House of Lords
Monday, 5 November 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.
Death of a Member: Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract
Police and Crime Commissioners
My Lords, information about every candidate is published online and can be delivered in written form to anyone who wants it. Details of our website and how to request paper copies are on every voter’s poll card. Furthermore, every household has received information about the elections from the Electoral Commission. Knowing my noble friend’s particular interest, the website and the booklets are bilingual in Wales, as are the ballot papers.
I appreciate part of the Minister’s Answer. However, would he not agree with me that universal suffrage is the cornerstone of democracy, where every candidate has equal access to every elector? In this election we have no free post for candidates so only the wealthy can hope to pay their own postage to reach the electors. Millions of people are not online. Does the Minister not agree that this election is totally undemocratic and the result could be open to legal question?
My noble friend’s supplementary question was in two parts. I endorse all that he had to say about democracy. However, on the second point, I would have to say to him that there is no such thing as a free mail shot. It would have cost more than £30 million to have provided free post for all candidates. As I said in my original Answer to him, individual candidates have equal access to the Home Office website. That address is available on every poll card. Anybody who does not have access to the internet can get hard copies delivered to them if they wish. It may interest noble Lords to know that the website has received more than 1 million hits since it went up and more than 100,000 hard copies have been posted.
Noble Lords will know that we are capable in this House of a certain amount of last-minute legislation but I think that it is too late for this election. My noble friend and I have homes in the same county. He will know that local television and newspapers are covering this election strongly. Here in the metropolis there are no elections and it may seem to those who are based here that there is not much going on. But I assure noble Lords that this election is a very live issue in the provinces.
My Lords, this is a very brave experiment in democracy. When the Bill was going through this House, Ministers told us that we should not criticise the cost of these changes in governance because you could not put a price on democracy. Surely, the Minister has done just that. He said that the extra £30 million for ensuring that every elector knows who the candidates are and what they stand for simply cannot be afforded. Can he tell us how much the other changes to governance with regard to police forces have cost and why he thinks that the extra £30 million is not a proper investment in effective democracy?
I thank the noble Lord. Of course, £30 million is a significant sum. This election has given us an opportunity to show that it is possible to communicate with electors in different ways. I have given noble Lords the figures: 1 million hits on the website is not an insignificant number and 100,000 requests for printed forms is not a modest number. I believe that the Government have done the right thing in this way. I hope that all noble Lords will see this as an opportunity to bring democracy into police governance in a way that has not existed before and that they will support their favoured candidates for these elections.
My Lords, for a moment when the noble Lord referred to late legislation, I thought that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill was being withdrawn to have new legislation on this but unfortunately he has not agreed with us on that point. Perhaps I may ask two questions. First, is he satisfied that the level of public awareness of and interest in these elections is adequate at this stage? Secondly, he will have seen the reports of shockingly low police morale. Does he think that this flagship policy on police from the Government has improved police morale, made it worse or made no difference?
My answer to the second part of that question is that I am certain that it will have done. It has focused public attention on the police as an institution in a way that has not existed before. It has made it quite clear that the services of those who work in the police service are valued. Indeed, people will be voting for the police and crime commissioner who will be responsible for the governance of police in local areas. I am sorry but I have forgotten the first part of the noble Baroness’s question. Perhaps she would not mind repeating it.
I think that I have given that answer already. The poll conducted showed that 85% of the people who were eligible to vote in these elections were aware that they were taking place. I am satisfied. It is up to those of us engaged in democracy to get involved with making sure that these elections return good candidates to do the task that is set before them. It is an important job and it will make a lot of difference to policing in this country.
Claims Management Companies: Unwanted Text Messages
My Lords, the Government fully support the work of the Information Commissioner’s Office in enforcing the legislation that protects individuals from unsolicited text messages. The Ministry of Justice’s claims management regulation unit is actively working with the commissioner to investigate individual claims management companies receiving leads or claims as a result of unsolicited text messages, and is taking enforcement action as appropriate.
My Lords, the mis-selling of payment protection insurance was an absolute scandal, but the activities of some claims management companies are also a scandal, with unwanted text messages and phone calls. Does the Minister agree that there is a serious problem with this industry? If so, what are the Government going to do about it?
The Government are making sure that there are joined-up investigations, co-operation between the various bodies responsible for various aspects of the industry and carried-through enforcement action. This is feeding through into weeding out the rogue traders and making sure that the consumer has sufficient information to be able to make rational decisions as to whether they use the services offered.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have asked Questions several times of both this and the previous Government, not so much about texts but about unsolicited phone calls on exactly the same matter? I have been told that you can go on to a site and put yourself on a list, saying that you do not want to receive things. But, unfortunately, that does not really work. The latest statement that I had from the Government was that if things come through overseas channels or other satellite means, they cannot control it; they can control things only within certain parameters in this country. Is that still the case? I am getting about six phone calls a week and sometimes three or four a day, all offering me wonderful things.
I have some sympathy for the point that the noble Baroness makes, because we at home are supposed to be on this blocking mechanism that you sign up for, but the calls still get through. I will investigate the point that she made about whether international calls get round the blocking. I know that Ofcom is very much aware of this problem. I know that it is no use me telling the noble Baroness that she can go on to this register and that Ofcom is on the job and so on, because from the noises around the Chamber and my own experience, I know that these nuisance calls are still getting through. I will contact Ofcom and write to the noble Baroness with the reply, which I shall put in the Library of the House.
If the noble Lord means complaints about the rogue calls, I do not know, because this Question is not about the rogue calls. In my letter, I will cover it. On the question of texts, the Information Commissioner has announced that he is preparing to levy some very heavy fines on people who abuse the system with texts. But I will make the question on unasked-for calls part of my inquiry and put the reply in the Library of the House.
My Lords, would the Minister add e-mails? I get an enormous number of e-mails every day, generally about PPI but about a whole lot of other things, too. They all seem to be done at about three in the morning. E-mails are just as serious; I spend such a lot of time just deleting all these e-mails on a daily basis. Would the Minister add e-mails to texts and phone calls? I also get the texts and the phone calls.
I agree; I know what absolute anger this matter causes. It sometimes raises a groan when Ministers announce the following, but a cross-industry working group has been set up led by the Direct Marketing Association and including the MoJ’s claims management regulator, the ICO, Ofcom, the Telephone Preference Service, the OFT and the Advertising Standards Authority. They are looking across the piece at what is undoubtedly a nuisance.
My Lords, I am sure the House is reassured to know that it takes so many people not to be able to do anything about this problem. Does my noble friend agree with me that the real problem here is the routine selling on of our personal data—our mobile phone numbers and our e-mail addresses—and that we might avoid this problem if we dealt with that and had severe punishments for breach of data protection?
I thank my noble friend for that question. She is right. However, from April 2013, claims management companies will be banned from receiving referral fees in personal injury cases and from offering financial rewards or similar benefits as an inducement to make a claim. We are trying to make sure that we do not block legitimate activity but that we comb out and stop those who are causing a nuisance and the rogue traders. I am afraid that a number of regulators need to come together in this area to get effective action.
My Lords, the Minister’s offer to put the letter in the Library is, of course, of great interest to Members of this House. However, there is much wider interest in this matter. May I encourage him to consider putting the letter in Hansard so that it can then get on to the internet and be much more widely read?
I am not sure how easy it is to put it into Hansard, but what I can put into Hansard is the general advice on this matter, which is that customers should never use these firms. It is simple to make claims yourself and there is a template and letter on the Which? website. However, these claims companies have at least enabled financially less confident consumers to seek redress. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his assiduity in pursuing these matters. I should also point out that the consortium of concerned bodies to which I referred has produced a very helpful pamphlet as a consumer guide entitled Nuisance Calls and Messages, which is supported by 11 bodies, which may be a clue as to why it is difficult to find a solution to this problem.
Universities: Overseas Students
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, the UK continues to make a great offer to international students. Those with an adequate command of the English language and enough money to support themselves can come with no limit on numbers. When they finish, they can stay if they are doing a graduate-level job, again with no limit on numbers. Universities UK has reported that the number of international students continues to rise and UCAS acceptances are up 4%.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The point is that government migration policy threatens to do huge reputational damage to British universities, institutions which bring in some £8 billion in earnings from overseas students. Why cannot the Government adopt the same scheme as our competitor countries, especially the United States and Australia, and list overseas students separately from migration statistics, since we know that almost all overseas students—about 97%—go back to their country of origin?
My Lords, I think it must be agreed throughout the House that the previous system was open to abuse, with too many students just coming here to work rather than to study. The Government have sought to protect our world-class universities while targeting the less compliant new colleges, driving some 500 of the latter off the sponsor register. We want to continue to attract the brightest and best international students who will drive growth in our economy. Most observers would agree that our reforms are no more than common sense. We are not adopting the Australian or American model. We believe that it is right to have these figures as part of general migration although the net migration figure is obviously less than the top line one.
Does the Minister agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that it makes sense to remove student figures from the overall immigration figures as countries like the United States, Canada and Australia do? The Government are creating a rod for their own back. Does the Minister also agree that the treatment of London Metropolitan University’s foreign students was appalling, unfair and unjust? Is that the way that we, a fair and just nation, behave? More importantly, does the Government agree that the signal that it sent out to foreign students around the world is, “Britain does not want us”?
No student who was engaged in a course at London Metropolitan has been asked to leave at this stage. There was serious abuse of the process, despite the UKBA working alongside London Met. The UKBA felt that it could no longer rely on London Met to sponsor students and that is why the permit was withdrawn. As noble Lords will know, there is a judicial review going on and these arguments will, no doubt, be vented there. I am, however, confident that the UKBA made the right decision in this case.
My Lords, perhaps I may tell the Minister that last night I got off a plane from Beijing, where I had been visiting two of the most outstanding and internationally minded universities in China—and that we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Not only are we helping to destroy our own best universities, we are cutting off the contacts we need for future relationships, for future foreign influence and, of course, for future exports. I would therefore beg the Government to reconsider their current position. It is vital that students are excluded from the immigration policy, as they are in Australia, Canada and the United States. We are an exporting and internationally minded nation which is cutting itself off from contact with some of the most outstanding future leaders of the very countries with which we need to work most closely. I ask the Government to reconsider the situation very seriously.
I thank my noble friend for raising this issue because, as she will know, the number of students from China is increasing. Indeed, the number of students from some parts of south-east Asia is increasing enormously: there is a 26% increase in students from Hong Kong and a 10% increase in students from Singapore. I do not believe that a policy which seeks to control this area of immigration in a proper and manageable fashion is in conflict with an education policy which is designed to give an opportunity for our excellent university education to be shared with students from around the world.
My Lords, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich we are seeing a very marked downturn in applications from postgraduate science students from India. This is consistent with evidence from 2010-11 that, when one lifts China out of the figures, there has been a rapid reversal in Britain’s relative attractiveness to overseas students. If the Government are not going to lift students out of the net migration figures, how do they propose to respond to these facts?
I am not sure that the right reverend Prelate is correct in his assumptions. I know that the numbers from the Indian subcontinent are indeed down, but graduate-level jobs are available, and students are able to go on to postgraduate studies. We welcome that. I am therefore not sure that the right reverend Prelate’s reading of this is correct.
My Lords, a recent survey of UK universities has shown that, excluding students from China and Hong Kong, whose numbers continue to increase, the numbers of non-EU students in UK universities decreased in 2011-12 compared with the previous year. Does the Minister have figures in his brief that would illustrate this and, if so, is he prepared to share them with this House? Could he also tell us whether the Government intend to take any measures that might reverse this trend?
Perhaps I can help the noble Viscount with some figures. Up to the year ending December 2011, overall student immigration was 232,000—the second highest year on record. Of those, 180,000 were non-EU nationals, which is almost 60% of total non-EU inflows.
NHS: Liverpool Care Pathway Inquiry
My Lords, there is no procedure, as there is no such inquiry. A number of organisations, led by the National End of Life Care Programme, Dying Matters and the Association for Palliative Medicine, are looking into complaints, patient experience and clinical opinion on the Liverpool Care Pathway. We do not make policy decisions based on anecdote. If the work in hand suggests cause for concern, we will respond on the basis of that evidence.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that large numbers of people with personal experience of how the LCP is now operating complain that their relatives were denied hydration in hospital and died in acute pain and discomfort, with no knowledge whatever or agreement of having been put on this pathway? Is he aware that patients often survive if relatives step in in time and give their dear ones help and water? One rang me a few days ago and she is now going on a cruise. Will my noble friend assure us that there will be an inquiry, which has been promised and announced in the press, and that it will be truly independent and not carried out by those who have vested interests? Nothing else will do.
My Lords, there is never any cause for complacency in a matter of this kind, and I can reassure my noble friend that the Government will keep this issue under review. At the same time, I hope she will allow me to respond in slightly more forthright terms than I normally do, because there has been an enormous amount of misreporting and misinformation around the Liverpool Care Pathway, which has been endorsed publicly in a consensus document by 22 of the leading professional organisations and patient organisations in this area, including Marie Curie. We cannot ignore that. As I mentioned in my Answer, some of those organisations are looking carefully at the reports to which my noble friend alluded. It is notable that not a single complaint has reached the regulators in this area, which I suggest indicates that there may be less substance to some of these stories than may first reach the eye. However, I emphasise that there is no complacency.
My Lords, as the noble Earl comes to look at the consultation on the National Health Service constitution over the coming months, will he take the opportunity to look at the care pathway in Liverpool itself, where last week I was able to meet Professor John Ellershaw and those who devised the pathway? Given that 80,000 patients a year are treated on the pathway, does the Minister accept that it works very well for many of them; that while the philosophy is not the problem, the procedures used in some places have been; and that one of the principal concerns is dehydration? Does he agree that that is something to be looked at, as well as the level of training of those doctors who are responsible for the palliative care of people at the end of their lives?
My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord. Training is integral to the care pathway, as is the need to consult the families of patients and, if possible, the patients themselves before a decision is taken to put them on the Liverpool Care Pathway. On the NHS constitution, I completely take the noble Lord’s point. The proposed change to the NHS constitution makes it absolutely clear that patients and their families and carers have the right to be fully involved in discussions and decisions about their care, including that at the end of life. We are clear that that should already be happening, but we understand from reports that that is not always the case. As regards end-of-life care, I think there is sometimes a taboo on discussing death and dying and press reports show how damaging that can be. I shall indeed take all the noble Lord’s points on board, particularly as regards nutrition and hydration.
My Lords, I am relieved by the Minister’s response to the noble Baroness, Lady Knight. He is absolutely right that the care people receive at the end of their lives is hugely important. National statistics show that 29% of eligible people are on the care pathway. In my own trust, Barnet and Chase Farm, 28% of people are currently on it. The involvement of carers in those discussions is huge and a whole protocol is attached. I, too, am extremely worried about the publicity, some of which I am sure is well meant, but it can be very damaging to a system that provides a great deal of care. My mother-in-law was on the Liverpool Care Pathway in Liverpool hospital and had a very good experience. Please can we ensure that in any discussions we look at the overall benefit to elderly people at the end of their lives?
The noble Baroness is quite right. So often, good experiences are not reported. Predominantly we hear from patient organisations and the Marie Curie organisation that in the vast majority of instances where the Liverpool Care Pathway has been used, it has resulted in better care for the dying person. She is absolutely right. Nevertheless, where the pathway is not being properly followed, we have to take the matter seriously and ensure that there is proper training and communication with care staff.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, last Wednesday, I made a short Business Statement to draw the attention of the House to a change in the Order Paper for that day to facilitate a period of reflection on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill before the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, invited the House to consider an amendment which the Clerks had advised was inadmissible.
Forthcoming business had advertised that the Bill would next be considered today. Noble Lords will see from the Order Paper, and the revised edition of FB circulated last Thursday, that that is not now the case. Today’s business is debates, and not legislation. The reason for the change is the same as that which I gave the House last Wednesday.
All those involved need further time to reflect before the House is invited to take a decision either on the admissibility of the amendment or on its merits. It will not surprise the House that those involved include senior members of the Government and, until their discussions are concluded, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will not proceed further in Committee. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, the Leader of the Opposition, intends to speak, but if she does, perhaps she can answer this question.
My Lords, I invite the noble Baroness to speak. If noble Lords opposite listen, they will understand precisely why I am posing it. On the last occasion that a Conservative Back-Bencher insisted on tabling an amendment against the advice of the Clerks, the then Leader of the House drew the matter to the attention of the House, as the Leader is required to do, and asked the House to endorse the opinion of the Clerks and, thereby, maintain our customs and procedures. The Leader of the Opposition unreservedly supported the Leader of the House, and the Clerks’ advice, and the Back-Bencher concerned did not move his amendment. The noble Lord was my noble friend Lord Trefgarne; the Leader of the House was the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington; and the Leader of the Opposition was me. Will today’s Leader of the Opposition tell us whether she will respect the role and advice of the Clerks, as her predecessors have always done?
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for his Business Statement seeking to explain why the House is again not dealing with the business that it—and indeed the Leader of the House—was expecting to consider. Your Lordships’ House expected on Wednesday of last week to consider the second day in Committee of the Government’s Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Instead, it was given an explanation by the Leader of why that would not be the case. During the course of his remarks in the Chamber, he said of the postponed business:
“I expect the business to be taken next Monday”.—[Official Report, 31/10/12; col. 622.]
That is today. However, as we know, today’s Order Paper yet again does not feature the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Instead, we have a further Business Statement from the noble Lord.
In the light of today’s wholly inadequate Statement from the Leader of the House, it is transparently clear where the disorder is on this matter. It is on the Conservative Benches opposite. Within the coalition, it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are standing by their declared position that they will oppose the Government’s proposed changes to Commons parliamentary constituency boundaries, and the boundary reviews that would put them into effect. We on these Benches oppose them also. So do noble Lords on all sides of the House.
The Leader of the House, in his Statement last week, attempted to paint a picture of the amendment to the ERA Bill that would retimetable the boundary reviews as stemming only from these Benches. This House knows that the amendment was signed by four Members of your Lordships’ House: my noble friend Lord Hart of Chilton, a senior lawyer and former adviser to two Lord Chancellors; the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, a former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats; and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, a former leader of Plaid Cymru. Each is from a different part of the House; all are Members of the House who are highly distinguished and highly respected; and all are putting forward the amendment on boundary reviews.
There are a number of important issues here. On the merits of the amendment, the Government would be better advised to put their effort and money into improving the electoral register, and into making sure that as many citizens as possible are able to—and do—take part in our country’s democracy rather than into gerrymandering the voting system. We know that there are a number of views on the issue of admissibility and relevance. I hope that as many noble Lords as possible have read the legal opinion that we on these Benches commissioned, and last week placed in the Library of the House, which makes it crystal clear that the amendment to the Bill is both highly relevant and admissible.
The Leader invited me to give my opinion and say what I would do. I stand by the amendment as tabled. While I entirely respect the Clerks of the House, who are excellent, this does not mean to say that their view cannot be questioned. In this instance, having read the advice in the letter from the Clerks, and the quotations from Erskine May, I believe that we are right to ask the four noble Lords in question to continue with the amendment.
What characterises these and other issues is simple: this House should discuss them. It should consider the amendment, and the issues raised by it—but it is not doing so. Instead, and for the second time—in a move that we believe to be unprecedented—the Government have pulled the Bill from the Order Paper. Why have they done so? We have heard no satisfactory explanation from the Leader of the House. I hear that the actual reason is that time could not be found for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to meet to consider the issues ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Gulf today. Even if that is the case, it is not a sufficient explanation: not sufficient for the workings of government, and absolutely not sufficient for the relationship between the Executive and the legislature. Parliament is not the plaything of government: in particular, Parliament is not the plaything of a political party in trouble. By yet again pulling consideration of this Bill because of the amendment being proposed to it by distinguished Members from all sides of your Lordships’ House, the Conservative Party, for party-political reasons, seeks to subvert the constitutional role and practice of this House. The Conservative Party seeks to prevent a discussion that this House wants to have.
One of the roles of Parliament is to protect the public interest against, if necessary, an overweening Executive. In this case, the public interest is clear: it is not in the public interest for the system of parliamentary democracy in the country to be shrouded in a lack of clarity, which the Conservatives’ position on boundary changes has produced. MPs, candidates, political parties and, most importantly the public, need certainty in the electoral system.
There is a further issue. In casting around for matters to be put on the Order Paper today in place of the ERA Bill, the Government have alighted on three issues: the role of the Armed Forces, policies on planning, and the fate of the British ash tree. They are all extremely important issues, but in a part-time, voluntary House, where Members have to arrange their time, it is a discourtesy to your Lordships' House to bring in, without any material consultation, debates in this way on matters about which many Members of this House may be interested, just to fill a party-political gap.
In what it is doing in relation to this Bill, the Conservative Party is seeking to subvert democracy. It should simply stop trying to do so now. I invite the Leader of the House, in his response to the issues raised in the Chamber this afternoon, to stop treating your Lordships’ House in the way that it has done so far on this Bill and stop running scared of this House considering, debating and, if necessary, dividing on these issues. It must stop treating this House as if it were a plaything of the Executive, face up to its responsibility to Parliament and set a firm date very soon for the Committee stage of the Bill—a date that it will stick to and a date that will allow this House to get on with the business that it wants to consider.
My Lords, first, the Government have not pulled this from the Order Paper: it is important that the House should recognise that. Secondly, it was never on the Order Paper. If any noble Lord can demonstrate how it was on the Order Paper, I would like to see it. But it was not on the Order Paper and has not been pulled from the Order Paper. That is the first accusation that is wrong.
Secondly, the usual channels were told on Thursday evening, which is plenty of time to let noble Lords know. Thirdly, on Thursday afternoon, we had a debate in this House about the lack of topicality of debates. Well today we have enabled the House to have a most topical series of debates.
But let us deal with the substantive nature of this. The noble Baroness said that the Government are perverting democracy. Perverting democracy in the House of Lords? That is a strange one. Secondly, the noble Baroness said that the review was simply about boundaries. It is not. It is a review to reduce the size of the House of Commons to save a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money and rebalance the number of Members of Parliament throughout the United Kingdom.
I return to the central point of my speech. Today, the noble Baroness, the Leader of the Opposition, who held this post as Leader of the House only two and half years ago, said that she will now ignore the instructions and the advice of the parliamentary Clerks.
My Lords, I know many other noble Lords will wish to come in, but I would say three things. First, the debate was on the Forthcoming Business of this House and on the green sheet. Secondly, the House is an integral part of our democratic system. Thirdly, I did indeed very proudly hold the position of Leader of the House. But I believe that when I did so I acted in the interests of the whole House—the House as a whole.
My Lords, I have no wish to comment on the amendment that has led us to be in this situation but I am sure that I am not alone in regretting the fact that we are. When the House finds itself in a dispute of this kind there is no doubt that it affects detrimentally the efficiency of the House. It is clear from last Wednesday’s discussion and from what we have already heard today that this matter will not be resolved on the Floor of the House. It will have to be resolved through discussions, and possibly through discussions some distance from the House.
I urge the House on all sides to allow these discussions to take place and let us get back to discussing this important Bill as quickly as possible and get on with the proper procedures in a self-regulated House. I hope that the Leader of the House will assure us that it will be possible for us to get ahead with these discussions as quickly as possible.
My Lords, if a Back-Bencher may be allowed to speak, I say in terms to the noble Lord the Leader that what he said will not do in any circumstances whatever. We are in a great mess and the real point is how we get out of the mess with honour. I say “with honour” and noble Lords will have noticed that I used the word “we”, even though I personally have not been involved in any of this. However, we all have to regard ourselves as having that as our duty.
There is a very good way of getting out of this. I say to the noble Lord that he ought to appreciate that the amendment accepts the fundamental principles of the Bill the Government are placing before us. He does not seem to have noticed that, but it does; it merely postpones one aspect of what happens. We could get out of this with honour through the Government accepting the amendment. All they have to do is say yes—that is all they have to do—and that is their honour; and those moving the amendment will come away with a degree of honour in that they have got their way.
The matter should not involve us in fundamental discussions about the role of the clerks of Parliament and our attitude towards them or anything like that. It is important that we should get back to discussing the thing that we are good at, which is legislation, and a great deal of legislation is waiting to be discussed. If the Leader of the House persists in the technicalities of his answer, he will keep this mess going endlessly. He may feel that he would like to lose all his legislation but, as I favour quite a large chunk of it, I wish that would not happen.
May we ask the noble Lord to go away, think again —rather than him telling us to go away and think again—come back and say yes to the amendment? Indeed, he would also save the coalition, which he may like to consider. This is not a party-political matter—
I am perfectly serious. This is not a party-political matter but is a matter of how your Lordships conduct their business. What has been going on for the past week does us no credit whatever. The noble Lord nods his head, but he is responsible for this. We are not responsible for it; we did not pull out of the legislation. Speaking as a Back-Bencher, I say that enough is enough. Whoever are the powers that be, they should go away and come back with an agreement.
My Lords, the Leader of the House will recall or, if he does not recall I am sure that someone in his office can find the previous instances, that time after time when he was the shadow Leader of the House he was in the habit, quite properly, of reminding my noble friends at the time—I can recall three or four of them—that their duty as Leader of the House was to the whole House, the convenience of the whole House and observing the normal practices of the House as well as, and I recognise this as much as anyone, his duties and loyalties to his own party.
The noble Lord is trying to describe today’s events almost as a routine day at the office. I remind him that on two successive legislative days the Government’s business for the day has been withdrawn at the last possible moment: Wednesday’s business on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill was withdrawn on Tuesday night, and Monday’s business was withdrawn today—he quibbles about the word “withdrawn”— when it was quite clear that that business was going to go ahead today. That is not a routine day at the office. He is very fond of clerks’ advice, so to begin with I will ask him one question. Has he received any advice from the clerks as to the efficacy or advisability of a government flagship Bill which the House was preparing to consider being withdrawn on two successive days with virtually no notice?
The second point I want to make is to remind the noble Lord of what he said to this House last week. He withdrew the business on that day because,
“the House needed the opportunity to reflect on that advice”—
the advice from the clerks—
“before taking a decision on this matter”.
He went on to say:
“I would prefer an informed debate next week to an ill-informed, disorderly row today”.—[Official Report, 31/10/12; col. 619.]
I think that he could claim to have been speaking then for the House as a whole. Indeed, there were Members of the House who thought that that was not such a bad argument, but it cannot conceivably be used—as he has tried to do—as a justification for delaying consideration of the Bill again today. You do not need to be Sherlock Holmes to work this one out. It is quite clear that something happened between the Leader of the House making a solemn undertaking to the House at 3.15 pm on 31 October and then at 6 pm on 1 November, a day that is memorable not least because it is my birthday and All Saints’ Day, deciding that his advice to the House the previous day no longer obtained. The whole question of having enough time to consider and reflect over the weekend was not enough. I would simply ask him this question: what was it between 3.15 pm last Wednesday and 6 pm last Thursday that made him reverse by 180 degrees the advice he had given to the House?
My Lords, perhaps I may speak on behalf of some of the bewildered. My noble friend the Leader of the House is rightly reluctant, as I think all noble Lords should be, about simply overriding the learned views of our expert clerks. If an amendment is inadmissible, why is not possible for the four great gentlemen, the four noble Lords who drafted the amendment—on what is obviously a red-hot political issue, let us not pretend otherwise—to go away and draft an amendment that is admissible? Why are they so insistent on pushing through an amendment over the rulings of our learned clerks, whom we are accustomed to recognise for the validity of their judgments? Why is it suddenly the judgment that we should override them? I cannot see the necessity for that.
I think that the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition has made a wrong judgment call. She is anxious to pursue this issue, and why not? It might damage the Government—but to do so by overriding the clerks seems an absurd and clumsy way of proceeding. I suggest that she or her noble friends who have signed the amendment should go away and cook up a sensible amendment. They are learned and experienced noble Lords, so why on earth can they not cook up an amendment that is admissible?
My Lords, reference has been made to the signing of this amendment by my noble friend Lord Wigley. He consulted me before doing so because, in a party of two, consultation is essential. I rise to speak on this issue because for 12 years as the Presiding Officer in Cardiff I always took the advice of the clerks. It is not possible for a parliamentary assembly to function without taking seriously the advice of its clerks. However, we are in a different situation in this Chamber. We are a self-regulating House, which means that there is a democratic and moving relationship. The Speakership of this House—I defer to the Lord Speaker in this—is divided between the Leader of the House and the other parties in this House. The discussions that take place behind the Speaker’s Chair—as it would be in the other place—are essential to the progress of the business of the House.
We have to face two issues here. First, the Government have a right to take their business through, but the Opposition, along with other Members of the House, have a duty to oppose that business when they have the opportunity to do so. That is what is at loggerheads in this situation. I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider his tactic of continually withdrawing the opportunity for the rest of this House to vote on this matter, because that also is contrary to the principles of this House and of parliamentary democracy.
My Lords, perhaps a rather naive Back-Bencher on this side might intervene. We continue to discuss this matter in the context of a specific amendment. That, to me, is not the point at issue. The point at issue is that if we accept this amendment in its present form, against the advice of the clerks, we open the door for any Member of this House to do precisely the same thing again—and again. It is my private view that if we go down that road, those who have tabled this amendment and are insisting on it will live to regret the day, and the future administration of this House will be infinitely more difficult than it has been—or indeed is at this present moment.
My Lords, last week the Leader of the House gave a reason to the House for the action that he took. Was the advice he received about the power of the Leader of the House to pull something from the Order Paper on behalf of the Government, or acting as leader of his party?
I find tragic the way in which the role and use of the usual channels have been diminished in your Lordships’ House over the past two years. I do not know whether all the parties in the coalition were made aware before a decision was taken about the procedure that the noble Lord has followed in changing the expected business or whether the other party in the coalition was informed after the decision had been taken.
I had a few years’ experience as a government Whip and I am aware of the way in which the usual channels used to work. I cannot recall any occasion when what was done by the Leader of the House was done by merely informing the usual channels rather than discussing it with them.
I have to tell the Leader of the House that there is a view outside your Lordships’ House that he may, as Leader, have convinced enough people to be able to carry the argument that time needed to be spent to reflect on the issue, but the action that he took on Thursday and the resulting effect today will be viewed by the cynical, within and without your Lordships’ House, as merely a response by the Conservative Party, as part of the coalition, facing a defeat. Many people will believe that. I listened so hard to the Leader of the House, waiting for a good reason for the business to be changed.
Secondly, in my view, to start putting matters on the Order Paper after the House has risen on a Thursday on issues about which Members across the House feel very strongly is discourteous. I did not think I would ever stand up in your Lordships’ House and feel the right to say that I believe the Leader of this House has behaved discourteously. However, on this occasion, I do.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, I am a member of the Constitution Committee and I have always held him in the highest respect—I do not think that we have ever disagreed about a matter of substance during our discussions in the committee. I had not intended to speak today; I had hoped that the matter would be resolved; but it is necessary to say that there is another reason why we should be very cautious about moving in this way—it does not arise from the procedures, though I think that they are important. In my view, the tabling of this particular amendment to this Bill in the way proposed flies in direct conflict to every single criterion and bit of advice that the Constitution Committee of this House has proffered. It is in contradiction to what we advised as being the proper process for constitutional change in a report that we produced in the previous Session. Indeed, in the report that we produced on the Bill that we are supposed to be debating, we congratulated the Government on having in an exceptional way followed the advice about the manner in which constitutional issues should be debated; that is, they should be debated with plenty of notice and the opportunity for wide consultation and consideration. To table at the last moment an amendment to another Bill that has been more widely considered in this House than almost any legislation in my time here and widely supported, without any opportunity for prior consideration—or, if it had been tabled on the day in question, without the importance of the matter being drawn the attention of the House—is an appalling way to conduct a significant constitutional matter.
In the normal course of events, if a piece of legislation comes forward which has constitutional implications, the Constitution Committee is given the opportunity to consider it, to take the advice of its extremely capable advisers and to produce a report to this House so that it is fully aware of what it is doing before it debates the matter. This has not been possible on this occasion; the Constitution Committee has not had the opportunity to consider and report; and so, quite apart from the importance of the procedural matters that the Leader of the House has drawn attention to, I believe that there are other, very important reasons why we should not go down this route. This is not the way to carry out constitutional change.
