Tuesday, 6 November 2012.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, if there is a Division in the House, the Grand Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Benefit Cap (Housing Benefit) Regulations 2012
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Benefit Cap (Housing Benefit) Regulations 2012.
Relevant documents: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 10th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
My Lords, these regulations will allow for the introduction of a benefit cap, as set out in Sections 96 and 97 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. From October 2013, the benefit cap will form a key part of our plans for universal credit and we will shortly be bringing regulations to the House to support the introduction of this. However, we do not believe that it is right to wait until all existing claimants have migrated to universal credit before taking action. We are, therefore, bringing these regulations forward now, which will enable us to introduce the benefit cap from April 2013 by working with local authorities to reduce the amount of housing benefit in payment. The regulations are regarded as being compatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The regulations set out the detail of the cap, including the level that it will be set at; how we will calculate a household’s overall entitlement to welfare benefits for the purpose of applying the cap; what benefits will be taken into account; how any reduction will be applied; exemptions from the cap; the relationship between the cap and benefit sanctions and other deductions; and rules on decision-making and appeals.
The level of the benefit cap will be set with reference to average earnings for working families. On its introduction in 2013, the cap will be set at £500 per week for couples and single parent households and £350 per week for single adult households. For couples and lone parents, that is a weekly income from benefits equivalent to earnings of £26,000 a year net or £35,000 gross. Exempting those entitled to working tax credit and setting the level on an earnings basis ensures that we incentivise work even further by not including in-work benefits in the cap.
This policy was debated at length during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act. On top of that, many noble Lords came to the briefing session that I ran for MPs and Peers before the Summer Recess. I am grateful for their input. Noble Lords will by now be well aware of the Government’s reasons for introducing a benefit cap. It is about incentivising work and promoting fairness. As it is currently designed, we know that we pay some claimants more money when they are out of work than they could reasonably expect to earn from working full time, making it hard for people to see that they are better off in work. We are trying to tackle this with the introduction of universal credit and, alongside it, the benefit cap. The core principle is that the state should not pay more in benefits than the average family earns from work.
We have said from the start that there are certain groups to whom it would not be appropriate to apply the cap. We are exempting households which are in receipt of disability living allowance, personal independence payment, attendance allowance and the support component of employment and support allowance, as well as households entitled to working tax credit and war widows and war widowers. Since the debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, the Government have announced some additional easements: namely, those relating to industrial injuries benefits and war disablement pensions and their equivalents under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.
We do not want to penalise those who have recently found themselves out of work and are doing the right thing to find new employment. Therefore, we have put in place a 39-week grace period for those who have been in work for the 12 months previous to losing their job. This will allow people time to find alternative employment or consider alternative options in order to avoid the cap. Following the point raised very helpfully by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, during the Welfare Reform Bill debates, we have made sure that this grace period will run from whenever a person’s job comes to an end, whether or not the job finished before or after the introduction of the cap. We have consulted with stakeholders and the Social Security Advisory Committee, which considered the regulations and subsequently consulted on the impact of the cap. This has informed our plans for evaluation. We have already announced that we will publish a review after the first year of operation.
It was inevitable that our proposal for a cap would raise concerns about how it would be delivered and the impacts it might have. Many of the concerns that have arisen around the cap are based on an assumption that people will not change their circumstances. We do not believe that this is right, although sometimes people will need help and encouragement to make these changes. In the run-up to April 2013 we are working with claimants who may be affected by the cap to do exactly that.
Since May this year, those households which may be affected by the cap have been offered support from Jobcentre Plus. To date we have written to over 85,000 claimants potentially affected by the cap. We have followed this up with over 150,000 phone calls to make sure that claimants understand what the benefit cap means for them and to offer them the opportunity to work with Jobcentre Plus for employment support or to speak to their local authority for housing advice. We are also engaging across government and with local authorities to ensure that households are given the assistance they need to avoid the cap or mitigate its impact.
This Government firmly believe that those in the local area are in the best position to make decisions which impact people in their locality. That is why we are providing up to an additional £75 million for discretionary housing payments in 2013-14 and up to a further £45 million in 2014-15. This will be divided among local areas based on which has the greatest need. It will be used by local authorities to support those claimants affected by the benefit cap who, as a result of a number of complex challenges, cannot immediately move into work or more affordable accommodation, providing support to those who need it most, such as those fleeing domestic violence, and to prevent homelessness.
Finally, the Government firmly believe that there has to be a limit on the overall levels of benefit it is appropriate for the state to provide to those who are not working. The benefit cap aims to encourage long-term positive behavioural effects through changed attitudes to welfare, responsible life choices and strong work incentives. I commend these regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the way in which he introduced these regulations. They will inflict profound hardship on many households—according to the department’s own impact assessment, nearly 60,000 households, including 80,000 adults and 190,000 children. Next year the average reduction in benefit is estimated to be some £91 a week. Our opposition to these regulations should be clear from consideration which took place just this morning in another place. It is clear, and has been since our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill, that a one-size cap never fits all—we believe that people should be better off in work than on benefit, but these regulations are flawed and likely, in our view, to increase homelessness with a likelihood also of the cap costing more than it would save.
Having said that, we welcome the commitment to the 2014 review and, as far as they go, to the categories of persons who are exempt from these and the limited DHP top-up—the loaves and fishes as they will for ever be known as a result of my noble friend Lady Lister. The Minister’s department says that it is giving early notice to all claimants who could be affected by the cap. We have heard that 85,000 claimants have been contacted, with 150,000 phone calls made, so that they can change their circumstances and perhaps move into work. In addressing the inequities of the underoccupation provisions, the Government expect households to cope with this loss of income by starting work, reducing non-rent expenditure, using other income and moving to cheaper accommodation or a cheaper area. Given the work which the department has done to identify those households affected, can the Minister tell us how many households have other income to ameliorate the effect of the cap, what types of income are involved and what the average amounts involved are?
Some 64% of those affected are claiming either ESA or income support; that is, they are not required to be available for or seeking work. Some 50% of the households likely to be affected are lone parents. The criteria under which people are characterised at the moment under the welfare system are stringent. They are not spurious, so on what basis is the department seeking to override these designations? Is the department seeking to differentiate between individuals for this purpose and, if so, on what basis? We know that some 5,200 affected by the cap are in receipt of carer’s allowance because the qualification for carer’s allowance depends, among other things, on a person not being gainfully employed. What advice would the Minister give to these households and what is their route to avoiding the impact of this cap?
So far as reducing non-rent expenditure is concerned, can the Minister tell us what the department’s detailed engagement with those affected has concluded to date? How many households has it assessed as having scope to reduce non-rent expenditure and what are the main types of expenditure involved? So far as moving to cheaper accommodation is concerned, we note that nearly half of the households affected—46%—are in the social rented sector. What cheaper accommodation does the Minister think can be accessed and how does he consider that local authority allocation policies, which would typically have a local connection requirement, will assist in these circumstances? As for uprooting and going to other areas, has any assessment of the impact of this on families been made, especially the consequences of fracturing local support arrangements with the impact on health and educational outcomes? From the work undertaken to identify those families currently likely to be affected by the cap, how many such households have someone with a mental health condition and how many occupy housing that has been the subject of a disabled facilities grant?
We are indebted to the National Housing Federation for its briefing notes and the points that it raises, which I would like to go over. So far as discretionary housing payments are concerned, it says that the announced increase to help people hit by the cap after losing their jobs is welcome but that it is not appropriate to rely upon a discretionary, time-limited scheme to cover ongoing and legitimate higher housing costs. Concerns have also been raised about the levels of DHP available. In its report on the impact of housing benefit changes, published this month, the NAO said:
“It is not clear how the current level of funding for Discretionary Housing Payments has been determined or whether it is likely to be sufficient for local authorities in tackling the impacts of reform”.
Perhaps the Minister can therefore give us a breakdown of those calculations and the assessment.
The issue of temporary accommodation has, I think, exercised a lot of people. The National Housing Federation says:
“Temporary accommodation is a vital part of the homelessness safety net. It saves money by minimising the need for more costly emergency interventions such as housing families in Bed and Breakfast accommodation. However, it is more expensive to procure and manage than mainstream private sector accommodation.
It is for this reason that the Federation has argued for it to be exempted from the benefit cap. Due to these additional costs, without an exemption from the cap, many families will find themselves unable to meet their rent.
Households are placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities and as a result will have little scope to move to reduce their housing costs. These families, who have been made homeless through no fault of their own, could be forced to move long distances or cut back on essentials in order to pay for accommodation which they themselves have not chosen”.
How does the Minister respond to that point? The federation goes on to say:
“The cost of exempting temporary accommodation from the cap is £30 million—a small proportion of the estimated £270 million savings expected to be gained from the imposition of the benefit cap itself”.
What is the Minister’s response to that? It continues:
“While Government has said that under Universal Credit it will fund the management costs, if not the housing costs, of temporary accommodation outside the benefits system—helping some families avoid the cap—this will not protect claimants before they transfer to Universal Credit”.
Concern has also been expressed about supported housing. The federation says:
“Supported housing provides … preventative services for vulnerable people, helping hundreds of thousands to live independently and rebuild their lives. The Government recognises that there are legitimate extra housing costs for people living in supported accommodation. However, the regulations … do not exempt supported housing from the benefit cap, despite the fact that the higher cost could mean that many will be hit by it”.
Perhaps the Government could respond to that assertion.
The Minister will no doubt have seen Monday’s Guardian about reports of London councils sending current tenants far and wide across the country, to Wales and all over the place. How far do the Government consider it reasonable for a council to relocate somebody away from their home base in order to comply with the consequences of these regulations?
The housing benefit caps—it is asserted—have contributed directly to the rise in homelessness and the surge in the use of bed and breakfast accommodation, which these regulations will intensify. Westminster Council says:
“The current reports on reasons for (homelessness) applications during September support this showing that at least 59% of applications coming from households in the private rented sector, with 35% being specifically because of a shortfall with housing benefit. We continue to work to secure additional rented accommodation both in and outside of Westminster. The difficulties remain in procuring sufficient numbers to meet increased demand and as a result emergency accommodation numbers remain high”.
Will the Minister confirm that if a household loses its ability to maintain its tenancy the local authority will in each case retain the legal duty to house it as homeless? If the local authority assumes the legal duty to house a household that has lost its home because of the benefit cap, and it must find accommodation somewhere cheaper to bring it under the cap, does this not conflict with the commitment given by the DCLG Housing Minister not to see households move hundreds of miles away? Can we have an assurance that DCLG’s position on this is one which will be preserved?
If a family loses all or most of its housing benefit from April, which will not be unusual in London, but still has some time on its lease, should it pay its rent or should it seek to survive? If the tenants do not pay their rent, whose responsibility are the arrears—the tenants’, leaving them in debt and potentially with a negative reference affecting their ability to get another tenancy, or the landlord’s?
The department maintains that it has data to identify the households which are currently likely to be affected by this, but will the Minister explain how it is all going to work going forward? Local authorities do not have to apply the cap until notified by the Secretary of State that it may apply, although local authorities can apply the cap if they have information suggesting that it should apply. Will the Minister let us know the systems by which DWP will, on an ongoing basis, accumulate details of the varying benefits which will go into the equation? How will it all be kept up to date? From the NAO report issued on 1 November, it appears that the ATLAS system will be used. Perhaps the Minister will say whether the capacity of this has had to be enhanced to cover the relevant details.
The NAO report refers to local authorities already receiving around 20 million notifications a year about changes of circumstances and entitlement. With whom will the formal responsibility lie to assess whether individuals are subject to the cap? What assessment has been made of the capacity of local authorities to cope with all this when there is an increasing take-up of universal credit and a diminishing application of housing benefit? Will funding be available to local authorities over this period to enable them to sustain their role?
The Minister will note that some of the benefits included in the cap—child benefit and guardian’s allowance, for example—are not currently taken into account in the housing benefit calculations. There will be a requirement for additional information therefore to flow to local authorities if they are to do the calculation about the application of the cap. How is this to be accomplished? Do local authorities have their systems in place? What happens if there is some claw-back of welfare benefit which reduces or eliminates the operation of the cap? Will local authorities have to reimburse the claimants with extra housing benefit on a backdated basis? What happens if a local authority has not been notified of the possible application of the cap but has information suggesting that it might apply, yet it fails to take any action?
What is the position if the local authority treats individuals differently in this regard? Does it have to have a policy which covers all people in that situation? If a claimant is subject to a benefit sanction, is it the net amount which will go into the calculation or the actual benefit paid plus the sanction? What happens where backdating or a successful appeal leads to the potential application of the cap? Will there be a claw-back of housing benefit which the local authority will have to apply? What if the housing benefit is paid directly to the landlord?
Noble Lords will be pleased to see the period of grace for nine months where someone has previously been in work for 12 months. Will the Minister say how that will apply where someone has previously been in work and entitled to working tax credit but remains in work and falls out of entitlement to working tax credit—that is, they fall within the benefit cap? The Minister will also be aware of concerns that the rules relating to the period of grace are too draconian in requiring someone to be in work for 50 out of the 52 weeks. The CAB, for example, posed the question of an individual being sick and on statutory sick pay during the 52-week period. Would this preclude the period of grace from operating? If it is the case, perhaps the Minister will confirm that the self-employed are being excluded from the benefit of the period of grace. There is a range of exemptions for those in receipt of various benefits, including DLA. The Minister said that they include the PIP. I expected to see the PIP there, although I could not spot it in the regulations. Perhaps he might give me a reference in due course. That probably will be dealt with satisfactorily.
On the impact on children, the Children’s Society suggests that 200,000 children will be affected by the cap, which is close to the department’s own assessment, but with them being around nine times more likely than an adult to be affected. What role will the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have in monitoring the impact? Will the monitoring allow Ministers to intervene sooner if it quickly becomes apparent that there are significant negative effects on child welfare occurring as a consequence of the cap? Where does the cap apply to a household with children under the age of five when they are otherwise exempted from work-search requirements? Will the Minister guarantee that affordable childcare will always be available to households in this situation so that it will always pay to be able to go to work?
