a whole. The previous requirement, for applicants to be maintained adequately —for which there was a test, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said when she questioned the need for a threshold—was interpreted by the court as income equivalent to the level of income support, which is around £5,500 a year for a couple. This, frankly, was not an adequate basis for sustainable family migration and good integration outcomes. In particular, it provided little assurance that UK-based sponsors and their migrant partner could financially support themselves and any dependants over the long-term.
Section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 generally prevents a migrant partner accessing welfare benefits before they qualify for settlement but not thereafter. The Department for Work and Pensions has estimated that in February 2011—these are the figures that I have—around 267,000, or 5%, of payments of working-age benefits were made to migrants of non-EEA nationality when they registered for a national insurance number. This included migrants who entered the UK through the family route.
The old maintenance requirement also involved a complex assessment of the current and prospective employment income of the parties, of the extent of their other financial means—including current and promised support from third parties—and of their housing costs. It also relied on complex provisions in the Immigration Rules designed to prevent sponsors accessing additional benefits from the migrant’s presence in the UK, which were hard to administer effectively. That is why the Government have decided to establish a new financial requirement for sponsoring family migrants which is fair and transparent and which helps to prevent family migrants becoming a burden on the taxpayer.
As has been pointed out by noble Lords, the minimum income threshold of £18,600 for sponsoring a partner and the higher levels for also sponsoring dependent children at £22,400 for one child and an additional £2,400 for each further child—and I reassure my noble friend Lady Browning that she has those figures right—are based on the independent advice of the Migration Advisory Committee. These reflect the level at which, taking account of any children, a couple once settled in the UK generally ceases to be able to access income-related benefits.
The Government consider this to be a fair and adequate basis for family migration that is right for migrants, local communities and the country as a whole. My noble friend Lady Browning rightly got to the nub of this issue when she asked why the income is set at £18,600. It is set at this level because people earning this amount will have skills to contribute to the UK economy, and it is the level of income at which the Migration Advisory Committee advised that a couple once settled generally cease to be able to access income-related benefits.
My Lords, if that is the case, why have the Government refused to take into account the income provided by the spouse? Surely, if the £18,600 figure is sufficient to ensure that recourse to public funds is not on the cards, then that £18,600 should apply to the joint incomes, not to the income of the sponsor.
That is the decision that was made. The Migration Advisory Committee was asked to look at the amount of money that a couple would require on the single income—the sponsor’s income. Indeed, it is the sponsor’s income that is vital to understanding this case.
My noble friend also asked how the capital should be dealt with. As pointed out by my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the multiplier is two and a half times the shortfall in income, and that, too, I believe, came from the same recommendation from the Migration Advisory Committee.
My Lords, while the Minister is on that point, it would be helpful to the House if after today we could have an explanation of what lies behind both that action, which is less of an issue because it is a judgment, and my noble friend’s question about why a spouse’s income is disregarded. Indeed, one could add to that the question of why support from a third party, such as a parent of one of the spouses who would be prepared to guarantee the income, which I am sure is not uncommon, should be disregarded. What lay behind those decisions? What was the rationale? I do not expect the Minister to answer that now.
It would be much easier for me if I could inform myself before I sought to inform the House on that issue. I have stated the position as I know it to be, without knowing fully the policy development that led to that conclusion.
There has been criticism of the fact that there is no regional variation but, once people are in this country, they are free to move wherever, and it was felt that there could be great difficulties if a regional variation were permitted for that very reason.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, expressed concern about what will happen to people who lose their jobs. We will expect a migrant to be able to meet the same financial threshold when they apply for further leave but, once the migrant is in the UK, we count any income that they earn, as well as money from their sponsor, towards the threshold. That is an important response to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Avebury. In some circumstances, we will allow the migrant to continue at a lower rate on a longer route to settlement to allow that transition to take place. Both the noble Baroness and my noble friend asked about prospective earnings and I will seek to answer that in correspondence, as I promised.
We have also built significant flexibility into the operation of the threshold—for example, by exempting sponsors in receipt of certain disability-related benefits or carers’ allowance. I was asked specifically by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces are exempt from these rules.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, felt, as did several noble Lords, that the rules were not sufficiently focused on children. We understand the importance of the statutory duty, which goes back to the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK. That is why we have reinforced our approach by bringing consideration of the welfare or best interests of children into the Immigration Rules. After all, the best interests of the child will normally be met by remaining with their parents and returning with them to their country of origin, subject to considerations such as long residence in the UK, their nationality and any exceptional factors. The new rules lay out a clear framework for weighing the best interests of the child against the wider public interest in removal cases.
The minimum income requirement that we have introduced is, I believe, the most effective way to protect taxpayers and deliver fairness in respect of family migration to the UK. I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, to reflect on my response.
My Lords, I will reflect on the Minister’s response and will read and consider his comments in Hansard. However, I have to say that at this stage I am disappointed by his response; I wonder if he took on board any of the comments around the House about the devastating impact that this threshold is having on so many families. All of us in your Lordships’ House understand the need to tackle abuses—this was said to the Minister—but this measure goes beyond that and I do not think, as other noble Lords have illustrated, that it actually achieves the Government’s policy objectives.
The Minister said that it more effectively reduced the burden on the taxpayer and was fair to families. Based on the examples he has heard this evening, however, it does not seem a very effective way to protect the taxpayer. The issue is not just the level of the threshold but the principle of the threshold. He claimed that one of the questions I asked was what happened if somebody lost their job. That was not the question I asked at all; the point that I was putting to the Minister was that a threshold is an inadequate way of making an assessment, as someone could be above that threshold and then lose their job but still have the right to remain, since a judgment was made at one point in time based on a person’s income, rather than on a package of measures that was available previously.
I appreciate that he cannot comment on individual cases, but Mr and Mrs M, the lady from Canada and her husband from Wales; the lady who was the NHS care worker; and the clergymen referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich who wanted to come or bring their spouses to this country will all listen to the Minister’s comments with some dismay.
I appreciate that he was not able to answer all the questions but I was disappointed that he answered so few. I mentioned one to him about the perverse incentive where an individual would have to go and live in a more expensive part of the country to see their income increase, even though their costs would increase, including their rent or mortgage, and their disposable income would fall. That would qualify them to be able to bring their spouse into the country because they had a higher income level. That is a perverse incentive, to have a lower disposable income. The Minister did not comment on that. Nor did he comment on any of the examples—I am sure that this was not intended—of Church of England clergy’s partners being excluded from the UK. He also said that the Migration Advisory Committee supported the level but my understanding is that the committee was asked what the level should be; it was not asked to comment on the proposals generally or on whether this was the most appropriate way to achieve the Government’s objective.
I was especially hoping that the Minister would respond on the following issue that I raised. The Migration Advisory Committee, in its response to the Government, said that, of those who satisfied the current criteria of being able to show they had access to sufficient funds to support themselves and their families, 45% would no longer be eligible under the new criteria to have their spouses come to this country. I asked him how many of those who were eligible under the current procedures would not be allowed under the new rules and have since claimed access to public funds. He has not answered that. The answer that he gave was that 267 individuals now claim some kind of public support or assistance, but he was unable to tell us how many of those had come to this country through the existing rules on family visas. If he does have that figure, it would be extremely helpful to have it. I suspect that it might not be available but it might have been provided to him. It would have been a more useful figure and the one that I asked for.
Obviously we understand the need to ensure that the system is not abused, but I fear that what is being done here today will not protect the taxpayer in the way that the Minister seeks, and it certainly does not protect the family. I beg to withdraw the motion.
House adjourned at 7.03 pm.