My Lords, with respect, I think that it is this side’s turn. I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has just said, but I am bound to say that I totally disagreed with it. I disagreed with it almost absolutely. It is an extraordinary proposition that, if the Government bring in a Bill that allows the Opposition to table an amendment to it, somehow or other, it is unconstitutional for the Opposition then to table that amendment because the Constitution Committee has not been consulted. That is nonsense. If the Government have produced their Bill in the form that they have produced it, and if the amendment is in order, there is absolutely no reason why the Opposition should not table it, why the House should not debate it and why a vote should not take place.
We are making very heavy weather of this. The constitutional position is very clear: there is no Speaker in this House; there is nobody here who can determine whether the amendment is in order; and the clerks are there to give advice. Of course, there is an obligation to take the advice, but there is no obligation to follow it any more than there is an obligation on the Speaker of the House of Commons to follow the advice that he is given by the clerks of the House of Commons. If this House is self-governing, as it is supposed to be, the body that has to determine whether the amendment is in order is this House and nobody else, and certainly not the Constitution Committee.
My Lords, I know that one or two Peers still wish to speak, but I wonder just how much will be gained by that. Perhaps I can give a brief response to some of the points that have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, as Convener of the Cross Benches, said that we should invoke proper procedures in accordance with the rules of self-governance. I very much agree with that approach.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others referred to the fact that I said last Wednesday that I expected that we would continue the business today. That was my expectation. The fact is that the discussions that I hoped would take place have not been completed. Therefore, rather than having a debate which may prove to be unnecessary, it is far better for those discussions to continue.
The usual channels were informed at the earliest possible opportunity, on Thursday evening. I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, that 41 speakers have put their names down for today: not much notice, but enough for 41 speakers to put their names down.
To the noble Lord, Lord Peston, who said that we should just accept the amendment, and to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—
That was just one suggestion; what I was really suggesting to the noble Lord is that he goes away to sort this out. That is what their Lordships want. He does not have to accept my suggestion, although I think it is a rather good one. My main suggestion is: just go away and get this sorted.
My Lords, that is a much better line. That is the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that I recognise; not the one who spoke a few minutes ago.
Let me just explain for a few moments to those who have questioned the process, the procedure and, indeed, my personal motivation in all of this. We do not have many rules in this House, but we do have some. One of them is that when an amendment is deemed inadmissible by the clerks, I have an absolute duty as Leader of the House—the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, if she were Leader of the House, would do the same thing; the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, did it in the incident to which I referred a few months ago—to draw that to the attention of the House. The House, ultimately, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, is the arbiter of this. We cannot find an occasion—
My Lords, the noble Lord said that the House ultimately is the arbiter of this, but the reason that he gave for the delay was that the Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the Deputy Prime Minister, would have to be consulted. If it is a matter for the House, why do they have to be consulted?
My Lords, we are crossing two different things. One is my role as Leader and the other is when we take this. I thought it right, as did senior members of the Government, that there should be a period of discussion before bringing the business before the House. As I explain, they are two clearly different things: one is the role of the Leader of the House and the other is a decision for the Government. It must be right that the Government decide when to bring business forward; after all, that is the purpose of winning a general election.
The noble Baroness said: why cannot we have our say? She is entirely free and allowed to bring forward her own Private Member’s Bill at any stage and, if it is in order, it will be taken. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford asks an extremely sensible question: why cannot these brilliant individuals, such as the noble Lord, Lord Hart, with all his training and knowledge of this House, advised no doubt by outside counsel, not bring forward an admissible amendment? I do not know the answer to that. I urge the noble Lord to do so. Then we would not be having this debate.
I am grateful for the support of my noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Crickhowell. There are matters of processing procedure that are not always straightforward in this House. I urge noble Lords who wish to discover more to go to the very excellent seminars that the Clerk of the Parliaments holds from time to time on these matters. They will discover that, as I said earlier, although we do not have very many rules, we do have some, and this is one of them. Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, my predecessor, said:
“It is a consequence of our procedures that the House has collective responsibility for observing these procedures and that all Members of your Lordships’ House therefore need to co-operate to see that procedures are observed”.—[Official Report, 20/4/99; col. 1112.]
I could not have put it better myself.
My Lords, before the noble Lord the Leader of the House sits down, would he be kind enough to acknowledge something that he has not acknowledged so far in discussing all this? It is not only my noble friend Lord Hart who is bringing forward the amendment. It is also brought forward by the former head of the Diplomatic Service from the Cross Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and, perhaps most significantly, by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is such an important figure in the Liberal Democrat party. I wonder whether the noble Lord would be kind enough to acknowledge that before he sits down.
May I make a point which has not, I believe, been touched upon up to now? There are procedural issues that are fascinating and of massive impact; there are also constitutional issues dealing with the possible merits of the amendment that are of massive impact. One point that I suggest should be considered by anybody who has the future of this House, and indeed the good of Parliament, in mind with regard to the two statutes we are concerned with—first, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and, secondly, the matter now before the House—has been very pertinently made in the most excellent opinion of Mr James Goudie, a Queen’s Counsel. It is that those two pieces of legislation, assuming that the ERA Bill goes through in its present form, are out of sync one with the other.
I can put it very simply in this way. In so far as the 2011 Act is concerned, the number of registered electors is the very touchstone of the approach of the Boundary Commission to the situation of a particular constituency. I do not think anybody would disagree with that. In relation to this proposed legislation, however, that situation is fluid not solid. It is fluid in this sense; at the moment, it is the householder who is legally responsible for registering persons living in his property. From the time that the ERA Bill becomes law, it will, of course, be a responsibility upon the individual elector. The effect will be that in the first instance there will be a fall in the number of registered electors in each constituency—I do not think that anybody can dispute this—because of the change in responsibility between the individual and the householder. Any calculation made by the Boundary Commissions will therefore be inaccurate. That is why the two pieces of legislation are out of sync one with the other. It was contemplated at one time that both should be looked upon as one whole. In a speech on 5 July 2010, the Prime Minister said that the effects of the proposals would be considered together. That is what I urge upon the Government in this context.
Before the noble Lord the Leader of the House sits down, I have one brief point to make. I have some fellow feeling with him because I too was once accused of being discourteous to the House—as he will no doubt recall because he was the one who accused me of it, and then apologised privately and personally in a very kind letter. The important thing here is that, as has been made quite clear, it is for the House to decide, so let him put this business on the Order Paper and it can do so. Why has he not given us an adequate reason for removing the business? We know that some slight disagreement between his fellow coalition members might be a problem, but the House can decide—that is what we are here for. Why will he not bring it back?
Partnerships (Prosecution) (Scotland) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision for the prosecution in Scotland of partnerships, partners and others following dissolution or changes in membership.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Wallace of Tankerness, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Crime and Courts Bill [HL]
Recommitted to Committee
Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [HL]
My Lords, I am pleased to bring forward this Bill, which continues to make further progress in the modernisation of the statute book by removing obsolete legislation from it. The Bill was prepared by the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission in fulfilment of their ongoing statutory responsibility to promote the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary laws.
Over the past 43 years the law commissions, which are independent statutory bodies set up under the Law Commissions Act 1965, have published 19 reports on statute law repeals, with draft Bills attached, that have been presented to Parliament. The 18 previous reports have resulted in the repeal of 2,300 whole Acts and the part repeal of thousands of others. The present Bill proposes the repeal of more than 800 whole Acts and the part repeal of 50 others. This makes it the largest statute law repeals Bill that the commission has ever produced.
The repeals are set out in Schedule 1 to the Bill. They are in 11 parts and cover a diverse range of subjects, from poor relief and lotteries to turnpikes and Indian railways. As always, the law commissions have uncovered areas of some historical interest and antiquity. For example, the earliest repeal is from around 1322—the exact year remains uncertain—and concerns the working of the old Exchequer Court. Other historical curiosities, no doubt important in their time, include an Act of 1696 passed to fund the rebuilding of St Paul’s cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666; an Act of 1800 to authorise the holding of a lottery for the £30,000 Pigot diamond; and 38 Acts passed to support various railway companies operating in British India and the wider East Indies. However, not all the repeals involve ancient law; the Bill includes the repeal of a number of unnecessary tax provisions, the most recent of which were enacted in only 2010.
Your Lordships will wish to know that there has been full consultation by the law commissions with interested bodies on all the proposed repeals, and there are no outstanding objections to any of them. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join me in paying tribute to the two law commissions for their very thorough and painstaking efforts in this important work of modernising our statute book. I should also thank those who have been consulted by the commission for their contributions.
Finally, because some of the repeals relate to devolved matters in Scotland, a legislative consent Motion has been lodged in the Scottish Parliament in accordance with standard practice. If your Lordships are content with the Bill at Second Reading, it will be referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation, a committee on which I had the honour to serve some 30 years ago. This will be considered by that committee in the usual way. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, I join the Minister in thanking and commending the Law Commission for the huge amount of work that has gone into bringing forward the Bill. As winter perceptibly draws upon us, the Minister appropriately comes to us in the guise of a sort of Autolycus manqué; in his case disposing rather than snapping up unconsidered legislative trifles accumulated over, as he said, many centuries.
I do not know whether the Minister has read the 365-page report of the Law Commission. I confess that I have not done so, but my eye caught some of the matters to which the noble Lord referred. In particular, I noticed that there were some Acts of Parliament affecting Newcastle, of which, of course, I am a resident and, still, a member of its council. It is striking how much detail has gone into the work of the commission, looking at some rather obscure provisions. For example, in Part 1 group 11 in the report, there is reference to two Acts of Parliament concerning Newcastle hospitals. The first is the Holy Jesus Hospital; the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Act of 1947 dealt with that. These were hospitals built as alms houses in the 1680s. This one later became a museum and harboured something called the “town hutch”. The town hutch did not in fact contain rabbits; it contained the cash of the city council. The hutch is still preserved. Given the declining resources of the city council, they might well find it easier to accommodate them in the hutch in future, rather than the banks in which we are presently depositing our moneys.
Another Bill affected a different sort of organisation, the Mary Magdalene Hospital, a real feature of the city’s history. It is 900 years since a leper hospital was founded just outside the then city boundaries. Later it changed its character, and a new charter was granted in 1611, to provide housing for,
“three poor single or unmarried brethren”.
Brethren of whom it was not quite clear, but the trust still works. It still provides a very successful sheltered housing scheme, which is very popular and well managed, and resourced by the trust’s substantial landholdings in the city.
On another front, Part 5 of the report contains reference under the rather misleading heading of “Northumberland” to another Newcastle piece of legislation. The Explanatory Notes contained in the Law Commission’s report say:
“In 1688 a sizeable proportion of the population of Newcastle-upon-Tyne were poor artificers and labourers who found it extremely difficult and costly to recover small debts”.
I can assure your Lordships that, unfortunately, still a sizeable proportion of the population of Newcastle is poor. I do not know whether artificers are around, and do not know how many are labourers, but there is certainly a significant proportion of people who are poor and who find it difficult to cope with such legal matters as dealing with their debts. To resolve the situations 300 years go, a local court was created under the wonderful title of the Erecting Newcastle-upon-Tyne Court of Conscience Act 1688; that is a wonderful description. The court was to provide a local recourse because the cost of starting and conducting cases in London was too great. We therefore had effectively a small claims court where creditors could pursue debts of up to all of £2 locally.
The Minister has some responsibilities for courts now. We are seeing something of history repeating itself, given that we now have a single national county court with local branches. However, all proceedings have to be issued not in the locality but through a single court centre in Salford. Huge problems have been engendered by that process. I am not entirely sure that the Minister would countenance the creation of courts of conscience all over the country in order to promote the disposition of claims. But, as history seems to be repeating itself, it may be that some such recourse will have to be held.
These two examples of arcane and interesting legislation clearly have run past their sell-by date. We are certainly happy with the work of the Law Commission. We commend it for its work and commend the Government for bringing forward this Bill. I suppose that we can look forward to receiving another 365-page document in a few years’ time to dispose of many more pieces of legislation. Of course, I hope that much of the present Government’s legislation will be off the statute book before we get another Law Commission report and that a change of Government, as this side of the House certainly hopes, will happen soon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for that response and for his ingenuity in managing to get a political point into the reply. In some ways, I am much relieved that more noble Lords did not delve into the support papers—they are absolutely fascinating. I live in St Albans where the court house Act in 1829 enabled it to build a beautiful building in St Peter’s Street, although it is no longer used as a court house. It is interesting that an Act of Parliament was needed to build it.
Another thing which caught my eye was the reference to finance Bills. There is always the complaint that such Bills are too large and too complicated. The value of the Law Commission is given to us. I am a great fan of the Law Commission and its work. I am very pleased that this House, through its new, expedited procedures, brings more Law Commission work through Parliament. It set out on a massive task of looking at finance Bills between 1950 and 2010. Over 14 years, five major consolidations were produced, which must have been an amazing labour of love by the members of the Law Commission who combed their way through successive finance Bills, sifting out the unnecessary.
I also asked which is the oldest statute still active. It is the Statute of Marlborough 1267, which is an omnibus Bill covering distraint on goods without the permission of the courts, tort waste and the suing of outgoing tenants to maintain a property in good order. Dealing with these Bills—starting with Marlborough in 1267 and ending with the electoral boundaries Bill—underpins the sense of history and continuity in the work that we do every day in these two Chambers.
As I have said, with great confidence I will send it to the Consolidation Bills Joint Committee. As a junior member of that committee 30 years ago, I remember the thoroughness with which it does its job. I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I begin by giving a warm welcome to my noble friend Lady Garden in her role on the Defence Front Bench. I am very much looking forward to working with her, just as I enjoyed a very good partnership with her predecessor, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire.
The title for this debate is wide-ranging, and deliberately so. It will allow noble Lords and the noble and gallant Lord to speak on a wide range of subjects, from the welfare of our service personnel to their equipment; how our Armed Forces are structured and funded; and the operations that they are on now, and those that they will be prepared for in the future. I start by paying tribute to the men and women who now serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Their selfless commitment, dedication to service and professionalism is inspiring to us all. They do not choose where they are sent, but they are willing to risk life and limb, on our behalf. As a country, we owe them a great deal. In this period of remembrance, let us pay tribute to all those who have served in the past, particularly those who have paid the ultimate price to keep our nation free.
Next year will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War. The ranks of those who fought in the trenches have now passed away, but we remember them in the poppies we wear and in the way in which we honour those veterans of other battles of the 20th century who are still with us—and, in this century, all those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our Armed Forces exist to protect our country and provide the ultimate guarantee of its security and independence. Everything we do in defence is directed to that aim and, in the globalised world we inhabit, that means projecting power abroad to protect our national interests, demonstrating our determination and our values. In the uncertain and rapidly evolving security environment of today, we need to be prepared to meet a complex range of threats and challenges. We will always use our influence to reduce the risk of conflict, but we must be ready to fight and win on difficult and dangerous operations against determined opposition. We cannot do everything on our own, so we must work effectively with our allies and partners. That is what we are doing today in Afghanistan.
The mission in Afghanistan is the first priority for the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence. The reason we are in Afghanistan is to protect our national security and to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism, as it was under the Taliban before 9/11. Our goal is not a perfect Afghanistan, but one able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of international terror groups. The plan is clear: training the Afghan forces to take on the burden of security so that we can bring our troops home while ensuring the gains that we have made. The reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. This is allowing us to gradually reduce our force levels; we will have reduced them by 500 to 9,000 by the end of the year, and we expect to make further, significant reductions by the end of next year, with all UK combat operations finishing by the end of 2014. We are firmly committed to the strategy and timescales agreed at Lisbon and to the principles of “in together, out together”.
As the NATO Secretary-General set out earlier this year, the decisions made at Lisbon,
“will remain the bedrock of our strategy”.
When the ISAF mission completes in 2014, it will be for the Afghans to manage their own security. This is how it should be. But the end of our combat mission does not signal the end of our support to Afghanistan and its people. NATO will establish a new non-combat mission in Afghanistan, in which Britain will play its part, on top of the bilateral relationship which we will maintain with the Afghan Government and armed forces. Although Afghanistan will continue to face many complex challenges, the agreements for financial and other practical support made in the summits at Chicago and Tokyo will help to underpin Afghanistan’s security and future.
As we move towards the end of our mission, we need to plan for the post-Afghanistan environment and the transformation of defence to meet the challenges of the future. Operations and standing tasks aside, the past two years since the publication of the SDSR have been dominated by the urgent need to implement its vision: to ensure that our forces are prepared for the very different challenges they will face in the future; to eliminate the black hole in the MoD budget; and to learn lessons from the failures of the past so we do not repeat them in the future. Not everyone will agree with every decision we have made, but at least we have not ducked them. None of the ministerial team at the MoD came into politics to cut the defence budget or to reduce the size of our forces.
I regret some of the decisions we have had to make, particularly the redundancies and the retirement of some of the platforms, but in May 2010 we were faced with one of the biggest deficits in the developed world. We had to make some tough choices: tough choices that were necessary to set a sustainable course for the transformation of our Armed Forces to ensure they are structured, supported and equipped effectively to protect our national security in the face of the threats they will encounter in the decades to come. They were necessary, too, to tackle a forward defence programme that had been allowed to grow way beyond the resources available.
Budgetary discipline has to continue to be the supporting foundation of the transformation to Future Force 2020 or the tough decisions we have had to make will come round again. The defence equipment programme needs to be balanced and sustainable if the Armed Forces are to have the confidence that the capabilities promised will actually be delivered on time and to requirement. Thanks to the hard work and tough decisions taken over the past two years, we in the Ministry of Defence now have a balanced budget with an affordable equipment programme, backed by the world’s fourth largest defence budget. This changes the dynamic. By maintaining discipline we can begin to release the contingencies that have been built into the budget to support further investments in capability, confident that there is a sustainable funding stream to deliver them. For instance, since the beginning of this financial year, the new discipline in our budgetary regime has allowed us to give the go-ahead for a series of equipment projects above the committed equipment programme. This includes 25 extra Foxhounds for Afghanistan, enhancements to Merlin helicopters and new targeting pods for fast jets.
Earlier this year we received the first Joint Strike Fighter. This state-of-the-art, fifth generation fast jet will be flying from the deck of the new aircraft carrier HMS “Queen Elizabeth” in just over five years’ time. New vehicles, new helicopters, new aircraft, new ISTAR, new ships, new submarines, new cyber capabilities—the advanced, adaptable and powerful forces of Future Force 2020 are being built piece by piece. It is smaller than before but able to reach across the world and operate across a spectrum from high-intensity combat to enduring stabilisation activity, deploy overseas and sustain a brigade-sized force indefinitely or a division-sized force in time of need. It is able to command in the coalition context and is more interoperable with our main allies. It is fully integrated between regular and reserves, with predictable obligations for the reservists that will require a real commitment to service, and with a more systematic use of contractors for support and logistics, allowing greater focus of military manpower on fighting tasks. This is the shape of the future force we are building.
I turn to the issues we will be facing over the coming year to help make this a reality. By the latest reckoning around a quarter of the commitments in the SDSR involving defence have now been completed. The rest of the headline targets are on track. Now the Army has set out its future structure in Army 2020 we can begin to deliver on another part of the jigsaw—Reserve Forces. We will be publishing our Green Paper in the coming days. At the heart of this will be renewing the proposition for both reservists and employers, ensuring that the contributions of those individuals who serve are recognised and properly supported and that the mutual benefit the reserve service provides to the state and to employers is grounded in a new, open and tailored relationship.
Despite the incredible contribution they make to operations, the reserves have too often in the past been the forgotten part of our Armed Forces: no longer. They will be larger, receive new equipment and be better integrated with their regular colleagues. I know that there are those who doubt we can achieve our ambition for the reserves but this betrays very short memories. The new levels we have set are well within historic norms. In 1990, the TA was 76,000-strong: the Army reserve we are proposing is modest in comparison. I accept that the new targets are ambitious in the current climate. We will need the support of employers, reservists, their families and society as a whole to make the changes we need in the right way. The Green Paper consultation will be all about establishing how best to do this.
The work we are doing on the reserve is part of the process of providing certainty for our people and transforming the structures that support them and their families. We will announce, by the end of the year, a rebasing plan so that families will know where their future homes will be. We will accelerate work on the new employment model to make service terms and conditions more flexible to better reflect the complexity of modern family life. We will do what we can to make a reality of the Armed Forces covenant because we want our service men and women to know that this Government and the British people recognise the debt of gratitude that we owe to them and to their families.
We will soon publish the first annual report on the Armed Forces covenant, setting out the progress we have been able to make since we enshrined the key principles in law last year. We will therefore, quite rightly, be held to account for what is done to make the covenant a reality. I am particularly pleased about how entrenched the covenant is becoming across all departments of Government. There has been a cultural change in Westminster, driven by the Prime Minister, with Ministers from other departments approaching the Ministry of Defence with ideas on how they can help. The Education Secretary has found money to increase the level of the service pupil premium and extending its reach. The Chancellor has proposed to hand £35 million of fines levied on the banks after the LIBOR scandal to service charities. There continues to be limited financial room for manoeuvre; we will have to prioritise strictly and only make promises we know we can fulfil.
However, these initiatives say that where the Government can act we will, not just in the MoD but as a whole. Underpinning all this work is the reform of the management of defence itself. Procurement has been dogged for years by weak relationships between parts of the department. We have lacked the right business skills and capabilities to manage capital and infrastructure projects that are among the largest in the public sector. We are, therefore, putting in place a new blueprint for the management of defence, as recommended by the report of the noble Lord, Lord Levene, on defence reform. We are creating a leaner, more strategic head office, empowering the service chiefs to run their individual services and their delegated service budgets. By pushing accountability down the chain of command, we are encouraging innovation and budgetary responsibility. This last message is underpinned by introducing a stronger financial and performance management regime across the whole department. The materiel strategy being put together by Bernard Grey and his team in Defence Equipment and Support is the next big piece of that puzzle. This will set out how we will sharpen the boundaries and align incentives internally to ensure consistent, focused decision-making. We are seeking to instil private sector skills and disciplines into our acquisition process, driving up productivity by bringing a private sector partner into the process.
Ultimately, it is the people of defence who deliver the battle-winning capabilities which protect and defend us. As we turn to face the Cenotaph this coming weekend and as we listen to the strains of “Oh God our Help in Ages Past”, as we remember those who have given their lives in the cause of freedom, let us together reaffirm our debt of gratitude to the men and women of our Armed Forces and show them how proud we are of their service.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his remarks, and I associate myself and, I am sure, all Members of the House with the comments he laterally made about remembrance. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to the Front Bench. She has a long and illustrious history on these subjects, and I remember her and her husband, the late Lord Garden, being great supporters of British defence and the issues surrounding it.
As the Minister said, it is the time of remembrance. We wear poppies with pride and with meaning. We show respect for lives lost and for survivors whose lives have been shattered by wounds. We remember sacrifices made and service delivered, and it is right to pay tribute to the courage, professionalism, dedication and commitment of those who serve in our Armed Forces. Out of the present turmoil in the Government’s business programme, we are in many ways lucky to have this opportunity at this time for this debate.
It is right and proper, and worth remembering, that today we speak in our own language, enjoy a parliamentary system of government, have a free press and the rule of an independent legal system because—in many ways, only because—of what was done in our country’s name in past conflicts. I once walked through the park at the bottom of Park Lane, where a number of war memorials are all too unnoticed because they lie on a roundabout, and it is therefore dangerous to get to them. However, there is a huge monument to the Royal Artillery, on which it is stated:
“They died with the faith that the future of mankind would benefit from their sacrifice”.
Some 49,000 men of the Royal Artillery died in the First World War, and 30,000 died in World War II, some 79,000 men who gave their lives in both wars in order that we would benefit; and there is no doubt that we have benefitted.
However, tributes to those who wear the Queen’s uniform, the civilians who support and back them up, and the way that they go about their dangerous and difficult business, lack one thing that is critical to them—full-blooded support for the missions that they have been sent to carry out. Wars such as the conflict in Afghanistan are not won or successful through military means alone. They are won when the enemy knows that you will not give in, when the enemy knows that your cause is mightier than theirs, and when those who fanatically want to impose a brutal, illiberal, theocratic and undemocratic regime on a population simply will not be allowed to prevail. We will succeed in Afghanistan when our troops know that they fight for a noble cause and that the enemy, in contrast, fights to enslave its own people. Our troops have a right to know that the people of this country and those of the other 49 countries in the NATO-led ISAF mission are behind it and those who risk their lives and limbs every day to deliver it. However, that requires leadership in our nation. It requires that the political leadership of the United Kingdom—all of it—asserts day and daily why that mission in Afghanistan is about our security here at home, and that its success or failures matter to the safety of our citizens in this country.
The great United States journalist, Edward Murrow, after the Second World War said the following of Winston Churchill:
“He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
Churchill knew instinctively the power of rhetoric in order to get the people of Britain behind the war effort, of the need to build confidence at times such as in 1940, after Dunkirk, when we were militarily powerless and when his Cabinet was enfeebled by division. He rallied the British people, galvanised the troops and, much more importantly, he convinced Hitler that we would never give up and that he would be defeated. He used, in public and in private sessions, the platform of the House of Commons to deliver the message to the people and to the enemy that we were, irrespective of the facts on the ground, invincible. It worked. We know that and we benefited from it. That is why today we speak in English and in freedom in this House.
What would Churchill have made of the fact that, with 9,000 British troops committed to fight in an ongoing war in Afghanistan, the last time that our Prime Minister made a speech about Afghanistan in the House of Commons was on 4 July last year? It is nearly a year and a half since the Prime Minister made a speech about Afghanistan. It is difficult for any of us to put thoughts into the minds of the great Churchill, but he might have said, as I say now, “We seem to have lost the will to win”. Where is the mighty and necessary psychological assault on the Taliban today? Where are the stirring speeches designed to intimidate the insurgents in support of our mission to normalise a country that was brutalised by the medieval criminals who filled the vacuum left in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left in 1990? Where are the arguments which should be put to the British people, the arguments that I used to make regularly in NATO, as have my successors and Ministers at the Ministry of Defence, about having to go to Afghanistan or Afghanistan will come to us?
We have an exit strategy that appears to be all exit and no strategy. It signals to the Taliban to wait two more years and then we will all be gone. It signals to our troops that, although they see progress on the ground, as they risk their lives to consolidate it, they get little backup or encouragement from the political leadership of this country. We admire and rightly value their guts and their professionalism but we say to them, “Just hang on because in a couple of years’ time this mission”, which is rarely spoken of here, “will be over and you will be back home”, in some cases, as the Minister has admitted, to redundancy notices instead of the thanks of a grateful nation. It signals to the British people that their weariness at the deaths and injuries and the Treasury cost are justified as it appears that no case is being made for why we went, why we stay and why it matters to people on British streets.
I recently heard a very senior American officer with responsibility for that area say that the closer he got to Afghanistan the more he saw progress but the closer he got to Washington, Brussels or London the more pessimistic he was about it. The picture in Afghanistan shows signs of success, hard and expensively achieved as it has been. Last week, Secretary General Rasmussen laid out the progress made: 80% of insurgent attacks take place in areas where only 20% of the Afghan population now live; and in Kabul and its immediate surrounding areas the number of enemy-instigated attacks declined 17% in the first eight months of this year.
In the first six months of 2012, Afghan troops led 80% of all operations. They do 85% of their own training. Afghan troops and police, trained in their thousands, now take the lead for security in areas where 75% of the population live. Schools are open. Women are being educated again. Even in Helmand province, street markets are being reopened. Many of us had the opportunity to talk to soldiers during the Olympic Games, where again they performed with professionalism. They can see, and will talk about, the progress that is being made. They are proud of their success and we, too, should be proud of it.
We all know why we went into Afghanistan. The move was popular because it was universally seen as necessary to rid Afghanistan of the medieval regime of the Taliban that had incubated the criminal terrorists responsible for the attacks of 9/11 and for many others before that. It was also about making sure that Afghanistan would be sufficiently normalised and assisted so that it would never again host the kind of criminal terrorism that we saw in the early part of 2000. However, the job is not over. Leon Trotsky said, about another war at another time: “You may not be interested in this war, but this war is interested in you”. The job in Afghanistan is not yet over, and if we leave with it only half done, the carnage that may follow will not stop at the mountains of the Hindu Kush or at the national boundaries of central Asia; it will come to us. The lesson of history remains that we should finish the job properly or we will face bleak prospects as a result of failure.
My Lords, first it must be said from these Benches that our Armed Forces have contributed magnificently both at home and abroad to the well-being of this country—often in difficult and dangerous situations, and with our soldiers, sailors and air men and women under tremendous military and political pressure. These hard facts are brought home to Members of your Lordships’ House each time my noble friend the Minister rises and offers sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who have been killed or wounded on military operations. Both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, referred to Remembrance Day, and the Minister referred to the First World War. I had not thought for some time, until he mentioned that war, about an uncle who died as a teenager in the Middlesex Regiment. We are not talking just about Afghanistan; men and women have been serving this country for many years.
There is strong support for our Armed Forces among the British public. Armed Forces personnel have contributed to the successful resolution of large-scale emergencies by supporting the civil authorities. Their achievements include the protection of life and the rescue of those in danger—for example, during the floods in the West Country, the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001, the national fire strike of 2002-03, the Cumbria floods of 2005 and 2009, the floods in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire in 2007, and the big freeze in 2010; we may have another one coming towards us now. They have also worked with the police in operations on British soil where the level of force they could bring to situations was necessary to defend our national security. The military was deployed in Northern Ireland in support of the civil powers until 2007, supporting the police and managing public order. As a result, military personnel were trained in public order tactics. The Armed Forces have contributed also to protecting people in more routine situations. They have long provided a large part of the search and rescue capability around our coast.
Members of the public have written in their thousands to thank the Armed Forces for their contribution to the London 2012 Olympic Games. During the Games, they played a key role in providing additional specialist support to the police and other civil and Olympic authorities, to ensure that the Games were safe and secure. Of course, support was also provided at the Paralympic Games. The support and appreciation shown by members of the public for the way in which the Armed Forces conducted their duties has been overwhelming and gratifying for service personnel, I am sure. For many people, it would have been the first actual contact with our Armed Forces. What a great achievement and public relations triumph it was. It goes on. Only last week we were informed that in the event of a strike by prison staff, who would step in but the Army to help maintain our prisons?
I now turn to the Armed Forces’ contribution to international stability. At the end of the Cold War, international peacekeeping for military forces took on a new significance as the end of superpower rivalry allowed suppressed regional tensions around the world to reappear. In the 1990s, conflict in the Balkans challenged European and NATO countries to find ways to restore stability, and similar challenges also arose in Africa.
In the new millennium, particularly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, western nations and their allies found themselves in a range of operations, from Iraq and Afghanistan, which other noble Lords have spoken about in detail, to the counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa. The UK has adapted its use of the Armed Forces to meet these challenges, reflecting its responsibilities for global stability as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The MoD, in concert with the FCO and DfID, contributes to ensuring the tenets of the Building Stability Overseas strategy by jointly working for peace and stability in post-conflict and transitional states. Many people are doing that at this very moment.
The MoD is working to improve its upstream conflict prevention skills by honing its intelligence capabilities and contributing to Partnership for Peace initiatives. In Libya, for instance, the MoD has identified areas for targeted assistance that will deliver strategic effect, which was requested by the Libyan authorities. Will my noble friend confirm that with any cuts or reorganisations proposed we will, as far as possible as a nation, continue our support for international stability?
The Armed Forces contribute to UK resilience through their protection and promotion of the UK’s national interests overseas, the provision at home of a number of guaranteed niche capabilities—such as search and rescue and explosive ordnance disposal—and a process of augmenting civil authorities and structures where civil capability or capacity is exceeded. When the military augments civil capability, it will be in response to specific requests for planned response or to a crisis.
The important point is that military operations overseas and augmentation of civil authorities at home are not guaranteed, as they are dependent on the capabilities and availability of troops to undertake such work. Those deciding the size and shape of the UK’s Armed Forces must take their vital operational roles into account when making decisions on the Armed Forces’ future strengths and capabilities. Overall, if the military is to be reduced in size and capability, the roles that it is expected to undertake must be similarly reviewed and adjusted so that they do not exceed the capabilities available to undertake them. But in making those decisions, which my noble friend referred to in passing, we must decide what the priorities are. When there are so many calls, one must decide on the priorities.
Other noble Lords have not yet spoken about what Britain wants from its military communications. What do we want in terms of our satellite technologies? Will we replace the current fleet of communications satellites? When I investigated it, I found that so much of what the Army, Navy and Air Force do is utterly dependent on the new communications technologies that have emerged and are emerging and may well need to be replaced. We know of the Army we have but we have to decide on the Army we need. We know of the weapons and equipment that we have—the Minister detailed these and the new weapons and equipment that are coming on line—but are these what we will need for conflicts which may or may not take place?