These are some of the question that we have arising from these regulations and the cap. We believe that they are ill-thought through and should be withdrawn for further consideration.
My Lords, I want to examine the two areas of change which took place during the final days of the passage of the Welfare Reform Act. These were, of course, the extra £120 million of discretionary housing payment and the nine-month grace period. However, I start by saying that my party opposes regional pay in this country—as does the Labour Party in Wales—very strongly indeed. Ipso facto, for the same reasons we oppose regional benefits. The reason given by the Welsh Labour Party for the opposition to regional benefits is that they trap people in poverty. In this case, we in my party find ourselves on a similar message: having uniformity of these issues around the country helps to encourage prosperity across the country. I hope that that message will be borne out. However, I recognise that the major difficulties of the benefit cap relate to London, as the impact assessment clearly states.
I do not wish to add to the huge array of all very valuable questions that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has just outlined. However, it is very important that the guidance for local authorities and customers is made available in as open and detailed a manner as possible. I note the very friendly document titled Benefit Cap—Frequently Asked Questions for Local Authorities, in which local authorities would expect to find answers to some of these questions. Nowhere in this document does the DWP reference any information about the discretionary housing payment. Will my noble friend tell me where, when and in what format that detailed guidance to local authorities is going to appear, so that people can be aware of the answers to some of these questions? Perhaps the issue of distribution of discretionary housing payment needs to be well known as well. I presume—although I have not been able to find the exact percentages and figures given—that it is related to the impact of the cap on housing benefit in each local borough and local authority. Perhaps my noble friend could clarify that.
I further note from the impact assessment that the figure of 56,000—considerably less, of course, than the number we were led to believe would be affected by the cap from the earlier impact assessment—takes no account of behavioural change. Could my noble friend tell me how, in his expectation, that behavioural change is likely to play out? Is it likely to reduce the numbers substantially, or just in a minor way? Has any work has been done by the department on that change?
One key issue that my noble friend mentioned was the ability to exempt oneself from the cap by making oneself available for working tax credit. There is always a process in getting oneself into work and into a working tax credit position. I wonder whether that period of transition, which may not take place until such time as the cap actually hits, will be taken into account through some support process by the department. Could my noble friend explain that?
I am also interested in the impact upon London. I would not want to say that it is a very strange place, but it is a very different place in terms of housing. I can only quote my own example. I just renewed my two-year rental on a flat in London, and my rent went up by £2.50 per week after two years of being stable. I just could not understand; I was expecting it to be much larger than that.
The Government are a majority shareholder, if you like, in the rental market in London, because they pay for a lot of the rents in London. I wonder whether any combined impact is yet being felt by the reduction to the 30th percentile and by the Government’s potential overcrowding regime, and the regime for underoccupancy. Is there likely to be any cumulative effect in London on the housing market? It seems to me that you can still find property without huge increases in rental in some parts of London, but I can only use the example of the breakdown of the average housing benefit payments for each London borough, which stretch across quite a wide spectrum from £90 to £150, from the figures given to me by the department.
I repeat the question of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the 5,000 carer households. There is a very small number of households across the country where carers have been engaged in care that sets them apart and means that they are not available for work. I wonder whether that group of people needs to be looked at and whether the discretionary housing payment will be aimed at such groups.
Finally, I noticed that there was some response from local authorities to the department about the use of the online calculator. This may be a sign of people’s ability to handle IT projects in future. Some of the responses from local authorities were that the calculator was not working. Can we be reassured that it is working now? Also, how can people get help to input their data into the calculator if they cannot do so with ease and alacrity themselves? In summation, therefore, can my noble friend tell us whether the changes that the DHP was meant to lead to, to assist groups of people, will be known well in advance of the impact date of the start of the cap? Secondly, on the start of the nine months’ grace period, will periods of broken work affect it—if someone has a bit of illness in the middle of the year before they lose their job?
I also repeat, in a slightly different way, the question of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the self-employed. We are expecting the self-employed under universal credit to register their wages monthly. Surely it will become possible under universal credit for people to be given the same sort of understanding as people who lose their jobs in the employed market. I would be grateful for some answers, but I am particularly concerned that we do not yet have the full detail of the guidance available to us.
My Lords, I think that I and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, were the only Members of this House to oppose the benefit cap on principle and I remain opposed to it on principle, but I will not go through all those arguments again, although the Minister put the principled arguments for the cap, except to say that we have rather different views about fairness. I refer to that in relation to what is not yet a proposal but a suggestion mooted by the Secretary of State that a further benefit cap should be imposed on families with three or more children—exactly the same group who stand to lose most from this benefit cap—before this cap has even been applied. What possible basis is there for floating yet further caps until we know the effects of this one? I should be grateful if the Minister could say something about the interaction between the caps and what work has been done in the department on the likely impact on child poverty.
Like my noble friend Lord McKenzie, I read the Guardian and saw yesterday’s report. I followed it up by contacting the Child Poverty Action Group— I declare an interest as its honorary president. It has just, with the London Advice Services’ Alliance, published a study of London local authorities and how they are dealing with the various cuts in housing benefit.
It is clear that one of the common solutions, as evidenced in that Guardian piece, is to move families from inner to outer boroughs, or well beyond. Like the localisation of council tax benefit, it seems that the Government are taking a Pontius Pilate position here—washing their hands of all responsibility and then saying, “It is the local authorities that are responsible”. A Government spokesperson was quoted in the Guardian yesterday as saying:
“It is neither acceptable, fair nor necessary for local authorities to place families far away from their area”.
I agree, but to the extent that it becomes necessary, the blame lies with central government.
The National Audit Office spelled out, in its report last week, the pressure that the combined cuts in housing benefit would put on the supply of affordable local housing in some areas. The National Audit Office also drew attention to one of the findings of the interim report from the evaluation being carried out for the departments:
“Claimants’ reluctance to consider moving to other areas appears to reflect a considerable attachment to their local area as a place to live”.
The evaluation report refers to the importance of proximity to family, friends and schools.
I have heard Ministers—I do not think that this includes the Minister here today—say that people have no right to be able to live in nice areas that other people cannot afford to live in, as if we are talking about posh areas here and it is all about the niceness of the area. Actually, quite a few pieces of research around poverty and place show the importance of local roots and the networks that people have, and the Government seem completely impervious to this. I find it very strange because it seems to me to fly in the face of the whole philosophy of the big society, which is about the support that people give to each other. Yet this and other policies—I will probably say more about this this evening—wilfully destroy, or are happy to countenance the destruction of, these social support networks. One of my hobby-horses is that this is something that we must look at in all the evaluation that is being done. Like my noble friend I welcome the fact that there will be a review of the impact of the cap, but nothing is said in the Explanatory Memorandum about the impact on social networks.
The Minister talked about incentivising work. We have heard this on a number of occasions. I shall quote the Secretary of State, who said, in the House of Commons in an Oral Answer in September:
“When we recently started dipping into the issue and surveying those who were likely to be affected, it was interesting to find out that, already, well in advance of what is going to happen, about a third of people have admitted that they are out looking for work as a result of the oncoming benefit cap”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/9/12; col. 15.]
I am interested; I keep hearing this. I am sorry to add to the questions the Minister is being asked, but what is this survey? Is this the telephone calls that he mentioned? Does the department ring up and they say, “Oh, yes, I am looking for work because you are about to cap me”, or what?
I have heard a number of social policy academics say that, if it is in terms of people going into work, this is the normal turnover one would expect. How do we know it is because of the forthcoming cap? Even to the extent that it is having this effect, the CPAG/Lasa study confirmed that several local authorities are working actively with residents to help them move into work or increase their hours in order to avoid a cap, and this is obviously very welcome. It stated:
“However, few see this as an approach able to solve the problems of more than a small proportion of families hit by the cap. One authority estimates that there are at least 500 families who would not be able to be supported into employment due to disability, caring or parental issues”.
Many emphasise the high cost of childcare as a barrier.
My noble friend Lord McKenzie and the noble Lord, Lord German, have mentioned carers and the fact that 5,200 of those expected to be hit by the cap are in receipt of carer’s allowance—that is about one in 10 of everyone affected in 2013-14. The mean reduction will be £105 a week, the median £77 a week. That is a lot of money for people to lose.
The Minister talked about the long-term positive behavioural effect. He might recall that in Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill my noble friend Lady Sherlock and I asked the noble Lord—this is a variation on the question asked by my noble friend—what are the positive behavioural effects that the Government are seeking from carers? Presumably they are not to stop caring. I asked the noble Lord and I am glad to say that he confirmed that that was the case. What other behavioural effects are being sought of carers? I am as baffled as I was then.
I turn to the question again raised by my noble friend on supported housing. I am grateful to Crisis for its briefing on this. It estimates that 10% of those affected could be single adults and it is likely that some of them will be living in supported accommodation. Supported accommodation ranges from hostels for homeless people to domestic violence refuges; it is exempt from normal housing benefit rules so it is not subject to LHA restrictions; the rents charged by different accommodation projects vary, depending on a number of factors but particularly the level and range of support provided. Therefore, a hostel that houses, for example, long-term rough sleepers with severe mental health problems will have higher running costs. A small number of people who live in such high-cost accommodation and who receive other benefits will be affected by the cap. They are not in a position to move elsewhere and they pay a lower rent. We are talking possibly about higher-rate ESA or incapacity benefit as was, and they are likely to be some distance away from moving into work so would not be able to avoid being hit by the cap.
I do not believe that it is right, nor do I believe it is the intention of the policy that the cap should impact on people who are extremely vulnerable or who are at a crisis point in their lives and cannot live independently. Supported accommodation providers rely on housing benefit as a source of funding and they would struggle to provide the vital services that they offer if their residents’ housing benefit were to be cut. Although Ministers have stated publicly that there will be no more exemptions to the cap, I understand that there are discussions going on as to how residents in supported accommodation will be treated. Ideally, I would like to see people who live in supported accommodation exempt from the cap but, failing that, I would be very grateful if the Minister could explain to your Lordships how it is intended to protect supported housing residents from the impact of the cap.
Crisis is also concerned that in the worst instances, households that are not able to find alternative accommodation could be left facing homelessness. That is a point made by my noble friend. I would like to read from the CPAG/ Lasa report, which states:
“Applying the benefit cap to families in temporary accommodation effectively means that families who are accepted as homeless, could be made homeless once more due to their inability to pay the costs of temporary accommodation”.
The situation was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Freud, during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. I quote the noble Lord:
“We need to get a solution to this so that we do not have a ludicrous go-round of people moving into expensive temporary accommodation which they can no longer pay for because of the cap. We are absolutely aware of this and have measures in train to get a solution in the round to that issue”.—[Official Report, 23/1/12; col. 893.]
The report continues:
“At present, however, local authorities see themselves pushed into precisely this ‘ludicrous go-round’, with little option for escape”.
Could the Minister please comment on that and explain what measures exactly are in train to solve what he himself described as a ludicrous situation?
My Lords, I thank the Minister again for that period of grace. I had an amendment seeking a 26-week period of grace and this is the first time that I have ever had a Minister exceed my expectations. I knew I should have gone for 52 weeks but I thank him for confirming that that is safely in place.
Although I agree with a great deal of what has already been said, I particularly wanted to pick out the problem faced by those going into temporary accommodation. There are 51,600 households currently in these properties leased from private landlords. The housing association and sometimes the local authority itself stand in the middle. The private landlord charges a rent and on top of the rent that the landlord charges, the housing association, in taking on this commitment, has to agree to return the place to the landlord in pristine condition at the end of the period so there is a need for reinstatement costs. Management costs are also involved in this, so it is unsurprising that rents for these temporary accommodation leases are higher than other rents. In the areas where the other rents are already very high, these are going to be very high rents. However, the £500 per family cap kicks in regardless of the fact that rents in particular places will be very high.
Let me comment on the point about regional benefits made by the noble Lord, Lord German. After the war, when Beveridge was thinking through the same issues that we all think through today, he concluded that you had to take housing out of the equation that you used to assess all other benefits, because the regional variations for housing were so great that you had to have a separate benefit arrangement for housing. If you are in a property in south Wales, even in temporary accommodation—and probably among the most expensive there—you will pay £150 a week; in an identical property, or perhaps something inferior, in Camden—I am not even going to bother with Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster—you will pay £500 a week. The average in an outer London borough—Newham—is £269.50 a week. Beveridge took housing out and said, “We have to have a housing benefit system that can adapt to all these different places and all these different rents, even if we have universal benefits everywhere else”. We have not done that with this cap. We have a single figure for the cap and the rents have to fit within that.
To take my example of Camden, where the average temporary accommodation rent is £500 a week, if the family have to pay £500 a week they have nothing left for all their living costs, as the cap is £500. That is obviously not tenable. We have to close down the temporary accommodation arrangements in Camden—we just cannot work them at all for a family. Their entitlement to other benefits to live on would normally be £315 per week—this is a couple or a single parent with three children. That would give them headroom of £185 a week within the £500 to spend on rent. With that £185, there are very few places in this country where they could go and be housed. Certainly they could not go out from Camden to Newham, as they would still face a major deficit. They would have to find £84.50 a week, which they could not possibly find—no one on these low incomes could find £84.50 a week. The figure in Birmingham, perhaps slightly surprisingly, at least to me, is a little higher than that in Newham. In Birmingham, you would be back to a rent of £300 a week for the cheapest temporary accommodation property, so the shortfall there—including the £315 a week to live on, making £615—is £115 a week, which is out of the question. So Birmingham ain’t going to work either.
We are going to have to place these people in very specialist parts of the country where, for whatever reason, rents are extremely low. This by definition sends people away from their family support networks, with children coming out of their schools and all the other things. Surely all that disruption and hassle will not be worth while.
What are the alternatives? How can we keep people closer to where they were when disaster struck and they became homeless and had to be placed in temporary accommodation somewhere? I do not think that we are going anywhere near meeting the expectation that landlords would dramatically reduce the rents. The main hope is that the discretionary housing payments will be enough to top up the rents, even if that is quite a wide gap to top up.
This is where we come to our loaves and fishes. The answer to everything is the loaves and fishes—the funds that we are expecting to stretch to cover all the eventualities where the new system does not work. We also have the local housing allowance shortfalls in the private sector; we already had a system in place because the arrangements did not work before and we needed discretionary housing payments. There is more money there, but it is very tight compared with the increase in the gap that a lot of people are facing. There is a need for discretion to be used in relation to the bedroom tax, where there are obviously cases where it is just madness to try to persuade people to live on a much reduced income and there is nowhere for them to go. The loaves and fishes have to stretch to those. Now the loaves and fishes—the discretionary housing payments—are being required to meet those cases where the cap is a nonsense in ordinary accommodation. Finally, the money is to be available in the rather bigger cases of temporary accommodation. It quickly runs out.
I was looking at the new figures which we have broken down area by area and place by place. If we reckon a gap of £80 a week to be a relatively modest gap to be filled by discretionary housing payments, in Ashford—I started looking at “A”—in Kent, an area of quite high pressure, the £67,000 available means that at £4,000 a shot, 16 people would be helped. In Cambridge, which also has a bit of pressure, it is £64,580; this sometimes includes carrying forward funds from the previous year. That is 16 households in Cambridge. Cheltenham did a bit better: £95,000 there, which is equivalent to 23 households. These numbers are not going to do it across the piece for the use of these loaves and fishes stretching out to cover all of the circumstances in which the discretionary housing payment might be required.
I have urged the Minister before—and I urge him again—to have in his back pocket the opportunity to place a foot in the Treasury door to get more funds in the kitty for these discretionary housing payments, if for no other reason than to keep MPs off the noble Lord’s back. That is because there are going to be protests up and down the country that this is a nonsense—that things that ought to happen cannot happen because of these restrictions and that DHPs are about the only way in which one could possibly hope that they would happen. I leave him with that thought.
My Lords, so much wisdom has already been shared with the Committee that I am not going to try to tread over the ground so impressively covered. I would like, however, to ask the Minister to focus on two particular categories of people. I am particularly concerned about families with children, especially vulnerable families with children. The Minister may recall that, among the many amendments that he faced during Committee stage, I moved an amendment that specifically asked that families be exempted from the cap if their household contained a child who was the subject of a child protection plan, a children-in-need assessment or a common assessment framework team. The Minister sadly did not smile on that amendment, but I hope that he has had the opportunity in the mean time to think some more about what happens to particularly vulnerable children. Since the Government now have data about the families who will be affected by the cap, will he tell the Committee today how many of the households that will be affected contain a child who was the subject of any of those protection plans or assessments or a common assessment framework team? If he cannot do so today, would he commit to write before his regulations are considered or, if time does not permit it, to place that in the Library as soon as possible?
I briefly remind the Committee why this matters. I raised this on Report and I am not going to revisit the principle, but I was concerned at that stage because of discussions that we had had in Grand Committee, where I had heard a noble Lord—I shall not name him, because he is not here, but he was someone with great experience—describe having sat in a serious case review of a very serious incident with a child. He described what I have heard over and over again from social workers, which is that when you get to a serious case review, people gather around the table from all the different agencies and, about an hour in, somebody always says: “If only we had talked to each other sooner; if only we had all shared information previously, maybe it would not have come to this”. Reports from one London safeguarding board showed that, in a significantly high proportion of families affected by serious case reviews, rent arrears or impending eviction had been an issue; of them, a significant number were known to more than one authority.
A number of noble Lords from all sides raised throughout our consideration of the Bill the question of what happens to families who are forced to move repeatedly—in particular, what happens if households containing vulnerable children of the kinds that I have described are forced to move some considerable distance. There must be a real danger that these children disappear from the system. Could the noble Lord tell me whether he has considered my proposal to exempt those families from the cap? If he has not, what assurance can he give the Committee as to precisely how those families will be protected and how those children in particular will be protected?
Picking up the point made by various noble Lords about families in temporary accommodation, I am very concerned about the considerable distances that they and other families with children may end up moving. Like other noble Lords, I have been reading the newspapers this week—but I do not read those left-wing communist rags. I shall quote a headline to the noble Lord:
“Homeless families to be kicked out of London and sent as far away as WALES as councils buy up cheap properties to house them”.
The article goes on to state:
“Local authorities say sky-high rental costs in the capital, combined with the incoming benefits cap has forced them to send people miles away from home. Areas as far away as Manchester, Merthyr Tydfil and Hull … ‘It is going to be practically impossible to provide affordable accommodation to meet our homelessness duties in London,’ Dagenham Council say”.
I am sure that the noble Lord recognises that that is from the Daily Mail.
Will the noble Lord tell the Committee whether that is true? Is he expecting significant numbers of homeless or potentially homeless families to be rehoused hundreds of miles away? If not, why are so many of our grand newspapers labouring under such a misapprehension? Perhaps the Minister could put their minds at rest. He might want to write to the editors with a copy of his speech when he has reassured us today.
I would be interested to know whether there is any danger that families could be forced to move, as has just been described by the noble Lord, Lord Best, more than once, either because accommodation for the homeless has become too expensive or simply because, as was raised in Committee, the median rents have gone up over the area. Rents may rise in an area as a result of an influx of families and then they could hit a cap again. Is there any danger that that could happen? I am sure that the noble Lord is aware of the evidence showing the impact of repeated house moves on a child’s achievement in school. If that is the case, will he say how the Government will protect vulnerable children in particular from the damage that could happen to them not only in childhood but in later life as a result of their schooling being impaired?
Finally, turning to the report from the Child Poverty Action Group, to which my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett, referred earlier, I should like to draw the noble Lord’s attention to a paragraph on page 40. It states:
“Authorities are also concerned about the impact of the cuts on their ability to meet other government priorities, in particular around the ‘troubled families’ agenda”.
Will the Minister tell the Committee what discussions he has had with the DCLG and other departments about the extent to which this policy may impact on their ability to deal with troubled families? If so, what steps are being taken to address that?
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly because my noble friend Lady Sherlock has spoken with wisdom and analysis, as have my noble friend Lord McKenzie, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and others. I do not think that I could hope to match that. I prefer to speak about the effects of what this Government are doing on families and people. First, I should make it plain that I am not a social liberal or a bleeding-heart liberal with a small “l” or even with a large “L”. As a genuine member still of the honest working class, I am totally opposed to people fiddling the public purse and the benefits system.
I do not think that the Government care so much about that. I am not trying to paint a picture of an uncaring Government, although the effects of what they are doing here are exactly that. Some of the stuff that has come from the Government for dealing with the people who will be affected by this is in the Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations. Paragraph 7.7 states:
“The Government expects different households to have different behavioural responses to the cap but those affected will have a number of options to consider”.
What are the options to consider? The options include,
“reducing their non-rent expenditure”.
I should like to ask the Minister some questions. Under what budget heading should that come? Does he have any suggestions about which item of household expenditure in these poor households should be cut to make up the shortfall in rent? Paragraph 7.7 suggests that they should make up the shortfall,
“using a proportion of their other income or moving to cheaper accommodation or area”.
We will come to that later, because to me that has the biggest impact on families who are being treated in this way.
Another so-called option is starting work. Has the Minister looked at the unemployment figures in Scotland? Has he looked at the figures in suburban areas of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, where the unemployment rate is tremendous? If the Minister has any job applications or knows of any jobs, I would be grateful if he would let me know. In addition, just this week, there have been big redundancies in Glasgow and Broxburn. Again, this will have an impact on families who do not have much to start with. I will come back to what happens to people when they have to move under circumstances like this.
The guidance section says that the department is working with IT suppliers,
“to make sure that those likely to be affected by these changes know about them in advance”.
How much in advance? What notice will be given to people like this, and how much will that cost, for a start? The memorandum also mentions,
“some impact on the public sector with one-off costs for local authority housing benefit and housing departments to implement these changes”.
It goes on to say:
“The Department is working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to assess the financial impact of these changes on local authorities as part of its work to quantify the extent of any new burdens for local authorities”.
In short, local authorities must find whatever money they need from their current budgets and grants. Again, that will result in problems.
I come to what happens when people are forced to move. With my background, my family would have been one of those affected by these proposals. In Scotland, one-third of the households affected are in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The number of adults in affected households in Scotland is around 3,500, but the number of children who face being moved is around 7,000. In my case, with quite a chequered family history of an itinerant father who did not have permanence in our house over a number of years, underoccupancy would have applied one month, but perhaps not three months later. With that whole history of being away from home and then coming back, it would have been a shambles. Under these proposals, my mother would have been forced to move from her area. The street where I was born is next to the street where she was born, which is next to the street where my wife was born. That is what Rutherglen is like: a lot of people who are born there stay there.
When I was growing up in Rutherglen, there were not really any areas that were poorer than any others. The picture that comes to me is of properties being brought up by the local council in the city of Glasgow, across the Clyde from Rutherglen, to house the families being evicted from there. I was born and brought up in that area and have stayed there for my whole life. Hundreds of children were the same. Moving from there would have meant uprooting all the family connections with neighbours and school friends—and I will come on to school connections in a minute—treating us like people who do not deserve any permanence in their lives.
As for schools, in the west of Scotland approximately one-third of the population are Roman Catholic and go to Catholic schools. The population is such that Catholic schools must draw their school intake from a bigger area than the non-denominational schools, because it can be spread quite thinly. I do not know what school I would have had to go to, but I would have had to leave St Columbkille’s, leaving all my friends and relatives, moving to Glasgow or somewhere ostensibly cheaper to live. To impose that on 7,000 children and treat them in that way is quite disgraceful.
I suggest to the Minister that he looks at a Scottish paper called the Daily Record. A couple of weeks ago, it ran a film that was designed especially for the Scottish Liberal party conference, to remind that party about the impact of this. To its credit, it appeared to show the impact that these changes are going to have on thousands of people in Scotland, never mind in Great Britain. In the interests of educating people, I suggest to the Minister that he contacts the Daily Record and asks it either to give him a special showing of the film or, even better, to have it shown somewhere in the Palace of Westminster.
I know that I have not dealt with the fine detail, as my colleagues and other noble Lords have, but I thought that that was right. I have no illusions about this place. I accept that this is a revising Chamber. I accept that we do not have a democratic right—except maybe in some circumstances, as the Conservatives did during our 13 years—to defeat the Government and that we should think very carefully before we do so. On the other hand, I would not be able to face up to myself when looking in the mirror, or face many of the people I know, if I did not demonstrate my opposition to these proposals.
My Lords, I have a very simple question for my noble friend. I think that he probably gave us the answer during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, but I am afraid that I have forgotten what it was. Those in receipt of disability living allowance are going to be exempt from the cap. What about those who have appealed against their initial assessment? I declare an interest because, while I have never been on benefits, I have appealed against a decision, which I won, so I feel for those who may not have been successful the first time in their assessment but who have then appealed. There can be a few months between these two events and it would seem very unfortunate if someone or their family was forced to move only to find that they had won an appeal at the tribunal, with all the upheavals that that would amount to. Can my noble friend tell me about that situation?
My Lords, as I would have expected, we have had a very knowledgeable debate, and a lot of very learned views, which I always listen to very closely, have been put forward. Clearly, I am also aware of the concerns that have been voiced in expressing the anxieties of a number of external organisations and stakeholders, some of which were referred to today. I will try to deal with as many of the questions as I possibly can, although there were a lot of them.
Let me start with support and exempt accommodation. That needs to be looked at in two periods. As I said, once universal credit comes in we are looking to keep the housing costs outside universal credit. I am looking to make some long-term arrangements for people in exempt accommodation. I am particularly concerned about people in refuges and, clearly, in hostels. I acknowledge absolutely the issue of support and exempt accommodation, which needs some quite sophisticated work. Meanwhile, we are writing very specific guidance, as these are the people for whom DHPs really are designed to prevent some effects that we do not want to see.
On temporary accommodation, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that is again an area where we will use DHP. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Best, did some sums, but clearly this will be a huge incentive to move people very quickly to something much more permanent rather than staying for the full year in temporary accommodation, which, as he rightly said, is very expensive. Under universal credit, there are likely to be changes. We are looking at how we deal with temporary accommodation—especially the division between the management costs to which he referred and the actual housing payment element. We are out to consultation on that area and there will be more developments.
On the mental health issue that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, raised, those who have been assessed as being in the support group under ESA will be exempt, as will those receiving DLA and, later, PIP, so they will not be affected. The reason that PIP is not specifically mentioned in the regulations is that the PIP regulations have not yet been laid, so they will be consequential.
We do not have any information about other types of income that those households have—to answer a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. Where they do not have any other income, a claim for DHP can be made. I have already detailed the funds available.
Several noble Lords asked about stories of local authorities sending people all over the country. I remind noble Lords that it has always been the case that London boroughs have sent people out of borough and, in some cases, many miles away. The reason is that people come from all over the country to London boroughs; it is not always appropriate to house them in those boroughs and they are sent out. There is an important distinction to be made between local people and those who arrive with a homeless obligation in a particular borough. It is important because new regulations come into force later this week, on 9 November.
Sorry, but will the noble Lord let me intervene at this stage? So if there are two families, a recently arrived family and a longer staying family in a borough, somebody would decide that the newer family, for want of a better description, should go and the older residential family should stay?
Perhaps the noble Baroness will let me finish the point. A lot of the stories in the newspapers refer to the former. Councils have had arrangements for many years with other councils some distance away. We have reinforced the point—this is where the regulations coming in on 9 November apply—that where people are local, the council has to consider whether the location is suitable for the household’s individual circumstances, including the significance of any disruption to employment, education and caring responsibilities. Local authorities are required to carry out a full impact assessment before moving people out to other boroughs.
I am trying to say that if you read the stories carefully, as I have been, you will see that they refer to preparatory moves about what councils may do and what they are preparing for. The stories are fairly evanescent, if you look at them closely. Clearly one reason for that is that these changes have not happened yet. Through this year, we have had the introduction of the LHA reduction from 50% to 30%, which my noble friend Lord German talked about. There has not been a huge flood of changes as a result of that. The stories are about councils being worried and their preparatory plans. They are about plans to move people around councils, but local authorities have always done that, for the reasons that I have given. They have always had this problem in London—people arrive and the councils have had to do something about them. Let me repeat the obligation in the 9 November regulations. Under the regulations, local authorities are required to keep people in the local area whenever they can and to carry out a full impact assessment before moving people out to other boroughs. We have strengthened that localism point in recognition of the same sentiments that are concerning noble Lords today.