I was going to talk about the reserves and the territorials but there was a good debate last week which covered that issue in great detail. However, there were press reports today—in at least one newspaper—of the problems of people who wish to serve in the territorials and whether their employers will give them time off and so on. It is a real problem because many commercial firms do not want the upset of people leaving after being called—at times without warning—to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan or wherever it may be.
I refer finally to the Armed Forces Act and the Armed Forces covenant contained within it. I spoke in detail at various stages during the debate on that Bill and, given what we owe our members of the Armed Forces, we have to ensure that their housing is suitable and adequate for those returning to this country. The Minister referred to that in passing. There are problems with how the properties have been leased and maintained. We owe a tribute to those people and should provide them with proper housing. Indeed, we have a duty in terms of how we treat our veterans. I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions on the issue of their medals and whether we can allow members of the Armed Forces to accept medals from other nations, such as Commonwealth nations. I hope that we will discuss that issue as well. The Minister referred to the Armed Forces Act and the Armed Forces covenant and how they will be reviewed. In that review we have to consider the ways in which we are failing as well as the ways in which we are succeeding. We owe a duty to those who fight for us and stand for us in the Armed Forces.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for arranging this debate. He has been most assiduous in keeping your Lordships’ House aware of defence issues and this is yet another example of that. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, to her new responsibilities. She has proved to be an excellent Front-Bench spokesman on other subjects and I am sure that that she will be equally good, or better even, on this subject, of which she has much background knowledge.
In this Remembrance Week, many families and friends of the fallen will be thinking of their loved ones—loved ones who served in the two world wars and in a variety of combat operations since 1945. Along with many others, I shall be honouring their memory next Sunday as I march past the Cenotaph with the Not Forgotten Association contingent, of which I am the senior president. While the majority who served in the two world wars or on national service were called up, causalities in more recent conflicts were volunteers. They joined the Armed Forces as a career choice, accepting that in the course of their service they could be exposed to real danger. Public support for Remembrance Sunday, as in your Lordships’ House, is thankfully large.
The recovery of the Falklands following Argentina’s invasion was ultimately a matter for combat operations and, importantly, enjoyed overwhelming national support. However, I fear that our more recent efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have not enjoyed the same national understanding or backing. Many reasons are suggested for this. The rationale for committing so much treasure, for sacrificing so much in lost lives and limbs, and for continuing over so many years—double the years that it took us to win through in World War I and World War II—is complex, difficult to explain simply and difficult for the public to grasp. But unlike with the world wars or even the Falklands, it is not easy to engender a sense of real tactical successes or even ultimate victory. Media coverage is largely confined to reporting casualties in Afghanistan, and much more needs to be done about that. Minds are now focusing on getting out of Afghanistan, and hopefully enough will have been done by the coalition to enable Afghanistan to look after itself.
However, the so-called war against terror has yet to succeed. There are limits to the contribution that military forces can make in the fight against terrorism. The enemy is not like a state, which is a geographic entity. It can and does threaten from many widely dispersed areas and in numerous different forms. This presents Governments with far more difficult choices for the involvement of their forces in support of other diplomatic and political initiatives.
The current approach is based on two incompatible assumptions. On the one hand there is the size of the financial commitment to defence, not just for day-to-day functioning but also for the future size and shape involving programmes that take many years to realise. For shorthand, let me characterise this as a commitment of 2% of GDP. The other assumption, now shown to be incompatible with the first one, is that the Armed Forces are to be structured to meet a certain level of immediate and ongoing enduring commitments without an honest costing of what that might mean for defence funds.
Most telling now is the number of criticisms of the MoD and Government by coroners dealing with inquests about the lack of life-saving equipment or inappropriate kit for the tasks expected of the casualty. This serves to highlight the mismatch in the public’s mind—their perception of a mismatch between the 2% GDP and what capabilities can be procured and operated on an enduring basis with such funds. Ministers would do well, if the 2% of GDP is not to be increased, to realise the risks of relying on urgent operational requirements and backing from the contingency fund in future engagements. They must never lose sight of the fact that those who will fight for them are volunteers who are prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice. So service men and women have a right to reasonable expectations that they will get not only political and moral support but the right equipment in the right place at the right time when they are ordered into conflict in a war of choice.
There are two other particular constraints that do not seem to figure as strongly as they should, and attract little or too little attention in the ability of our Armed Forces to take on new operational commitments. The first is that no matter how much current equipment—ships, aircraft or armour—has advanced in hitting power and accuracy, these improvements provide no recompense for meeting geographically widespread commitments.
Noble Lords will recall the endless arguments about frigate/destroyer numbers over the years. My first exposure to this was half a century ago when a force of at least 55 of these ships was deemed to be the absolute minimum. Without going through each of the soon-to-be-breached irreducible minimums in defence reviews in the intervening years, we now expect to stand up a mere 19 of such vessels. Of course, each of the 19 will be more powerful than any of their predecessors, but you cannot cut any of the 19 in two to spread the coverage on worldwide commitments. The Falklands guard ship, the Caribbean drug-busting task force, combating piracy in the Indian Ocean and safeguarding the deterrent are just a few examples of worldwide enduring commitments, as of course are training and ship repair schedules. These could leave too little available for mounting any wars of choice with a maritime contribution. Air power has the flexibility and reach to move rapidly afar, but it, too, can become overcommitted on enduring operations, as we have experienced in the combat air support of Afghanistan—and that was before the most recent cull of front-line fast-jet numbers.
Another factor that has a bearing on numbers is the risk of losses in combat. Since the Falklands, our forces have been fortunate to operate in benign or near-benign air environments. Consequently, losses to opponents have been non-existent or very small. It would be all too facile to assume that future operations would take place in a benign air environment, with no serious loss of ships or aircraft or other major equipment. Experience in the Falklands against an enemy of only limited air power capability cost us dearly, particularly in ships sunk or badly damaged.
Losses in a fight with a better equipped enemy than we have had to face in the past two decades could be infinitely more serious today. Indeed, the very limited cover we might be able to mount for a carrier task force, particularly as we now lack the protection of any maritime patrol capability, could restrict its use to operations facing benign threats and an opposition without any serious strike capability. The Exocet type of threat has not gone away.
A defence budget of only 2% of GDP, which will include the replacement boats for the nuclear deterrent—requiring 25% or more of the equipment budget during the peak stages of that programme—has to be the driver for calculating the variety and mix of short or enduring capabilities that the Armed Forces could mount. This must be constantly reviewed so that Ministers are able to reach judgments on the use of the Armed Forces in the expected threat environment. What this produces must be the yardstick used by Ministers before embarking on any future war of choice.
Surely it should be part of the military covenant that our young men and women are sent on combat operations only when adequately armed and equipped for the task. It should not be acceptable that they have only additional support from the contingency fund but do not have the strength and depth of equipment and back-up for losses in conflict. Such losses cannot be made good overnight, no matter how much money is thrown at them. Unless Ministers are guided in this way, there will be more avoidable casualties in the nation’s thoughts on future Remembrance Sundays.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, with whom I had the pleasure of working for a considerable period of time when he was Chief of the Defence Staff.
As the noble and gallant Lord was speaking about the present state of the equipment programme and the facilities and funds that are available to my noble friend the Minister—which he set out very clearly and fairly in his speech, for which I and the House thank him—I was thinking about the criticisms that were made in our time of what was called Options for Change, and the facilities and the range of manpower, equipment and, in the Navy, platforms that were then available, but what we had was positively lavish compared to the situation now, after Frontline First and the various other proposals that followed it.
We listened with great interest to the Minister’s speech. These are very challenging times for the Ministry of Defence. He has inherited an extremely difficult situation, with a huge deficit on the budget. We are told that that has now been met. I congratulate the Secretary of State, the Minister and his colleagues if that has really been achieved and we certainly wish that result well and hope that it will stand the test of time.
I rise to speak on this occasion which, as other noble Lords have said, comes so close to Remembrance Sunday. I noticed in my post today, and other noble Lords will no doubt have received it, the annual report of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which offers the clearest reminder of the sacrifice that so many have made for the security of our country over the years.
As we remember these tragedies of the past, it is always said—the Prime Minister said it in introducing the commemoration of 1914 which will come in 2014 and in which the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and I will have some involvement—that we must learn the lessons of each war and hope that they will perhaps prevent future wars. It was said that the 1914-18 war would be “the war to end all wars”, but, some 20 years later, we found ourselves at war again. The phrases often used are “wars of necessity” or “wars of choice”. I do not think that anybody would challenge that 1939 was a war of necessity, a war for civilisation against Hitler and the Nazis, who threatened the stability of the whole world at that time. After that war, we saw Korea; we saw Malaya—I was myself involved in the Mau Mau incident in Kenya—but, after that, there was a period of relative calm. It was not a very happy time perhaps, with the Cold War and nuclear deterrence, but it was a time of relative peace, certainly compared to the situation in more recent years. The world was divided into spheres of influence, the Soviet bloc and the western powers, and a certain policing took place at that time.
As people looked then at the old war memorials, I remember them seeming less relevant. A lot of people wondered whether the modern generation would be prepared to go and fight for Queen and country, to endure the hardships and sufferings that in the First and Second World Wars had been so manifest and memorable. Subsequent events have given the clearest possible answer to that. There was the continuity of service and conduct of our Armed Forces over 30 years or more in Northern Ireland during that time of great difficulty in fighting terrorism in that Province and in this country. There was then the Falklands war, mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, and the liberation of Kuwait. Those events showed that there was nothing wrong with the new generation of our young men serving in the Armed Forces and that they were every bit as capable as their forebears of showing fortitude, endurance and good humour—so manifestly displayed most recently, as many have said, at the Olympics, but obvious to anybody who meets them in the front line or in any other of the active service activities in which they are involved.
They are ready to serve and they do their duty, but, for us, there is another question: have we always done our duty? Have we always shown the fullest responsibility before we call on the willingness of the young people of this country to serve? I come back to my distinction between “wars of necessity” and “wars of choice”. I accept the necessity of our initial involvement in Afghanistan and the absolute commitment to deal with the challenge of al-Qaeda and bin Laden—I say with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that it was not the challenge of the Taliban at the time—and to make sure that Afghanistan did not become a training ground and a base for terrorist activity in other parts of the world.
I would have thought that that has been pretty magnificently achieved. I think that al-Qaeda would now find any attempt to relive its previous occupation of Afghanistan extremely difficult after all the suffering that it has brought on that country. I certainly think that it was essential to go in, in the first phase, to deal with that threat, but we have now been there for 11 years. We commemorate a Great War that lasted four years and a Second World War that lasted six, if one includes Japan, but we have had 11 years in Afghanistan.
I echo something that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said: there is a very heavy responsibility on the Government and on leaders in all parties—the bipartisan situation we inherited from the previous Government carried on by the present Government—to ensure that people understand why they are serving there and what is the objective. There are many people who have served here in your Lordships’ House. One cannot think of a nastier campaign to be involved in than when you face not the ordinary, what you might call conventional war but suicide bombers or IEDs; when you never know whether the next step you take down the track will be the end of you or the loss of two or more of your limbs; where you now have the ghastly prospect of the people you are trying to train, who are serving with you in uniform, killing you in turn.
That is a very demanding challenge. When we consider the people who have laid down their lives in the service of their country in Afghanistan, those who have suffered grievous injuries—there is a new phrase that I had not heard before called life-changing injuries—and, to come, post-traumatic stress of one form or another, there is no doubt that there will be big challenges to meet.
I believe that the objectives of Afghanistan have effectively been achieved. It is obviously important that the move which the Prime Minister has announced, which I strongly support—the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan—is achieved with honour and great care. I fancy that it will not be achieved without great difficulty, not least with the question of withdrawing equipment from those territories, but that should be done.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, referred to the problems of equipment. If we have a duty, it is our duty to ensure that, if we ask our forces to embark on campaigns or undertakings of one sort or another that are deemed necessary by the Government and the nation, they are properly equipped, properly trained and have good leadership. In that, I make a plea to both previous Prime Ministers and the present one. It is not impressive if your Secretary of State for Defence changes every year. Our forces are entitled to see that that position is given seniority in the Cabinet and a measure of continuity. No business could run with the leader, the boss, changing every year.
I understand entirely why the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was guilty of one departure ahead of time. We respect that it was important for the United Kingdom that he should go to be Secretary-General of NATO, but he will know that, more recently, we had five Secretaries of State for Defence in five years. For difficult reasons, as the House knows, we have already had one change under this Government. I hope that there will now be real determination to get some continuity so that people can know who their Secretary of State is and see the leadership that they expect.
On top of that, and this has already been mentioned, if we have a duty to those who serve, we have a duty to their families who encourage them to serve, and we have a duty to those who have served. The importance of the covenant, to which the Government have given suitable prominence, must be fully seen through. The challenge will be great. That covenant will apply not just to serving forces and the Regular Forces; the biggest challenge that the Government will face in maintaining the numbers that we need for our defence is how we are to get reservists of the right calibre and ability to serve. It is much more challenging than it used to be when the TA was a much more part-time activity. Asking people in the TA and others to go for six months —to be taken out of their businesses, as the noble Lord said, and to be willing to serve in that way—will be a major challenge but they must be made part of the military family in every possible way, so that every encouragement is given to that service.
We owe a great debt to those who have served and we shall recognise it this week, on Sunday, but our debt is not just to remember those who have fallen. It is to try to ensure that those who have served already have not died in vain and that the lessons are learnt for us in the future in the most serious way.
My Lords, it is indeed an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord King, in this debate. Unsatisfactory though the circumstances have been that created the space for the debate, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, for securing this topic. I am sure that there must have been some competing issues but to have secured this very important topic for a debate, which is not timed, enables those who are able to do so to contribute and is very welcome. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to this debate too. I remember well that when the noble Baroness joined the House, defence was one of the issues that she first picked up. I look forward to working with her in the future and wish her much success.
We are in a week when the country and the nation come together to pay honour and respect and, somehow, to pay the due debt that we have to those who have fallen in the wars that our Armed Forces have taken part in. That is very much manifest in the poppy that we all, rightly, wear. It is a way of recognising the enormous price that so many of our citizens have paid. Within the various ceremonies taking place this year there are still many hundreds of war widows who, throughout the rest of their lives, have paid the price for their loved ones having fallen in defence of this country. They are joined now by young widows—widows of an age that we all hoped, as in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord King, that we would not be faced with. However, we are because of the unsafe world that we live in. Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am vice-president of the War Widows Association and very proud of the work that the association has done. They have not forgotten the debt that their loved ones are owed by the nation over the years.
We are reminded regularly in this House of the price that our Armed Forces continue to pay in defence of the realm and in carrying out the responsibilities that we give them. At home in the south-west last Friday night, we had on television the service from a tiny church in a small village in Cornwall where people came together to pay respects to Corporal David O’Connor, a young man from 40 Commando who had had three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He was 27, having been killed at the peak of his young life. We were also reminded of the increasing contribution of women to our Armed Forces because when he met his death, alongside him was Corporal Channing Day of 3rd Medical Regiment. She was out there to help and support our service personnel. As we know, our medical people do not just serve those personnel; any civilians who need their help get it. She was aged 25. It is a hell of a price that those young people are paying, day in and day out, in the service of this country.
The nation respects our Armed Forces. That is brought home continually now, not just by the remembrance services that we have but in the other interaction that the Armed Forces have. It is good that they are able to return to their home towns as a regiment in their uniforms. I welcome that. It is good that they come into Parliament in their uniforms and are welcome and respected; we can pay our thanks to them. As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned, we also turn to them for help when civil services fail, whether that is because of foot and mouth disease, a firefighters’ strike or indeed the Olympics. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that there was an almost tangible sigh of relief nationally when we were told that the Armed Forces were going to work on security. They were not the backstop; they were the security of first choice for many people in this country, and what a proud job they did for us.
They know when they sign up that they are not going to make a fortune; they know when they take that choice that the ultimate prize could be paid. They know the ultimate sacrifice that they are going to make, but in exchange for that they are given to understand that they have security, stability, welfare support and a cohesive force—whether their regiment, their ship or, in the RAF, their group—that works together. The Armed Forces do not work as individuals but as groups. That is a topic that I shall return to later on in my contribution.
The Armed Forces also expect that when they are on operations, their families will be treated properly. It is the issue of families that I would particularly like to cover today. They also expect that, if they pay the ultimate price, their employer—the nation—will do good by their dependants who are left behind.
The service covenant, which we have had a number of debates on in this House, is a good policy commitment and has good intentions, but we are very short of delivering. I welcome very much the words that I believe were sincerely given by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, today, about plans in the coming months. Our Armed Forces are pretty straightforward in their view, and I can hear them now saying in my ear, as they used to when I chaired the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body, “We’ve heard it all before. Come on, start delivering in the areas where you haven’t delivered”. And there is quite a list of those areas.
I have spoken to some personnel in preparation for this debate. The big issue now for them, and this is referred to in this year’s Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body report, is the uncertainty and the insecurity that they feel about the future—where are they going to live and what is the housing going to be like? Nearly 40% of complaints to the forces’ family federations are about housing—the quality of it, the lack of choice and where people are going to be. This issue has been ongoing for a number of years and does not lie just with the present Government, but it will be exacerbated by the fact that we have personnel returning from Germany.
I gather that we now have a situation where, although people may be in one group in one of the three services, they are not all going to be able to live in the same area. I heard of one case of three commanding officers of the same group living in entirely different areas. In such cases you lack cohesion but, more importantly for the families, it is then very difficult to give welfare support when the serving personnel are off on operations. It is difficult, for instance, to bring military wives together to enjoy life and give each other moral support while their spouses are away serving their country. Probably for the first time, this year the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body referred to low morale in some areas, which it is very concerned about. I hope that it will be following up on that in its report next year.
A two-year pay freeze does not help in any situation. When you are putting a lad or a girl on a plane to go and fight for their country in Afghanistan and possibly pay the ultimate price, as quite a number of them have done, it does not particularly help for them to be told, “By the way, we really recognise what you’re doing but you’re not going to get any pay increase for the next two years”. Our Armed Forces should be treated differently from the rest of us in this country. Why? Because we have the covenant which says that the country will look after them. They do not have the option of just walking away, as so many other people would if they found it difficult.
A small number of the redundancies which have already been referred to were very badly handled. The problem is that that poor handling radiates out through huge numbers in the Armed Forces. The 16-year rule on pensions is that if you have been there 16 years and leave, at a certain age you can then get some of your pension. To be made redundant a few weeks before 16 years and therefore not getting it is pretty cack-handed. I do not believe that it was done deliberately—well, I hope it was not—but we must be careful of it.
On housing, in the previous Budget £100 million was announced for the upgrading of housing: £100 million in, £140 million—I gather—taken out for the upgrading of housing for 2013-15. It does not make sense. They can see through this. None of it helps the cohesion that we are looking for. A family which has been overseas in the Armed Forces cannot get a credit rating when they come back. They cannot get a mortgage. They cannot go and buy a car on hire purchase like the rest of us. They cannot buy big items, because they do not have a credit rating. The banks should be called in to help in that situation. It is not that they have been off somewhere doing nothing at all. They have been working for their country, and we should address that.
Along with the changes in their pension scheme that I mentioned, all this creates uncertainty. I very much welcome what the Minister said in his opening speech, that we will have some policy announcements over the coming months. However, they must have timelines with them. It is not good enough just to say, “This is our policy”. The policies have to be delivered. They cannot give with one hand and take with the other. When the Minister replies, please can she respond to the points about morale, which is an issue?
The austerity measures in the country do not give the Government an opt-out on the responsibility that they carry for all of us to our Armed Forces. They are a special case. No Government can ask us in a debate here to take note of their contribution and then walk away from that responsibility. One or two quotes have been given around the period of remembrance we are in at the moment. One that always strikes home to me is, “Lest we forget”. We forget at our general peril if we do not face up to our responsibility to our Armed Forces and their families.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever for bringing this debate to us today. I, too, add my welcome to my noble friend Lady Garden to the Front Bench; I have been working with her on the Front Bench in the past two years, but this is her coming home to a subject that she knows so well and a life that she has been part of for some years.
It is thanks to the contribution of the Armed Forces that I am able to stand here today and speak, a free-born English woman, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and, I am delighted to say, a member of the All-Party Defence Studies Group that is so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, where she managed to bring the leaders of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to us so that we, in our ignorance, can learn and understand better what is needed. I fully echo her words today, certainly on those things which are needed for the families.
I come from the seafaring city of Plymouth in Devon. My family has fought, fished or traded for over 400 years. We face seaward, so it is with the Royal Navy that I am mainly familiar. I grew up during the Second World War in a frightening, fighting city of sailors, marines and commandoes; a city where the women ran everything ashore while their men were away at sea. This debate has provoked keen memories for me, including of standing as a little girl on the cliffs at Mount Batten, of the marine bands on Plymouth Hoe and of waiting to see our mighty ships, some of which were battered and scarred, arrive home. I watched with my mother in the crowded dockyards as thousands of men, some of whom were badly injured, came down the gang-planks with anxious eyes searching for loved ones. What homecomings those were. Union Street teamed with sailors on shore leave who were scooped up by Black Marias at midnight to be taken back to the safety of their ships.
I remember my grandmother’s sitting room. It was a very special room and we did not go in it very often. But when we did, that was where the pictures of the men of the family who had died in action were honoured. My grandmother talked with pride of the men our family had given while fighting for their country. As children, she told us the tales of their brave actions and showed us the maps. Geography meant something to us and we never forgot it.
Between 1939 and 1945, the enemy bombing raids searched out Plymouth docks and they devastated our city. Little of it was left, but our port was safe, the seas were ours and the war was won. The skies had become a battleground for new aircraft, and submarines, soon to be nuclear, gave us new access to our sea. It was our nation’s leaders, our Armed Forces, our use of strategy and, above all, our inventiveness and technology that brought us through. They were very different days from those of Drake and Nelson, and these are different days from Cunningham and Leach.
Britain is a maritime trading nation. I have spent 10 years on the board of the Port of London Authority and I know that more than 90% of our exports and imports come via the sea. In World War II, we would have starved if the Navy had not been able to protect at least some of our merchant fleet. Much of our prosperity depends on the free movement of goods and resources across the oceans. Deployed globally, the Royal Navy is constantly driving forward our interests worldwide. It has the capacity to inflict violence on the enemy through recently used effects, such as naval gunfire support. But, probably just as influential, and certainly more enduring, is the constant development of wider regional relationships in every port of call—from the Caribbean to the Far East and from South America to the Baltic Sea.
However, much of what the Royal Navy does goes unseen and unheard as it works thousands of miles from home in distant waters. This lack of day-to-day visibility has inexorably led to a certain amount of “sea blindness” within the general public as they become increasingly divorced from any association with our maritime activities. I thank the Minister very much for the new Armed Forces day, which I believe will start next year on 29 June. I will encourage every parent and grandparent to take their children along so that they can learn and understand what our forces are doing everywhere.
This naval blindness is unfortunate because not only is the naval contribution to our collective well-being a world-wide effort, there are increasing demands on our sailors much closer to home, whether it is the 11th-hour failure of private security companies for the Olympics or threats of strike action by fuel tanker drivers or prison officers. As we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Palmer and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, the Armed Forces stand ready to step in and are becoming increasingly the nation’s insurance policy.
These emerging demands place even more strain on our sailors. While they are used to being away for long periods, they quite rightly expect a level of stability when they are back at home. Ships are generally deployed overseas for six months in every 18 months. However, preparations and training for the next operation start as soon as a unit returns.
As our country moves out of recession, our national prosperity and freedoms are increasingly vulnerable to events across the globe. The Royal Navy is uniquely able to respond in a variety of ways in line with the Government’s intent. With 40 Commando fighting in Afghanistan, as I speak, and many other naval personnel also on the front line, from airborne surveillance to bomb disposal, the contribution of the Royal Navy to United Kingdom interests is undeniable. To maintain this contribution, a wide range of capabilities will be required for the foreseeable future, from the soft effect of a warship visiting a far-flung port to develop partnerships to the higher-end war-fighting skills that are likely to be needed to ensure the freedom of movement for shipping should global events take a turn for the worse.
I welcome this debate as a means of highlighting the ongoing resolve of our Armed Forces to meet our existing and emerging commitments, at home and abroad, and to be prepared for whatever contingent activities may be required in areas such as the Arabian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean. I am truly grateful for the freedom to speak here today, in this time of remembrance, to remember those men and women of our Armed Forces who died so that we may continue to live in safety in these green and pleasant lands, and I commend our Government for trying to do all that they can to shape and equip our Armed Forces for the future safety of us all.
I start by endorsing the tributes that have already been made in this House to our Armed Forces. I know, as everybody in this House knows and I hope the country knows, that those tributes are not ritualistic but deeply felt on both sides of the House.
I also thank the Minister for giving us this opportunity. He is extremely conscientious and serious in his duties to the House, and he has done very well by the House today in getting us this opportunity. I am not going to allow my great respect for the Minister to muzzle the things that I am about to say, but I want to say at the outset how much we appreciate that. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to her new role on the Front Bench. Those of us who knew him, and all of us today, will be very sad that her husband, who had one of the most brilliant and original military minds that I have ever encountered, cannot be with us this afternoon to see her there, sitting on the Front Bench with those new defence responsibilities.
I am going to be very frank, because the situation requires frankness. The state of our Armed Forces is very depressing and worrying. All the serving officers and men whom I have had the opportunity to speak to recently—it so happens that I have not had the opportunity to speak to any servicewomen recently—are all of one accord. They say that morale is worse than it has been for at least 20 years, since the excessive cuts undertaken by the previous Conservative Administration in the 1990s, to which the noble Lord, Lord King, has already referred. In parenthesis, I may say that I opposed those cuts at the time in a pamphlet called Facing the Future, which I published jointly with a number of then Conservative Back-Bench colleagues, including Andrew Robathan and Julian Brazier. My views on defence have not changed since they were expressed in that pamphlet.
I used to think that the Conservative Party among all British political parties was the one with the best understanding of the importance of defence and the greatest sympathy for the needs of our Armed Forces. That was certainly true when I joined the Tory Party in 1974 and remained indubitably true, in my view, for quite a number of years after that. But in the 1990s, I began to wonder whether that was still true, and I wondered even more when I read the Defence White Paper of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, in 1998. It is very difficult indeed to imagine that anybody would come to the conclusion that it is true today.
As the Minister said, the Government have made some tough choices; the trouble is that in my view those choices were completely wrong. For example, the Government decided to continue to give India £300 million in aid a year, a country that is building aircraft carriers and buying aircraft to fly off those carriers, while deciding that we could not afford to have a carrier strike force at all for the next 10 years. I think that was profoundly wrong. It might have been tough but it was absolutely wrong and a betrayal of the national interest. The Government have produced a situation in which our Army is now being reduced by 20%. That means that we can now deploy on a sustainable basis only something of the order of a brigade—say, 2,000 men and women with full supporting arms, as opposed to the 10,000 we have deployed in Afghanistan for many years past. That is a good example of the negative gearing effect of cutting your defence forces. I fear that our defence forces have now been cut to a point where they would simply not be able to respond to a whole range of all too easily conceivable scenarios.
The other problem with doing this is that you send quite the wrong signal to those people around the world who might be tempted to breach the international peace or even have designs on our own territory. I do not suppose for a moment that the Argentinians are at this moment planning to attack the Falklands. Cristina Fernández or Cristina Kirchner—I do not know which she prefers to be called—has said that she wishes to resolve the matter peacefully, but aggressors always have a way of saying at the outset that they intend to resolve the problem peacefully. I equally have no doubt at all that the raising of this issue in Argentina, and the terms in which it has been raised over the past couple of years, has not been coincidental. It is not unlinked to the fact that it is now clear that for 10 years we will not have a carrier strike force which would be required if ever the Argentinians succeeded in taking over the Falklands again. We would now be incapable of retaking the Falkland Islands in the way we did in 1982. It is a very serious matter which the whole country needs to take very seriously. That is why I am not muzzling the words that I am using this afternoon, as I believe that they are entirely justified.
The question arises of what you do about a situation like that. It is very easy for me to say, “Vote Labour at the next election and get rid of this awful Government”. I have said that and will continue to say it. However, I recognise that in reality you cannot entirely go back. It would be absurd to make a promise that we could entirely reverse the cuts that have been introduced and go back to square one. You can never entirely go back in history; we all recognise that. We need to think very carefully about what we do to try to make sure that we have the means to continue to make a positive contribution to the world’s peace. As several speakers have mentioned —I would say almost a majority of those who have spoken on both sides of the House this afternoon—we have played a decisive part in that in these many operations and difficulties over the past 60 or 70 years since the Second World War.
As I contemplate this matter, I think increasingly that the solution must be to do something which I know is counterintuitive for some people and would not be welcome to many distinguished members of our Armed Forces, but they might prefer it to having no effective defence at all: that is, to take very seriously the prospect of a European common defence policy. If such a policy is ever to produce any real savings and address the financial issues, which, of course, are real issues, it would have to be based on defence specialisation. You would no longer have everybody, including ourselves, having MBTs, light tanks, reconnaissance vehicles and utility vehicles or large helicopters, medium helicopters, small helicopters and so forth. There would have to be a degree of defence specialisation. That means that you would have to be certain in advance that everybody who was required would be there on the day when you needed to deploy within one coherent command and control system, which, of course, requires common foreign policy. These things are difficult pills to swallow for a lot of people and impossible, I think, for the Conservative Party because it is incapable of taking rational, pragmatic decisions on this subject as it is so imprisoned by its own emotional and ideological opposition to anything European.
Yes, indeed. First, it would not be a common defence force in the sense that you would have people from different countries serving in the same unit. That would be absurd. However, a common defence policy would require a guarantee on the part of all the other members of the EU with regard to all our domestic territories, including overseas territories. That would apply to the French, the Dutch and others who have overseas territories. That would be an essential part of the deal. I have no doubt about that at all. The noble Lord realises that that raises all sorts of issues but all of us need to look at these matters with a greater degree of realism because the alternative is impotence. We will all be spending a lot. The total defence spending in the European Union is in the order of about €200 billion, which sounds a lot but is very small compared with the United States. It must be something like a quarter of the United States defence spending. I cannot get the arithmetic completely right while speaking on my feet but it is a large amount of money. A lot of it is being spent completely ineffectively for the simple reason of the negative gearing effect to which I have already referred. These matters need to be considered. I cannot go into the detail this afternoon but we need to go into the detail on these matters. We need to consider them. I realise that this is considered in some quarters a revolutionary and, indeed, very obnoxious suggestion, but I have put it to the House that the alternative will be impotence, and that cannot be the right solution for Europe as a whole and for the future of a civilised world.
I would like to say a word or two about defence procurement. I say frankly to the Minister that I was pretty astounded by one of the things he said. I am sure that he was loyally mouthing the current government propaganda on the subject; that is what you have to do sometimes when you are a Minister, as I know. He referred to new equipment. I think that he said there would be new submarines, new ISTAR and new helicopters. What did he mean by that? As regards new submarines, as far as I know the Government—thank God—are continuing with the Astute programmes and the Successor-class submarine programme but are delaying both. That is not exactly new equipment. I suppose that by new helicopters the Minister means Wildcat and Chinook. It so happens that I was responsible for promoting, pushing through, negotiating and concluding both those projects. They are not new in any way. Far from adding to them, the Government are actually reducing them. They cancelled 10 of the 22 Chinooks that I ordered, so it is pretty rich to describe that as new equipment and put it to the credit side of the Government. I suppose that by new ISTAR the Minister meant the Predator system, for example, which we bought more of, and Watchkeeper, which again goes back to Labour’s time in office. One needs to be cautious about listening to some of the extraordinary government propaganda that comes out on this subject. We need a reality check from time to time.
We particularly need a reality check as regards the great deficit that the previous Labour Government are supposed to have left behind—the so-called £37 billion or £38 billion black hole. My next comment has been said before but it needs to be said again, because we continue to hear this dreadful piece of black propaganda. There is no such thing as the figures I have mentioned. You get to figures of that kind only if you make two assumptions which you cannot possibly make in good faith. One is that everything on our prospective procurement list would be procured. That never happens. I cancelled several things myself. I cancelled the medium helicopter project in order to finance the Chinooks, as the noble Lord no doubt knows. I cancelled the MARS tanker programme. One is always cancelling things for good military reason and switching to higher priorities in defence procurement.