They were DCLG regulations—I cannot remember the exact title, so forgive me. They have been laid and cleared and they are due to come into effect on 9 November. They are under the Localism Act—the noble Lord may be more familiar with them than I am.
On whether people will be treated as intentionally homeless if they are evicted as a result of rent arrears caused by the cap, again, it is for local authorities to make decisions on individual homelessness applications, as they do now. Under the statutory legislation, if the only reason for a person’s homelessness is a reduction in benefit that is outside their control, they should not be considered intentionally homeless by their local authority. The help available includes cases where the reduction is not much; it includes help in renegotiating rent or making up small shortfalls, help with moving to more affordable accommodation, other means of trying to help people back into the workforce, and so on.
There was a group of questions around the delivery process, which I will try to gather up into one. The department will identify cases through scans of analytical data, which will be clerically checked against live IT systems to see whether any exemptions or grace periods are in place, and it will obtain up-to-date benefit amounts. Data will then be transferred electronically to local authorities via ATLAS. The LA will confirm the correct amount of housing benefit and can apply the cap via an automated system. It will issue a notification to the claimant informing them that their housing benefit is being capped and the amount of their new housing benefit award. This notification will also give information on support available and who they should contact if they have a query about the decision.
Before the Minister leaves that point, I am interested to understand the process, the mechanics. He said that there will be scanning of all the data. Of course, some of that would have to be of benefits that do not currently feature in housing benefit calculation. Will that be an ongoing scanning? I see that the Government are going to do something upfront to try to identify people, but people’s circumstances change. Will it be a real-time scanning?
When there is a change in circumstance, it is up to the claimant to inform us of that, as it is now. We are still in the old world, or the existing world before universal credit. To ensure that all changes of circumstance are applied in a timely manner, we will use CIS, the customer information system, to report them. I think that the noble Lord is referring to that system, which holds a record of most benefits included in the benefit cap calculation. As the noble Lord pointed out, some of them are not included in CIS—especially child benefit, which will be identified by a further data match with the monthly IGS scans.
I know that the noble Lord has a lot to get through, but is the obligation to report a change of circumstances an obligation arising from a change of circumstances which would affect the application of the cap, quite apart from obligations in respect of other benefits? Is that what we are talking about here?
I was referring to the change of circumstance to the individual. Clearly, if we are changing benefit structures in some way, we will know that and be able to make that adjustment and send the new information over to ATLAS, but the important facts are the changes of circumstance of the individual, who will make the application for the benefit in the normal way. It will come through the systems and be scanned, checked, compared and sent over.
A change of circumstance that would put someone within the benefit cap when they were not currently? Would an individual making a housing benefit claim have to say, not only, “I have applied for a change of circumstances that may change the level of housing benefit”, but, “I think I am therefore liable for the cap? Can you do me for it?”?
It will not be exactly like that. It will be no change from the present position, where you should inform us of changes in your benefits in the normal way. When that happens, it will work through in the normal way into our systems. There is an obligation on all benefit recipients to inform us of changes in circumstances. There is no obligation on the part of the benefit recipient to inform us in relation to the cap; it is only to inform us in the normal way of changes in circumstance, as applies to the rest of his or her benefits.
I apologise; I promise not to intervene again after this one, but that obligation, for example in relation to housing benefit, would be to report the change of circumstance to the local authority, not to the DWP. How does that fit with the notion that it is basically the DWP which has to notify the local authority, “We’ve got somebody here who may be subject to the cap”? Seemingly, there is no ongoing separate obligation on the local authority to report back in the opposite direction?
I will be corrected on this if I am wrong, but ATLAS works both ways, so the information flows both ways, so we will have the information and will be able to notify and go through the normal process. We will know what is happening on housing benefit. That is how it will flow back and forth. There had to be an adaptation to ATLAS to make it a two-way flow. When it started, as the noble Lord probably remembers, I hope with nostalgia, it was a one-way process.
How and when are the guidelines being produced? The local authority Practitioners Operational Group, with a subgroup based on the benefit cap, has been briefed at working level on detailed procedures and guidance. Members have confirmed that people will develop detailed guidance and products which will supplement those to be published via the DWP intranet and the LGA’s knowledge hub.
The way that the benefit cap interacts with financial sanctions is that the benefit cap will apply to the overall level of household benefits. If the sanction is imposed, any reduction will be applied to the sanctioned benefit after the application of the cap. Otherwise, clearly, the impact of the sanction would be negated.
My noble friend Lord German and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, raised the issue of ESA. The specific exemption is to do with the people in the support group of ESA, not in the WRAG group. Several noble Lords mentioned carers. The benefits system is designed to provide financial support where caring responsibilities prevent carers working full-time. As such, the carer’s allowance should be treated in the same way, for the purposes of the cap, as other income-maintenance benefits. Clearly, where the carer is in the same household as someone entitled to DLA or ESA support, the whole household, including the carer, will be exempt. Most carers of working age want to retain a foothold in the labour market where possible. We know that more than nine in 10 claimants receiving carer’s allowance are claiming another out-of-work benefit. In other words, they are looking for work. Carers who move into work clearly become eligible for the working tax credit and will be exempt from the cap.
Clearly, we are expecting that they will find work at that level.
On the grace period questions from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, which really boiled down to the self-employment questions, they are entitled to working tax credit if they meet the other conditions. On the 50 out of 52 weeks, there may be a gap in employment, but my understanding is that SSP, statutory sick pay, which is paid by the employer in the case of the employed, would constitute being in work, for obvious reasons. That actually responds to my noble friend Lord German’s questions.
As to the question from my noble friend on the entitlement to a grace period, although entitlement to working tax credit will lead to an exemption from the cap, qualification for a grace period is not dependent on entitlement to working tax credit being maintained. So you do not have to go on taking the benefit as long as you are in work. But during the qualifying period the claimant would have had to have been in employment and not entitled to ESA, income support or JSA.
On my noble friend’s question about the regionalised cap, we do not have a regionalised benefit system and therefore we intend to implement the cap on a national, rather than a regional, basis in April.
Can the Minister help me on one more point on the period of grace? If somebody is employed but falls out of work completely, and would otherwise fall within the benefit cap, the period of grace would operate. One of my questions is to do with circumstances where somebody is outwith the benefit cap because they are fully employed and then they fall below the level at which working tax credit kicks in. They are not unemployed at that stage, but their earnings are lower, their benefits are higher and they are potentially within the cap. Does the period of grace protect them in those circumstances? It would be logical that it should, but I am not sure that it does.
Yes, effectively, in the current system, going below the 16 hours would take you into the benefit system, so formally out of work. Clearly, under universal credit it would be a very different system, and we would have to have a notional figure of what the equivalent of work is, which we will introduce when we have the universal credit. The noble Lord is absolutely right in his analysis and his conclusion that there is no other way of doing it when you think about it, given our existing system.
My noble friend asked when we will publish our guidance. We had consultation on that guidance in August and we will make it available towards the end of the year. I can confirm that DHP will be allocated on the basis of greatest need. We are consulting with local authority representatives right now—in November—and we will make an announcement at the end of that time.
I am taking a long time, but with the forgiveness of noble Lords I will keep going, because there are a lot of interesting questions to answer. I could end up writing, but I would prefer to deal with them now if noble Lords will indulge me. My noble friend raised the cumulative impact of the changes on the housing market. We are monitoring this really robustly; I think we have one of the best assessments on what happened to housing changes in terms of the LHA changes that we have made. I think the noble Lord, Lord Best, would agree that it is one of the most thorough examinations of what really happens in a housing market when you make these changes and it will be valuable for a lot of the purposes. Clearly there is an overlap when we look at the effects of the benefit cap as well.
On the issue of the calculator not working, we have had stringent availability standards and there were two short periods when it was down for maintenance. There is a lot of help available to use it. On behavioural change, one of the things you can never predict when putting in these pressures is how people’s behaviour will change. However, we really are working with a lot of stakeholders to make sure that decisions are made such that people respond positively to the implication of the cap for them.
I can confirm to my noble friend that we are committed to tackling child poverty, but clearly our focus is on trying to tackle the causes of that poverty and not just moving people around on slightly artificial income lines. One of the things that universal credit will do is to move a lot of adults and children out of poverty. I make the same point to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. We are looking for better measures and clearly the negative impact on child poverty may be mitigated if affected adults in the family move into work and the benefit cap supports our plans to make work pay. The £500 per week limit for couples and households with children is above the poverty line for a lone parent with up to four children, and broadly equates to the poverty line for a couple with four children; looking at the mechanics, that is where it is.
The point I was raising was about the effect on child poverty should the Government introduce a new cap on families who are not in work with three or more children, over and above the benefit cap. What work is being done in the department to look at the effect of the interaction of these two different caps on child poverty? It is possible that the noble Lord was about to go on to this but he seemed to be moving on to another issue.
We have not done any work on that because it is not agreed government policy, but it is something that we are looking at, clearly. To the extent that we do look at it, it will be done on flow and not on stock. That was very clear in some of the discussions on this particular option. However, it is about people who get more than two children rather than people with more than two children. People will at least be able to plan their families should that become government policy. Regarding local networks, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, clearly we acknowledge their importance. That is one reason for the regulations coming in on Friday: to try to ensure that people are not moved without very serious consideration.
There was a question about our early findings. There has not yet been a coherent survey. However, there are some interesting figures from our early findings showing the effect of the cap, and I think we will be able to share those more widely when they are locked down. As the noble Baroness said, it is absolutely essential that we do not confuse things that are happening anyway, and that we try to get analysis of the excess. There is, however, an interesting point: quite a few people dropped out of the benefits system when this started. That is not a surprise. One would expect to find some of the people who feel uncomfortable claiming gathered in the area with the highest numbers of claims—I put that as delicately as I can. I hope to be able to give some more information on that.
The noble Baroness asked about childcare. Jobcentre Plus recognises the importance of childcare as a key enabler, and clearly financial assistance is available for a claimant moving into the labour market. We accept the need for appropriate childcare when we make that judgment.
I think that I have done my best to deal with the point about temporary accommodation. The noble Lord, Lord Best, talked about rent levels and urged a regionalised system, quoting the originator of the welfare state. The rate of increase in rent has slowed down a bit over the past year and local authorities are working with households affected by the cap to ensure that they are able to locate affordable homes. I was just looking at some rental levels, which show a slight slowdown in some months of the year.
I am running out of time. There is a lot of other business and I have to stop now. I will have to write on the other matters, as there was just so much—I counted 40 questions from the noble Lord. I commend the draft Benefit Cap (Housing Benefit) Regulations 2012 to the Committee.
Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) Regulations 2012
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) Regulations 2012.
Relevant document: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
My Lords, the regulations laid before the House on 17 July 2012 consolidate 12 statutory instruments dating back to 1989 and introduce new levels of planning application fees. The draft regulations have been approved in the other place and, if approved by this House, they will come into effect in the week commencing 19 November.
As noble Lords will know, the planning service is funded from local government grant and from council tax; in addition, the planning application service is also funded by fees for planning applications. The Government’s policy is that, in aggregate across England, the income generated by planning application fees should, as far as possible, cover the estimated total costs incurred by local planning authorities in determining those fee-paying applications. The principle underlying the planning fee regime is that would-be developers and applicants, rather than the council tax payer, should meet the majority of the costs incurred by local planning authorities in determining planning applications.
Planning application fees were last increased in 2008, overall by 23%. The fee increase in 2008 aimed to provide for local authorities to move closer to a position of cost recovery in determining planning applications. Since 2008, there has been a significant fall in the number of planning applications, from 649,000 in 2007-08 to 483,000 in 2010-11. Over the same period, the number of major applications has fallen by 18%. The overall decline is partly as a consequence of the extension of permitted development rights but is also due to the credit crunch under the last Administration.
In 2009, Arup undertook research to consider the effects of the 2008 fee increase and the impact of the decline in planning applications. The research, which was published in 2010, showed that fee income was approximately 10% lower than the cost of the service, based on an average cost of £619 per application and an average fee income of £563. This shortfall is because application fees have remained constant since they were last amended in 2008 while inflation has increased.
In early 2011, we consulted on proposals for planning application fees, which included an option to decentralise fee setting to local authorities. We have also worked closely with the Local Government Group, which undertook a comprehensive benchmark exercise with over 200 authorities to assess the real-time costs of processing different types of planning applications.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that I was talking about working with the Local Government Group, which undertook a comprehensive benchmark exercise with more than 200 authorities. The results of the benchmark showed that there were potential reductions in some fee categories, but significant increases in others, including for the householder category for which, on average across England, the fee would be more than doubled. It also concluded that the overall increase needed to achieve cost recovery was closer to 26%. That would account for the 10% which Arup identified as the shortfall and inflation since 2008.
The effects of decentralisation are complex and we have had to balance the need to ensure that local authorities have the necessary resources to deliver an effective planning service alongside the effects on applicants and developers, who are key to delivering economic growth. Therefore, on balance, we have decided to continue to set fees centrally for planning applications. In time, decentralisation should be part of a package of measures to make council planning departments more responsive to the needs of business and local residents. The benchmark work has been undertaken by the Planning Advisory Service arm of the Local Government Group, and the Government fund completely the Planning Advisory Service. Please let me assure you that we will continue to support and work with the Planning Advisory Service to develop further the benchmarking work and to understand the costs at the local level. We therefore propose to uprate planning application fees by 15% in line with inflation between 2008 and 2012. This uplift in planning fees will provide additional resources to local authorities of some £32 million per annum.
In addition to the much needed consolidation of the regulations, we have also introduced some new fees as a result of changes to primary legislation. These include fees for applications for urgent Crown development, where the application is made directly to the Secretary of State, and for an application for a certificate of appropriate alternative development. An amendment has also been made to allow for fees in respect of deemed applications—applications as a result of the local authority taking enforcement action—to be paid in full to the local planning authority rather than half to the local planning authority and half to the Secretary of State. This does not change in any way the fee to be paid, but it does mean that the local authority will benefit from receiving the whole fee.
The draft regulations before you are intended to keep planning application fees at a modest level for developers and householders, compared to overall project costs, while providing local authorities with the necessary resources to turn round planning applications efficiently and effectively and while protecting applicants from any significant increase. I commend these regulations to the House.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for the introduction of the regulations. The Minister will be aware that these were not hotly contested in the other place and that they will not be by us on these Benches. They have our support and we are not seeking to give the Minister any trouble—not very much trouble, anyway. The approximate 15% increase is said to reflect inflation since the last uprating in 2008. Can the Minister let us know what measure of inflation has been used for this purpose?
My colleague in another place asked a question relating to the removal of permitted development rights under Article 4 directions relating to HMOs and whether fees would be applied to planning applications relating to HMOs. Has the department yet had the chance to produce an answer on that? We note the reluctance of Government to go down the path of decentralisation of fee setting, although I think the door is not completely closed on that matter.
The question of resources is a matter of importance and it seemed to be tacitly accepted that the increase in fees would not bridge the current deficit. There are always difficult questions in this area. I remember talking to planning officers in Luton about what goes into the cost base when one is looking at costs and fees. There was some shenanigans around central administration charges and all that. The Minister in the other place was rather broad-brush in suggesting that the new homes bonus could deliver lots of money to help support a range of things, including planning. Clearly, for some it may, but for others it will not, particularly if it is constructed on net rather than gross additions to stock. There will not be a bonanza for already tightly developed areas where new build comes, in large measure, from demolition of old. Surely it must be important for central government that local authorities have access to quality planning capacity, if local authorities are to be leading the charge for growth.
Will the Minister say more about what assessment the department has made of the capacity of planning departments up and down the country in the current environment? Will he say when it is proposed to look at fees again and whether there is merit in having more regular changes, rather than larger step increases? It seems to me to be fairer to those who are developing along the way, but I reiterate that we have no problem with these regulations and are happy to support them.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for what she said and for the change that has been made. I declare an interest as leader of a planning authority. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has just said—that it would be desirable, in principle, if changes could be made more regularly, rather than in a stepped arrangement. I think I heard my noble friend say, and I find in the papers, that she recognises the need to go back and examine, at some point, the case for decentralisation. I very much welcome that. In the nature of things the balance of planning applications, the nature of business between one authority and another, will be different. Some will have very large numbers of large construction projects, others will rely mainly on householder projects; but given that the principle that the Government sets down, that it should be possible to recover costs, is accepted, I hope that, over time, we can also move towards decentralisation. I am sure that local authorities would welcome that and work with it.
I note that it is said that there is a need for restraint; that councils should not respond to current reductions in central government grant funding simply by increasing fees to raise lost grant revenue. That is a nice obeisance to Treasury doctrine, but of course the principle is that within the planning framework, planning costs should be met by planning fees, plus whatever grant is available. I hope that that principle is accepted. We are obviously not allowed to charge a commercial rate for part of a function, whereas everybody else who is involved in a planning process is. That is by their nature, whether it is the lawyers indulging in some judicial review or the builders charging a commercial rate, so councils in time should be allowed to do so. With that rider, I welcome the commitment to look again at decentralisation. I thank very much my noble friend for her announcement and give it my warm support.
My Lords, that makes a change from the previous debate, for which I may be extremely thankful. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for his support for these measures, although I appreciate that there was some qualification from both the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord True because of the fact that the 15% does not totally meet the inflation rise. The noble Lord asked what measure of inflation it is. It is CPI. The noble Lord and my noble friend Lord True also asked about passing the planning fee question to local authorities. There has not been a decision on that at the moment. It was part of the consultation, as I said, and it has not been thrown out. In answer to the question from my noble friend, work is continuing with the Local Government Association to look at that and at reviewing fees more regularly.
Another question which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked was on Article 4 directions and HMOs. I have three pages here—the noble Lord may not want all of that but I am happy to send them to him. The changes made in October 2010 mean that a change in use of a family dwelling to a small HMO is permitted development. Where there are local concerns about concentrations of HMOs, on the other side, authorities can make Article 4 directions to restrict the national permissions after consultation with the local community. We do not believe that councils with substantial HMO problems have been slow in applying for Article 4 directions as a consequence of not being able to charge a planning application fee to determine them. I think that covers the question that the noble Lord asked. He is looking as if the answer is sort of yes. If there is anything further on that, I will of course let him know.
The question of capacity is something that varies from local authority to local authority. I think what was meant by capacity is the number of planning officers available to deal with applications. To some extent, that will be governed by the amount of work that local authorities have. In somewhere like London, there may need to be more than there are. The gap in a local authority’s budget, if there still is one, will have to be borne by that local authority, certainly for the time being, but we do not expect those gaps to be very large. I think that that answers some of the noble Lord’s questions. There were only five on these regulations instead of the 40 on the previous matter. I am very nervous about the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, because he normally produces whole strings of questions which are usually quite difficult to get a grip on, but I think I have answered him today. I am grateful for the responses from the noble Lord and from my noble friend Lord True.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I did think briefly of making my opening remarks in Latin, but I desisted for two reasons. First, as a distinctly lapsed classicist—despite having studied Latin for at least 15 years and Greek for over 10—I am ashamed to say that my Latin would no longer be up to the task. Secondly, addressing your Lordships as “O Senatores” might take this debate into areas beyond its proper boundaries.
I sought this debate because I myself have benefitted enormously from the opportunities I had to study classics, which I take to include Latin, Greek, ancient history and classical civilisation. I would like to extend such opportunities much more widely. In preparing for the debate, I have been greatly helped by briefing materials provided by Peter Jones, that princeps or primus inter pares of classicists. I nearly said éminence grise, which would have been inappropriate. He is a leading light of the charities Classics for All and Friends of Classics; some of your Lordships might be familiar with his Ancient and Modern column in the Spectator. I was also helped by the excellent briefing pack put together at short notice by Venetia Thompson of the House of Lords Library. I am grateful to noble Lords who plan to speak and much look forward to hearing what they say. I thank them for their patience in coping with the unpredictable timing of business in this place.
I will seek to make three points: that classics is important; that it should be offered in more, preferably most, schools; and that Government should actively support that aim, including by providing for appropriate qualifications and examinations systems and ensuring an adequate supply of trained teachers.
First, to adapt the old Guinness ad, “Classics is good for you”. Surely there can be no other subject area offering such a breadth of learning opportunity and interest encompassing language, literature, history, philosophy, art, technology, culture and others. Latin and Greek are not only helpful in learning languages in general; they can be invaluable aids to improving grammar and vocabulary in our own language, English. Some 60% of English words are estimated to have Greek or Latin roots. In the vocabulary of the sciences, that figure rises to over 90%. As highly inflected languages, with all those conjugations, declensions, cases, tenses, moods, voices and so on—never forgetting the ablative absolute—Latin and Greek are invaluable routes to learning intellectual discipline and logic. My own former skills—in debugging complex programming code as a systems analyst at IBM—owed much to my training in classical languages. The chairman of IBM UK in my later years there, Sir Anthony Cleaver, was himself a classicist.
One only has to list some of those who have gone on from studying classics to distinguished careers to recognise the breadth of opportunities it can open: Mary Beard, Colin Dexter, Stephen Fry, Ian Hislop, JK Rowling, Tom Stoppard, Fay Weldon, and PG Wodehouse. In your Lordships' House—indeed, in this very room in some cases—we have the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and others. Last year, London was fortunate enough to have both a mayor and a lord mayor who were classicists.
In 2011, Friends of Classics conducted a survey of almost 2,200 people who had studied classics. Well over 80% of them supported classics being taught in schools; over half saw classics as useful or very useful for their own area of work—for example by enhancing language skills, breadth of understanding, and thinking and reasoning skills. Sixty-eight per cent of them thought that studying classics had helped them personally. Perhaps most striking of all, no less than 81% believed their own quality of life had benefited—a view which I wholly endorse.
Secondly, classics is good for schools. Currently, about 70% of independent schools teach classics, but only about 25% of state schools—in many cases mainly to their more talented students. State schools often face problems of timetabling classics lessons and finding staff able or willing to teach it. Despite that, three-quarters of state school classics teachers would like to increase the numbers studying classics and 47% of state schools without any classics teaching would try introducing classics subjects if offered small grants to do so—of the order of £5,000 over three years. The number of state schools which have started Latin in the past 10 years, using the Cambridge Schools Classics Project e-Latin initiative, is over 500.
Burntwood School for Girls in Tooting, despite specialising in science, not only offers Latin to its students, but last year added Ancient Greek as an extended curriculum offering in years 9 and 10. Some 250 girls are doing Latin and 30 girls have now started working towards a GCSE in Greek. This has been achieved largely through the appointment of a single classics teacher, Sarah Brack, and in a school where some 60 languages are spoken at home and 20% of students are eligible for free school meals. Yet its exam performance puts it in the top 10% of non-selective schools in England.
If more schools like Burntwood are to start teaching classics, they need to be confident that appropriate qualifications and examination systems are in place to support them. I congratulate the Government on the fact that Latin, Greek and ancient history are all included in the English baccalaureate, although the number of boards offering them is small. On the GCSE front, the withdrawal of AQA's Latin GCSE exams in 2006 led to a fall in the number of candidates nationally. However, the introduction of a new Latin exam by the Welsh Joint Education Committee in 2010, despite not having full GCSE status, resulted in a significant increase in candidates, from 8,500 to 12,000.
The Government plan to move to a system with only one examination board for any subject. This could present a real challenge for specialist subjects like classics, where there is a wide variation in the needs and attainments of students: for example, between those who study Latin for GCSE for up to 500 hours at independent schools with a long tradition of teaching classics, and those who have no more than 120-140 hours of teaching at a state school new to the subject. If there is to be only one board, the Government should ensure that it can offer examinations with the flexibility to cater for these different needs, without loss of rigour.
Finally, the most crucial factor in successfully teaching classics, as with other subjects, is the quality of the teachers themselves. There must be an adequate supply of properly-trained classics teachers. At present, there is a net loss of something between six and 26 specialist trained classics teachers every year, despite the interest of schools, parents, students and others in increasing the numbers studying the subject.
The various bodies dedicated to promoting classics teaching are actively working on alternative ways of addressing this challenge. For example, they are looking at developing “bolt-on” classical modules for PGCEs, so that someone studying to teach modern languages or history would also receive a month or so of classics training to offer schools employing them the basic skills needed to try out classical subjects. For teachers already in schools, mentoring and support services could be offered to enable them to start classics courses.
Initiatives like these cost money, and the classics bodies have a strong record of coming up with funds to support their subjects. But the Government could help to achieve a great deal more, and to bring the benefits of classics teaching to a much wider range of state students. They might offer small grants to encourage schools to take the first steps into classics teaching: perhaps a few thousand pounds, possibly in the form of matched funding for money raised by the schools themselves. They should ensure that there are suitable exams in place to recognise the achievements of schools and their students in classics subjects; and they must take steps to halt the current downward trend of qualified classics teachers. I look forward to hearing the suggestions of other noble Lords on how the Government could help.
Noble Lords may recall Winston Churchill's statement that,
“I would make them all”—
that is school children, and I am afraid I cannot do Sir Winston’s voice—
“learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat”.
I would argue that he was wrong. I prefer to end with a 19th century quote from the Reverend Thomas Gaisford, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, my own former college:
“Nor can I do better, in conclusion, than impress upon you the study of Greek literature, which not only elevates above the vulgar herd but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument”.
I strongly endorse his recommendation, and would add that even without the considerable emolument, which I regret I have failed to attain, classics teaching offers incalculable benefits not just to those lucky enough to receive it, but to the wider communities in which they live and indeed to the UK as a whole. For that reason the Government should do all that they can to promote, extend and support it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord and I thank him for securing this debate and for the delightful speech that he has made to introduce the topic. I, too, am a great lover of Latin, in particular, and I owe a lifetime debt to my big sister, who was a Cambridge classicist. She introduced me to Latin for Today: Book One a year before anyone else in my class had begun to study it, so that I was able to shine throughout my first year. That ensured that Latin has always been one of my favourite subjects.
I agree entirely with the noble Lord in his analysis of what is needed in terms of teaching and the teachers who are capable of inspiring and enthralling the young. However, I want to celebrate our success stories and how good it is that Latin is now increasing in popularity not only in independent schools, as seen by the number of young people who are taking it. As the noble Lord has said, in the past 10 years, more than 500 state secondary schools have started Latin for the first time. The previous Government are greatly to be commended for their e-course initiative with its videoconferencing and mentoring for teachers, which made a great leap forward in the popularity of the subject.
The UK has a world beater in the Cambridge Latin course. It sells more than any other classics course in the world. The Cambridge School Classics Project has given about £1 million of its profits to promote the teaching of Latin in state schools. The coalition initiative put Latin on a par with modern languages and that has helped to fuel the expansion. Secondary schools have, as I said, found that Latin and Greek are increasingly popular and that they help with the understanding of grammar and of English words and spelling. One reason why I believe that classics is so enormously helpful to young people is that it teaches them about sentence structure and so helps them to think much more clearly. It also helps them with their appalling spelling.
Another great success story is the expansion of the teaching of Latin in primary schools, which I wholly support and think is wonderful. In London alone the Iris Project, with the mayor, Boris Johnson, has started the Love Latin project in schools. Already, 200 primary schools in London alone are enjoying that programme. Teachers say that it is engaging children who, in other ways, are quite hard to reach.
For me, Minimus is the real hero of primary school Latin. Minimus is a mouse who lives with a family in Vindolanda in the Roman Britain of 100AD. He lives in the family with the fort commander’s wife and their three children. They also have a cat but, most importantly, they have Minimus who becomes a hero of the primary syllabus. He apparently has won so many friends among young children that the popularity of the Minimus course is spreading to the point where it has sold 140,000 copies throughout the United Kingdom. I am happy to say that the equivalent for ancient Greek—whether it will be a mouse or another animal, I do not know—is now being developed.