The second thing which one can accept in good faith even less is the assumption, which has to be made to get to the figure that I have mentioned, that there would have been no cash increase. In other words, there would have been an enormous real-terms reduction in our military budget and our procurement budget for 10 whole years. In fact, the previous Labour Government increased defence spending by 1.5% per annum in real terms after inflation. Although the coalition will hold defence spending within a cash ceiling for the first five years it has always said that in the second five years it would increase the cash spending, so even the coalition is not pursuing a policy which would have led to the £37 billion or £38 billion figure. Therefore, it is time that we ceased to hear about the £37 billion or £38 billion.
I want to say something positive and helpful. I mean that sincerely. I hope it will be in the interests of the country that I say it now. You can always improve the defence procurement process. I think that we did so in my time, working very closely with General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue. We reduced the bureaucracy substantially, particularly the assurance process, and developed new models of open-book co-operation with some of our major defence suppliers, but you can always go further. However, there is one big problem that I identified which I was not able to resolve: namely, that we do not do procurement spending and procurement evaluation on a present-value basis. Noble Lords who have experience in the private sector will know that, in all significant-sized companies, investment appraisal and procurement is done on a present-value basis. In other words, what counts is the present value of the future stream of expenditure or the future return from investment and you compare that present value with alternative approaches or solutions to the same problem. That is not done in defence spending. In defence spending certain amounts of money are allocated to certain years and you have a limit you can spend within a particular year, which means you completely lack flexibility.
I will give the House two examples of where, in my time, we lost hundreds of millions of pounds for no good reason but the existing Treasury rules. One was during the shipping crisis in 2008. I realised that we could probably buy the MARS tankers that we had in the programme for two or three years later very much more cheaply by simply purchasing tankers on the open market rather than building them at enormous expense, which had already been examined and provided for. We had £1.2 billion in the budget for six tankers. I spoke to several shipping brokers and discovered that we could actually buy, on the second-hand market, tankers of the right capacity—30,000 to 50,000 tonnes, capable of refuelling at 15 knots at sea and so forth—for $50 million apiece. If you then spent some money putting on a helicopter pad, one or two bells and whistles, some armaments and so forth, it could not cost you more than $75 million as opposed to the £200 million which we had in the budget for each one of those tankers. It was a no-brainer but I was not allowed to do it. I went to the Treasury and said that we could save public money but it said, “No, no, no, that’s the rules, we can’t do it. Sorry, but you have to wait two or three years”. I told it that in two or three years’ time the shipping market would have revived and we would not be able to get that sort of deal. “Sorry, too bad”, it said.
The same thing happened with the Astute class. I wanted to buy the components and a lot of the systems for Astute-class boats 4. 5, 6 and 7 together in bulk, getting a considerable discount. I was told, “You can’t do it because all these things are allocated to individual years”. I worked up, with the National Audit Office, a proposal for the Treasury to change this and we had meetings with the Chief Secretary, Liam Byrne. I explained all this to my successor, Mr Luff, who was sadly sacked—I do not know quite why—at the recent reshuffle, but nothing has happened about it so I put it on the table now. This is something that needs to be examined. It can be done and I could go into great detail if I had the time. This is an opportunity and prospect which we cannot afford to ignore in the context of any genuine attempt to save public money and provide a more efficient basis for defence procurement.
My Lords, I should start by saying that I work for an American defence company called Curtis Wright. The Wright in Curtis Wright was the Wright brothers. Curtis Wright supplied many fighter aircraft to the US Air Force during the last war. After the war somebody came along and said, “We think you should look very closely at the whole idea of jet propulsion for fighter aircraft”. Curtis Wright looked at it very carefully and said, “No, this is not the answer”. Your Lordships will not be surprised to know that Curtis Wright are not in the production of fighter aircraft any more, but they are involved in a number of other technical areas in defence supply. It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, because—let us face it—he does not lack chutzpah when it comes to defending the actions of the previous Government.
I will deal, firstly, with the question of defence specialisation. This has a certain allure to it because what it means is that different countries in Europe would take over the sole supply of the capability of certain bits of defence. The very obvious answer to that would be that armour should be in the hands of the Germans. If the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, talks to his honourable friend in the other place, Gisela Stuart, who is German, she will tell him that the Germans have become completely pacifist. If we had this arrangement, and we decided we wanted to fight an armoured conflict somewhere, we could not do it because the Germans would not fight. There seem to be enormous problems. The noble Lord says that when this great unification of European forces was put together, they would have to sign up to looking after our colonies. The Spanish are extremely hostile to the idea of us defending the Falklands at all, and I am not sure that they are going to sign up to that in any way. There are enormous shortcomings.
I will move on to the great debate, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, about the size of the deficit inherited by this Government. Was it £37 billion or £38 billion of unfunded procurement over 10 years? Or was it a smaller figure? It must have been a pretty massive figure because otherwise we would not have had the devastating review of our whole procurement programme, cutting out ranges of procurement. The Harriers had to go, as did the maritime patrol aircraft and so forth. That would not have happened if there had not been a very serious problem which this Government had to address. I do not expect the Minister to answer this when she sums up, but perhaps she could write to me about it. Last Tuesday, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne gave lunch to Sir Clive Whitmore, who used to be the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence when I was there and in the time of my noble friend Lord King. Clive Whitmore, who understood politicians very clearly, was famous for saying all the time, “I have to remind you, Ministers, that I am the chief accounting officer of the Ministry of Defence, and if you want to spend money you have not got, I want a ministerial override”. As your Lordships know, a ministerial override is something that comes from the Permanent Secretary and has to be signed by a Minister. It basically says that “I, as a Permanent Secretary, advise against this particular procurement because the funds are not available and they have to be signed off by a Minister”.
The final signing off of the aircraft carriers was in 2009. The roof had fallen in on the whole economy, and we had complete disaster in every direction. It was obvious to a child of five that there was going to be no more money coming into the defence budget. At the same time, two aircraft carriers were ordered at a cost of around £5 billion. That was on top of a mass of other equipment which had been ordered but for which there were no funds whatever. What happened in the Ministry of Defence? Why were there no ministerial overrides? We look to our Civil Service to guarantee the continuity and solvency of departments of state. What went wrong that that did not kick in? What provision has now been made in the Ministry of Defence to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen in the future? Perhaps that could be put in a letter. We should be seriously concerned if we reach a position where things are being ordered in this way. This is always going to happen in political life as politicians believe they can buy people’s votes by putting out enormous orders and there could be no better way of buying votes than to have two aircraft carriers being built simultaneously in every shipyard in the country so the largesse could be spread as widely as possible. Why was there not a ministerial override saying, “The funds are not available for this, I therefore do not recommend it, and I am doing it only because I am ordered to by the Minister”?
Perhaps I can help the noble Lord and also defend civil servants whose reputations might otherwise be tarnished by what he has just said. We had the most conscientious and able Permanent Secretary and finance director in my time. There was no ministerial override because there did not need to be one as the carrier programme, like other parts of our programme, was funded and properly provided for within our defence budget.
That no doubt explains why the first thing this Government tried to do when they got in was to cancel the carrier programme, only to find that it could not be cancelled because BAS is very good at tying up such incredibly tight contracts that it would have cost more to cancel than to go ahead with it. I do not totally buy that: there is something seriously wrong here, and I do not think we would have the current difficulties if there had been a few more ministerial overrides in the past. Critics of my right honourable friend, Philip Hammond, the new Secretary of State, say that he is just a number cruncher who does not know anything about defence priorities. He understands very well the first defence priority, which is that you do not order kit if you do not have the money to pay for it. His second priority is balancing the budget, and he therefore takes total care that we are not going to run into any major crisis, such as the one we have experienced recently. His business experience will be valuable, and he is the ideal man to be holding the position of Secretary of State.
It is not just a shambles that we find in the administration of the Ministry of Defence. We used to be able to rely on men in uniform to do the right thing, but what have we seen? We have seen the humiliation of the retreat from Basra, which raises serious questions about the intelligence given to our military commanders before they went in. Was it a complete surprise that the Iranians decided to get involved in all the Shia militias there? The result was that we had to pull out. In terms of safe passage to get back to the airport, we had to do a deal whereby we would not go back in. The Americans were, to put it mildly, dismayed, and eventually the Iraqi Government took the view that such was the appalling shambles left behind in Basra that they had to go in with the Iraqi Army and US Marine Corps. Once they went back in, they certainly sorted out the problems there, and there has not been much of a problem there since.
Almost as a reaction to Basra, the British Army afterwards decided to deploy 3,500 men in Helmand province. What was the intelligence there? Did they not know that the Pashtuns in Helmand loathe all foreigners, and the foreigners they loathe more than any others are the British, because they still have not forgiven us for the wars we fought against them in the 19th century? The result was that we nearly lost that whole force of 3,500 men, but for the fantastic air power provided by NATO, which pulverised all the mud villages in front of it but would not have done an awful lot for hearts and minds in Afghanistan.
I am actually seriously worried about where the Ministry of Defence has gone in the past. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a serious problem of getting this thing back into some sort of order, both in terms of finances and, I hope, in getting involved in operational matters, because serious problems have been created for which we are paying a hefty price. I wish I could say that I looked to the future with confidence as regards the serious challenges facing my right honourable friend. He has an awful lot of work to do.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever for initiating this debate. I am particularly grateful for his reminder that this debate is wide-ranging, because what I am about to say is not in the mainstream of what has been discussed—so far, certainly.
I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Three weeks ago, we undertook a fact-finding visit to Belfast in connection with the decade of commemoration of the centenary of seminal events that took place in Ireland between 1912 and 1922. In the course of this visit we in the group were impressed by the growing interest on both sides of the border in the contribution of the Irish regiments in the Great War. The history of the 36th Ulster Division is well known and commemorated by the Ulster Tower on the Somme battlefield. Of the two divisions raised in southern Ireland—the 10th and the 16th—much less is known. It became clear in the course of our inquiries that for many nationalist families until very recently the service of great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers in the British Army in the First World War has been treated as a guilty secret never to be discussed and to be airbrushed out of the family history.
My honourable friend Conor Burns, Member of Parliament for Bournemouth West, is a Roman Catholic who was born in Belfast and raised largely in Great Britain. He is a colleague on the British-Irish parliamentary group and kindly agreed that I could quote his family as an example of the ignorance in which younger generations were kept, until very recently, about the service in the British Army of their forbears—in his case, his grandmother’s family, several of whom served in the Army.
However, in the recent past, there has been a perceptible change of attitude. What has caused this? Certainly, the internet has played a part. Records in places such as the National Archives in Kew and Dublin have become more readily accessible, and with the various ancestry search programmes there has been increasing curiosity about family histories, including regarding some aspects previously regarded as taboo. There continues to be research particularly on the five Irish regiments that were disbanded in 1922. In some cases, this has extended to individual battalions. For example, the 6th Connaught Rangers, a Kitchener or New Army battalion, was raised in Catholic west Belfast, and its recruits would have been almost to a man Redmond nationalists. The battalion fought on the Somme with the 16th Irish Division. Its history is the subject of a meticulously researched and well produced book, which in its appendix lists the careers and ultimate destinations of every member of the battalion, many of them sadly killed in action. This is but one of a number of initiatives of this nature in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This significant change of attitude to a subject treated hitherto as an embarrassment by many an Irish family is part of the transformation of British-Irish relations in recent years. Much credit for this must go to the leadership shown by two successive Presidents of the Republic, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and continued by President O’Higgins. It of course culminated with the visit to the Republic by Her Majesty the Queen in 2010, the impact of which on the people of Ireland is even now not fully appreciated on this side of the Irish Sea. Tangible evidence of this new outlook is the increase in the number of visitors from the Irish Republic to the battlefields of France and Flanders, in many cases to visit the graves of forbears of whose military history they were previously unaware. The defining moment of the Irish contribution in the Great War came with the Battle of Messines in 1917, when for the first time the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division fought alongside in an action that many military historians regard as the most significant tactical victory in the whole of the Great War.
In the time available, I have not been able to research the detailed statistics of those who served and were killed in the First World War, but about 149,000 volunteered from the whole of Ireland, and just under 30,000 were killed. It is difficult to break down the figures of the war dead from the various provinces, but when one considers that there were one Ulster division and two Irish divisions, it is clear that the suffering must have been fairly widespread throughout the whole of Ireland.
I am very moved by what my noble friend is saying. It so happens that just a few weeks ago I visited the Somme—as I mentioned to him the other day—and was struck by the fact that Irishmen from both sides of what is now the border were standing side by side, with great courage and tenacity, particularly in the July Somme attack, as well as later in the 1914-1918 war. I visited a number of cemeteries because my three uncles were killed during the war, and I was moved when I met young people from both sides of the current Irish border who came together in coachloads to see some of these cemeteries. I entirely endorse what my noble friend is saying, and I am very pleased to be in the House to hear him.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Tyler for that intervention.
I should also mention that a large number of Irishmen, particularly from the south-east seaboard counties of what is now the Republic, would have served in the Royal Navy. It is against the background of all this that I should say that there was no conscription in any part of the island in either of the two world wars.
This debate, initiated by my noble friend, is timely, coming as it does on the week before Remembrance Sunday. I suggest that it is appropriate, within this debate, to place on record the contribution and sacrifice of so many Irishmen in the Great War, which for far too long has remained largely overlooked. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, mentioned the phrase, “Lest we forget”. It is particularly comforting that this increasingly embraces the families of many of our friends in the Republic of Ireland at this time.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Bridgeman. While he was talking, I recalled my visit to some of the cemeteries and memorials when, last year and in the early part of this year, I undertook a most moving walk across Europe to promote the Olympic truce. In January, we arrived at the island of Ireland Peace Park, which is now a memorial on the western front which commemorates the fallen on both sides who came together there. It is now a centre for peace and it will be a focal point for centenary celebrations and commemorations of the First World War. It is a fitting tribute.
I am also privileged to take part in this debate in which immense expertise has been brought to bear. I thank my noble friend Lord Astor for introducing the debate and I welcome my noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal to her role. After the moving speech of my noble friend Lady Wilcox, I wonder whether it is traditional to welcome someone back to the Back Benches but, even if it is not in order, I do so because I thought hers was a particularly moving speech and one that I welcomed.
For me, this debate has hinged on two contributions, one from my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, and the other from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. Their contributions have been very significant, particularly the point about the reception that our Armed Forces receive when they return to the United Kingdom. I have had a couple of encounters recently. I was devastated to hear about how people are treated, when in uniform, on their return, having sacrificed so much and given such incredible service. There are two points to this. One is that we need to make a case for the mission, but more fundamentally we need to bear in mind that no member of the Armed Forces has ever gone to war of their own volition. They go to war and engage in conflict because Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government dispatch them to do so. They serve the Executive and they serve the legislature. That point needs to be made. They do not question it; they go out and serve.
That leads to another point, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord King, which is how the military service is doing all that it can and so it behoves us in Parliament to do all that we can to communicate that message and to scrutinise it. I would like to flag up one point before going back to the First World War reminiscences and some comments on the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I do not wish to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of conflict but I would like to make a more general point about the role of Parliament in making the decision to go to war. That point has been widely debated and there have been significant reports on it by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in 2004; by a House of Lords committee which produced a report in 2006 called Waging War: Parliament’s Role and Responsibility; and most recently by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons in its eighth report of Session 2010-12. They were all saying that there needed to be a systematic and constitutional way in which Parliament is consulted before forces in this country are deployed. That relates to the prerogative powers and it is a very good thing to do. When that report came out, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, when leader of the Opposition in 2006, said that he felt that in order for there to be trust in MPs, MPs must be consulted before, not after, military forces are deployed overseas. That is a very important principle. I noticed that when the report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was published, there was a debate and the Foreign Secretary said in the House of Commons on 21 March 2011:
“We will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/11; col. 799.]
That was a strong, clear undertaking and it would be good to get an update from my noble friend on the Front Bench on how that discussion is progressing. Of course, we all appreciate that situations are fast moving and that these are immense issues with which Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State for Defence and Ministers of Defence have to wrestle. I do not envy them for a second but this place should put wisdom, expertise and learning at the disposal of people who make decisions on grave matters as to when to deploy our courageous forces overseas.
I return to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is my principle theme. This Sunday, I shall return to the Menin Gate, Ypres, where I shall take part in an act of remembrance. I am reminded of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which, I have to confess, I knew little about until the early part of this year. As I walked from Paris to Arras and on towards Ypres in Belgium, along the western front, and Passchendaele, I saw by the roadside meticulously kept cemeteries, with striking white Portland headstones, commemorating the fallen in the First World War. When I arrived in Ypres on foot in January, there was a very cold snap in continental Europe—it was about minus six and the wind was blowing madly. I met with Ian Hussein, who runs the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in northern France and Flanders. He looks after about 980 war cemeteries across France and Belgium. I also met John Sutherland from the British Legion and Benoit Mottrie, who is the chairman of the Last Post Association, who organised this remarkable event.
Every night, at 8 o’clock local time in Ypres, the Last Post is sounded under the Menin Gate. I was invited to go along and I wanted to go. I was slightly puzzled because it was blowing a gale and absolutely freezing, but none the less I showed support because they were delighted that a parliamentarian happened to be passing through town and could attend. I expected to see a few hardy souls but I saw a few hundred hardy souls. They have turned up every night from 11 November 1929 to sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate memorial in all weathers. The only exception was during the four years of the occupation of Ypres from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944, when the daily ceremony was continued in England at the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. I went to see that daily act of remembrance, and found it incredibly moving. Perhaps in her closing remarks the Minister might send a message to the citizens and organisers of the Last Post Association, the British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who undertake to ensure that the sacrifice of 54,000 men around the Menin Gate is remembered.
The day after visiting the Menin Gate, Ian Hussein took me to visit some of the cemeteries, including Tyne Cot. It is one of the largest, where 11,894 soldiers are buried, most in unknown graves because people were trampled into the mud and drowned, such was the hell of the 1917 battle of Passchendaele at Ypres. I struggled to think of the right emotion when faced with this vast sacrifice. Should I feel immense national pride for the service and sacrifice of our courageous Armed Forces, including my great-grandfather and his two brothers? Was that the right emotion? Was it regret at the sacrifice? As I looked around, I came across a plaque recording the words of King George V when he opened the cemetery in 1922. He captured the correct emotions, and I will close my remarks with his words. The King said:
“We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than the massed multitudes of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”.
My Lords, it is always a real joy to follow the noble Lord. He brings a very interesting and important perspective to our deliberations. Like others, I warmly welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, to our debates. She has more than proved herself as a very effective member of the opposition Front Bench and now of the Government. There is also a personal reason for welcoming her, which I am sure she will not mind my mentioning. I was fortunate to get to know well, as a friend, her late husband. I had great affection and admiration for him. He brought tremendous professional experience, as well as a great deal of wisdom and perspective. It is good to see that tradition being followed, even if I might wish that it were being followed from another position.
The noble Lord, Lord Astor, started his characteristically businesslike speech with a very human dimension when he paid a warm tribute to those who had fallen or suffered grievous wounds, and to their families and the bereaved. He was echoed, in what I am sure those of us who heard her will believe was a particularly powerful and moving speech, by my noble friend Lady Dean—speaking again with all her experience of consistent work with the people of the services. It is right that this debate should have that context set out clearly at its beginning. This is indeed remembrance week. All those to whom I referred are the responsibility of every one of us, whether we are in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. We are all responsible, and we must never forget that.
We also have a responsibility to the countless civilians who die in conflict. It must never become acceptable to say—as one American general foolishly did—that we do not do body counts. Every innocent individual who died in conflict is a person who matters every bit as much as the members of our own society. Furthermore, we would be misguided not to realise that that kind of attitude plays inevitably into the hands of the agitator and the extremist. We have to demonstrate consistently our concern for humanity.
War must always be a last resort. We must not slide into a new philosophy in which war becomes an alternative management option. The slide could be accelerated by the development of remote, high-technology warfare techniques. It is easy to talk about collateral damage, but it means individual men, women and children and their relatives. We have to remember all the time that peace and stability cannot be imposed if they are to endure. They have to be built by the people of the regions. Our role is to support those people in finding the right solutions. There is a fatal flaw in the concept that somehow the world can be managed by the powerful. It cannot. The powerful are utterly dependent on solutions rooted in the people of the world who are building their own future.
In all this, hearts and minds—although it is an easy phrase to use—desperately matter. We must be vigilant about the dangers of counterproductivity. I will spell out one issue that increasingly preoccupies me. We talk about how we are defending the rule of law. That should be demonstrable all the time. What is the significance of that in the trend—I hope that I do not oversimplify—of rendition, of Guantanamo Bay, and now of drones? Are they not a means of circumnavigating the rule of law? Are they not a means in the end, if we are not careful, of not only accepting but utilising the technique of extrajudicial killing?
If we are about the rule of law, we are about the operation of systems that can be seen to be totally in line with that principle. Of course, the same can be said about torture and the mistreatment of prisoners. They are wrong and obscene—but also counterproductive because they play into the hands of the extremists who are orchestrating those on the other side. It is another easy thing to say in this House, but we have to be consistent, in the midst of all the acute human pressures on our service men and women, and on those in the security services, in demonstrating that they are upholding something different, and that we are about something different.
I hope that noble Lords will allow me to indulge in personal memories. One of the privileges of my political life—I really enjoyed the experience—was that in my first full ministerial post I was one of the last Ministers to be responsible on a dedicated basis for the Navy. We had service Ministers in those days. I am not sure what I was able to contribute, but I learnt one hell of a lot and I came to admire the services greatly.
In those days, a group that fascinated me was called “the future shape of the fleet group”. I am not sure whether it still exists in one form or another. I used to tease them in conversation and say, “You guys should go off to a country house somewhere with a blank sheet of paper. Forget about all the involvements in which we find ourselves, all the equipment and arrangements that we have inherited. Analyse what the real threats are and then say what we need in the United Kingdom to meet those threats and counter them”. Then, of course, as realists we come back to what we have inherited. We see how we can make the best and most constructive compromise between that and what we should ideally have, and we see how we can move forward in the most effective way. I am sure that that is as true as ever.
If we are making predictions about the future, two things are fairly obvious. First, that as we shall always operate within an international context we should constantly ask ourselves how far our personnel are being prepared for international operations in their training and education. How important a part does language play in training and education? The quintessence of the high-flying officers should be an ability to make a contribution at the centre and to be at a premium when they get back to their own service with that experience of the centre. Do we have that culture? I hope the Minister can reassure me. It is a struggle constantly to achieve it, but it is vital.
Secondly, we can predict that intelligence and security operations of a different kind will always be indispensable. We must always realise the importance of good intelligence and analysis in making the work of our services effective. Of course, those services themselves must all the time demonstrate in the way that they operate a commitment to something that is different from the evil forces that we are combating.
I finish with a couple of more immediate observations. One is that as a former Minister responsible for the Navy, I can see that in the future we will need flexibility and the ability to deploy rapidly. We will need independent, freestanding bases from which to conduct operations of that kind. Therefore, carriers are absolutely indispensable in the future. We can argue about how sophisticated they need to be and we can certainly all agree that they are useless unless we have the appropriate aircraft to operate from them. But the carriers are indispensable to our future if we are serious about international co-operation in security and the rest.
I hope that I can be forgiven for being a bit of a Greek chorus here. I have never been able to reconcile our analysis that they would be absolutely indispensable in 10 years’ time and our present security situation that meant for 10 years we did not have that capability. That is absolutely inexplicable. I do not hold the present Government solely responsible: it is a collective responsibility that we should face in that context.
I have never been a unilateralist: I have always been a multilateralist. In the imperfect world in which we live, I accept and endorse that there has had to be a nuclear deterrent. But I also recognise that one of the most important elements in a sound defence strategy is the cause of disarmament. The less armed the world is, the less likely severe conflict will be as long as one’s arms are concentrated on the real security task. We do not want lots of surplus arms circulating around the world and we do not want to encourage proliferation in any form of arms.
We need to remember that when the non-proliferation treaty was achieved, a solemn pledge was given by the existing nuclear powers that they would embark on a programme of consistent and demonstrable nuclear disarmament. As we move into the next generation of deterrent, how do we reconcile that commitment with what we are doing? If in an imperfect world we take the approach that we have to have a nuclear capability for the time being, why are we talking about perfecting and increasing our nuclear capability? There are all sorts of ways of maintaining a nuclear capability—God forbid that we should ever have to contemplate using it—that would not be as costly and extravagant as the one on which we are embarked.
I know that there will be honestly held different views and I can see my noble friend Lord Robertson, for whom I have unlimited regard, dissenting from my analysis very strongly. Of course he brings a great deal of personal experience in the very directions in which I have been arguing in my remarks tonight, so I take his objections seriously. But we must beware of drifting into an inevitability of a self-generating expense when there are so many other pressures on our defence system that desperately need proper financing. There is nothing worse than putting people in defence in situations in which they are not properly sustained and supported. That therefore means that we must look very sharply all the time at the disproportion and immense cost involved in this form of next-generation nuclear weapon.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I believe that I was still serving when he was Navy Minister, and I assure him that he made a great contribution. He was an excellent Minister. However, I dissent from his views about the Trident replacement, which I hope will happen in the near future. Steps are being taken along those lines as we speak. I do not think that my comments are necessarily always welcomed by my own side.
I wish to pay tribute to Sir Nicholas Harvey who, unfortunately, in the recent reshuffle, has been moved from his role as Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He was an excellent Minister according to those who dealt with him in the Ministry of Defence. His move out of that department was and remains incomprehensible to me. We are, however, very fortunate to have my noble friend Lady Garden to take on the defence portfolio in this House. She is experienced, able and committed to defence, and I welcome her in this role. I join the Minister and other noble Lords in paying tribute to our Armed Forces. This is a particularly appropriate time of year to remember the sacrifices that our Armed Forces have made and continue to make for us.
In a typically powerful speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, voiced the fears of many. We and our allies have taken terrible casualties in Afghanistan. The Afghans have endured years of tumult, misery and chaos, but thanks to the bravery, discipline and commitment of our forces, those of our allies and the Afghans, considerable progress is being made to bring peace and stability to that country. I hope that our Prime Minister will seek to persuade whoever wins the next presidential election in the United States to stay the course in Afghanistan for the benefit of this country, our allies and the Afghan people themselves. The prospect, for example, of Afghan women having to revert to a cruelly discriminatory regime should fill us all with horror.
I want to say a few words about manpower and equipment. The Minister in his opening remarks spoke about global power and said that we must be able to fight and win in different terrains and on different operations. Quite rightly, much of the burden of fulfilling these roles will fall on our expeditionary or amphibious forces. My question to my noble friend is this: will full Army support for 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, be secured? I refer to our Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and logistic support. My noble friend will be aware that there is no shortage of individuals who wish to be seconded to the Commando Brigade, which is good for Army recruiting. It is an interesting confidential statistic that the level of success of individuals who pass the commando course—and have, as it were, the Lympstone DNA—and then go on for Special Forces selection is surprising. It would be interesting if the Minister could find out what that statistic is.
On the matter of our expeditionary capability, did I hear the Minister tell us that the first aircraft carrier, “Queen Elizabeth”, will come into deployable service within the next five years? In this context, will the aircraft then be ready and deployable as well?
Like many, I am concerned at the level of cuts in the Army. I note that there will be a Green Paper on the reserves published later this week. There will have to be a major culture change in this country if this policy is to be successful. If an individual is to sign up for the reserves, that individual and his or her employer will, I hope, be entering into an irrevocable contract. There must be no resiling from the training and active service commitments, which are to be at the demand and absolute discretion of the Government of the day. We cannot have reservists marching out when they have made these commitments, and we cannot have employers discriminating against them, in any way, shape or form, if they take on the responsibility of joining our great reserve forces.
The Armed Forces have taken cuts over the past years, and the reasons for them have been explained. However, the first duty of every Government is to defend this country and its people wherever they happen to be. We owe it to our Armed Forces to ensure that they are properly manned and equipped and that they and their families are decently looked after and housed. I am pleased that we have a military covenant; it is now up to our Government to live up to it.
My Lords, on 22 October, in the third presidential debate, Mitt Romney said:
“Our Navy is old—excuse me, our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917 … That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in”—
he got the date wrong—
“1947 … we’ve always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict. Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the President of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars … That, in my view is making our future less certain and less secure”.
President Obama responded:
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers”—
we do not—
“where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines”.
Long may they exist. We need them. He continued:
“And so the question is … what are our capabilities? And so when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure that our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, have said, morale in our Armed Forces is very low. There is no running away from that. I have heard it first hand from all the services. I am glad the Government have made the military covenant a priority, but are we honouring it? With the cuts that we are making, are we diminishing esprit de corps? The services are called the “services” because they serve and continue to serve us.
Peace in our time is a utopian dream that has never existed and, sadly, probably never will. As we have heard, we have been in Afghanistan since 2001, which is now longer than the First and Second World Wars combined. In his brilliant speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, spoke about the whole debate of why we are there. Why are we there? What is achieved? What will people say about us when we leave? Are we leaving too early? Did we get the job done? We are meant to be securing the UK that is why we went there in the first place. We were right to go there in the first place, but were we right to stay there all this time and are we right to leave when we are going to leave? Are they going to laugh and say, “Oh well, the Russians were here and they left and look what happened. Now they have come, they are going, look at what is going to happen”? It is tough.
What is the role of the Armed Forces? We are a wonderful, caring nation. I have been privileged to support and be involved with institutions such as the Army Benevolent Fund, a soldiers’ charity that does amazing work; I have been a commissioner of the Royal Hospital; we have got Help for Heroes, we have got the Gurkha Welfare Trust—we are fantastic. We have Remembrance Sunday coming up where we remember not only the fallen but those who have served and sacrificed and those who continue to serve and sacrifice today. I was president of the commemoration committee of the memorial gates at Constitution Hill, and I continue to serve on its committee, founded by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. The gates commemorate the sacrifice and service of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean. Without those 5 million individuals, we would not be sitting here doing what we are doing today; we would not be a free world.
In my tiny community of Zoroastrian Parsees, which now numbers fewer than 70,000 in India, my late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was commissioned into the Indian Army. His father, my grandfather, Brigadier Bilimoria, was commissioned from Sandhurst. My father’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Jungoo Satarawalla, from my father’s regiment, the 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was awarded the Military Cross in the Second World War, as was India’s first Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw, also a Zoroastrian. My maternal grandfather, J D Italia, served as a squadron leader in the Royal Indian Air Force during the Second World War. I could on with a long list of Zoroastrian Parsees from this tiny community who have served in the British Armed Forces.
As to the Gurkhas, what an amazing contribution they have made to Britain over centuries. My father’s battalion, 2nd Battalion 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was awarded three Victoria Crosses in the Second World War—and those three names are inscribed in the roof of the pavilion at the memorial gates on Constitution Hill. I am so happy that the previous Government eventually recognised the contribution of the Gurkhas, allowing Gurkhas who wished to settle in this country after they retired to do so.
We now have Future Force 2020 and we had the SDSR in 2010—but the SDSR was all about means and not about ends. We have heard passionately from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we do not have any aircraft carriers. We got rid of our Harriers for a song and we do not have our Nimrods. What happened straight after that? In autumn 2010, I spoke in the debate on the SDSR and said that we are short-sighted. We did not predict the Falklands. No one predicted 9/11. We do not know what is going to happen or what is around the corner. What happened around the corner? We had the Arab spring and Libya. What we needed was our aircraft carriers. We were sending Typhoons all the way from Coningsby in Lincolnshire. When are we going to learn that we need these aircraft carriers?
Now, two years later, what do we have? We have troop cuts. When my father commanded the central Indian Army, he had 350,000 troops under his command. When he commanded a corps before he became an army commander, his corps was comprised of over 100,000 troops. We announced the troop cuts, and what happened? There was a problem with G4S and the security of the Olympic Games. As we have heard in the debate, who stepped in? Our wonderful troops stepped in. When I went to the Olympics and saw our troops, I thanked every one of them personally because they saved the day. We are now to have a British Army of fewer than 80,000 troops.