I will close with some quotes from teachers and pupils about the Minimus course. One teacher said: “There are such brilliant stories in the classics and it is so good to be able to introduce children to them”. A pupil said: “Latin helps me with writing in literary classes”. Above all, there was the pupil who said, “You learn to deal with words. You can’t talk to an ancient Roman with gestures and smiles. The language is all there is”.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, must be congratulated on introducing this debate. He failed to mention one of the most distinguished classicists in the Room, who was my former law tutor at Cambridge. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, not only carried away first-class honours in the first part of the tripos but won the ancient and much revered Sir William Browne gold medal in 1951, for, I think, an ode in the style of Sappho. That feat did not prevent him getting first-class honours with distinction in part two of the law tripos. I am afraid that I was a student of baser metal. Indeed, my director of studies, Professor Edward Kenney of Peterhouse, the professor of Latin in the university, advised me at the end of an undistinguished part one to read something else, which is how I came under the control of my noble and learned friend, Lord Lloyd.
It was asked then and still is: what is the point of a classical education? For me, it is the source of those generous liberal values which have from time to time leavened the culture and civilisation of Europe and the West. On common humanity across millennia, I have always been tickled by Homer’s tale that old men love to talk of their deeds of valour in past battles. Anyone who has ever played rugby will know that when two or three old rugby players get together over a pint of beer, they talk about their past battles. As to love, Hector’s farewell to Andromache and his son—to fight a battle that he did not desire but had, for the sake of honour, to endure—touches us to the heart. The fall of sacred Troy, the death of his father and his brothers and his own predicted end at the hands of Achilles meant nothing compared with the pain he felt that his wife would be sold into slavery and that those who saw her would weep and say:
“That woman is Hector’s wife”.
On fidelity, Argus, Odysseus’s dog, was cast out on to a heap of dung. He was covered with fleas and the only creature to recognise Odysseus as he returned to Ithaca from his travels. Argus lifted his ears and wagged his tail but was too weak to get up from the pile of dung. Homer tells us that as Odysseus departed:
“Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years”.
We touch people over that period of time—3,000 years—and common humanity is there.
Then there were the beginnings of democracy in Athens in the golden period with an assembly open to all citizens, regardless of wealth or class. It had an executive council chosen by lot, which, as your Lordships know, is a solution sometimes proposed for this House. There was justice by the verdict of one’s peers, the creation of the jury and courts composed of jurors drawn from the older citizens, who heard cases without the intervention of judges or lawyers—those who buzzed, as Aristophanes put it in “The Wasps”. There was the defiance of unjust law, told by Sophocles in the story of Antigone, whose loyalty to her brother led her to defy the edicts of the tyrant Creon. This is where drama was born; not just drama but comedy, poetry, Greek sculpture and architecture, which gave inspiration to the Renaissance and permeates the whole of our own civilisation. There were the philosophers, Socrates and Plato, who laid down the foundations of the philosophy that we share.
Romans were concerned with more mundane matters: belief in their right to rule over a lesser humanity; the exercise of power; law and order; dominion, with the spreading of boundaries “wider still and wider”—there was something of the Conservatives about them, one tends to feel. However, we learn much from the fate of the Roman empire when the Visigoths broke down the gates of Rome.
I heard at the weekend that my grandchild is taking up the study of Latin. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is right: it is all down to inspirational teachers. I was fortunate in having two inspirational teachers in my state school, Frederick Rowlands and Mr Noel Jones. They inspired me to appreciate my place in the world and the fact that humanity is the same now as it was then. These are values that I hope will continue to be maintained.
My Lords, I am sure that I speak for everyone in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for this inspirational occasion to talk about classics. However, I am not going to do that. I am going to talk about Latin and linguistic considerations, but nobody who has heard the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, speak could fail to weep with recognition of the excitements that there are in classical literature.
I am sure that I am not alone in judging our colleagues on the Bishops' Benches by the way that they read the Parliament prayer. The Parliament prayer, as everybody here knows, contains at its core an ablative absolute: “we … laying aside” and then it goes on until the words “partial affections”. The bishops who know Latin properly know that you have to pause after “grant that”; then comes the ablative absolute; then it goes on with what is being asked for, which is that our deliberations should have good effect. If you do not know that it is an ablative absolute, you make absolute nonsense of the grammar and the syntax of the prayer. That is my criterion of what is a good bishop, or archbishop.
I believe that the study of Latin is unique in that it gives one a feeling of the sense of the structure of a sentence, its syntax. I do not think that Greek, although it is a wonderful language, is quite as good as an instrument of learning about language as Latin is. Latin is indescribably clear and moreover small children, youngish children in primary school, love learning Latin because it is in the nature of code-breaking; there are certain rules and you can apply them to the sentence in front of you. You can get it right or you can get it wrong and that is of enormous attraction to children when learning. It is better, in some ways, than a modern language because it can be taught in its purest form—it is formal in the purest sense—and you do not have to be inhibited by pronunciation, accent or keeping up with slang. You do not have to learn how to ask the way to the station or how to get on a bus. It is there without the necessity of speech. It is to do with writing. Of course, that affects the way one speaks but it is essentially the written word. I believe that there is no profession—not just that of journalists and writers—where one does not need to be able to write coherently, clearly and in a way that is persuasive. The utility of learning the structure of sentences and their syntax is therefore without compare.
For about 20 years, I have been setting a paper and examining it for an essay competition for the Girls’ Day School Trust—it covers about 25 schools. There is the most enormous difference in the essays that I read, of which there are about 220 every year, between those girls who can write proper sentences and those who cannot. Even if their ideas are exciting or interesting, if they cannot write proper sentences then I cast away the essay. Over the 20 years, I have noticed a very severe decline in this ability. Largely, it is connected with the way that children communicate with one another through blogs and various kinds of electronic devices, which have changed the language. They can no longer distinguish between informal and formal writing: the kind of writing which they will need if they become civil servants, politicians, lawyers or doctors. They will all need to be able to write, so I recommend very much the use of formal Latin teaching. Also, as I have said, children greatly enjoy that kind of formal teaching.
Although I would hope that many of the people who learnt Latin at school would go on to study classics, ancient history or Greek or even classical studies—although I have never been quite sure what that actually embraces—Latin on its own is nevertheless infinitely worth teaching. I am delighted that there is this movement towards teaching it. As for finding the teachers who are able to do it, there is much to be said for the suggestion of the bolt-on to the modern language training course, as there is for someone who is already in the school—perhaps a modern linguist or an historian—teaching themselves Latin as they go along. If children can learn it, so can the teacher. It would be great fun, when teaching, to go along one step ahead of your class in North and Hillard, or whatever the appropriate Latin book now is. I hope that this will gather weight and that the Minister can assure us that the Government are behind this and see the point of it.
My Lords, I want to draw attention to the common cause between modern and ancient languages. A joint meeting a couple of years ago of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which I chair, and the group on classics noted that Latin automatically offers the integration of language, literature and culture that teachers of modern languages are also trying to achieve. I am sure the same goes for Greek. When I started Latin aged 11—in the same class, incidentally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, who has been referred to—we had a dynamic young teacher who taught us as though it were a modern language. For the first few weeks, no English was spoken in our classes. We learnt it by speaking it, as well as through the rigours of grammar and by writing. That certainly fuelled my interest in modern languages and when I spent my gap year in Spain, having done no Spanish at school, it was thanks to eight years of Latin much more than to eight years of French that I became fluent in Spanish after only a couple of months. It is generally acknowledged that Latin provides a strong foundation for learning all Romance languages.
I get cross when people say that Latin is dead. We do not go a day without hearing or using words like media, video, referendum or agenda; phrases like quid pro quo, pro bono, bona fides, mea culpa; or even abbreviations like et cetera, eg, or ie. Some people are quite surprised to discover that they are speaking Latin. Some would argue that we do not need to learn a modern language either, as English is enough. This is not true, of course, although this is not the debate in which to explain why. What is relevant is the evidence showing that learning languages, whether classical or modern, improves oracy and literacy in English too. That is one reason why modern languages have been so enthusiastically welcomed by primary school teachers, and why the Minimus resource for primary school Latin has been so popular.
Another criticism of classics is that it is elitist, and the Government should pay special attention to this. Again, there is a parallel with modern languages. In state schools only about 40% of pupils take a modern language GCSE now that they are optional after age 14. In the independent sector, it is about 90%. I am sure that a similar breakdown applies to Latin and Greek. I expect that the Minister will tell us that the EBacc will come riding to the rescue, and I readily acknowledge that it has led to some improvement. However, the Government must do more if they want to achieve their aim of closing what they have called “the vast gulf” between state and independent schools. Nearly half of state schools say that they are not improving their language offer at all as a result of the EBacc. Surely it would be a win-win initiative to complement the EBacc with a languages-for-all policy, effectively restoring compulsory languages, whether ancient or modern, for all children up to age 16. Without this, all languages, but especially the classical ones, will remain the elitist preserve of the independent sector. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government are still open to restoring compulsory languages to age 16.
Languages are not just for the bright ones or the top set. Children of all abilities can learn, love and benefit from doing Latin, just as they can from doing French. They should be doing it in the mainstream timetable, too, and not in the lunch hour or in after-school clubs. There has been an interesting proposal from the charity Classics for All to help boost the supply of teachers, which is that a one-month classical element could be bolted on to all modern language PGCE courses. This is worth looking at and I am interested in the Minister's views.
We risk a lot if we let classics go from schools. In the words of Professor Mary Beard, in a lecture she gave last year,
“it would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus …. if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world, it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture”.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for introducing this debate. It was also a pleasure to hear from a fellow Peterhouse classicist. If Professor Ted Kenney was not happy with him then, he certainly would be now.
It is 53 years since I was introduced to Kennedy’s Latin primer—or Kennedy’s eating primer, since some assiduous boy had altered every front cover at my school. Forbidding though the fruit may have seemed at first, the eating of it ever since has been a pleasure and a delight. As others have said, a classical education needs no other justification than the pleasure it gives. It opens a window into the mindset that has created or informed some of the greatest achievements of art, literature, architecture and music, not just in classical times, but over all the centuries of civil education until, I regret to say, the modern, vandalistic and often deliberate sundering with all that was beautiful and good in the past culture of European nations.
I think it matters, too, at the individual level. If you are in a country church and see the carved memorial of a talented young woman who died from consumption in the neoclassical 1820s or, perhaps, the proud epitaph of a rather unsuccessful Venetian admiral, you can—if you know Latin—cross the wall of death and enter the world of that person. If you know no Latin, they lie dead and cold for ever. Not a week goes by without my reading or using Latin. I regret not a moment of that and I certainly, as the noble Baroness said, do not regret the discipline and precision of expression that comes from it.
Abbott and Mansfield followed a few years later—and the beautifully flexible Greek language has given me equal pleasure. I was probably one of the last who went through the university tripos, translating and writing prose and poetry both ways. I am not going to venture to be torn like Cinna the poet by this intelligent Committee by trying some of my verses on you, my Lords.
We recently did a straw poll of local secondary schools. Almost all the independent schools offer classics; of the state schools, two established academies offer none and the other offers Latin from year 7. Of the maintained schools, one offered no classics; neither did the second. It believed there was no demand for it. Two others do offer extracurricular Latin and each has about 30 takers at key stage 3. The last one sends four year 10s to a local independent school to study Greek.
I am sure that this mixed picture is fairly typical and I make no criticism of those that do not offer classics. Overexpansion of the curriculum did have an impact; I know that my noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford is addressing this and I support him. I urge him, as he reforms what is taught, not to fall under the influence of those with a utilitarian delusion that what is taught is a school for work, not a school for life.
I have one final thought. In taking classics to fresh places, let us please not fight shy of the critical place of grammar, as the noble Baroness said, in the name of accessibility. All my children were offered Latin; the first worked to greats at Oxford; the second to A-level; the third fell by the wayside at GCSE. When I asked her why, she said that she was bored with the discovery method of learning used to try to work out what the ending “amus” meant for herself, when her brothers had learned their “amo, amas, amat” in a day and have remembered it ever since. Ironically, she would have preferred to have been taught like them. Therefore, let us not neglect the essential foundations of grammar, which, as others have said, equip us to confront so many languages, including that poor mauled old thing that is our own language.
Finally, will the Clerk of the Parliaments help us? Can we please have some Latin back on the business of the day?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and congratulate him on instigating this debate. I join with him in recognising the extraordinary work of Peter Jones, without whom I do not think we would be here. I do not think there would have been a revival of classics without Peter Jones; he is a remarkable human being. I think I am a vice-president of whatever it is he runs and I should declare that interest. I agree with everything that has been said, so I am not going to repeat it. Where else can you learn the basics of comparative philosophy, literature and history in one go—and the basis of our civilisation? It is the only way, so take that as read.
I want to make two much more banal, practical points addressing government. First, this is cheap. My other obsession with schools is reintroducing musical education into schools—that is expensive. I had a modest part to play in the financing of Minimus; that was not expensive. Organising the kind of teacher training and the serving up of Latin and Greek—Mansfield and all in schools—is not expensive in the big scheme of things.
Secondly, I buy everything that the noble Lord, Lord True, has said, but I am unapologetically going to argue the utilitarian, vocational case. I am fed up with people saying, “Well, it’s jolly nice but it’s over there. It’s not very vocational, as though it were nuclear physics or medicine”. From my experience—and I am afraid that I am going to talk about my experience—I found it vocationally very important to me.
Bear with me if I say that most of my life has been spent setting up things—enterprises for profit and a lot not for profit. What do you need if you are going to do that? First, you need rigour, intelligence and the ability to analyse—there are no two ways about it. Secondly, you need resilience. Thirdly, you need creative resourcefulness in a tight corner, because you get into tight corners whether you are in a for-profit business or, as I am at the moment, a large mental health charity. What do you think doing a Latin unseen is about? It is about bashing your head with pure a priori logic against what is happening. I am sure that all previous speakers had no problems in getting Latin unseens out, but when you are up against it, boy, you need resilience—there are 30 minutes to go and you are panicking. Fourthly, when you are five minutes from the end and you have not got it out, you need outstanding intelligent creativity to produce something that might fool the examiner. Many a true word is spoken in jest, but I have found that grounding extremely helpful and useful.
I would argue everything else, but I just look down the Table at the Minister to say that the facts are clear: a revival is going on; it has not cost very much; to keep it going will not cost very much; and it is fundamentally useful for our children. Finally, in the briefing papers I read the astonishing statistic that 70% to 80% of private schools teach classics, whereas the figure for maintained schools is a small minority. The private schools, I regret to say, are not doing it out of cultural wisdom; they are doing it for fundamentally utilitarian reasons.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for giving your Lordships this chance to speak up for the classics. I am particularly pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, whose son read classics at my college under my care with great success and distinction.
For years after I ceased to be a classical student, I feared that Latin and Greek were dying as areas of study. It therefore came as a great, but extremely encouraging, surprise to me to be told when I returned to Oxford that—this may surprise your Lordships—more students were studying classical-related studies today than at any time in Oxford’s history. That is extraordinary, especially since during most of its history there was nothing else that you could study. The university is, of course, much bigger today, but even so that is an encouraging statistic.
The truth is that, perhaps surprisingly, the demand for classical studies exceeds the supply, especially, I am afraid, in the state sector. As has been pointed out, although it is greatly to the credit of the Government to have included Latin, Greek and ancient history in their EBacc proposals, they are not making sufficient provision for training teachers in classics to replace those who are retiring. Yet, as has also been said, those state schools that have introduced Latin in particular have found that the children love it.
Last week, I had the great joy of taking a 14 year-old grandson on a tour of the great classical sites of Turkey and of witnessing his reaction—time even better spent than time in this House. My grandson, however, has a great advantage. He is at a private school. He can go where his academic inclinations and talents lead him and he will get the necessary support. In this, as in other areas, we should be working to make sure that all children have similar opportunities.
The eloquence with which noble Lords have spoken in this debate makes a sufficient case for the classics in itself and, like the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I will not add to it. However, one other thought occurred to me as I was going round Turkey. It does not need me to remind your Lordships that the Middle East is a crucible where so many of the issues affecting the future peace of our world will be resolved. The history of the Middle East goes very deep—back to classical times and before. I believe that many of the wrong decisions taken in recent years have been taken because of a lack of deep understanding and knowledge of the region—another reason for teaching classical history.
We have every reason to be grateful to organisations such as the Friends of Classics, Classics for All, and, although it goes against the grain for me to praise any Cambridge initiative, the Cambridge School Classics Project. They have done great work in supplementing the Government’s support for the classics. We know that government resources are limited, but I hope that the Minister will tell us that, where it is in the Government’s power to support the classics at little or no cost—with examples of where that can be done and where constraints can be removed—they will remove obstacles in the way of those who seek to promote the learning of classics.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for initiating this debate and giving us the opportunity to listen to many interesting and informed contributions this afternoon—all passionately in favour and convinced of the benefits of having the opportunity to learn an ancient language or study classical culture. I share that passion. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study Latin, despite going to a state school and coming from a very working-class background in which no one had any idea about the classics. None the less, and despite having a teacher unlike that of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, called Mr Durden, who was very much like his name, he did not put me off and I came to love Latin.
I share the views expressed this afternoon about the benefits that spill over into other areas of activity and study. In my case, I have no doubt that the logical thinking, the accurate application of rules and structure, and so on, helped me in my subsequent university-level studies, which were not in the arts but in science. Like the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, I think that there is great crossover in the skills gained from classical languages into science and technology. As the excellent briefing reminded us, we perhaps all agree with the classic comment by Dawkins that what classics has always done is to teach people fundamentally how to think.
Obviously, over recent years, there have been many impediments to sustaining the teaching of classics. We are all concerned about the disparity that exists between private schools and the state sector, with many children in state education, unlike me, not having the opportunity to study classics. The removal of classics from the matriculation requirement of some of our major universities some years ago was significant, leading to fewer schools teaching the subject, fewer teachers being able to teach the subject and the Training and Development Agency for Schools, I understand—the Minister will correct me if this is not still the case—putting a cap on the number of teachers each year who can be trained for the postgraduate teaching certificate to teach Latin and Greek.
It is remarkable that, despite that rather hostile environment, the classics are clearly having a renaissance. There is clearly demand, including in the state sector, for the opportunity to study classics. The charity Classics for All, as the noble Lords, Lord Aberdare, Lord Stevenson, and others, have said, has played a major role in that. We have seen considerable evidence of some schools being innovative in experimenting with how they can provide classics teaching by joining together, providing after-school tuition and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said, introducing primary school children to the classics, which is excellent. The stimulation of online resources, the e-course which the noble Baroness mentioned, and the Cambridge School Classics Project have also been very important.
Could the Government do more—arguably, by including ancient languages, at least, in the English baccalaureate? The Government have done more for classics, at least the languages, than they have for some other subjects, but there are still big issues about the supply of teachers, not having a comprehensive examination system and addressing the disparity that we have all mentioned with state schools. However, at least the Government have given their support in that way to the classics. If the Committee will indulge me, I wish that they had also done so for contemporary arts, culture and music, which we are now seeing disappearing from our schools because they are not included in the new performance management system, which is the English baccalaureate.
My Lords, I should probably start with a declaration of an interest: I am not a classicist. That will become evident as my comments unfold, as I shall clearly not be able to demonstrate all the qualities and attributes that a classical training would have endowed on me had I not been a mere historian.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for giving us the opportunity for this debate, not least for assembling the formidable brain power which has been assembled here and which has entertained us with a range of observations. He set out a compelling case for teaching classics in schools, a case that other noble Lords endorsed and, in many ways, amplified. We heard how the classics help to develop an understanding of English grammar and vocabulary, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, argued; how they help with mastering modern European languages, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, explained; and how they help to instil more disciplined ways of thinking that benefit children in other subjects.
When I had my own very small business, I was always interested in job applicants who had read classics because I knew that the chances were that they would be able to think logically, to write well, to express themselves clearly and to bring a different perspective. I agree very much with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, about the merits of a classical education from a utilitarian point of view as well. For people who think that the classics are dated, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, told us of his experience of debugging programs for IBM. The other day, I read that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, that modern communications phenomenon, was a classicist. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, I think, talked about the considerable emolument that would be derived—and he has made more than £10 billion, which constitutes a considerable emolument.
There are good practical reasons for children to study the classics, but we should not rest solely on the utilitarian argument that classics are good because they will help young people to get a job or to do better in other subjects. I agree with my noble friend Lord True on that. We should argue for education as being a good in itself. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford reminded us that the power of the classics is timeless. We should want our children to have a window into a different world, to be thrilled or moved by the Greek myths, to be astonished by the achievements of the Greeks and Romans and to see how much we still owe to them today. Nor do I subscribe to the notion—the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, made this point forcefully—that classics are somehow elitist and that they cannot have any relevance to children from poor backgrounds. It is patronising in the extreme to suggest that children on free school meals or who live in inner cities are not able to study Latin or that it is not relevant to their lives.
Like other noble Lords, I feel strongly that we should want the benefits of learning classics to be extended more widely. Yet, as we have heard, whereas 60% of independent schools were teaching Latin in 2011, the figure for state secondary schools was only 14%. For Greek, not surprisingly perhaps, the situation was even starker: 37% of independent schools were teaching Greek but only 1% of state schools were. So as my noble friend Lady Perry said, it is excellent news—and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, on this—that there is a growing number of examples of state schools, primaries and secondaries, in some of the poorest parts of the country giving their pupils the chance to learn Latin and to learn about the ancient world. The Iris Project, which is led by classics departments in some of our leading universities, is taking Latin into inner-city primary schools in London and Oxford, and I think now in Liverpool and south Wales. Independent schools such as JAGS, Tonbridge, St Paul’s and King’s College, Wimbledon, are working with local primary and secondary schools to inspire an interest in Latin. My noble friend Lady Perry reminded us about the Minimus course and the fact that it has sold some 140,000 copies. We have also heard about the Mayor of London’s Love Latin initiative, which should reach 200 schools this year. Academies such as the ARK-sponsored Burlington Danes offer students the chance to study Latin and two European languages.
I have been particularly struck by the example of the West London Free School, one of our first free schools, which is consciously offering a classical liberal education. This comprehensive school has one-quarter of its children on free school meals. It has decided to make Latin compulsory at key stage 3—that is, up to the age of 14. It has drawn up its own curriculum and hired outstanding teachers from the independent sector to help to deliver it. It has, incidentally, been able to do that by virtue of the freedoms that academy status gives them—namely, freedom over the curriculum and freedom to employ good teachers from a wider range of walks of life. So convinced is it of the benefits of what it is doing and the impact on its pupils that it is setting up a local south-west London branch of its Classical Association. Its approach seems popular with parents, as it has just had nine applicants for every place.
We have heard this afternoon about a number of initiatives, many of which were prompted by the excellent organisation Classics for All, which certainly is reigniting an interest in the classics in state schools. Rightly the question put was: what are the Government doing to help to support that revival? Alternatively, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, put it, one may ask whether there are any constraints that the Government can help to overcome.
The first point that I should make is that our overall approach is a permissive one. We want schools to have more freedom to decide what they teach. We have pursued that goal in two main ways. First, we are seeking to slim down the national curriculum for all schools, making it less prescriptive and leaving more time for schools to make their own judgments about what and how to teach and, in the context of today’s debate, freeing them up to teach classics.
Secondly, and of growing significance, academies do not have to follow the national curriculum. They have the freedom to develop a curriculum that they think best meets the needs of their pupils. More than half of all secondaries are now academies or on the way to becoming one and they have those freedoms. That number is going up the whole time. As I said, those academies also have greater freedom to employ staff from a variety of backgrounds, thus making it much easier to recruit teachers from independent schools or, as some independent schools are doing, to take a bright young classicist straight from a top university and to train them on the job.
New teacher recruitment was a recurring theme. We are providing bursaries of up to £9,000 for trainees studying to become teachers of Latin and Greek, which are priority secondary subjects. Schools where there is a demand for classics can also bid directly for School Direct places. The Teaching Agency aims to allocate enough teacher training places each year to match the demand for individual subjects. If demand goes up, the number of places that it offers will increase as well. I was asked specifically about the PGCE and the add-on. I will be happy to pursue that point further and to understand the details better. We are encouraging teacher training providers to offer more flexible solutions to the needs of schools and developing new PGCE courses in response to the new primary national curriculum, which is taking modern languages to younger pupils. Developing a love of learning a language means that providers of training are offering wider choices in language training, including Latin as part of a modern foreign languages PGCE.
I have mentioned the work being done by independent schools to support local schools to offer their pupils a taste of the classics. I am prompted by this debate to seek a meeting with independent school representative bodies to explore whether there is any more that we might be able to do together to see whether we can spread that. As has been mentioned, initially by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, we have also introduced the EBacc measure, which shines a spotlight on those schools offering the mix of subjects, including Latin and Greek, that are most likely to enable students to be able to go to the top universities. The effect of the introduction of the EBacc on schools seems to be striking. Whereas in 2010 22% of pupils in maintained schools took the EBacc subjects, we estimate that that figure will rise to 49% by 2014, which is quite a marked take-up.
I was asked specifically about having more than one exam board for Latin—the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked me about the Government’s intention to move to one exam board per subject. As he knows, we think that it is necessary to protect the rigour of qualifications and to stop a race to the bottom on standards. That lies behind our thinking in moving to one exam board. We certainly do not want the new EBCs to prevent greater breadth of study and a balanced curriculum that includes time to study other subjects. We are exploring that as part of the current consultation.
By giving schools more freedom around the curriculum and employment, by raising the bar on academic achievement, by re-emphasising the importance of academic subjects through the EBacc, by tackling the culture of low aspiration for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, we are, I contend, helping to create an environment in which the seeds of a classical revival can take root. I will certainly draw some of the points made this afternoon to the attention of my honourable friend Liz Truss, who is the Minister responsible for these matters, and flag them up with her.
Rather than having a top-down approach with a range of new initiatives shooting off in all directions, we are seeking to build a schools-led system in which schools are more in the driving seat. I very much agree with all noble Lords this afternoon that the case for classics is strong. I applaud the work that is being done by its champions. I celebrate the encouraging signs that I think there are of quickening interest in the classics and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for bringing this matter to our attention this afternoon.
Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all those who have supported and helped me in securing this debate on Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus. Azerbaijan is a country I know well. I have to declare an interest as a member of the European Azerbaijan Society’s advisory board, for which I receive an honorarium. Also, I have visited Azerbaijan at their expense.
The subject of this debate is the UK’s relations with Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus. These relations go back many years. The UK was one of the first western nations to open an embassy in Azerbaijan after it gained independence in 1991. In 1994, energy Minister Tim Eggar signed the “contract of the century” which installed BP as the lead company in developing Azerbaijan's oil resources, a pivotal position which it maintains to this day.
In common with all those who visit Azerbaijan—not just Baku but also the regional cities and the countryside—I see a country which is benefiting from the proceeds of oil and gas wealth. New infrastructure is being built, and not only in Baku. Evidence of wealth trickling down is provided by the United Nations. Their figures show that poverty levels have been reduced from 49% in 2002 to 11% in 2009. The president is genuinely popular, and people are optimistic about the future of the country.
However, there is one large cloud which hangs over the whole country. That cloud is the 20 year-old conflict with Armenia, which is the continuing illegal military occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions. There are also the resultant 875,000 refugees and internally displaced persons who are still unable to return to their homes and lands. This is despite more than 20 years of talks under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group, and four UN Security Council resolutions instructing Armenia to withdraw its forces.
This ongoing conflict is far from being frozen, as some commentators describe it. I am sad to say that every week there are casualties along the line of contact, with small arms fire and mortar fire being exchanged. However, the casualties go far beyond the immediate proximity of the combat zone, and even beyond the refugee and the internally displaced persons camps.