This country is famous for its soft power. We are so lucky because we have the BBC, the Royal Family, our history, London, which is the greatest of the world’s great cities, our tourism and the Olympics. We publish the Economist and the FT; we have the City of London, and we have Oxford and Cambridge. I could go on. We are one of the top 10 economies in the world, but soft power is useless without hard power. In terms of population, we rank 22nd in the world, and yet however we are ranked as an economy or a defence power, we are in the top 10 in the world. We punch above our weight the whole time, and yet today we are devoting half the percentage of our GDP spending on defence than we did 30 years ago, in 1982—the time of the Falklands war. You could argue that there was the Cold War back then, but we are in a war that is far more uncertain. We do not know what is around the corner. We did not know how long we would spend in Afghanistan when we went there. No one, however much we debate Afghanistan, should ever say that even one of our troops has made that sacrifice in vain. The troops have been doing their duty. They have been attempting to help a nation and to help our security over here. We should always be grateful for that and inspired by what they have done for us.
I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to the Front Bench, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who is a true champion of the armed services; I have seen that for myself. His heart is in the right place and we always appreciate what the noble Lord does.
Our Armed Forces are the best of the best in every way. Our regiments are the elite, and their history is phenomenal. I asked one of our legendary sergeant-majors at the Royal Hospital Chelsea what he felt about all these cuts. He was dismayed and said, “What people do not know is the term ‘espirit de corps’. Yes, we fight for our country, but we also fight for our regiment and for the comrade who is right next to us. We fight for each other”. When you amalgamate regiments, cut out battalions and then lump them all together, you are cutting away history and espirit de corps. Backing for the Armed Forces in this country is almost at an all-time high; it is fantastic. Yet in many ways I feel that the Government’s support for the forces is low. That is both frightening and disappointing when we look at the sacrifices that are made.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, it is not just the soldiers and service people who make a sacrifice, it is also their families. I remember as a 10 year-old that when my father went to fight for the liberation of Bangladesh, I would read the papers every single day, terrified that my father’s name would be in them. That is how I remember being a child in an army family; I know what it is like. I also know what my mother felt like. Do we really look after the families well? The noble Baroness spoke passionately and stressed that what leads to low morale and problems is the uncertainty. It was the word she used most often. What are the Government doing about it? Putting our hand on our heart, are we fulfilling our side of the military covenant?
In his excellent speech, the noble Lord, Lord King, said that nowadays we talk about wars of necessity and wars of choice. We had to go to war in the Falklands, and we had to go to war in Kuwait. We had to go to Afghanistan in 2001. With hindsight, Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake, but let us think of the practicalities. The United States, our biggest ally, went to Iraq. We regret having gone, but did we have that much of a choice? The bottom line is that we have to be prepared for the unexpected. The noble Lord, Lord King, also talked about conventional wars and unconventional wars. When my father took over command of the central Indian Army just over 20 years ago, one of the first things he did was to go to Sri Lanka, where there were a lot of his troops, and in his view that was resulting in conflict. Within two weeks of returning from his visit, the Indian troops were withdrawn. It has taken more than two decades for the issue to be resolved by the Sri Lankans themselves.
In many cases, we do not know what is going to happen. We might intervene, but then we do not know how long it is going to last. The noble Lord, Lord King, also talked about defence being the number one priority, yet we have had five defence Secretaries in five years. I am sorry to say that under this Government, we have had two in just over two years. You cannot say that you are taking defence seriously if you do that. It is one of the most important jobs in government. Cutting is easy, but training up troops again is difficult. I have full respect for the Territorial Army, but should we rely on it? The Territorial Army should be there as a support, not as something to be relied on. We have to rely on our main Armed Forces for the security of this nation.
Let us take a look at international comparisons just within NATO. I am using the 2010 figures, from before the cuts. In 2010, France had 234,000 service people, while Germany had 246,000. We had 198,000, while the Italians had 193,000. Soon the Italians will have more service people than us. The Americans have 1.4 million service people, and we are never going to compete with them. I think that we are cutting too much and that is not right for the safety of this country.
I am going to conclude by quoting from a poem sent by my mother’s cousin in honour of my father. There is no name for the author, so I shall just quote an extract from it. It is called “The Final Inspection”:
“The soldier stood and faced God,
which must always come to pass.
He hoped his shoes were shining,
Just as brightly as his brass.
The soldier squared his shoulders and said,
I’ve had to work most Sundays,
and at times my talk was tough.
And sometimes I’ve been violent,
Because the world is awfully rough.
And I never passed a cry for help,
Though at times I shook with fear.
And sometimes, God, forgive me,
I’ve wept unmanly tears.
If you’ve a place for me here, Lord,
It needn’t be so grand.
I never expected or had too much,
But if you don’t, I’ll understand.
There was a silence all around the throne,
Where the saints had often trod.
As the soldier waited quietly,
For the judgment of his God.
‘Step forward now, you soldier,
You’ve borne your burdens well.
Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets,
You’ve done your time in Hell’.”
We can never thank our troops enough for their service and sacrifice or show them enough gratitude for what they do for us every day. All we can say is thank you, thank you, thank you.
My Lords, I feel a bit like a tail-end Charlie in this debate. However, it is a pleasure to be able to participate because it is an important debate about an important subject in very difficult times. I am grateful to my noble friend for ensuring that this debate was possible and I add my welcome to my noble friend Lady Garden. She will continue not only to adorn but to invigorate our Front Bench.
There have been many hugely important contributions, some of which I have endorsed entirely, and some of which I have disagreed with. The remarks I want to pick up on most are those of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, on the importance of the military covenant and how much more there is still to do. But I have to admit to a sense of compelling inadequacy because so many speakers are far better equipped to contribute today than I am. I have not served in the Armed Forces, but today I am wearing a Pathfinders tie in memory of my uncle, Pilot Officer Sandy Saunders, who did—and whose tie this was.
This Sunday, in my role as president of the Langford and Wylye branch of the Royal British Legion, I shall lay the wreath and pronounce the exhortation in memory of those who were left behind on the fields of war. In that exhortation, we promise that, “We will remember them”—and that is the theme I want to take for my brief remarks.
There is a simple headstone in the churchyard at Wylye dedicated to Ivy Pretoria May Hibberd. She was born at Hope Cottage next to the railway crossing just along from the station—in the days when we had one. Ivy was a volunteer in the Women’s Royal Air Force during World War I. She was one of so very few women in the WRAF at that time, and yet she became one of so very many: nearly 1 million British men and women gave their lives during that conflict and Ivy was one of them.
Ivy was not the first of her family to die in the Great War, but she was the last: aged 19, on 6 November 1918, less than a week before the 11th hour of that 11th day of that 11th month when the armistice was declared and the fighting stopped. She died in this country, not on the battlefront, but it does not matter where or how they died; what matters is that Ivy and all those others who were waved farewell by their families from their doorsteps never returned.
As my noble friend Lord King said in his very interesting remarks, it was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but of course it was not. This is still a dangerous world and we rely on our Armed Forces to keep us safe. Thank goodness, we no longer have to send an entire generation of our children to march, fly or sail off into the teeth of the storm, as Ivy and her comrades had to. As a father, I can find no words to express the depth of gratitude I feel for what they did and for what the members of our Armed Forces continue to do today.
However, in too many ways we have let them down. In the past 15 years all too often we have sent them off to fight with inadequate equipment, leaving behind families forced to live in inadequate housing. There has been inadequate planning, so we have been forced to make thousands of them redundant, even while some of them were serving on the front line. Now, as several noble Lords have mentioned, we offer them the absurdity of aircraft carriers without any aircraft.
It was inevitable that Chancellors of whatever party should look at the defence budget. It is a great pity, however, that this was not done at an earlier stage, years ago, when the damage that has been done by inevitable cuts could have been reduced. Far too many of our Armed Forces who return to this country end up with mental and social problems, sleeping rough on the streets or finding themselves in prison. Many others return gravely wounded, with life-changing injuries, and despite the efforts of the Royal British Legion, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, Help for Heroes and many other charities there is still so much more that needs doing.
“We will remember them”—that was our promise. It has not helped that we have sent them off to fight wars that, in my view, we should not have fought: a war in Iraq that I always believed was unprincipled, politically ignoble and probably illegal; and a war in Afghanistan that I believe can never deliver the promises that politicians originally made. If we are to remember Ivy Hibberd, her brother and all the others, as we have promised, we must never forget the political lessons of recent years that have committed too many new names to our war memorials and threatened the well-being of so many other soldiers and their families.
As we mark and remember their service to us, let us not forget the enduring service that we owe to them. We owe them more than we have given and, in all too many cases, more than we can ever repay.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak for a few moments in the gap.
I would like to cast a fly over the Minister. By cutting the numbers in the Army, which a number of noble Lords have discussed already, we are starting to get a problem of recruitment, selection and volunteering into the Special Forces. As the pool gets smaller and smaller, getting the right people in the right numbers is becoming—I will not say acute, but it is becoming tricky. There are whispers in the corridors that perhaps the standards are too high and perhaps you could lower them a bit, and that is very dangerous talk. If you dilute the product, you are not special. You become ordinary.
Something somewhere has to be done about this. We must not lower the standards of selection within the Special Forces. I say this very quietly but in public. I do not expect a reply. It is not something for public discussion. But I am forewarning the Minister that the standards and the success of the Special Forces, as we have long experienced, lie in the concentrated selection of the volunteer individual. That is what makes the exceptional operational efficiency of the Special Forces.
My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships who have spoken are pleased, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, to have had the opportunity to discuss and comment on the role and contribution of our Armed Forces. However, I fear that today’s debate, in the name of the Minister—timely though it is, this close to Remembrance Sunday—has rather less to do with a collective government desire to discuss defence issues for a second sitting day running and rather more to do with a collective government desire not to discuss the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, and any troublesome amendments, for even one day running.
I hope that there are not too many Members of your Lordships’ House who would have wished to speak in this debate but have been unable to do so because of the very short notice. Our Armed Forces deserve debates on their role and contribution that are properly and jointly agreed in advance, not least because our military personnel continue to be engaged in major operations on our behalf at a time when they are also facing considerable change.
Unfortunately, all too often in your Lordships’ House we have those sombre moments when we express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of serving members of our Armed Forces who have been killed in operations in the service of our country. We also remember the courage and fortitude of those who have been wounded, particularly those who have suffered what we describe as life-changing injuries. It is only appropriate and right that we should use this debate to pay tribute once again to our Armed Forces and the whole service community.
The main centre of combat operations for our Armed Forces is Afghanistan. My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen powerfully expressed his concerns on the present position. We should all be determined to ensure that when combat operations by our forces cease and the majority of our personnel return permanently to these shores, they will leave an Afghanistan that is able to function as an effective state, governed by elected representatives in the interests of the population as a whole, and at peace, with a respect for law and order. That would be an appropriate legacy for all our personnel who have been involved in operations in Afghanistan, not least for those who have lost their lives and suffered significant injuries.
Our Armed Forces face major change, and not only as a result of the reduction in their number. New threats are emerging. Weak and failing states outnumber strong states by two to one. Non-state actors are also on the rise. The United States of America is attaching greater emphasis in its approach to military and diplomatic policy to the Pacific region and the Middle and Far East and less to Europe. That has potential implications for our defence strategy. The nature of warfare is also changing, with nuclear proliferation, increased terrorism, more use of unarmed aircraft and the increasing sophistication of cyberattacks.
Maximising security and influence today demands coalition-building. We have argued for greater burden-sharing and deployability of assets within NATO, and exploration of how a “coalition of cuts” between European NATO nations can co-ordinate reductions in defence spending. The practice of allies fighting conflicts together but preparing for them individually is surely no longer the way to proceed.
The Government’s intention, as the size of our Regular Armed Forces contracts, is to increase the strength of our Reserve Forces to be able to meet laid down military objectives. We had a debate on our Reserve Forces last Thursday, and one on defence and Europe the week before. The Minister said that he would respond in writing to the many points raised in the debate last Thursday to which he was not able to reply at the time. Obviously, he has not yet had a chance to prepare and send that letter in time for this debate, which would have been ideal, but I suspect that this debate came almost as much of a surprise to the Minister as it did to probably everyone else.
However, on a crucial part of the Government’s strategy—namely, the increase in our Reserve Forces—we have read in one newspaper this morning, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, reminded us, that a problem with the recruitment of part-time soldiers, including a backlog of applicants, threatens to undermine plans to expand the Territorial Army.
I repeat that we support an enhanced role for the reserves, whose skills must be maximised and who can be an important link between military and civilian communities. We have to ensure that the system to encourage and enable service leavers and those made redundant to join our reserves is effective, that we support businesses in employing members of the Reserve Forces and that any unnecessary bureaucracy is removed.
With a Green Paper apparently just around the corner, the noble Baroness the Minister, whom we welcome to the Government Defence Front Bench, may not feel inclined in her reply to go further than did the Minister in last week’s debate, although I invite her to do so in the light of the newspaper report this morning.
Since meeting our military objectives in the future is reliant on an expansion of our Reserve Forces as the Regular Army is reduced in numbers, could the noble Baroness be precise about the timescale in which the reserves, with the increased level of commitment required of them compared to today, are being built up and Regular Army numbers drawn down in order to address concerns that there may be a period where the territorial contingency will be too small to cover the capability gap?
This is an important issue, since even the Secretary of State has admitted that these proposals constitute a risk against a background of falling morale, to which my noble friends Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde and Lord Davies of Stamford referred. Recent figures show that the three-year trend of declining morale has continued, with only 18% of soldiers questioned reporting high morale across the Army and only 33% feeling valued. Even the Secretary of State has admitted that government actions have hit morale.
We are clear that there must be some reduction in the overall number of service personnel, but does the noble Baroness believe that those reductions are being appropriately borne? The percentage reduction in the number of senior officer posts in all three services has been considerably less than the percentage reduction in junior ranks. The Armed Forces must be reshaped to make them as effective as they can be in the light of future numbers and future planned objectives and assumptions. It is right to demand painful efficiencies of those at the bottom, but not while appearing to give greater protection to those at the top.
It is all of a pattern that started with the strategic defence and security review, which was rushed and rendered out of date by events in Libya—not even mentioned in the review—where British forces used some equipment that Ministers had planned to scrap. Ad hoc decision-making appears to be all too common. The fact that Ministers have further reduced Army manpower on top of the cuts outlined in the SDSR shows just how rushed and incomplete was that original document. Perhaps the noble Baroness could say whether the SDSR defence planning assumptions that applied to an Army of 95,000 can be guaranteed by a Regular Army of 82,000.
Until all these issues are addressed or clarified, it will be difficult to overlook the impression that this Government’s defence policy largely adds up to a deficit reduction proposal and policy statements and objectives that have not been thought through, either as far as their relevance and consequences are concerned or the logistics and practicality of their implementation.
Ministers regularly claim the financial situation as justification for the speed and depth of the cuts that they have made. We are continually told by Ministers of a financial “black hole” that was bequeathed, but the National Audit Office, the Defence Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have all described the figure as “unverifiable”, which says it all.
The Secretary of State has said that he has balanced the equipment budget, but we have seen no detailed figures to support this and how it has been achieved. When will the National Audit Office report on the core equipment programme in the light of the Government’s claim?
Defence reform is not simply about cutting Armed Forces personnel and prioritising the pursuit of savings above all else; it is about aligning present and future capabilities with present and future strategic threats within realistic budgets. We do not believe that that has been this Government’s approach in at least some areas, whatever their intention may have been.
However, in two areas, we are at one with the Government. We supported and welcomed the Royal British Legion’s campaign on the military covenant, albeit that it took a bit of a push to persuade the Government to enshrine it in legislation. It provides a clear duty for us all, as my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde reminded us, to ensure that members of our Armed Forces and their families are cared for and are not penalised or discriminated against as a result of their service in the forces, and as members of the military community, on behalf of our country. We have proposed greater resources to tackle veterans’ long-term mental health issues and believe that we need to rebalance the system of allowances in favour of the low paid and those on the front line.
The other area where we are at one with the Government is in our support and admiration for our Armed Forces and in our united backing for them in the military operations that they have undertaken, such as in Libya, and in their current operations in Afghanistan. We know that they are risking their lives to ensure the security of our nation and the protection of our people and our interests, and that, in doing so, they are seeking to give others the opportunity of enjoying the freedoms which we take for granted.
My Lords, it is a privilege to wind up this informed and insightful debate. I thank my noble friend and other noble Lords for their kind words of welcome and I thank them, too, for their tributes to my late husband, who was a military pilot, policymaker and strategic thinker. For the three years before his death, he made a great impact in a short time as the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman in your Lordships’ House. Would that he were still here. He was always the one who flew the aeroplanes, but for more than 40 years I had the good fortune to share his life and thinking, which has given me an understanding of the matters raised today.
The commitment, professionalism and courage of the Armed Forces were much in evidence during the Cold War. How much more these qualities have been tested during the operations of recent years. Defence of the realm remains the first duty of government and its importance has been reflected in the speeches today. I have listened with great interest to the contributions made and I welcome the expertise, insight and analysis from all sides of the House.
Before I address specific issues, let me repeat this Government’s priorities for defence. Our current number one priority is operations in Afghanistan. That is where the men and women of our Armed Forces are making the greatest sacrifices and that is where we must focus our main effort. Transition is under way. The plan, although difficult, is on schedule and combat operations will end in 2014.
We are also forging ahead on transformation in defence. Many difficult decisions have already been taken—difficult but necessary decisions. The defence budget has been balanced for the first time in a generation; a new fiscal discipline has been brought to bear; and the structure for our future Armed Forces has been laid out. Future Force 2020 will be leaner, more adaptable but still formidable. At its core will be the talented and dedicated people of our Armed Forces. Looking after them will be central to ensuring their effectiveness. The new employment model will make service terms and conditions more flexible, better reflecting the complexity of modern family life and helping to reduce the burdens on our service personnel and their families.
I turn now to specific points raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who brings great expertise to these debates, reminded us of the great losses in past conflicts and the power of Churchillian rhetoric. Perhaps we do not make orators like Churchill any more. He talked about success on the ground in Afghanistan, saying that we must not let the messages in this country detract from the real successes and advances in Afghanistan and that we must not leave with the work half done. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, also mentioned the lack of media coverage of what is actually being achieved in Afghanistan.
As the NATO Secretary-General said earlier this year, the decisions made at Lisbon will remain the bedrock of our strategy. This will involve UK and ISAF forces continuing to operate in a combat role, albeit a reducing one, in support of Afghan forces until the end of 2014. ISAF troop contributions will be made in a co-ordinated and cohesive manner and will be aligned with the Lisbon principle, but our firm commitment is to support the Afghan National Army officer academy and help the Afghan forces in their transition to a more peaceful existence.
My noble friend Lord Palmer asked a number of questions—I may not be able to answer all of them—about the covenant. Several other noble Lords rightly mentioned its importance, including the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, who brings great wisdom to these debates. It is essential that we ensure that our people serving in difficult places and times are properly looked after and valued when they are returned home. My noble friend also asked what our priorities for defence are. I emphasise that preventing conflict upstream is a central tenet of our approach to safeguarding national security. It is important to recognise that, alongside the capability and credibility of our Armed Forces, we seek to strengthen the UK’s diplomatic, economic and development assistance and technological and cultural influence, all of which contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous world.
My noble friend Lord Palmer and many others talked about the Reserve Forces. My noble friends Lord Palmer, Lord King and Lord Burnett and the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Rosser, all referred to the importance of the Reserve Forces. We know that, at this time, the importance of the reserves is becoming ever greater to the effectiveness of our Armed Forces. As part of the drive better to align the Territorial Army and the Regular Army, the recruitment system was updated in April to ensure that all soldiers, regular and reserve, are selected and trained to a consistently high standard. The new system is more rigorous and ensures that those who successfully complete the selection process are physically and mentally ready for the challenges of being an Army reservist. As with any new process, it will take time for a new system to be introduced, but the signs are that, broadly, it is working well. We are certainly working hard to ensure that reserves are well recruited and well trained for the tasks that they will be asked to perform.
On the matter of problems for employers, we are offering a number of financial rewards to ensure that they are not penalised when the reservist is mobilised on operations, along with guidance and support on how those funds can be accessed. Of course, the closer the civilian role to the military role, the greater the mutual benefits and value of service will be to the civilian employer.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, mentioned the equipment costs of 2% GDP for procurement and questioned whether we were relying on urgent operational requirements. He will be aware, as are many others, that we are having to balance the defence budget, and that distribution will be monitored carefully. He and my noble friend Lord King also queried whether people were being sent into combat without being adequately equipped and trained. Once again, we are setting great store on adequate equipment, training and good leadership, which is another vital element, before we send troops into zones of conflict.
My noble friend Lord King mentioned the importance of continuity in relation to the Secretary of State for Defence. We, too, welcome coherence and continuity within a department of this nature. He also mentioned post-traumatic stress treatment. In general, mental health in serving personnel is as good as and, in many areas, higher than in the civilian population, but that is not in any way to underestimate or minimise the real despair of post-traumatic stress. I pay tribute to the work of Combat Stress, which works so incredibly effectively with people who are the most troubled by traumatic stress.
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for all the work that she has done in support of the Armed Forces; her contribution has been invaluable. She mentioned in particular the war widows. I shall have the honour of representing the Government at the war widows’ commemoration on Saturday at the Cenotaph. Once again, this aspect of the Armed Forces is sometimes overlooked, yet we all know of the grief and the strength of women who have lost their partners and of families who have lost loved ones in conflict. She stressed a number of aspects of delivering the covenant; I do not have time to pick all of them up today, but I will of course write to her.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Rosser, also mentioned morale. In many parts of the services, morale is incredibly high, but of course we are aware of the uncertainties on which she laid great stress and how difficult it can be. I certainly remember that, when I was a military wife, one of the most difficult things to contend with was not knowing where you might be living, where you might be going and where your children would be going to school. Those problems of planning can undermine the effectiveness of our Armed Forces. That is something that we are looking at very closely under the military covenant: supporting families with operational welfare, extending priority for affordable housing and trying to ensure that an all-round package is there to support our military forces both when they are serving and when they transfer to civilian life.
My noble friend Lady Wilcox had vivid memories of Plymouth and stressed to us the importance of the Royal Navy for securing the seas, for protecting trade routes and, indeed, for building friendship in far-flung places. I link that to the mention made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, of drug busting in the Caribbean and tackling piracy, notably in the seas off Somalia. That, too, is work that we should not overlook.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, mentioned the reserves and the European common defence policy. Of course there is a very strong case that we should work very closely with other European countries in collaborative projects to the benefit of us and our neighbours. Indeed, the alliances of which we are members play a key role in the effectiveness of our troops. The noble Lord criticised the coalition Government for reducing some defence orders. Despite what he said, the previous Government’s defence orders were not fully funded, alas. We have had to cancel some projects; the coalition is determined not to spend money that it simply does not have. I also assure the noble Lord that the Falklands are well defended and that we keep that constantly under review.
My noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom mentioned the aircraft carriers, which were also mentioned by my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Burnett and by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I assure noble Lords that, as a result of the decision to revert to short take-off and vertical landing, we now plan to start initial JSF flights from HMS “Queen Elizabeth” in 2018, once she has completed her sea trials, with expected operational capability in 2020. As my noble friend Lord Hamilton reminded us, the contract for the aircraft carriers was phased such that there was no way that we could retreat from it once we came into office.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, reminded us of the British-Irish parliamentary group and the history of the Irish in times of war. A number of other noble Lords referred back to the sacrifices of British and Irish soldiers in the First World War. The Prime Minister spoke at the Imperial War Museum three weeks ago about preparations now under way to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Discussions are under way with Commonwealth countries and European Governments and a cross-party advisory board has been established to oversee commemorations within the United Kingdom. I am told that there are also active discussions under way on an all-Ireland basis about the appropriate way to remember the impact of the First World War on Ireland as a whole. Once again, we should not forget the contribution and sacrifice made by Irish troops.
My noble friend Lord Bates, whose work I commend in support of the Olympic Truce, reminded us that the Armed Forces serve the will of Parliament and that Parliament should be aware of its responsibilities before they are deployed. I, too, remember visiting Commonwealth war graves and the very moving experience of seeing the rows upon rows marking where people, often very young, had fallen in the service of their country. He made mention of, and I would commend, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal British Legion for their commemorations, particularly of the last post sounding every evening at the Menin Gate, which is an extremely moving and effective reminder of the sacrifices that were made.
I commend, too, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for his tireless work in support of peace and justice. He reminded us of the importance of upholding the highest standards in any deployment. I trust that I can reassure him of the importance that the Government, and indeed the Armed Forces, place on integrity as well as professionalism in all their actions. I also say that those returning from operations may well be reassigned to pass on their expertise at training establishments. We would have no wish to lose the expertise of those coming back from operations in enabling the next generation of our Armed Forces to act within conflict zones.
My noble friend Lord Burnett mentioned our joint right honourable friend Sir Nick Harvey. I, too, join in with the tributes to his work, particularly the work that he has done—and, I hope, may continue to do—in connection with Trident. My noble friend asked a number of specific questions. I will not go into all of them today but he asked specifically whether the Government will give support to 3 Commando Brigade. Future Army 2020 has withdrawn 24 Commando Engineer Regiment, which is currently based at Royal Marines barracks Chivenor. The Army will continue to provide the support required by 3 Commando Brigade from within its new structure. Time does not permit me to go into the detail of the other questions that he asked and I will reply later.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, reminded us movingly of the Zoroastrian Parsees serving in the Armed Forces and of the Gurkha record of courage, which of course includes Victoria Cross gallantry awards. Once again, the Gurkhas are a force that we do not forget readily in this country. My noble friend Lord Dobbs, too, mentioned the military covenant and the efforts that we must make to ensure that our military personnel are properly looked after. He gave us a graphic story in support of that. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, mentioned the recruitment, selection and volunteering of the Special Forces. I note his concerns and assure him that we have no plans to reduce the standards of training for the Special Forces. They are often the jewels in the crown of those who serve us.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, reminded us of new threats and of the value of joint preparation with allies, which is increasingly important given the expense of and the demands on the deployment of our troops. He asked a number of other detailed questions. I shall need to come back to him in writing about the guarantees of the SDSR defence planning assumptions and the reductions being appropriately borne across the services. By and large, the reductions in the services are going to be proportionate across the ranks. However, I note his concern that senior officers seem to be managing rather better than the junior officers. I assure him that that is certainly not within the Government’s plans, which are to end up with proportionate and balanced forces that we are working.
In preparing for this debate, I read again a book that my husband wrote 20 years ago, entitled The Technology Trap. I will quote one passage from it:
“The key issue is, with limited resources, how can the technologies which offer the greatest promise for military use be exploited, and hence increase national security. This is a difficult problem, and any analysis must depend on assumptions about the nature of the future security concerns, the prospects of technological progress in particular areas, the character of international relations, national and global economic prospects, and a host of unquantifiable social and political factors”.
Twenty years on, this is no less true. Resources continue to be limited, the costs of major projects continue to rise, the international situation is no less unpredictable and, as we have heard in examples around the House today, natural disasters or national emergencies can also require the deployment of Armed Forces at little notice—be it flooding or the Olympics.
I am conscious that I have not addressed all the points raised in the debate and I shall undertake to write to noble Lords. I thank all those who have contributed to the debate today. As ever, when we are discussing our Armed Forces, the debate has drawn on personal experience and the understanding of many Members. One thing is clear: we all share a respect for the determination, professionalism and bravery of our Armed Forces. They perform their duty under difficult and dangerous circumstances with extraordinary selflessness. We owe an immense debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that they and their families make and, in this time of remembrance, we must never forget that they and their predecessors are, and have been, willing to make the greatest sacrifice of all so that we might deliberate and make considered decisions in a free and safe country. Your Lordships have expressed your admiration for those who are serving. For those who have died or been wounded in the service of the country, we must, and we will, remember them.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, most decisions on planning are taken at a local level against a defined plan and in consultation with local people. Planning helps to protect the environment and ensure appropriate development, and helps with growth in the economy through business expansion. I wish to concentrate today on measures that the Government are taking to reform and speed up the planning system. We are undertaking these reforms because the planning system that we inherited as a Government was deficient in two key areas.
First, many local people did not feel involved with or sympathetic to the decisions that were being made. Policies such as imposed regional housing targets created antagonism. Local people saw only the disbenefits of growth, not the improvements it could bring. In the end, the real costs were borne by local communities, with fewer jobs, and fewer homes—an unsustainable future. Secondly, the system could be slow in reaching decisions. Not only did this create uncertainty, it did nothing to encourage the growth and housing provision that this country needs. Some change was required.
We took as our starting point Open Source Planning, a policy document that proposed a new approach to planning. This was adopted in the coalition agreement, with a promise to radically reform the planning system. We have already achieved much of this aim.
Last November’s Localism Act has reshaped the way in which planning is carried out. That was a major milestone towards achieving the commitment at the very heart of the coalition agreement. Its measures put power in the hands of local people and groups to engage in and shape their communities. Particularly in this respect, it introduced neighbourhood planning, which, backed by incentives such as a meaningful proportion of receipts from the community infrastructure levy being passed to neighbourhoods, will give local communities both the opportunity and the encouragement to think positively about future development.
We are keen for local people to take the opportunities to influence their local plan, as well as bringing forward a neighbourhood plan for their immediate area. It may be of interest to noble Lords that over 200 funded neighbourhood planning front-runners are now under way, and more than 100 non-front-runner neighbourhoods have begun the process. By mid-October, 52 neighbourhood planning areas had reached the first stage in the process of formally designating their neighbourhood planning areas, and another 100 had submitted applications for designation. We expect that up to three of these could reach independent examination stage this year. Thirty-five areas are aiming to go to referendum by 2013, and we expect around 80 to have plans in place by the end of next year.
Through a £3.1 million programme, four support organisations are providing advice and support to communities on neighbourhood planning. We are providing a £50 million programme to support local authorities in making neighbourhood planning a success, including funding new local authority burdens.
A further requirement will be for major developers in particular to undertake pre-application consultation with local residents and members of the neighbourhood forum. The new duty to co-operate ensures that councils have to collaborate when producing their local plans, so that issues such as the needs of strategic housing market areas that straddle local authority boundaries are addressed.
In March this year the National Planning Policy Framework streamlined over 1,000 pages of policy down to 50, reducing duplication, making it easier for ordinary people to understand the system and setting the strategic context to guide neighbourhood planning. The framework includes the presumption in favour of sustainable development, reinforces the role of local plans in meeting the needs of each area and ensures a positive approach to applications where up-to-date plans are not in place. The new, simplified framework was published in March and is already helping to deliver the homes and jobs that the country needs and an enhanced built, natural and historic environment. The emphasis on local plans in the framework, and the new incentive provided by the presumption to have an up-to-date plan in place, have resulted in intensified plan-making activity.
By May 2010, six years after Labour’s 2004 Planning Act, only 57 core strategies had been adopted out of 335 local planning authorities. By contrast, 65% of all local planning authorities now have at least a published plan, and 44% of all authorities have completed all the statutory stages and have agreed plans in place following community consultation. The framework also underlines the importance of town centres, while recognising that business in rural communities should be free to expand. However, it also guarantees robust protections for our natural and historic environment and protects the green belt. It also ultimately achieved the accolade of being praised by organisations across the planning spectrum, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England through to the CBI; and from the National Trust through to the British Property Federation. I readily acknowledge that many changes were made to it after close co-operation and consultation with those and other organisations.
In July we announced a package of measures to speed up and simplify the planning application process, many of which take forward the commitments in last year’s Plan for Growth. An effective planning system is a key part of the Government’s growth strategy. All too often we heard that the planning system is a brake rather than a motor for growth, but it should not be. Planning can help create the conditions for economic growth but only if it works in a cohesive way, recognising that opportunities in each area are different and that proposals are for local decision.
We are proud of the achievements to reform planning since 2010, but it was felt that more was needed to help trigger the provision of new housing and business development, to ensure that opportunities could be seized to encourage investment for the future. Therefore on 6 September we announced a major package on housing and growth. This included measures such as the Planning Inspectorate being given power to decide applications where local authorities consistently perform badly; the increased use of planning performance agreements for large schemes; planning inspectors being able to award costs at appeal—for example, where councils have refused schemes with little justification—the Planning Inspectorate prioritising those appeals that will help deliver growth; continuing the policy that enables planning authorities to allow unimplemented permissions to be extended easily; enabling developers with sites with unviable numbers of affordable homes the right to appeal against these obligations; a consultation on allowing developers to renegotiate non-viable Section 106 agreements; a review to rationalise local and national building standards; considering the use of call-in for major new settlements with larger than local impacts; encouraging councils to use flexibilities in the NPPF to tailor the extent of green-belt land to local circumstances, while continuing to preserve its protection; introducing permitted development rights to enable a change of use from commercial to residential; and consulting on a significant relaxation of planning controls over residential and commercial extensions, but for a limited period. Some, including this letter, will need consultations, and where that is the case we will be undertaking them shortly.
Some will require primary legislation, and these are included in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill that is receiving its Second Reading in another place today and will come to this House thereafter. However, I assure noble Lords that the measures in that Bill do not mean that we are throwing the planning system up in the air again and starting afresh; it is not a change of direction. These measures build on our existing reforms.
We have given councils and communities more power to plan and to identify, after widespread consultation and taking of views, what development their areas need and where it should go. With power, though, comes responsibility—the responsibility to get on and plan, to focus on the key decisions that affect the future of their areas and to deal in a positive and efficient way with individual planning proposals.
This is a long list of reforms but there is still more that we will do. Having streamlined the policy documents, we are doing the same with the 6,000 pages of guidance that has built up over the years. We have recently launched the review and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor is leading a group of practitioners in identifying what can make this less complex.
It is not just a case of changing the rules, however; there needs to be good or better co-operation. We want developers to invest time in helping local authorities and planners understand the economic benefits of their proposed development and, most especially, to give local communities the opportunities to discuss and shape those plans in advance of the plans going forward. We are making clear to elected members and council officers the circumstances in which they can speak to developers without raising propriety issues. In turn we want the developers to seize every opportunity to make it easier for councils and local communities to understand their aspirations and be positive about economic development.
By developers and business working together with local authorities and local communities we firmly believe that we can deliver the sustainable development the country needs without treading on the toes of local communities and their absolute need to protect their environment into the future. Everyone involved in planning—whether a homeowner with a small-scale addition, a developer of small or larger projects or the planning authority itself—has to remember that the decisions that they make today will still be there scores of years later.
The noble Baroness did not mention at all by name the affordable housing obligation, and she only referred to it very obliquely, as if it did not really exist at all or had no significance. Is the report in the current issue of Private Eye—that the Prime Minister’s office in 10 Downing Street put out a statement that the affordable housing obligation could be abolished without the loss of any affordable houses, even though there is a ministerial Statement which states that the result of that abolition would be loss of 10,000 affordable homes a year—correct?
My Lords, I did not know whether the noble Lord was going to intervene in the gap; this is a debate, not Question Time. However, I am not aware of the Private Eye article. I have not seen it, nor have I been advised about it. I usually take Private Eye with a fair degree of scepticism. I beg to move.
Briefly but, I am sure, stunningly successfully. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, served on a local authority as well, so there are many of us with some local authority experience. I was, for a couple of years after I was leader, chairman of the development committee. I declare an interest as a current member of Newcastle City Council and, once again, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Despite the moderate tones in which the Minister opened the debate, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government are really viscerally opposed to planning. They are essentially an anti-planning Government in many ways, and that shows through their policies—not just strictly in the planning field. They have adopted wholesale the Treasury fantasy that the planning system is somehow responsible for low growth in our economy and for the lack of new housing. This is not an evidence-based approach; it is one that they partially successfully sold to the previous Government as well as the present one. However, the fact is—it is well known, although whether it has appeared in Private Eye I am not sure—that 400,000 outstanding planning permissions are available for residential housing to be built. Moreover, 87% of planning applications were approved in 2011; that is a significant statistic.
There is not, in general, a huge backlog in terms of the way in which planning applications are dealt with. The bigger problems actually come with the bigger schemes. We have now an almost interminable debate about a huge infrastructure project, on if and where to have additional airport facilities. This is taking years. It was to try to deal with these major problems that the previous Government introduced the Infrastructure Planning Commission which, of course, the present Government have abolished. However, if there were to be delays in the planning system it would partly be a function of the staffing which is having to be curtailed. Of course, the Government abolished the planning development grant, which encouraged and facilitated the adequate staffing of appropriate people in local authority planning departments.
Local government has a good record of promoting economic and housing development: witness the enormous regeneration of many of our provincial cities over the past couple of decades under, it must be said, Governments of both political colours. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who certainly was instrumental in moving on this agenda during his time in office. It is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, is not in his place tonight—indeed, one hesitates to say it, but he is rarely in his place, which is unfortunate because he has much to say and contribute, and was an outstandingly successful Secretary of State for the Environment in many respects. He does not cite the planning system as a major obstacle to growth in the interesting and idiosyncratic document which he has published with recommendations for a new approach to growth in the economy. He makes some recommendations about planning, but they are pretty modest in relation to the general thrust of his report.
One aspect of that report, of course, is the regional imbalance which is again becoming a current topic, and which the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, certainly addresses. It is interesting that, in some respects, he seems to seek to revert to previous practice. He refers to the abolition of regional development agencies; he does not call for their reintroduction, because it is quite clear that the Government have set their face against that—unfortunately, in the view of some of us. However, he talks about having local growth teams, which arguably could be said to replace the government offices which have, alas, also been abolished and which I and others have commented on in debates in this Chamber before. He calls also for, as he puts it, Ministers to be associated with local enterprise partnerships. Some of us are somewhat sceptical about local enterprise partnerships, certainly in terms of their accountability. However, he is almost turning back to the inner city partnership days when there was a Minister—the noble Lord was one of them—who was closely associated with a particular area. I do not know quite how many Ministers would be required to cover the 38 local enterprise partnerships but, whatever the mechanism, the intention is clear that you have to see the country as a whole and not simply leave it in an unstructured way, which has led to the imbalance that we are all familiar with.
Indeed, one aspect of this matter is that there is simply no planning framework for England. I have referred before in debates in your Lordships’ House to the report of the Town and Country Planning Association some years ago, which strongly suggested that we needed a national planning framework for England so that there could be a deliberate attempt to secure balance in development. I recall that when I pressed the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, during his second term as Secretary of State for the Environment, to support a particular development in Newcastle relating to a brewery site—since demolished and subsequently redeveloped—his officials said that it was of no concern to government as to where this investment should go. There was a rival contender for this investment in the Midlands, and the department was simply not concerned about where it should go. That seems to me an abdication of responsibility indicative of the failure to have a sensible national framework for these decisions to be made.
Coming to the current proposals, my noble friend Lord Davies has referred to one aspect which is a matter of concern—but only one of a number of issues which arise in terms of the Government’s apparent dilution of the current system. Affordable homes are no longer apparently to be required. There is to be a relaxation, perhaps, of Section 106 agreements and, of course, we have the wonderfully developed thought, translating Marie Antoinette into housing planning terms, that the answer is of course to “let them build extensions”. This seems to be the answer to both the housing problem and the plight of the construction industry. I suspect that that is a recipe for considerable difficulty between neighbours and around authorities as people fall out about unsightly or large extensions which would not otherwise get planning permission. I note that apparently it has been suggested that the Secretary of State is counselling people who still find difficulties in obtaining such permissions that they might sue their local authority for damages, which strikes me as a little excessive. There is also a suggestion from Mr Nick Boles, who is now a Minister in the department, that the three-year period for this absurd policy might well become indefinite.
Other matters also concern the Local Government Association and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, including the notion that applications might be made in certain circumstances direct to the Secretary of State rather than to the council. One might think that that is not the most localist approach to planning. Another matter of concern is a limitation of the power for local authorities to require information with planning applications. How they are supposed to deal properly with planning applications on sketchy information is not at all clear. Of particular concern to the CPRE is the fact that major business or commercial projects might be regarded as nationally significant infrastructure and therefore would be taken out of the local planning regime altogether. That also poses considerable threats—one thinks of large warehousing and other developments —which could significantly damage local authority areas.
There are many questions about other aspects of policy. What sort of housing are we to have in the Government’s view? Again, this is well known and I have referred to it in previous debates. In the past couple of decades—this occurred under the previous Government as well—houses and accommodation have been built with much smaller areas and lower space standards than most of the rest of Europe. Generally speaking, we have worse design features and less concentration on environmental aspects of housing. None of that apparently attracts the Government’s attention. It is carte blanche to build what you like where you like, which is not a satisfactory way of dealing with the substantial problems of local economy, housing need or the construction industry.
Although there are certain sensible ideas in the Government’s national policy framework—I know that my noble friend will address those later—the current atmosphere is one in which the Government are clearly potentially creating a situation in which we will see unsatisfactory development. We will not see the right number of houses built or the right kind of houses built that are desperately needed. I do not see the Government’s proposals at all achieving the aims which they profess they wish to see implemented. I regret that the role of local authorities in all this is clearly very much under threat. We are capable of producing a new partnership with the private sector and others with the right kind of development in the right place at the right time, given the power to do so.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his clear and convincing analysis of the situation. Does he agree that the abolition of the affordable housing obligation will lead to windfall profits for developers who will have signed the Section 106 agreement and costed in performing their affordable housing obligation, which they now will find retrospectively they do not need to perform? They will be able to write back that provision straight to their bottom line. Does my noble friend think that the public interest should in some way be allowed to share in these windfall gains?
My Lords, I should first declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to have this debate, albeit at very short notice. The reason is that we shall not be discussing the Growth and Infrastructure Bill for several weeks and, given the importance of growth to the economy, this is a valuable opportunity to debate the background, particularly the proposals around planning, which exist in the context of the Localism Act.
The period after the Summer Recess, and through the party conference season, is often one for announcements. There is a tendency for ideas to be floated and an equal tendency for some of them to start to sink when the detail is examined. So it was with announcements on planning made on 6 and 7 September, many of which were welcome and were described by the Minister, but some of which most certainly require further thought and revision.
I agree entirely that the Government’s overriding objective should be growth and to get Britain building again. That is right. Growth drives jobs and it drives higher tax income to spend on public services. Therefore, we should welcome the £300 million to provide 15,000 affordable homes across the country and the extension to the refurbishment programme to bring an extra 5,000 empty homes back into use, together with the £280 million for FirstBuy, the shared equity scheme, to give a further 16,500 first-time buyers the chance to own their own home. We should welcome the £10 billion of loan guarantees to housing associations, property management companies and developers to enable them to secure lower borrowing costs, which should lead to thousands of extra rental homes being built. All this creates jobs and helps to deal with the shortage of affordable homes.
There are many positive aspects in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, such as bringing the town and village green legislation into line with the planning system, some positive proposals around the importance of broadband to growth and the short-term postponement of business rates revaluation. However, we need to be clear what the problems are that we are trying to solve in the planning system and to secure broad agreement to these. The main barrier to growth seems to me to be access to finance, not the rate of determinations and approvals. For example, we debated at length in the Local Government Finance Bill the need to extend tax increment financing. We know that the lack of investment finance in construction and mortgages is the major cause of the low number of housing starts. The Local Government Finance Bill contains a clear incentive to local councils to drive growth, in which they themselves will share. It is in everyone’s interests for development to succeed.
We should note that there are existing permissions for 400,000 new homes yet to be built by developers and that planning approvals for residential and commercial applications ran at 87% in 2011-12. Indeed, approvals for major office, general industry and retail distribution were more than 90%. It is no surprise that the British Property Federation has commented that the reforms proposed to the planning system would increase uncertainty rather than reduce it, because it does not ring true that the main problem that we need to solve is a failure of local councils to manage the planning process speedily or well enough.
The Bill seems too centralist in its thinking at the very same time that the Localism Act is coming into effect, encouraging local decision-making and neighbourhood planning. I am very pleased that the Minister has been able to announce this evening that 200 neighbourhood plans are in the process of being developed. However, the Bill would give much greater power to the Planning Inspectorate than seems justified and it is unclear why this is thought to be necessary when it is likely to increase conflict with local authorities. An unintended consequence could well be to increase the time taken to determine applications. I think that the involvement of the Planning Inspectorate would be of positive benefit with very large schemes that cross several council boundaries. Under the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the Secretary of State would be able to direct that some major infrastructure developments, such as energy, transport and waste projects, would require consent under the major infrastructure planning regime. I understand and support that, but clarity is still needed on what would fall within the national framework and what the role of local planning committees would be. I hope that the Minister may be able to give some greater clarity today, because the power of the Secretary of State should not be used to remove from local decision-making, for example, retail and business applications. Such a proposal would in any event be contrary to the aims and ambitions of the Localism Act.
I would like now to address the issue of the so-called poor performers, who could lose the right to determine applications. It is true that some planning departments are less good than they should be. It is also true that some planning committees can make poor decisions. But the majority are good and deliver to time. The DCLG has stated that large-scale commercial projects would be fast-tracked for determination within 12 months, but we should note that councils currently approve over 90% within 52 weeks. Planning magazine for 19 October 2012 listed the slowest decision-makers for all applications in 2011-12, and even the slowest got nine out of 10 applications determined within 26 weeks. I do not feel that the accusation of slowness is proven here. On major applications, the slowest decision-makers are spread across the country, with the lowest being Torbay at 31% within 26 weeks and the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with 33% within 26 weeks, with the 25th slowest being New Forest, determining 58% within 26 weeks.
The Minister will be reassured that I do not think that statistics such as these should be taken at face value. I would prefer to know more about why the figures are as they are, because they might reflect complex Section 106 negotiations; there may be Highways Agency delays, of which there are far too many; and they might relate to any one of a number of government agencies that are not subject to the same standards of response times as local government. I am at present unconvinced that action is required by the Secretary of State as long as advice and mentoring are available to authorities deemed to be slow.
However, there is another test that we should pay more attention to, which is that of planning authorities with the highest proportion of defeats on appeal. There is some evidence that too many councils lose too many appeals, which suggests that an improvement may be justified. Of course, it could be that some planning appeals are incorrectly judged. Whatever the case, the first step should always be to enable a poorly performing council to improve, with special measures being introduced only when there is a very serious failure in the quality and speed of decisions. We have just passed the Local Government Finance Bill. That encourages growth, because local authorities can share in it. Councils have a clear reason to drive growth, so I remain puzzled as to why so much emphasis is placed on giving the impression that councils are doing a poor job when the evidence does not really justify that.
On Section 106 agreements, I understand the problems faced by developers financing affordable housing, but I would not wish to see enforced renegotiation meaning that benefits from Section 106 agreements are lost for ever. We support the Government’s objective to get the construction industry moving, but there is a significant body of evidence to show that councils are responding to local conditions and trying to find local solutions. Enabling the Secretary of State to give the Planning Inspectorate power to override Section 106 agreements in terms of the number of affordable units and to decide the number of affordable homes in schemes seems to me to be over the top. Central government’s role must be to make sure that there is a demand for housing by addressing the financing for social housing and access to mortgage finance for private buyers.
There has been a cross-party LGA response asking the Government to rethink their proposals to force renegotiation of Section 106 agreements with developers that provide an element of affordable housing. Councils can do this anyway and many are. Councils can in any case be purchasers of last resort to rent out the homes that they buy. If these proposals go ahead, there is a possibility that developers could try to delay building to pursue renegotiation. Section 106 in any case can relate to community facilities such as schools, street lights and access roads and there are clear dangers in taking power over such matters from local planning committees. Anyway, who will be the judge of viability of a scheme containing affordable homes? Is there evidence that central government knows better than local government? I do not think that the case is proven. There is now evidence to suggest that, when voluntary renegotiation has happened, on average councils are accepting a level of affordable housing around one-third lower than stated in their local plan. If plans in relation to Section 106 renegotiations are continued, a system of independent verification of claims of unviability should be established, possibly through the Homes and Communities Agency.
I also suggest that the HCA scoring system for the allocation of the additional funds announced—the £300 million cash and £10 billion loan guarantees that I referred to earlier—should reflect the willingness of a local council to renegotiate a Section 106 agreement in its area. I also support consideration being given to HCA funds being used to make viable an otherwise unviable site so that the full measures in a Section 106 agreement can be maintained. I recognise that guidance will be given once the Bill is agreed about how viability of Section 106 agreements should be assessed. I hope that the Minister will agree that there is a danger that a national assessment undertaken outside the area might not reflect local circumstances and, secondly, that while the affordable housing element is the one emphasised so far, new schools, roads and community facilities can be just as important.
I refer now to the amendments proposed to the Communications Act on 7 September, when it was announced that broadband street cabinets could be installed in any location other than a site of special scientific interest without the need for prior approval and without any conditions. These are large junction boxes, so surely there has to be some local and neighbourhood consultation in the spirit of localism. I understand that this change may have to include—and I seek the Minister’s clarification of this—that all telecommunications equipment and infrastructure could be part of this. I hope that the Minister will agree that this should not give rise to the uncontrolled installation of mobile phone masts and related equipment in unsuitable locations, particularly areas of natural beauty.
Finally, there are proposals on extensions and permitted development rights. On these, it is not clear what problem the Government are trying to solve. It would not increase the number of extensions by very much, but it would increase the number of disputes between neighbours. Once built, such extensions would stand for many years. In any case, Article 4 directions could be used in such cases, so I question why this proposal has been made and why there have been suggestions that it could last longer than the three years initially proposed.
I conclude by saying that these issues need full debate, involving all parties. We need clear statements and agreements as to what the problems are that we have to solve. With agreement to those, solutions can be found, so I hope that the Minister will agree that we need further discussion and that we can build on that further discussion to devise the right way to proceed.
I declare interests as president of the Local Government Association and chair of the Hanover Housing Association, which puts in for planning consent on lots of sites, as well as vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association. I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on a number of points that he has made, as well as with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I shall try not to repeat too many of their points but to underline them.
I shall start with a positive. I am grateful to the Minister, who I know has been part of the process. The good news in forthcoming legislation is that the town and village greens legislation is to be amended. This will be more than helpful in getting rid of the mischievous objectors who have used this legislation in the past, while still protecting genuine green spaces, which is very important. I put down amendments to this effect in the Localism Bill and was assured that forthcoming legislation would address these matters, and so it has, so many thanks to Ministers for that.
In relation to the ways in which planning may encourage or inhibit growth, it is true that the Local Government Association does not believe that planning is the real barrier to growth. As we have heard, there are 400,000 homes with planning consent sitting there. Local authorities are proud of their record in approving 87% of all applications for planning consent in 2011-12. It does not sound as if local authorities are putting up unreasonable barriers to housing activity. Indeed, this leaves us with the suspicion that at least some housebuilders are hoarding land with planning consent. Their shareholders like to see land with planning consent on the balance sheets. It is rather like gold bars; you do not always have to develop the sites in order to give yourself the advantage of those planning consents. It is not helpful if developers are holding out for easier terms than were earlier negotiated with the Section 106 agreements that we have been hearing about. I think that 75,000 homes are supposedly held up because the Section 106 agreements now look too onerous. The hope on the part of many developers is that, having got their planning consent, they will be able to negotiate down the affordable elements within those sites and therefore obviously increase the profit margins for those developments.
At the moment, housebuilders are not doing so badly. Profits are up again, and the housebuilding industry has moved away from the rather shaky times immediately after 2008. It would be unwise for local authorities, and unwise for central government to encourage local authorities, to be too generous in now renegotiating terms that have already been agreed under those Section 106 deals. In any case, it must be essential for those negotiations to happen at the most local level. These are very site-specific discussions regarding what is viable and what is not viable. Local negotiation is required here and not central government intervention. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the powers that the forthcoming legislation may introduce are there as reserve powers to be used only in exceptional circumstances and that one will see local authorities left to get on with the job of granting planning consent without having to think about the Planning Inspectorate marching in and without having to renegotiate Section 106 agreements where that really is not necessary in financial terms.
Wearing my housing association hat, I know that the processes can be very frustrating. Delays are a reality in a number of places. I think that local authorities do not wish it to be that way, but we sometimes wait inordinately long to get the consents that we need, even if in 87% of cases the answer is going to be yes. In the mean time, it is tedious and costly to have to wait. In the past, I have been told that I must expect delays because the council has staff shortages, maternity leave is a problem and the cycle of council meetings means that nothing can be done for a few more weeks yet. All those delays are frustrating, but they may be a necessary part of ensuring that local opinion is taken with development and is not left on the outside.
Hanover Housing Association has a development where I am told that, having put in for planning consent in February, it is likely to get a definitive outcome in January. This is after a year of prior negotiation on this cohousing scheme for senior citizens who have clubbed together and will be living in the homes. It is very tough to be in the middle of this and to keep telling these elderly people that unfortunately it will take a bit longer and a bit longer. However, I understand the political pressures faced by local authorities. It seems that the culture in this country is always on the side of those who want to say no, not on the side of those who want to get on with the job. Real leadership is required by local authorities, and that is not always easy. My advice to local authorities, for what it is worth, is that one needs leadership at the council level. One cannot expect the local councillor, put on the spot by his or her local electorate, to side with good council policy and be pro-development when that is suicidal in terms of their electoral future. So one has to expect leadership at the council level, with positive planning at the council level, and not at the level of the individual ward councillor.
With that backdrop of local opposition, how can one achieve more growth? The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, points out that a lot of the problems in getting more homes built and development of all kinds undertaken are financial and not concerned with planning, but there are some planning elements here. Starting at the top, one needs a robust planning Minister. I note that the Minister in the other place, Nick Boles, is not afraid to speak his mind and is taking a robust attitude towards those who obstruct the need for development. I believe that central government is seized of the need for more homes. This is not just talk. There is a genuine desire to try to address the acute housing shortages and to get economic growth going on the back of that. That is a good start. Central government has given local authorities the new homes bonus not just to give them extra funding when they say yes and schemes for new homes go ahead, but to bolster leadership at the local level by enabling councillors to tell local communities that if they are positive about new development extra resources will come into their area and there will be local benefits. I see that the CPRE is suggesting that the new homes bonus might be increased if the homes are built on brownfield, not greenfield, sites. As long as the new homes bonus is not used in places where new homes are not needed, it can be an incentive to get councils on side, and for councils to get local people on side as regards the requirement for more growth.
Neighbourhood plans involve people intimately in drawing up their local plans. The Minister has told us that 200 are now in advanced stages of negotiation. I am keeping an eye on one particular neighbourhood forum and its work and seeing how this is working through. It is a way in which lots of local meetings can bring people together instead of the usual total opposition to any development anywhere around here. Being part of building up a community-based neighbourhood plan can get people onside, and it is a useful way forward. At the time of the Localism Bill, I wanted an amendment to say that if a local plan has been devised, has been through the proper processes and has been properly inspected and if all three of the county council, the district council and the parish council—where there are three—agree that this neighbourhood plan is fine and give it a tick in the box, there should be no need for a local referendum involving all kinds of local people who have played no part in the discussions to date, who come out of the woodwork and say “no”, who get up a petition in the local shop, who are opposed to anything happening anywhere near them, who have had their chance to be involved in the consultation exercise and have rejected that chance, but who turn up at the last minute. We have not yet had any referendums, but I fear they will undermine the very good way of approaching the creation of a neighbourhood plan that people feel better about than they usually do.
There are many financial ways in which growth and the housebuilding that could flow from it could be generated. I will list the ones that appeal to me in particular. Those housing revenue account freedoms for local authorities could be extended so that local authorities that have retained council stock could be allowed to use their capital assets to borrow against that stock, just as housing associations are allowed to do. As long as that borrowing is prudential, and there is no reason at all to believe local authorities would go wild if they had that opportunity, it would be safe and sensible and they could be part of the much needed development of land, including land that they own themselves. The housing associations can borrow. My own has a big headroom, and we could borrow lots more money but we can only borrow what we can repay. There is a continuing need for some grant. Grants have been cut back, but if we had more, we would take up the opportunities we have to borrow more, and the Government get terrific gearing out of that. Most of the money is private money, but it needs some public money to make that happen.
I would like to put on the table one last financial way in which growth in housebuilding can be encouraged. I would recommend that, as well as the FirstBuy and NewBuy initiatives which help first-time buyers into a new flat by helping with their deposits and guaranteeing their mortgages, we should also have a scheme that enables first-time buyers to buy the homes that older people are leaving so that they can move into brand new, specialist, retirement housing. That gives you two bangs for your buck. The elderly person gets a much more manageable home which is cheap to heat and maintain as well as all the things that older people need, such as accessibility and companionship, and the young family can buy into a family home with, probably, three bedrooms and a garden which is just what they want and just what housebuilders are seldom building these days. You would get two for one if we could encourage a move of that kind.
It is good news that the Government want more action, are serious about the acute shortages of new homes and want to get Britain building, but the most important measures for central government will not be in diminishing the role of local government on the planning side. I hope the Minister and her departmental colleagues will be open to other positive ideas as well.
My Lords, I have a meeting tomorrow with some people who are seeking to extend the life of a ragstone quarry in Kent, ragstone being a stone which is widely used in repairing and building public buildings. There has been substantial opposition to that but I learnt today, from the local Member of Parliament, that the largest element of opposition has come from people who have absolutely no connection whatever with the land in question. Indeed, they have come from areas considerably apart. That rang a bell with me. When the M11 motorway was built through my constituency and we had to face protestors who declared themselves the “Free Country of Wanstonia”, it turned out that all but about 5% were from outside the borough. The point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, about the need to make sure that you have local support and not pay too much attention to others would be a very big and valuable step towards getting away from development always being opposed.
I am very glad that my noble friend, when introducing the debate, referred to the National Planning Policy Framework. It has been an almost unqualified success. Some of the people who were initially extremely hostile to the first draft are those who now sing its praises most loudly. Some of them must feel slightly ashamed that they went over the top when the first draft was issued. My noble friend is absolutely right; this has been a great advance.
I am very aware that the Second Reading of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill has been taking place in another place today. I expect that it will not reach this House for some while. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will forgive me: it is not really appropriate to go into too much detail about that Bill this evening, but I should make one or two points. The House knows that on the recent Localism Act and Local Government Finance Bill I found myself, with others, repeatedly championing the cause of localism and arguing that central government must be prepared, having given local authorities a general power of competence, to allow them to get on with it and make up their own minds. The Localism Act gave that power not only to local authorities but, as we have heard, local neighbourhoods. They have much more autonomy in how their local plans are drawn up and, when my noble friend opened the debate, I was encouraged by the figures she gave on the number of neighbourhood plans. Of course, we did not get all that we wanted. There were other measures that one would have wished for, but the general thrust was very much in the right direction. All the amendments passed in this House were accepted by the other place, as were, only a few days ago, the amendments to the Local Government Finance Bill, including the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. It is a pity that she is not in her place.
However, on first reading, the Growth and Infrastructure Bill appears to go in the opposite direction. My noble friend said that it did not represent a change of policy. A good deal of persuasion is to be done if local authorities are to be convinced of that. The Local Government Association has given us some early indication of its views, and has stated:
“The Bill in its current form represents a blow to local democracy, as well as being at odds with the Government's localism programme”.
That may be a misreading of the Bill, but the fact of the matter is that that is widely believed, and we will have to look at the Bill carefully when it comes to this House.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Beecham, Lord Shipley and Lord Best, said that it is not the planning system which is holding up development, but it is primarily a matter of builders and developers, and particularly house buyers, having access to finance. However, the Government seem determined to believe that it is the fault of the planning system. If there really is a dispute about that, is there not a case for some serious inquiry looking at this matter? We may well look at this during consideration of the Bill, but it is not satisfactory when the great mass of local authorities say, “Look, we really are doing our best”—the figures have been quoted—only to be told by the Government that it is all their fault. This tendency to reassert some form of centralism is rather unfortunate. Although this is not the occasion for debating the interesting report prepared by my noble friend Lord Heseltine, he again has said that the thrust to localism is exactly the right way to proceed. Local authorities becoming more responsible for growth in their area and having more say is very much part of my noble friend’s recommendations.
My next point relates to the duty under the Localism Act of local authorities to collaborate with each other, which my noble friend mentioned. Noble Lords who took part in consideration of that legislation will remember that there was a good deal of scepticism about that. However, the experience of even the most recent period since then is showing that those fears were misplaced. There are now many examples of collective cross-boundary plan making. Indeed, the Planning Advisory Service, funded jointly by the Local Government Association and my noble friend’s department, is supporting this work and is a powerful voice for sharing experience of cross-boundary planning. I have been furnished with a list of very good examples of where that is happening. I shall not weary the House by reading it all but I take one example at random. The North Northamptonshire Joint Core Strategy is a statutory joint committee covering Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire and involving Northamptonshire County Council. This is the first core strategy to be adopted in the East Midlands and currently it is under review, but the joint committee has been supported by a joint planning unit. That is a perfectly good example of collaboration and there are a number of others.
I spent a good deal of last weekend reading the report of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, in between reading a report about how this building is falling down, which perhaps is even more alarming. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, made the point that not only do we need collaboration between local authorities themselves but that there is a demand for collaboration between local authorities and local enterprise partnerships. Accounts reaching me suggest that most of these are getting under way extremely well. It is very important, particularly with the emphasis on seeking to build policies of growth, that the LEPs and the local authorities get on well.
Finally, I have a couple of detailed points for my noble friend that are of particular concern to London. I declare my interest as a joint president of London Councils and, along with almost everybody else here, I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The first point is permitted development rights for converting commercial property to residential property and the second one is the question of the localisation of the fixing of the level of planning fees. I shall say a word about both.
The Government are proposing to allow developers to convert commercial buildings to housing without the need for planning consent. That may be acceptable in many parts of the country but the idea is deeply opposed by London Councils and, in particular, by the City of London. In London generally the arguments seem to me to be pretty strong. London houses significant low-value but important design and creative industries which add a lot to the country’s GDP but whose ability to continue to function would be hampered seriously if developers simply bought them out and changed the use to housing. In parts of east London that is an important sector of an increasingly thriving part of the country. That automatic right to convert would be pretty unsatisfactory.
The City has even more specific anxieties. Over the years, the City authorities have handled the residential estates, which are a very small part of the whole, extremely skilfully. They have sought to confine that to quite specific areas on the periphery of the City while they remain determined to encourage commercial development to provide for the financial services industry’s crucial contribution to the nation’s GDP. Recently, I had an opportunity to raise this with the new Planning Minister, my honourable friend Nick Boles, and he confirmed that the City officials are in close touch with my noble friend’s department and I am expecting proposals to come forward for there to be exemptions from this automatic right to convert from commercial to redevelopment. I hope that my noble friend may be able to give me an update on this. Will the exemptions go wider than the City and include the London boroughs? To my mind, they have made a strong case.
Finally, I turn to planning fees. New draft regulations are coming before the House tomorrow. They are primarily a consolidation measure that was asked for by our committee. Sadly I cannot be at the debate because I have other commitments in the House. However, I will talk about not what is in the statutory instrument but what is not. Is there not a case for letting local authorities establish planning fees rather than for operating, as we have in the past, a “one size fits all” policy? The figure for planning applications in London is much higher. Inevitably, costs are higher, and some local authorities are making a significant loss, which has to be paid for either by council tax payers or by the taxpayer. It is thoroughly undesirable that that should happen.
Local authorities have been told that many developers would welcome a higher charge if it meant a prompter service, perhaps with more staff handling planning applications more quickly. Would that not be a better policy? I wonder whether my noble friend will reassure me that although that suggestion has been set aside the moment, for reasons that were spelled out in the Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations, the decentralised option will continue to be studied. Of course I understand that it is more complicated than just putting up fees to compensate for inflation. However, it would be appropriate.
I hope that local authorities will be given the chance to make a significant contribution to the growth agenda of the country. At the moment they are being held back by a number of measures—not necessarily planning measures—that reflect an increasing tendency to centralise. No doubt we shall have further opportunities to discuss this when the growth Bill comes before the House in two or three months’ time.
My Lords, we all want a strong economy; that is obvious. In so far as planning is essential to getting that right, we want a planning system that facilitates rather than delays. But why do we want a strong economy? Is a strong economy an end in itself? Or do we want a strong economy so that we can have a decent, civilised Britain, in which we are able to value and enjoy our heritage, our environment and the aesthetic dimensions that make life worth living? Do we want a Britain in which there is room to regenerate our spiritual and physical batteries? Do we want to preserve and protect the challenges of wild spaces and the glory of the countryside?
There is a tremendous amount of technical and wealth-generating preoccupation—understandably—in what is being discussed about planning. I sometimes feel that we are neglecting the soul of Britain, and what will make Britain a country worth having. I want a planning system that values that soul every bit as highly and is determined to ensure that it will be not only preserved but regenerated for our young and their future. Perhaps we should look at the nightmare of the last industrial revolution. With hindsight, we can see that it could all have been done without scarring the countryside and without ruining lives to the extent that they were ruined. Surely we have learnt from that and are determined for the future of our economy that the same mistakes will not be made again.
I have always learnt from life, and I had an experience a few years ago. I may have it shared it with the House before, in which case, I apologise. It made a profound impression on me. I was at that time national president of the YMCA, which had a training centre on the edge of Lake Windermere. I was talking to one of our workers there, a very fine woman with a great sense of vision and commitment. She told me a story which has always stayed with me. She said that not long before my visit a youngster aged about seven or eight had been there and had come back very invigorated from a day out. She said, “What did you do today?”. With a sense of awe and excitement, this youngster said, “I saw far”. A few days later, she saw the youngster coming back again looking even more enthusiastic. She said, “And what did you do today?”. The youngster said, “I saw very far”.
That story certainly brought home to me that still, for countless youngsters in our society, life is stunted because they do not have the opportunity to experience the imagination, challenge and regeneration of open spaces, the countryside and all the glories there. I would like an absolutely firm undertaking from the Minister tonight that she and her colleagues will set to it to ensure that these considerations are given the same priority with all that is being done in planning as any other considerations.
To give specific indications of where that would apply, we are going into a new generation, and we are preoccupied with future energy—how we will make it possible and enable it to happen. This is not just a matter of new plant; it is a matter of the infrastructure—the pylons and wires that will criss-cross the countryside. There is also the matter—and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to it so firmly with all his experience—of the need for affordable housing, which is something that we all recognise. Surely, it is important to ensure that where affordable housing is provided it is done without actually scarring the landscape and doing damage to the total creative experience across the land. Therefore, brownfield development is obviously crucial in this context.
All that I am saying suggests, as in so many other walks of life, frankly, that it is all too sensitive and complex to be left to the vagaries of the market. We need more than that. Nimbyism plays too strong a part in how things are in the free market interplay. The articulate and already strong can look after their interests by saying, “Not here thank you”, and the less articulate get landed with everything. We have to keep this in mind and make sure that we have a just and even-handed approach that looks to the interests of society as a whole.
What all this demands is a master plan for what will be right in the interests of Britain. Take, for example, the generation of alternative energy. We may have targets. We may have aggregates that we are certain that we want to achieve, but exactly how will they be achieved? That is not something to be left to the haphazard interplay of unco-ordinated local planning authorities. It requires a national plan. That is why it is so important to take this interplay between the different approaches as seriously as I suggest.
Only last week I had an assurance from a colleague of the Minister—from that Bench—that, as far as the national parks were concerned, the Government were determined that in all aspects of development, progress and future work the interests, well-being, traditions and role of the national parks and society would remain inviolate and that this would be respected by all departments of government. I got that specific assurance. It is there in Hansard to read. I hope it has been internalised within the many different departments of government and local government involved. It is crucial. Of course, the same goes for areas of outstanding natural beauty.
However, this affects not only the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—and, of course, I have been very much involved in the life of national parks—but the countryside as a whole. That is why in post-Second World War Britain, when we were talking about the rebuilding and regenerating of Britain, the green belts were seen as an essential part because the spiritual, imaginative and creative side of life was seen as important as the material-side priorities that were operating. I am afraid that that side of the argument, as I have been suggesting, has been neglected of late, and we need to make sure that it is reprioritised. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me on this.
I should like to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for whom I have a great and enduring respect. It is not the planning systems that matter but the priorities of the people who are driving things and taking them forward. We will not get this right until there is a culture which says that it is not only about numbers and the materialism of our society. We do not want to be judged as a nation that became wealthier than ever and increased its GNP by this or that amount as though it were an end in itself. This is about building a society worth having, and national planning should be there to support, encourage and ensure that.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Leader’s Committee of London Councils and as leader of a local authority, which is a planning authority and which, working with neighbourhoods and villages, will fight to remain a local planning authority using all necessary means, including resort to the law on some matters if we must. I hope that we shall not have to.
I also declare an interest as one who believes that if you want to see the reasons for locally led planning you should compare the green 20th-century suburbs and back gardens of British towns and cities and their proud preservation by local communities—I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said—to the sprawl of high-rise, abusive building that girdles the city of Rome, for example, not to mention the third world. That is a success for planning.
I, too, am grateful to the Government for enabling a short-notice debate on a very short-notice policy. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Hanham for the typically wise and emollient way in which she introduced it, reflecting, quite rightly, a number of positive steps taken by this Government since 2010. One always knows with her—unlike certain colleagues, perhaps—that she knows something about planning and understands the good reasons for it. She does not see local councils, as some Treasury officials seem to, as institutionalised conspiracies against the people by bureaucrats, so-called jobsworths and enemies of growth.
Most local authorities are fighting day in and day out to support business and growth. In fact, unlike the expanding phalanxes of unelected inspectors which are implied in some of the Government’s new measures, local councils are directly responsible to local communities for the policies they make and the decisions they take. People, as my noble friend rightly said in her introduction, want local involvement and not remote decision-making.
That is why I am puzzled, as was my noble friend Lord Jenkin, that despite the fine words, it looks as though the Government have changed their mind on localism. If so, the policy change has been hasty, the analytical basis obscure and, although it is not his fault that he finds himself where he is, the new Minister’s views have sometimes appeared predetermined. Predetermination does not make for good planning decisions, and the patent lack of evidence or prior consultation behind some of these ideas will inevitably raise the spectre of judicial review.
We are told that some of the changes proposed are temporary, but some who are involved have made no secret of the fact that they hope they will be permanent. I have to say that I find that dismaying. I will not follow others in addressing the details of the growth Bill. I have not read today’s debate in the other place and many other noble Lords have already commented on it. Like others, I support the provisions on the misuse of village green powers, but also like others, I am far more cautious about the policy on affordable housing and negotiation on Section 106. This is already possible and many local authorities are doing it; some developers engage and some do not. I am not sure that we should reward speculators who are unwilling to play by the rules that other developers accept. I also share the concern about the switching of commercial property to residential with no requirement to provide parking or amenity space, or make any contribution to essential infrastructure such as access roads and schools. In some areas, the loss of commercial space will be keenly felt as the economy revives.
It may surprise few noble Lords that I want to concentrate on gardens. I have the honour to represent a suburban ward in a suburban borough, and like suburbs up and down our land, it is the character of its housing and its green spaces and gardens that make it what it is. People look to those they elect to preserve that character, and why should they not? They also detest the idea of selfish and uncontrolled garden grabbing. It is a practice which both my party’s manifesto and the coalition agreement pledged to curtail. Let me remind noble Lords and Ministers—I know that my noble friend will listen carefully, but some in other departments might care to note this—that the Conservative manifesto in 2010 said:
“To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans … allow neighbourhoods to stop the practice of ‘garden grabbing’”.
The 2010 coalition agreement states:
“We will return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’”.
That seems pretty clear to me, so on the basis of what evidence or consultation are the Government now abandoning that promise and opening the door to the very practice they promised to check? I confess that I could not wear my election promises quite so lightly. In effect, the Government now seem to be saying that they want to permit more garden grabbing by doubling the size of permitted development and allowing what, if they come to be built, may risk becoming known as “Boles blocks”.
As the LGA statistics have exposed, this policy is not rooted in the facts. As others have said, contrary to what you hear and read, it is already perfectly possible to apply for an extension that goes beyond the current permitted limits. Thousands of families do so, and of the hundreds of thousands of planning decisions that are taken, most are approved—many, of course, with modifications in the course of the planning process. In my own small authority in 2011-12 we had more than 4,000 planning applications, 1,730 of which were for household extensions—not all in gardens, of course. Of these, 80% were passed and more than 80% of applications were dealt with in fewer than eight weeks. Just 346 applications were refused. Of these, 79 chose to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, and of those, only 34 were allowed—not all rear extensions.
The LGA’s emerging evidence shows a similar picture across the country. So, if coolly analysed, where is the problem? Where is the injustice to the aspirant families, many of whom, frankly, are rather more deterred from getting a larger house by penal rates of stamp duty? The truth is that those who play by the rules have a very good chance of getting most or all of what they want. Where is the blight on growth? Many firms doing extensions in London already have waiting lists. It is quite absurd to say that breaking election promises and relaxing controls on garden-grabbing will revive the economy, although it may do some good for remittances to Krakow and Belgrade.
I recognise that there are examples of poor planning and poor planning departments, and there is sometimes impatience with the time that negotiations can take. We all need to work to improve that. The local authorities also face some of these delays. Like my noble friend Lord Shipley, I think that bad cases do not make good laws—or in fact justify the abandonment of such clear election promises as those I have reminded the House of.
It may be that some of the officials who devised this policy do not understand the character of the suburbs of Britain. Perhaps some others find suburban values a little old-fashioned. Yet, as one my residents recently wrote to me:
“The squashed suburbs are governed by rules precisely because people live cheek by jowl and like to be informed and have a say when something which might impact on them or their neighbours is proposed. It doesn’t mean they demand a veto, just a sensible process in which their voice is heard”.
Was that not precisely the point?
The planning process exists to ensure fairness between neighbours and to accommodate differences, which are often sharpest in the case of extensions, while protecting the overall character of the place. Incidentally, I agree with what my noble friend Lord Shipley said about broadband boxes: the argument is not quite as simple as has been presented. A garden-grabbing free-for-all in some areas will just set neighbour against neighbour, as others have said.
The Government are fond of saying that they want to help those who play by the rules; that they act for the hardworking majority. I agree with that; it is why I am a Conservative. But this policy seems to promote the precise opposite. It is a policy for those who happen to be rich enough to be able to throw up a quick, expensive extension during a policy window in a recession. It is a policy that helps the minority who do not want to play by rules, those whose extensions have been refused because they are so overbearing or so out of character and who can now come forward again, or those who do not want to be bothered with respecting their community’s views at all. It is a policy not for the many but for the few.
I fear that some of the palliative ideas suggested are ineffective. Light is rarely a single determinant feature in planning decisions and it is very open to appeal and challenge. Extending conservation areas is a lengthy process and has other consequences for people’s ability to improve their homes; in fact, it is an increase in regulation of a different kind. Article 4 directions are even more cumbersome, need government approval, are subject to compensation, and would lead to loss of planning fees—more than £250,000 in the case of our authority alone. Intensifying building control to prevent abuse by cowboy constructors would impose potentially heavy new burdens on local authorities in employing new staff—just when we are all, quite reasonably, being urged to cut our costs.
The Government have a wide enough range of ideas for change and improvement in planning without the need to break their election promises on this specific one. Unlike a tax break, it will leave a legacy in breeze blocks that cannot be reversed. For every fairweather friend they might make by an extension so incongruous or overbearing it would never have been allowed under existing rules, the Government will lose two, three, four, five, six—how many?—friends. It is not even clever politics.
I have been from the outset, and will remain, a vocal critic of this unnecessary idea if it is carried forward. I dislike intensely being publicly at odds with my party—it goes against every instinct that I have. Indeed, it was the first time in my political life that I found that all I had said was soon endorsed by a vote of the Liberal Democrat conference. That had me worried for a moment, but I am very grateful to my Liberal Democrat friends for it. I also note of course the Local Government Association’s clear and resonant views on this subject. Few issues have more united local government and all parties in local government, and I have had a most enormous postbag of support.
I welcome tremendously what my noble friend, who is so respected in this House and by me, appeared to say about potential consultation on this specific aspect. I hope that she will take that back and urge colleagues to reflect further and change their minds. Of course, I do not ask her to answer on that when she replies, but I do ask without prejudice to any reconsideration how and when this idea might be brought before Parliament for determination if the Government go ahead.
I remain wholly opposed to this proposed extension of garden-grabbing, and I would beg on behalf of those many people who have written to me in support that the eventual answer to that question would be never, so that this idea, however well intentioned, might quietly be laid to rest.
My Lords, it has been very interesting listening to the excellent speeches from all sides of the House tonight criticising or worrying about the Government’s policies on planning or various bits of them. I have been reflecting on the lack of business confidence, which may stem from projects taking too long to get permission or uncertainty about what will happen. I do not see that as improving in spite of some good changes in the planning system in the past few years.
I shall speak mainly about big projects such as rail, road and strategic freight interchanges, but my comments probably apply to other developments as well—I declare an interest as chairman of Rail Freight Group. On nationally significant infrastructure projects, the Planning Act 2008 and later revisions by the Government have improved things, but there remain major delays and uncertainty which are making it very risky for the many larger developments to proceed—the ones that the Government appear to want to encourage. We could say, “Well, if these are government-funded, it probably doesn’t matter very much; if the Government want to do it, they will find the money and it’ll take time”, but a large number of such projects are now being financed in the private sector. That, of course, is much better because it does not go on the government balance sheet, but the message that I get from developers is that they need confidence that their investment will be realisable at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time, provided that they stick to the rules, the planning laws and the guidelines. I suppose that most of them fall into what one might call the “difficult” category, be they road, rail or interchanges, and getting planning permission for such sites has always been notoriously difficult. I shall come on to railways later, but, for the interchange sector, it is difficult finding sites; they have to be road and rail-connected; they may be in the green belt; and the scale of them tends to lead to local opposition. If there is a need to invest in local road and rail networks as a planning condition, a site may become unaffordable.
In terms of our logistics sector, the retail sector is moving into these properties and developments significantly. Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer are taking lots of areas in those sites. The one at Daventry is probably in the forefront of that change. Luckily, the local authority is very enthusiastic because it started with a small one that was rail-connected about 12 or 15 years ago. The second one was entirely taken by Tesco and has been built and opened and there is a third, even larger one under development. They are clearly popular with retailers, whom we must try to help.
The Government need to recognise the successes in the Planning Act. Sites over 60 hectares are included as nationally significant infrastructure projects. The National Planning Policy Framework 2012, issued this summer, supports sustainable development. The Department for Transport and DCLG jointly issued a strategic rail freight interchanges policy statement last November, which can be cited by developers in planning applications. However, there are still policy framework documents missing. Robbie Owen, who is the secretary of the National Infrastructure Planning Organisation, has written a letter in the Times today saying that when you have all these documents in place, you can build airports very quickly. I will not get on to airports tonight, but with the right documents there and the national planning policy framework in place, he says that wherever it is going to be, you could do it very quickly.
Compare that with the policy on national networks, which relates to rail, road and strategic interchange, which has a bad history. It was first promised to be published in draft form in autumn 2009, then in autumn 2010, then in December 2011 or January 2012. That is three years with still no date for publication, even in draft. Can the Minister give a date, a year, a 10-year span or something for publication? It is very difficult when developers cannot have any comfort that their application complies with a document that does not exist. As I said before, many of these projects are privately financed, so it puts those projects at risk. I wonder—perhaps the Minister could comment—whether, as the national policy statement for national networks remains delayed, the policy statement could be upgraded to NPS status. That is a suggestion.
Secondly, after all those processes have been followed and only a ministerial decision is left, as several other noble Lords have said, it takes a very long time. The noble Lord, Lord Best, cited a year for a housing project—I can cite several years for bigger projects—when Ministers seemed to sit on them. In some cases, a clear political bias is finding its way into something which I think should be a straight decision based on the merits of the case. Again, if a developer is spending tens or, sometimes, hundreds of millions of pounds on getting a project approved, that timescale can wreck the project and make him withdraw.
That element of cost is confirmed by the report by Infrastructure UK, 18 months or two years ago now, which compared the cost of building and engineering projects in the UK with those in Germany. It found that the costs here were 40% higher but that the actual costs of construction were much the same. The conclusion is that the extra cost is entirely on getting there, which, in the round, probably mostly comprises planning applications. I hope that the Minister will look urgently at speeding up appeals, including options for mandated timescales, such as in the Planning Act, for ministerial decisions. I hope that the Town and Country Planning Act will also have some revisions put in. It would be nice to see some flexibility in the 60-hectare limit under that planning Act. With experience in seeking permissions through that route, I wonder whether there is merit in allowing some flexibility in that figure. It might help the developers to choose, if not the easiest, the quickest and probably the cheapest way of getting development while still providing appropriate scrutiny.
My next issue is with the Transport and Works Act. There is a terrible story about the railway line between Oxford and Bicester, which is probably 15 miles or so. It was single tracked by Dr Beeching and Chiltern Railways put in an application to redouble it. I think there was general support from everybody; I went and gave evidence in favour of it, which I suppose is unsurprising. It very nearly got approval under the Transport and Works Act. Then, suddenly, it was decided that there had to be a second public inquiry because of bats. The Minister may laugh but I am afraid it is true.
The problem was that in the 40 years since this tunnel in Oxford had been single-tracked, the bats had got used to perching in the bits that were not too close to the trains. The people that looked after these bats decided that if two tracks were reinstated, the trains would be closer to the bats and it would affect their habitation. In the end, after a second public inquiry—and God knows how much it cost—Chiltern Railways came up with a scheme so that when a train was half a mile from the tunnel, it triggered a light. That lit up the tunnel inside, then the bats flew away and were therefore safe from the train. When the train got out of the tunnel, the lights went out and the bats were able to fly back. Is it a sensible use of government money to go through all this absolute rubbish? I am very fond of bats but somebody has been very cautious and that has probably delayed the project for a year and added goodness knows how much to the cost, which will probably end up in the fares box eventually. We have to be a bit more practical about these things.
There is a lot to talk about and there will be more to talk about when we see the new Bill. I hope that Ministers can take particular care when looking at the delays to and extra costs of projects if the private sector is investing some or all of the money—be they rail, road interchanges or major schemes such as that—because we need to build confidence to resolve cases speedily, by ministerial decision or otherwise.
We really do not want to be in a situation such as energy is in. As I think my noble friend Lord Judd alluded to, a lack of policy in energy is stopping many projects that some people want and probably allowing some to go ahead that others do not want. There is a big article in the Times today about a biomass plant in Yorkshire. A power station is to be converted from coal to 100% biomass, which sounds awfully good. There will be lots and lots of new jobs and biomass coming from wherever, and it will all be wonderful. A little note at the bottom says that it will not go ahead unless the Government come up with a final policy on the buy-in level of that energy. That applies equally to other private sector projects; they need confidence. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some assurance about some of these projects and ideas for small improvements to the planning Acts. I look forward to her response in due course.
My Lords, I have some comments to make that perhaps are to some extent conflicting. I am a huge supporter of our heritage, and I agree with much that has been said on that front this evening. In the course of my lifetime the green belt has preserved London from becoming a sprawling mess like Paris and other cities, so you have to tick that box. I can see that you have to have a planning process.
Then, though, I look at the issue from the other end of the telescope, and I say, “This country badly needs a lot of infrastructure investment pretty quickly in terms of at least economic common sense, and while the economy is flat it is a sensible time for that to occur”. The infrastructure plan contains about £200 billion of basically, transport and other related areas and another £200 billion for energy. I asked the Chief Secretary how much he expected to be spent in any of the next five years, but he could not give me an answer. His answer was, “Well, we just don’t know how long it will take to go through not just the planning processes but, in particular, the environmental aspects of many of these things”. I cannot help but say in that context that we need that investment as soon as possible, both because we will need the energy and because it will be an opportunity to help to kick-start the economy.
I also observe that it is my children’s generation that is paying for this. Housing is hugely expensive in this country, in essence because supply is limited. That is particularly relevant in Birmingham South, obviously, though not so acutely relevant in other parts of the economy.
I agree with a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just said. It is certainly the case that the reason why a lot of infrastructure investments are so much more expensive in this country is the add-on costs; it is not because the construction costs are hugely more.
I also observe that the great buildings of this country were all built before planning existed. I cannot say that planners had a pretty good track record in the 1960s and 1970s, when they positively encouraged a load of rubbish buildings, most of which are mercifully now rotting because they are flat-roofed and built of concrete, and if they have not already been demolished, they soon will be. I then swing back and say, “I see what has been done in the past 10 or 20 years with a lot of city centres; in terms of much more attractive buildings, there has been a significant renaissance”. So both sides have it.
I see that the Government are trying to set a sensible middle course, both to help the economy and, in particular, to encourage localism. I am a great supporter of localism, and in a sense I say, “Get it right or wrong but basically it’s likely to be a better decision if it’s made locally than by a civil servant in Whitehall”.
I want to comment on the experiences of two of my children, who are at the stage of settling down. One has settled down rather late, at nearly 40, and the other is a lot younger. One is in Islington and one is in Kensington and Chelsea, and both have scraped together every penny to buy what were built as artisan cottages, pretty small but perfectly nice. The case of Islington in particular makes me seethe with anger. There is this appalling bossy-boots planning officer going around saying, “Don’t bother to apply for this or that; I’m only going to approve this or that”, and stupidity in terms of the requirements for the interior of the building. I can see the logic of keeping the exterior entirely sympathetic, but when it comes to the interior—“No, you can’t open this wall up”; “When you’re replastering, you can use only original lath and plaster”; and, “No, you can’t raise the height of the roof so it won’t show from the front but it’ll give you a bit more space at the back”. There is a stupid little box room on the roof that is useless for anything but has been deemed to have been a maid’s room and therefore to be historically important. There are hundreds of thousands of these sorts of houses all over the place; there is nothing architecturally unique about them. It is hugely intrusive for—to speak candidly—planning officer bullies to go around frightening young people in particular about why they cannot do with the inside of their houses what they would like to. This has gone far too far, and I can scarcely contain my fury at what these young people have to put up with. They have to spend a fortune on planning, let alone on what the houses cost in the first place. Conservation areas, again, are a great idea. You do not want to spoil areas. In essence, you want more Grosvenor Estates, and you want what happened to Bloomsbury. That is a point readily taken. The requirements being practised in terms of the insides of buildings are wildly beyond the pale and excessively intrusive.
This is a useful debate. To sum it up, you need to look at different times from both ends of the telescope in terms of the good and the bad. We certainly have done better with our heritage than have Rome, Paris and America. However, do not forget the price and do not be too heavy in imposing on people’s ability to at least do what they want with the insides of their houses.
My Lords, despite the short and unexpected notice for this debate, it has turned out to be comprehensive and fully informed on a subject of considerable importance. We have had some high-quality input from a range of noble Lords, some expressing their concerns with the direction of government policy. We have heard, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Best, some expansive thoughts on housing finance and how the Government might get further leverage from the system that we have. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, touched on the issue of decentralisation of planning fees; he is right that that is something that we are considering tomorrow with the SI. From reading the Hansard of the other place, the Minister did not take it off the agenda for some future progress. That is probably encouraging.
My noble friend Lord Berkeley brought to bear his expertise on nationally significant infrastructure projects, explaining the gaps that are still in the system if confidence is to be built with investors. I was rather sorry that he chose to talk about bats rather than airports, because I have some knowledge of the latter and none of the former.
It was not many months ago that we were debating the Government’s new approach to planning, encompassing the National Planning Policy Framework, neighbourhood planning and the duty to co-operate in replacing the regional spatial strategies. Noble Lords will recall that the draft NPPF drew fire from all sides, causing chaos and initial inertia in the planning system. However, to their credit, the Government did listen to the powerful cases made and the resultant NPPF is certainly a considerable improvement on the original. The noble Baroness said that it had garnered accolades from across the spectrum of organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, called it an unqualified success. I am bound to say that it does not address all our concerns, despite that. We support the strengthening of the definition of “sustainable development” in the NPPF along with the five principles of sustainable development, although there is still some lack of clarity over how local authorities will have to apply this. It is not strong enough on prioritising brownfield development, a point stressed by my noble friend Lord Judd. There are no effective strategic planning mechanisms, no vision for England bringing together housing, economic development and infrastructure; my noble friend Lord Beecham made this point. It potentially downgrades the importance of affordable housing.
We strongly agree with the plan-led approach being at the heart of the system, but consider the 12-month transitional period to be too short, especially given the struggles of cash-strapped local authorities. As supporters of neighbourhood planning, we were concerned that the lack of resourcing presented risks that this will become the domain of the better off. However, I am bound to say that I am encouraged by the numbers that the Minister gave us.
However, the NPPF captures what we would support as the essence of a fair planning framework: contributing to building a strong economy while supporting strong communities and contributing to protecting and enhancing our environment. These mutually dependent roles are underpinned by local engagement and with the local plan as the means for local people to empower and shape their surroundings. My noble friend Lord Judd expressed that in much more powerful terms than I can manage. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, recognised that in the way he called it looking through two ends of the telescope.
However, there is a fundamental concern about whether the reduction of the NPPF to just 50 pages will bring greater clarity to the system overall. We fear not, especially when there has been some lack of clarity around ministerial announcements that planning policy guidance notes and planning policy statements are to be abolished; then they are not; and then they are to be reviewed. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is expected to complete his review. The concern of many is that the brevity of the NPPF, coupled with the vagueness of language, will increase uncertainty, leading to more appeals and, as some have argued, a lawyers’ paradise.
The Government have set great store in the demise of regional spatial strategies, arguing that the top-down approach negated local commitment and engagement. This was to be achieved eventually by a two-stage approach, as a result of a late amendment to the Localism Act. In a Written Statement, slipped out on 25 July just before the Summer Recess, we learnt that the Government were going to have to undertake further consultation on updated environmental reports, starting with a report relating to the east of England. Will the Minister let us know the position on all the environmental reports and the status of each of the regional spatial strategies? Do we have any evidence as yet as to how extensively the duty to co-operate is working in practice? The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, was certainly enthusiastic about the progress that he had heard.
The ink is barely dry on the Localism Act and the Government are back beating the drum of,
“unnecessary bureaucracy in the planning system”,
hindering sustainable growth. As we have heard, their new approach is reflected in part in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which had its Second Reading in another place today. We consider it to be a knee-jerk response to the Government’s panic over lack of growth and that it fails to address the root cause of the Government’s economic failure or the housing crisis.
When the then Planning Minister, Greg Clark, commended the finalised NPPF, he said that it would support growth and allow “communities back into planning”. Seven months on we have this new Bill, which, as the CPRE states,
“marks a dramatic shift away from the Government’s commitment to localism”.
It would give unprecedented powers to the Secretary of State to strip any authority which is deemed to be failing of its planning powers so that developers could have their applications decided by the Secretary of State without ever being reviewed by the local authority. Seemingly—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—failure will be based on the number of decisions overturned on appeal and the length of time taken to decide applications. Would this have regard to circumstances where a planning performance agreement is entered into which would extend the time norms to ensure, to the benefit of the developer and the planning authority, that a proper assessment can be made of the case? Despite all the rhetoric about localism, this Government are proving to be a centralising Administration at heart—no one more so than the Secretary of State at CLG. I think that we heard concerns expressed to this effect by the noble Lord, Lord True.
This attack on local planning authorities seems particularly unreasonable given the dramatic cuts that they have endured to their budgets, which were made worse by the pressures from the inadequately funded local council tax schemes and which we have debated extensively recently. But the assertion that it is the planning system which is the root cause of poor growth and the housing crisis does not bear examination. Is it not the case, as the LGA has stated—the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and my noble friend Lord Beecham reiterated the statistics—that there is a building backlog of 400,000 new homes for which planning permission is extant but building has not yet commenced? Builders are not building because people are not buying and banks are not lending.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to the possibility of hoarding sites by developers. Last year, councils approved 87% of all planning applications with over 90% of these being determined within 26 weeks. What additional resources are to be made available to the Planning Inspectorate to carry out these duties? It has the responsibility of the abolished Infrastructure Planning Commission and the examination of draft CIL charging schedules, as well as the examination of local plans. We can add the designation of failing local authorities to its workload and the determination of applications going to the Secretary of State.
The Bill will also enable developers to appeal against affordable housing requirements of Section 106 agreements, notwithstanding that local authorities can already amend these by agreement. It is illustrative of government thinking that it is only the affordable housing contributions of such agreements which can be appealed in this way. We strongly oppose this measure, which will lead to fewer affordable homes when we need more. The Government’s promise to deliver homes for first-time buyers and young families looks shallow indeed when they have cut the budget for affordable housing, increased the threshold for rented affordable housing up to 80% of market rents and are now decreasing the obligation on developers to build such housing. Can the Minister give us an estimate of not only how many sites are currently stalled due to commercial viability but specifically the number that are stalled due to affordable housing requirements?
Yet a further centralising change in planning policy relates to the proposed extension to the major infrastructure planning regime to include business and commercial projects. It would appear such projects would not necessarily have to be of proven national significance, nor be of a nature covered in a national policy statement, but perhaps the Minister will put us right on this. The process would certainly bypass the local community and the local planning authority. What is the possible justification for this? The Planning Officers Society has commented that,
“there is no evidence that going down the major infrastructure route would be any quicker than applying to the local authority, given that over 90% of applications are being determined within target”.
Can the Minister provide such evidence?
During the passage of the Localism Bill, we considered the operation of the town and village green provisions and the extent to which they were being used to thwart development. Although there may have been a number of cases in which legislation could have been wrongly used to prevent unwarranted development, we would question whether this warrants a heavy-handed change in the law such as that provided in the infrastructure Bill. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Best, believed that that was the right way in which to proceed. There are, of course, other changes in the pipeline outside of the infrastructure Bill. We have had the announcement of the three-year extension of permitted development rights following a consultation. However, the consultation has not yet appeared, and there seems to be a little local difficulty within the coalition. Given the comments of the noble Lord, Lord True, this evening, I suspect that the little local difficulty extends beyond the coalition. Will the proposal ever see the light of day?
The Government have not announced any proposals to change the law in relation to protection of the green belt, although they are encouraging local councils to use existing laws to review and tailor the extent of green-belt land in their local areas. The reward for doing so appears to be some prioritising of local plan submissions. Can the Minister give us any feedback on the extent to which councils are actually doing so?
In planning, as in so many other areas of government policy, confusion and contradiction abound. The policy is thrashing around to try to find a solution to growth without focusing on the real causes of weak growth. Along the way, it is undermining a planning system which emerged from a robust process, including a parliamentary one, for which a consensus was broadly intact.
My Lords, as I expected, this has been an interesting and challenging debate at short notice, and I am very grateful to everybody who has been able to take part. We have covered a fair amount of ground today on all planning aspects.
I would like to start with the extremely thoughtful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the conflict, if there is one, between country openness and the town. I reassure the noble Lord that we are as interested and concerned about open spaces and those parts of the countryside where planning permission should not be granted as those places where it should be granted. The NPPF contains policies on agriculture, farms, open spaces, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belt and national parks. It is all there and the expectation is that those policies will continue. I recognise exactly what the noble Lord is saying. We cannot grant planning consent all over the place. We must have areas where people are free to learn about agriculture, if nothing else, and to grow our food. After all, that is what we will need in the future. The noble Lord made a very adroit speech.
This is as good a moment as any to pick up on the fact that the noble Lord mentioned the green belt. As I have tried to say, policies on the green belt are in place. We have made it abundantly clear that councils are in control of the green belt and always have been. It is up to them to determine the boundaries of it. That has not changed. However, the expectation is that the amount of green belt will not change. The previous Government said that they had increased the green belt although there was a fair amount of eating into it from time to time. However, now and in the past other areas of green belt have been established. We have to ensure that there is green belt round the major city areas so that there is space between cities to provide the openness that we have described. The green belt is still a major policy of the Government.
I always expect the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, to be challenging, but there we are. This Government are not viscerally opposed to planning, nor are we opposed to affordable housing. A number of noble Lords have tried to indicate that we are against affordable housing. That is manifestly not the situation. We have made it clear from the outset that we recognise the need for affordable housing. The policies we have put forward are all about trying to ensure that more affordable housing is available. We will continue to put forward such policies. It is absolutely right that we need growth as much as anything else to ensure that people have houses in which to live and in the right areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, who I see is back in his place, referred to an article in Private Eye. I do not know what that article was about and, frankly, I do not care very much. At present, there are more than 1,400 stalled sites with 75,000 units of affordable housing across the country. We have talked about renegotiating Section 106 and making sure that land, which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to as land retained in land banks, is freed up. We cannot go on having great chunks of land on which housing could be built being retained. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, wishes to intervene but I hope that he will let me finish as I have a very short time in which to speak. I accept that not all the housing which is approved is affordable housing. A great deal of housing is for shared ownership or ordinary private housing. However, there are 1,400 stalled sites and 75,000 units of affordable housing across the country. We need to unlock that as soon as we can.
There are 1,400 sites with 75,000 units on them. It does not necessarily say that they are stalled for any reason. They need to be unlocked to get that housing out but there may be other things that are also tied up with it as well. However, that is the number of units that we know could be built.
To move as quickly as I can through this, there have been a number of comments about the extension of permitted development rights for homeowners. Rather than go into a whole diatribe about that, I can confirm that a formal consultation on it is about to come out. I know that there is a variety of views on this and we will receive those views under the consultation. The purpose is to enable people who want to extend a little bit and just want to make residential improvements. We know that there are almost 200,000 applications for residential improvements for things such as conservatories or small extensions which actually do not upset anybody very much. As one would expect, they would be expected to discuss the applications with their neighbours. As always, there are protected areas. Those protected areas are within the general permitted development order and include conservation areas, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest.
I will come back to the noble Lord, Lord True, in a minute; he was asking about exceptions to this. I know that I have the answer to that within my hundreds of notes here and perhaps I can dig it out before we get to the end.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised a number of questions. He made the point that the proposals would result in poorer design and use-of-space standards for buildings. The National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that good design is absolutely essential and that is part and parcel of any discussion that people will be having on planning approvals.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, along with a number of other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made the point that the Local Government Association has, perfectly reasonably, pointed out that a lot of authorities are working extremely well and efficiently. Sometimes when they are not getting planning approvals in a certain length of time there is a perfectly good reason for it. Our proposals to extend some of the areas under the growth Bill will affect only those authorities where it is perceived that they really are not trying. No one would deny that there are certain councils which are very slow, not because they are negotiating or for other reasons. They are just very slow. We hope that the proposals in the growth Bill will encourage them to quicken up and provide a bit of an edge to move forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, was very kind to start with about the Bill though it veered off a little bit. I am beginning to know the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, very well: he fights a sturdy battle. He also made the perfectly reasonable point that the lack of housing development was not entirely due to lack of permissions. A lot of it is due to the economy and the fact that money is not available and not being lent in the same way. However, it is important that those permissions are there because there will come a time when it will be necessary to move them on. While it is an issue, it is not the total issue.
As regards Section 106, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also talked about overriding original agreements. As he and others rightly said, councils are free to reconsider the Section 106 agreements on a voluntary basis at any time. As with all things, we would rather that councils did this and did not have to be encouraged to do so. However, we found that 80% of councils would be willing to negotiate, but we want to ensure that this good practice is as widely spread as possible. Again, there is no undermining of what local authorities can do, but there is an expectation that the best should be followed by the least good, and that the least good should be encouraged by legislation to get on with it—if I can put it that way.
The noble Lord also commented on the process whereby some applications should be sent directly to the Planning Inspectorate. Once again, we are back to the limited number of authorities that do not act within a reasonable time, are slow with planning decisions and turn down some applications for no good reason. These delays are bad for communities and the economy. This measure will deal with the places where planning is not effective and local councils do not deal swiftly and effectively with applications. The powers are a last resort. We hope that they will not have to be used and that we can get enough encouragement through what I was going to say was the threat of legislation—although it will be there—to enable councils to get on and deal swiftly with planning applications.
As regards the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, on town and village greens, I agree that we made a promise some time ago that we would put such provisions into legislation. There has been misuse of the main proposition regarding town and village greens, and bits of land were suddenly becoming part of mischievous objections—as I think they were called—to applications regarding town and village greens. Again, that issue will be dealt with, and it is important that we should do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, said correctly that, as with all planning for economic growth and development, leadership is required from local authorities. I know that many take that position and lead in the right way. However, some need a little encouragement to do so.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for his kind support on most things to do with planning, but I have answered his points about getting on with it. However, the important matter he mentioned, as did the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was the collaboration with local enterprise partnerships. The provisions on collaboration in the Localism Bill were pretty wide. They concerned next door councils being consulted on any applications that were cross-border, but of course there was the expectation that the public services will respond quickly to any of the requests put to them.
Local enterprise partnerships are the new scene. They are finding their way gradually and becoming quite a force in the way in which the land is dealt with. I totally agree that they need to be kept fully involved in what is going on and encouraged to take the necessary stance to ensure that the planning in their area is as well co-ordinated as it can be.
The noble Lord, Lord True, asked me why we have dropped the commitment to guard against garden grabbing. I am interpreting this as a sort of roundabout way of saying that he was objecting to extensions. The noble Lord knows, as I do, that we have already ruled out in the previous policy change the ability of local councils to class gardens as brownfield sites. They are not; they are now considered to be greenfield sites and therefore they are subject to planning permission and people cannot just build a mega building in their back gardens. I want to make it clear that garden grabbing is not allowed now and I am not sure whether I accept his point about extensions being garden grabbing although I think it is a neat way of raising the problem.
The noble Lords, Lord True, Lord Best and Lord Jenkin, were all concerned about the change of use between commercial and residential property without the need for planning permission. They specifically asked whether there were going to be exemptions to that. We have made it clear that there are areas where that form of development would be inappropriate and that local councils will be able to opt out. The national policy strongly supports business needs, and local councils should meet the need for offices and other business uses in full. They are not compromised by limited site availability but if there are proposals to change from commercial to residential then, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, that will affect such places as the City of London. I can give more information on how that can be done and how they can opt out in due course.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for smiling a little about the bats. I was not taking that for granted at all and I know that there are serious points to be made about natural habitat. I think his main point was the delay to major infrastructures. I can confirm that the national infrastructure planning system is starting to work and the national network, NPS, which he raised, is in the process of developing a high-level transport strategy. It may not quite be the firm answer that he wanted but it is as near as I am able to get.
The noble Lord, Lord Flight, referred to overzealous heritage controls. There are some areas with grade I listed buildings and others where local authorities will have to hang on to what goes on inside properties but that is not so for all properties. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke about the green belt and I hope I have dealt with that.
We shall reflect on what has been said and if any questions have not been answered I will do so in writing to all Members. If I do not write it is because I do not think that the questions are there. If the questions are there I shall make sure that there is a response. I wish to thank everyone for taking part in the debate which I have found extremely useful.
Trees: British Ash Tree
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who put their names down to speak in this debate, which comes at a slightly later hour than perhaps we expected. I declare an interest as chairman of a farming company that has woodlands and a fruit nursery.
The word “crisis” is often overused in the context of environmental concerns, but the sudden realisation that the British ash could go the way of the elm in the 1970s is without doubt the recognition of a crisis. I will start by setting out the facts as I understand them. I am sure that if I get them wrong, the many experts who are due to speak will be able to put me right. Ash dieback disease is caused by a fungus called Chalara fraxinea. The disease was probably introduced to northern Europe on nursery stocks from Asia. Over the past decade it has had a devastating effect on the ash trees of northern Europe. It was first confirmed in Britain in March 2012, on young ash trees in a nursery in Buckinghamshire. Subsequently, other sites of infection were discovered, linked to imported nursery stock from Europe.
Last month, ash dieback was identified in older, native trees in woodlands in East Anglia. I will bring noble Lords right up to date by saying that today the Forestry Commission and Defra reported that after a weekend of intense activity by volunteers and experts, Chalara had been identified in 82 locations, including 14 nurseries, 36 planting sites and 32 forests and woodlands, including some in Kent and Essex. Last Friday, the count was 52 rather than 82, so the expectation must be that as surveillance and monitoring extend, many more sites will be identified.
While cases of infection in nurseries are clearly caused by importing infected stock, cases in mature trees in woodlands in the east and south-east of England are thought to have been caused by spores that were blown from the continent, or which possibly were brought in by migrating birds. In August, the United Kingdom plant health authorities undertook a pest risk analysis on ash dieback, which concluded that once trees are infected, they cannot be cured. However, the analysis also stated that not all trees die of the infection; a number are likely to have genetic resistance. Swedish research suggests that this number might be significant.
The pest risk analysis formed the basis of a fast-track consultation that ended on 26 October. On 29 October the Government introduced a ban on ash imports and the movement of trees. At the same time, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, was asked to convene a tree health and plant biosecurity expert taskforce. A number of companies have proposed treatment solutions for Chalara, which Defra has promised its scientists will rapidly evaluate. So much for history; I recognise that this is almost a running commentary on a fast-moving epidemic.
The public reaction has been one of disbelief that once again we have been caught by surprise by yet another threat to a native tree species from invasive pests and diseases. After the disastrous outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, when we lost more than 30 million elms to a new and more virulent fungus spread by beetles, we were challenged by a plethora of tree pests and diseases, including acute oak decline, which is of great concern, particularly in the east of England; plane wilt; chestnut blight; and bleeding canker of horse chestnut, to name just four from a much longer list. Time and again we seem to act too late. For all those diseases, as for ash dieback, we put in place policies once we had found that the diseases were already with us. What we need are measures aimed at keeping out these serious pests and pathogens and such measures need putting in place years ahead of the anticipated arrival of the disease.
We knew years ago that ash dieback was a threat. We discussed four years ago with the European Commission's standing committee for plant health whether an import ban might be appropriate, but it seems that we were not able to produce the scientific evidence to justify a ban then. Instead of a ban on imports, which we now have, we carried out a small-scale survey. By the time Defra launched its Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan in October 2011, ash dieback seems to have been relegated to a low priority. Indeed, there were plenty of problems in this country on the tree health front to deal with. This allocation plan allocated £7 million over three years to tackle tree diseases. That is not just on research, but on all other measures that might together address these issues.
Ahead of that biosecurity action plan, the Forestry Commission produced in May 2011 a revised table of top pests and pathogens that threaten tree health in Great Britain—a list of about 16 species. This listed the prioritisation criteria for potential impact for each disease: its risk or probability of entry and its expected economic, social or environmental damage. Those were the right questions to ask. The problem is that having asked the right questions no one seems to have answered the questions correctly or alerted the Secretary of State that ash dieback, although not yet thought to be in this country, like many of these other diseases, was an imminent threat, that its economic, social and environmental damage could be enormous and that we should act immediately to ban imports of ash plants. Defra got permission for the ban in October. Why on earth could the scientific evidence for justifying the ban not have been produced three or four years ago when the Horticultural Trades Association and others were asking for a ban on ash imports?
We do have a taskforce convened by Professor Ian Boyd charged with reviewing our approach to plant health. Rather than dwell on our failures in protecting plant health let me list what this taskforce now needs to recommend. Landowners and the public need to be assured that whenever a suspected incidence of an infection of whatever disease is reported, a rapid identification service will be provided. Detection and identification methods using molecular approaches such as the portable DNA tests have undergone rapid development and tight targets for response rates must be set. We need greatly to increase the surveillance, monitoring and inspection of nurseries and plantations.
The Forestry Commission has lost a significant proportion of its staff in the field. Its regional staff used to be able to spend much more time in the woodlands and forests, and they knew their forests. Likewise, its research capacity has declined. Research on pests and pathogens of trees is woefully underfunded, whether in universities or research institutes, and bears no correlation with the cost to the economy of woodland pests and diseases or to their impact on society. An assessment must be made of eradication and containment methods for ash dieback and indeed for other diseases, reviewing the role of a quarantine system for plants and plant passports for species for which the import ban does not apply. We need to develop biological control approaches such as looking for natural enemies to these new pathogens.
Trees are a long-term crop and amenity. Our approach to this sudden threat must be long term. We need to recognise that within our ash population there will possibly be some strains of ash with resistance to dieback. We need to protect this diversity. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that tree health will in future be given the priority it deserves and that if the taskforce comes up both with short-term and long-term recommendations that command the confidence of experts, the forestry sector and the public, the Government will without reservation commit to implementing those measures.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this timely debate. The whole House is indebted to him. I also thank him for the erudite way in which he set the scene for the debate. When I was listening to his conclusions I found myself, not for the first time, in almost complete agreement with everything that he was saying.
In a sense, he was reminding us that we can do whatever we think we can as human beings, but if nature decides to set its mind on a particular course it is quite difficult for us to shift it from that course. However, there are things we can do and things we should have done in this case.
I empathised with the noble Earl when he said that he could not quite understand why there had been such a delay in tackling this scourge. I find it unexplainable. Even from last March, I cannot fully understand why there have been so many delays. The Government have procrastinated in this respect but I do not want to delay the House on that at this stage. There are a number of questions which I hope the Minister will be able to assist us with today to help us to try to understand what went wrong and how we can put it right.
The noble Earl and government Ministers have said that there is a ban on the import of ash trees and ash saplings into Britain. I ask in all innocence whether this is actually the case. In an article in the Guardian on Saturday a horticultural trade individual was reported as saying that there was not a complete ban, only that trees were not allowed to be imported into this country from areas where the disease exists. Can it be absolutely clarified that no ash trees are coming into this country and that the report in the Guardian is incorrect? We need to nail that, if it is not true, right at the beginning.
There is also a report today that the grower, Simon Ellis of Crowders in Lincolnshire, is threatening to sue the Government. He claims that even after the disease was discovered in his nurseries, he was not allowed to destroy the plants and that the disease spread even further in this period. Is that also the case?
Another point I would like to clarify is the position about the burning of ash. One way to mitigate the cost, if it is possible, is to burn ash. As noble Lords know, ash is a fine wood for burning and is in great demand. There may be problems with burning ash that has been affected, but what about the burning of ash that has not been affected? Will the market be allowed to carry on?
On a more strategic front, this episode and this disease has brought to our attention the inadequacies of the European Union rules on animal and plant health. This again is a point raised by the noble Earl. I hope the Government will enter into negotiations with the European Union to make it quite clear that member nations must be allowed to close their borders if they feel that animal or plant health is being affected.
I also associate myself with what the noble Earl said about the strain and the stress being put on members of the Forestry Commission, and Forest Research in particular. Forest Research has the reputation of being at the forefront of all research dealing with plant pathogens and tree health. It has suffered very badly from swingeing cuts, and this cannot have helped us in our efforts to try to contain not only this disease but a host of other diseases affecting a whole range of our trees in Britain.
Clearly this is a natural phenomenon but the Government can—and must—take some action to mitigate its full effect if that can actually be achieved.
I add my thanks to the noble Earl for initiating this extremely important debate.
I was walking yesterday in woodland in Surrey, where the trees were just about holding on to their autumn glory. It was a delight that others far more eloquent than I have sought to articulate. It was Kipling who wrote:
“Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn”.
Yesterday’s walk was rather more poignant than usual, given the threat to the 80 million ash trees—one-third of all the trees that make up our woods and hedges—from the virulent fungal disease that is sweeping across Europe and is now here in Britain.
On these Benches, we welcome the Government’s pledge to do all they can to contain this devastating disease. As we have heard, last week they announced the import ban on ash saplings and restrictions on movements, and on Saturday we had the emergency meeting of the COBRA committee.
However, at the moment there seem to be far more questions than answers, although it is probably true to say that that is also the case in other countries such as Denmark, where 90% of ash trees have been affected. No doubt, tonight others will focus on whether enough was done soon enough and indeed what was known when and by whom. I will focus on the need for a pragmatic response to this disease right now.
First, I will focus on the international trade in trees and the urgent need to step up biosecurity measures. It takes the outbreak of a disease, such as foot and mouth in 2001, to put a spotlight on the trade in the products we consume. Over recent years we have watched designer gardening programmes on TV and lusted over exotic and large trees, which just slot into our gardens fully grown, without a thought for where they are grown or how they get here. We do not ask whether a “British” tree is actually grown here, when in fact many are grown on from saplings in Holland, where they can grow trees more cheaply, or question the “I want it now” consumerism that is satisfied with fully grown trees shipped here from China with 1,000 litres of soil around them—a modern-day black Pandora’s box.
We need some firm outcomes from the summit on the tree trade that the Government have announced for later this week: tighter biosecurity measures as well as ways to harness the power of consumers. Other sectors have used labelling or charter marks to change supplier behaviour, driven by consumer demand, such as the RSPCA’s Freedom Food or Fairtrade products, and we need some sort of charter mark to build public confidence in the provenance of tree products, as well as helping them to be part of the solution to the growing problem of diseases affecting our trees.
Secondly, there is a need for far greater co-operation with our European partners. I know that this idea may not find favour in some quarters of this House, but more than 30 alien insects and mites, fungi, bacteria, viruses, diseases, pathogens and invasive plants are expected to reach Europe in the next few years. That tidal wave means that we have to work together to create a strategic response.
As Martin Ward, chief plant health officer at Defra’s Food and Environment Research Agency, said last week,
“We need a much better early warning system to know what is coming in to Europe … It will call for more surveys, contingency planning and better regulation of the movement of plants within the EU”.
He went on to say,
“Unless we have better biosecurity in the EU and Europe it will be very difficult to stop them coming in ... and it is very terrifying what is out there”.
Thirdly, there is a need for a rapid response to help with disease identification, as the noble Earl said. I understand that the Suffolk Wildlife Trust believes that ash trees in some of its reserves are affected, mainly in the western part of Suffolk. It has sent in samples, but there is an up-to-four-week delay in identification. Defra has some PCR machines, which provide rapid, on-site diagnostics. Does the Ministry have plans to roll out more of those machines, given the delays in diagnosing the disease at the moment?
Fourthly, there is the need for clear communication to woodland owners and managers and the public about how to respond to the disease. In recent years, ash has become a popular choice for small woodland owners. It is fast growing, strong, flexible, good for burning and, I understand, makes rather fashionable furniture. Organisations such as the charity the Small Woods Association are asking for best practice instructions about the disposal of bought-in nursery and diseased stock and are asking practical questions, such as: Does cutting, burning or deep burial provide any control benefits? If the leaves are burnt, does that put small spores out into the atmosphere?
Communication must be a top priority. Of course we need more forest research, including at a European scale, but the Forestry Commission needs to be resourced to act as a first port of call to the public and those seeking advice. It would be fair to say that, having looked at the Forestry Commission website on a regular basis over the past week, it could definitely be more user-friendly in that regard. There is a strong case for investment in the Forestry Commission to become a more public-facing agency with a public call centre capacity to respond to the increasing public interest and reporting of tree diseases.
We know that more diseases, such as ash dieback, will come to Britain in the coming years as a result of a combination of climate change, international trade and other factors. Some may die out, but others may spread rapidly, like Dutch elm disease or more recent diseases such as the widespread acute oak decline, so there is much at stake. If ash dieback takes hold, that loss of ash alongside oak in our woodlands and forests will be devastating. More than that, our trees are the stitching which holds together the patchwork quilt of beauty that is our English countryside. If that stitching unravels, the loss to us all will be immeasurable.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl for initiating this debate. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Tree Council, a body that emerged from the disaster of Dutch elm disease, which destroyed between 25 million and 30 million elms. In 1973, National Tree Planting Year was launched—“Plant a Tree in 73”—with cross-party support in an effort to engage the public and repopulate the land with trees. On 1 January 1974, the Tree Council was formed to continue the encouragement of planting, care and conservation of trees and to act as a critical friend and adviser to Governments.
In 1979, After the Elm was published in collaboration with the Tree Council in an effort to identify and benefit from the lessons of Dutch elm disease. Its conclusions included that controls had worked most effectively when organisations worked together strategically on a regional basis rather than being locally organised; that the amount of funding dedicated to the fight had been inadequate; and that lay members of the public were crucial in the work to identify the spread of the disease.
In 1987, the great storm wiped out millions more trees, literally overnight. Just as the Tree Council was spawned from the Dutch elm disease response, the Tree Council’s volunteer tree warden scheme came into being as a direct result of that, a different sort of tragedy. Today, we have about 8,000 tree wardens, unsung heroes, across the UK, a wonderful example of the big society at work. The volunteer tree wardens work in their communities to educate, engage and enthuse people about trees, as well as taking practical steps to improve local environments. I pay tribute to them and to our director-general, Pauline Buchanan Black, and her team who support them. On 28 November, we will be celebrating this year’s National Tree Week and the contribution of tree wardens here, in your Lordships’ House, with the Minister from the other place, David Heath MP.
At this time of a new disaster for trees in this country, the Tree Council is ready and willing to help. We have been briefing all the networks of tree wardens on what to look out for and how to report it. They have been sending in vitally important reports to the Forestry Commission on suspected outbreaks of ash dieback. Too many plant diseases and pests have been introduced into or taken hold in this country over the past 10 years: sudden oak death, acute oak decline, oak processionary moth, Asian longhorn beetle, leaf miner and bleeding canker. Estimates suggest that there are at least 80 million ash trees across the UK. If the disease follows the same progress as in Denmark, we stand to lose around 90% of our ash trees over the next nine years. That is 72 million trees: a disaster on a scale up to three times worse than Dutch elm disease.
The important issue now is not to apportion blame but to take effective action to minimise the impact not just of this disease but of each of the threats to tree health that have found their way to these shores in the past decade. The Tree Council, its member organisations and thousands of volunteers will all play their part. However, it will also be important to revisit the lessons learnt from this and earlier experiences and to find ways of ensuring that they are retained in the collective memory and mainstreamed into action plans that will continue to be followed and updated regularly to protect our tree stock in the future. Trained volunteers will be critical to the success of any plan. The Tree Council’s tree wardens are already on the case but need to be integrated within long-term strategies. The scale of this threat must not be underestimated by the Government. Once again, we face landscape changes on an almost unimaginable scale. This is a time not for blame but, as in 1973, for collaboration and action. We must all do our utmost to prevent any similar disaster in the future.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl on securing this timely debate. Nothing could be more timely. This is a very sad debate; the ash tree is dear to us all. It plays a major part in our landscape, both rural and urban. “Ash Grove” is a beautiful melody. Ash timber made our hockey sticks and, for those who remember them, the framework of Morris Minor estates. As has already been mentioned, it makes the most wonderful firewood in the world. I come to this debate from both an emotional and a professional standpoint: emotional since I am very fond of all trees, particularly ash, and professional because many years ago I ran my own forestry company and later, while a Member of Parliament, I was for a while the president of the Arboricultural Association.
Since “Plant a tree in ’73”, we have as a nation, happily, become obsessed with tree planting. Milton Keynes new town was called the city of the trees and our burgeoning roadside verges, roundabouts and housing schemes are testament to this, not to mention our very ambitious new forests. Demand has hugely outstripped supply; hence the mass importation of trees by landscapers and garden centres. The position is further confused by two factors. First, to protect themselves against last-minute cancellations on a large scale that would leave them with unwanted trees on their hands, many UK nurserymen have used foreign suppliers as a kind of bank to draw on rather than growing the trees themselves. Secondly, UK seed has been grown abroad and then reimported as plants in order to try to preserve the UK provenance. In any event, we have seen importation of trees on a massive scale, with 5.5 million ash trees alone in the past few years and millions and millions of trees of other species. This should have indicated quite clearly to those people responsible the need for constant vigilance, the strictest possible controls and, if necessary, immediate and direct action.
One of our greatest blessings is that we are an island nation. Surrounded by sea, we have been able to control our plant and animal health in a way that other European countries cannot. It appears that we are squandering that precious advantage. This disease was known about in Europe. Either lack of communications or bungling bureaucracy, or both, have in this case had catastrophic consequences. This disease may—I stress may—have been blown into our country. What we know for certain is that it was brought in by lorry when it could have been kept out, and that is unforgivable.
Dutch elm disease came from Canada. We have a disease in oaks that is thought to have come from Italy. There is a disease of plane trees which is currently a serious problem in France, where they are having to fell large numbers. Unless we are to suffer from these kinds of disease in the future, a whole new look at the way in which trees are imported into this country must be instigated and perhaps more consideration given to the increased use of home-grown stock.
To make vigilance really effective, communications with everyone in the industry are essential. The Forestry Commission should have its finger on the pulse—and, as has been said, be properly financed—while the Forest Research centre and Alice Holt do invaluable work. On the ground in this case, though, it was the Horticultural Trades Association that really knew what was going on as far back as 2009. It knew because its members told it. They should have been listened to, and must be in future. In the same way, the Arboricultural Association membership includes tree surgeons operating throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. They are the first to see problems, particularly in established trees. Both those groups must be listened to. It was foresters and tree surgeons who first spotted Dutch elm disease in this country and in that case, too, the Government were too slow to act.
In trying to see the way ahead, it is both too late and too early—too late to prevent the entry of the disease but too early to fully understand the ramifications of its arrival. A ban has been imposed to stop any more diseased ash entering the country, and steps are being taken urgently to establish how far the disease has spread. It ought to be possible to collect and destroy all diseased nursery stock that has not yet been planted out. For the time being, established and mature trees can only be monitored and their survival patterns studied, removing them completely when dead. This raises the question of disease transmission by timber logs, as has been mentioned, although I understand that this is unlikely.
Hygiene precautions, where practicable, may help with controlling leaf spread and so on. That is difficult to enforce, though, and I suspect it would have only a limited effect. Injecting trees is not a practical solution, given the scale of the problem—even if the method were available, which it is not. The cordon sanitaire system would be equally useless, given the distance that spores can blow, and would only be a waste of time, money and healthy trees.
All these negatives just go to show how crucial it is not to let diseases like this into the country in the first place. However, all is not lost; beware the prophets of doom; hope springs eternal. This is not Dutch elm disease, which was very different in its method of spread and always fatal. Even in Denmark, not all the ash trees are dying. Ash trees are ubiquitous in this country; they seed like weeds, grow through cracks in the pavement, establish themselves quickly and, as any gardener will tell you, are tenacious. I believe and sincerely hope that they will prove resistant to this new fungus in sufficient numbers to ensure their place in our towns and countryside in the years ahead. We must do all that we can to help them and to take steps urgently to ensure that this kind of disastrous European invasion never happens again.
My Lords, an unexpected change in the business of the House has meant that in the quiet of the evening in your Lordships’ House we have had a debate of quite exceptional quality and of importance to our country. I congratulate most warmly my noble friend Lord Selborne on his excellent introduction to this debate. With regard to both the noble Lord, Lord Best, with his particular involvement in the Tree Council, and my noble friend Lord Framlingham with his expertise, the House has already produced a debate of exceptional quality and importance. If I exclude the noble Lord, Lord Clark, it is simply because, as chairman of the Forestry Commission, I was disappointed that he decided to refer exclusively to the present year when, among everybody looking at this, there is real concern in the country as to what has been going on for some years about identifying it. Nobody in this country can pretend that we are not aware of the problem of imported disease of one sort or another. We have lived through Dutch elm disease; we live with sudden oak death and the problems of the larch, the beech and the horse chestnut. We are familiar with these problems. There is real anger in this country that there has not been an earlier identification of this problem. I looked at this. If trees were dying in Poland in 1992; if the pathogen, the asexual fungus as it is referred to, was identified in 2006; if the sexual stage of the fungus was identified in 2010; and if the Horticultural Trade Association warned Hilary Benn of the scale of this problem in 2009, what has actually been going on?
Perhaps I should have done so at the start but, in the face of much greater knowledge that has already been expressed, I declare my interest. My family own some woods in which ash is the predominant species; the natural regeneration in those woods is ash. We view the present situation with enormous alarm. We got a letter from the Forestry Commission, sent out late in October to all wood owners, saying that it will treat the fungus as,
“‘quarantine’ plant pathogen, which means that we can take legally enforceable action to contain or eradicate the fungus when it is found. This is being done by using Statutory Plant Health Notices which we serve on site owners. The Notice requires the owner of the land to remove and destroy affected plants by burning or deep burial on site”.
Does that apply to all ash? Does that apply simply to seedlings? Does it apply to young saplings? What does it apply to? There is this sort of confusion and difficulty at the moment.
I say to my noble friend, in congratulating him upon his appointment to his new position, that he has arrived at an interesting and challenging time; “May you live in interesting times”, as one might say. I say to him that I do not blame the Government for the origins of this. I do not blame them for the failure to identify it much earlier, but they do now have a major challenge on their hands. The noble Lord, Lord Best, made that very clear. He said that there were 72 million ash trees in this country; that will be two or three times the scale of Dutch elm disease. This is an issue now of enormous concern in the countryside. I am absolutely convinced that it was right to debate it tonight. I understand entirely why my noble friend may not be able to answer all the questions that have been asked tonight, but I hope that he at least draws from this debate the sense of the enormous concern in the countryside and throughout the country. We see the Forestry Commission saying that people should wash their boots and watch where they go. Are we going to ban all access to woods? Are we going to ban bridle paths, footpaths and ruts, as they are called? What are we going to do?
Obviously, we will have on Wednesday a better picture of the scale of the spread of this fungus and the difficulties that it may pose. However, I do not think that anybody should underrate the challenge that the Government now face, and the importance of taking early action to address it.
My Lords, I join those who have already congratulated the noble Earl on having introduced this debate. He did so with the clarity and incisiveness that I so came to admire when I had the privilege of serving under him in a Select Committee. I do not believe that I am alone in saying that, as I became aware of this disease and its implications, I had a real sense of foreboding and a great sense of sadness.
I came to this debate thinking of the words of a folksong:
“Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander
When twilight is fading, I pensively rove
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander
Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove”.
Having lamented the passing of his loved one, he concludes:
“She sleeps ‘neath the green turf down by the ash grove”.
This is central to our tradition and culture. What is happening really is a tragedy.
As has been stressed, we also have to recognise that this is not about the ash alone: we already have what is attacking the oaks. We already know—the noble Earl and others have underlined it—that we have to look carefully at the implications of what this disease may have as it transmutes and transfers to trees of other species.
At short notice, the Country Land & Business Association produced an interesting brief for this debate. The CLA underlines:
“Information about Chalara was slow to get out to the wider landowning sector which means that we are now trying to identify infected trees when in many cases the leaves have already fallen, making it much more difficult. The CLA has called on all its members to check their ash trees for signs of the disease and to inform the Forestry Commission if they are at all concerned about the health of their ash trees”.
“If there is a realistic chance that we can contain and then eradicate the disease then it may be worth applying some quite draconian control measures”.
My only argument with the CLA in that paragraph is: why “quite draconian”? Draconian measures will be needed. The CLA briefing continues:
“We must not unnecessarily waste a valuable ‘renewable’ resource by just burying or burning it in a field. If it can be used even if only as firewood then we must allow it to go into the firewood supply chain”.
I would slightly question that. In a grave situation of this kind, we must not start moderating. We have to do the really drastic things that have to be done.
The CLA points out that at present:
“The UK’s trees are under threat from some 15 tree diseases including Acute Oak Decline and Oak Processionary Moth and we must tackle Chalara as part of a much wider strategic plan to save our woodlands … Chalara … represents a real and immediate threat to our woodlands and landscape but we must take a pragmatic and proportionate response”.
Again, I would slightly argue with the CLA. “Pragmatic and proportionate” sounds like prevarication or possible prevarication.
We really have to get on with the job. This is an emergency. We have to pull out all the stops. There is clearly a key role for the Forestry Commission in this matter. It is no time to be cutting back the human resources of the Forestry Commission when challenges of this order are becoming clear. We need to mobilise statutory and voluntary organisations and professional and volunteer personnel alike. We have to make certain that advice is given to everyone who could be involved, not least ordinary people in ordinary, simple homes who may have an ash tree in their garden. All of them have a part to play.
We cannot hold back. We must get on with the job. I hope that we will learn from this. We were discussing this in the previous debate. We very quickly must start to give the same kind of priorities to the preservation of our environment and our inheritance as we give to all the pressures for getting on with planning, streamlining planning and the rest. A lot is at stake in our society at the moment. We are neglecting the qualitative dimensions at our cost and at a perilous cost to our children and future generations.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. He and other noble Lords who have spoken have brought a lot of expertise to bear on this issue, so I shall just stick to a couple of points. First, this is not just a European issue; it is a global issue. I can go back as far as June 1987 to the New York Times headline that says “Unstoppable disease killing New York ash trees”. It goes on to say:
“Scientists first noticed it in the 1930s and believe that ‘ash dieback’ has progressively spread throughout the northeastern states and parts of eastern Canada”.
So it has gradually been circling the globe. Of course, we do not know exactly when it got to Europe, but we know that it is spreading here. We are not sure how it is borne, whether as noble Lords have said it is blown or carried by birds or imported in saplings. The fact is that the global movement of people and animals, as my noble friend Lady Parminter graphically put it, has created something that is really out of control. That does not mean to say that we should not try to do something about it—but in the long term we need to look to the seed banks. The noble Earl mentioned that in his introduction. I would like to agree with him very strongly on that, because there will no doubt be ash trees that are resistant and there will no doubt be the opportunity to breed from them. That is the long-term programme that we need to pursue, not just for ash trees but for oak trees and pine trees and all our woodland. We need to collect the seed from those resistant trees and breed trees for the future.
With other noble Lords, I join in looking forward to a revival of the Forestry Commission’s research programme, which was rather cut back over recent years. This should be a major part of what we do, together with the seed banks at Kew and the Natural History Museum, with all the expertise that sits in those two places. If there is one thing that we know, it is that native trees over centuries and millennia built up resistance to local pests, diseases and fungal infections. With the global movement, completely different ones, to which they have no natural resistance, have entered the country. That is what we need to deal with. In the long term, it can be dealt with only by developing these resistant strains. So while I welcome the suggestions that other noble Lords have made about controlling the disease if we can in the short term, we must look to the long term.