There has also been a blurring of the lines, with some Armenians unable to separate Nagorno-Karabakh from their campaign for recognition of the genocide. That campaign has included violent action, spreading from Paris to California. The Armenian terrorists responsible were released as a result of Armenian diplomatic pressure, and on their return home were feted as heroes. Recently Azerbaijan pardoned Ramil Safarov, who was convicted of murdering an Armenian officer in Hungary, and when he, in turn, was feted on his homecoming, this led to increased tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and some bellicose statements by the Armenian Government and Armenian pressure groups.
As in any conflict, there are faults on both sides. It is always tempting for both sides simply to rehearse past wrongs. The inability to forgive and forget previous atrocities is, however, only part of the problem. The make-up of the OSCE Minsk Group means that it is seriously compromised. The three permanent chairs are the United States, France and Russia. These just happen to be the three countries with the largest Armenian diaspora anywhere in the world, and this makes it extremely difficult for the Minsk Group to develop a workable compromise. Has this point been recognised by Her Majesty's Government?
This is where the UK can play a constructive role. The UK's involvement in Azerbaijan goes right back to the first oil boom at the turn of the 20th century. In Baku, I have visited the war memorial to British servicemen who died defending the oil fields during the First World War. More recently, as I mentioned, the UK was quick to recognise Azerbaijan's independence, setting up an embassy very quickly, and positioning itself from the outset to help to develop the second oil boom and the new gas boom. Given the length of our involvement with Azerbaijan and our close involvement in developing the country's energy resources, do the Government think that it is appropriate that they take a more active interest in the plight of the refugees? What proposals do they have to take a more active interest in the search for a resolution to the conflict?
On a more practical level, one of the primary objectives of the coalition Government and of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to help the UK economy to grow by fostering trade and investment links. In that context, do the Government consider that it is time that a Cabinet Minister should visit Azerbaijan? During the past year, eight heads of state and heads of government have visited the country. Such a high-level visit would be most meaningful to the Azerbaijan Government and people. What plans do the Government have to send a senior government Minister to Azerbaijan in the near future? I note that many recent contracts for construction and infrastructure have been awarded to non-UK companies. Outside the energy sector, we seem to be missing out on contracts because of our failure to send top-level representation to the country.
I conclude by reminding noble Lords of our long association with Azerbaijan and the huge amount of investment that is at stake. The country is barely 20 years old and is not yet a fully developed democracy by western European standards. However, by the standards of the region, it has a good story to tell and it can only benefit both sides if we engage more closely. The UK can benefit even more from trade and industry. Once a peaceful settlement of the conflict has been achieved and the refugees and the internally displaced persons have returned to their homes, progress towards becoming a fully fledged democracy can be completed. I thank the Minister and noble Lords for listening closely to my remarks and I look forward to the response in due course.
My Lords, Shakespeare wrote,
“O, who can hold a fire in his hand,
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?”.
We should indeed be thinking more about the frosty Caucasus and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for bringing the region, especially Azerbaijan, to our attention. This is a timely debate, since our EU Select Committee has just embarked on an inquiry into EU enlargement. It is a time when there are doubts even about the viability of fellow member states, let alone our neighbours in the Balkans or others further east. I am thinking, of course, of our economic crisis but also of belated worries about the judiciary in Romania and Bulgaria. I am one of those who would like to see much closer relations with the south Caucasus within a wider European fraternity. The Commission seems to think and act the same, but it does not call it “enlargement”.
As member states, we live in a time of great hesitancy and we, the British, generally do not like to commit ourselves to anything new—especially this Government. But Georgia for me is a good test of the real intentions of the EU over the coming decade. While in the West we are concerned day by day about the inner eurozone and its economic impact on the 27, we seem to lose sight of the enormous political and strategic dimensions of eastern Europe, especially the impacts of the West on the old Cold War frontiers and in the zone of continuing Russian influence. With the recent Nobel Peace Prize quite rightly awarded to the EU, it must be in Europe’s interest to share her experience of the rule of law and fundamental rights as a means of achieving greater freedom and political stability elsewhere.
No one is talking about political union or even a federation; people are talking about a gradual strengthening of relations along the fringes of Europe where enlargement or an enlarged association might take place. Some would say that we are already doing that in Kosovo to secure the border with Serbia—they are both states that seem some way away from full membership, although Kosovo is entering a new stabilisation and association process. We may be undertaking something very similar in the south Caucasus in the future. However, Kosovo has been a whipping boy for a number of states that fear separatist tendencies in other countries—namely, the Basques and the Catalans in Spain and the attempted breakaway of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, now recognised by Russia and only a handful of mainly Pacific and South American sympathisers.
The fragile borders with these territories remind me of the EULEX programme in Kosovo—going nowhere but keeping a fragile peace along the river at Mitrovica. The EU monitoring mission has similarly been critical to the prevention of conflict along the so-called administrative boundary lines on Georgia’s northern border. The mission was established after the war in 2008 to monitor compliance with the 12 August plan and the agreement between Presidents Sarkozy and Medvedev on 8 September. Since the Russian veto closed the UN and OSCE missions in June 2009, it has been the only international monitoring presence in the area and, remarkably, the only CSDP mission to which all 27 member states contribute personnel.
Georgia has also entered an association agreement with the EU. The Minister may well point to the enormous investment that the EU is making in the Caucasus arising from the partnership formed after the August 2008 conflict. This is the EU’s little known Eastern Partnership, which covers Georgia and five other former Soviet Union republics. It is benefiting from a €600 million aid programme in 2010-13 to include reform, institution building and regional development. There are many other examples of aid from the European Union, which make it possible for us to have closed our international development programme.
I have been lucky to keep a group of Georgian friends, some of them dating back to my visit to Tbilisi in 1964. Most are in exile, but they keep me informed of events in Georgia. While wanting improved relations with Europe, they were never enthusiastic about President Saakashvili’s style of government. They are more hopeful of change under Ivanishvili, the new billionaire Prime Minister, while not quite knowing his intentions. He is a rather maverick character but, by all accounts, a benevolent, art-loving oligarch. While his fortune was made in Russia, they do not accept the smear that he will necessarily take a pro-Russian stance. Nevertheless, having just appointed a new special envoy to Russia, he clearly wants to rebuild confidence on both sides and, above all, new trade links.
Let us not forget that Georgia is to Russia a little like Ireland has been to England—romantic, wild, poetic, violent and rebellious. It cannot be culturally cut off from Russia and should not be soldered on to the EU either. It must inevitably now find some modus vivendi with Moscow. Georgia signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1997 and became a member of the Council of Europe two years later. However, there have been serious concerns about Georgia’s human rights record under President Saakashvili. Excessive force, for example, was used by police against protesters on 26 May last year and, while four officers were dismissed by the Interior Ministry, no independent public investigation took place and allegations against the police were never followed up. That is just one small example of the need for the spreading of the rule of law.
What exactly is the reason for the EU’s deepening engagement with this region? Does the Minister believe there have been substantial internal reforms in Georgia justifying this level of international support or does he think that the EU Commission has an eastern mission to contain the sphere of Russian political, and perhaps military, influence? It is 12 years since the CSDP was developed in Cologne and Nice. According to the EEAS website,
“the EU’s role as a security player is rapidly expanding”.
Is HMG satisfied that this expansion is taking place with the support of the whole international community?
My Lords, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak in the debate this afternoon, not least because of my increasingly close relationship with Azerbaijan following my visit there in June this year. I hold a deep conviction for increasing our ties with the country and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for securing this debate.
I visited Azerbaijan with my colleagues the noble Lords, Lord Dykes, Lord Risby and Lord Patel of Bradford, and we were privileged to hold a number of successful meetings with senior figures, including the President of Azerbaijan. We learnt a great deal about the modern-day concerns of the country, what we share with them, what our differences are and how we can assist each other and build on our relationship in the future.
As a businessman, perhaps my foremost concern was establishing how we can further our trade and investment opportunities. The UK is already responsible for half of all foreign investment in Azerbaijan, investing nearly £1 billion in 2010. Most of this comes from BP’s investments in oil projects, although we have more than 175 other companies investing in commercial activities over there. The state-owned oil company, SOCAR, has worked closely with BP for many years. I believe that we need to use this as a platform on which to build further on trade and take advantage of opportunities beyond the energy sector.
I am sorry about that.
Azerbaijan has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and there are a number of sectors within which it is looking to expand, including finance, telecommunications and infrastructure. Other European countries have recently secured a number of high-profile contracts in technology and construction. We must harness our current relationship with Azerbaijan to increase our trade with it before more countries beat us to it.
I understand that the Azeri Government currently hold a surplus of cash and are keen to explore the potential for their investments in foreign businesses and properties. Securing such inward investment in the UK would be of great assistance in these troubled times. In assisting this effort, I would like to see more high-profile trade missions to the region or at least more senior ministerial visits to Azerbaijan. I applaud the Prime Minister’s current tour of the UAE and would like similar action to be taken to acknowledge the potential for future trade and investment with Azerbaijan.
During my visit, I was also struck by the social and cultural reform taking place in the country. I met the Sport and Youth Minister and understand that Azerbaijan has a desire to increase its sporting sector, as it has a new-found appreciation for the social, economic and health benefits gained through team-centred physical activity. I feel that we need to look into providing assistance to develop new sports programmes and summer camps for young people. Such an offer seems particularly timely given our sporting legacy this past summer and the long-term implications for increasing the health and stability of the country.
I attended a meeting chaired by the Minister of Religion, where the discussions related to the new wave of religious moderation spreading across the country, with which young people are increasingly engaging. There were delegates from across the region and I was impressed with their attitude to promote the true message of Islam as a religion of peace. I found that, as well as generally opening up the country to the international community, this was very encouraging for its prospects in combating terrorism, which remains one of its Government’s priorities.
This wide liberal shift in attitudes is also evidenced through SOCAR’s new drive towards corporate social responsibility. As a large state-owned company, it is leading by example by implementing a long-term environmental strategy, with commitments on pollution prevention and waste management, as well as acknowledging the need to address issues of biodiversity and sustainable development. It is simultaneously reducing its carbon emissions and increasing the efficiency with which it uses natural resources. Perhaps more impressively, it is constructing an ecological park to regenerate contaminated land and provide educational facilities for children.
It is safe to say that the international community is already recognising the changes that Azerbaijan has been making, having elected it a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2012-14 and progressing negotiations on the EU-Azerbaijan association agreement. These are historic milestones for the country and represent a more assured and stable relationship with the UK and other countries around the world. Colleagues will be aware of Azerbaijan’s continual state of conflict with the Republic of Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which constitutes 20% of Azeri territory. This issue continues to be Azerbaijan’s largest diplomatic challenge and a source of wider instability throughout the region. It is very important that we continue to pledge our full support to the OSCE Minsk Group peace process and to be very proactive in keeping both sides at the negotiating table.
I hope that my contribution has evidenced not only how proud we should be of our ties with Azerbaijan but also the very substantial potential heading forward. During my visit I noticed that society in Azerbaijan has become freer and more prosperous since gaining independence more than 20 years ago. The Azeri Government appeared highly enthusiastic about advancing international engagements economically, culturally and politically and I would like the UK to play an active part in this.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the British-Armenian All-Party Parliamentary Group and as a recipient of awards from the Governments of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. I have visited the region 78 times, many during the war against Karabakh. I regret that my contribution to this debate will be unpopular, because it is critical of Azerbaijan, but it is based on first-hand evidence.
I begin with a brief reference to aspects of recent history relevant to current issues. I visited Azerbaijan in 1991, when I met the then president and political leaders. I was dismayed by the explicit commitment to ethnic cleansing of the Armenians from the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. I also visited Karabakh then and met Azeris living in homes which had recently been owned by Armenians who had been evicted by Azerbaijan’s well documented policy, Operation Ring, in which Armenian villagers were surrounded by Azeri troops who killed, tortured and drove villagers off their land.
I tried to follow the example of Andrei Sakharov, who was committed to being on the side of the victim. Clearly, the Armenians were the primary victims as they had already been victims in the massacres in Baku and Sumgait. Then Azerbaijan unleashed full-scale war. I witnessed 400 Grad missiles daily raining onto Karabakh’s capital city, an aerial bombardment of civilian homes with 500 kilogram bombs. I also witnessed war crimes perpetrated by Azerbaijan on Armenian civilians at Karabakh, such as the cold-blooded massacre of villagers in Maragha. I was there hours afterwards and saw corpses whose heads had been sawn off and burnt, mutilated bodies. I visited Khojaly and can testify that the tragic events were not as portrayed by Azerbaijan—a massacre of Azeris by Armenians. Independent journalists and Azerbaijan’s former President Mutalibov have publicly come to the same conclusion.
It is important to understand that the capture of Azeri territories by Armenians was not aggressive land grabbing, but essential for survival, as they were used as bases for constant shelling of towns and villages inside Karabakh. I was there when one ceasefire was broken by Azerbaijan, with renewed bombing from Azeri bases in these lands. Therefore, continued occupation needs to be understood as a necessary buffer zone in any peace agreement.
This recent history is relevant to current concerns as the 1994 ceasefire is precarious. There is an urgent need for peace for the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia and because the peoples of the south Caucasus do not want another destabilising regional war. However, Azerbaijan’s continuing hostile policies are detrimental to attempts to reach a solution to this semi-frozen conflict. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Laird, mentioned the case of Ramil Safarov, the Azeri military officer who used an axe to murder an Armenian officer in his sleep while both men were attending a NATO course in Budapest in 2004. Safarov was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment. But, when Hungary repatriated Safarov to Azerbaijan, on the understanding that he would continue to serve his prison sentence, he was released from prison and welcomed as a hero. According to the Economist in September 2012, this led to a new war of words in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Patrick Ventrell, spokesman for the US State Department, said that the United States was extremely troubled by the pardon of Safarov and would be seeking an explanation from both Budapest and Baku. Russia, involved in trying to ease relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, said that the actions of the Hungarian and Azeri Governments contradicted internationally brokered efforts to bring peace to the region. May I ask the Minister what representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government to Azerbaijan concerning the release and the honouring of the convicted murderer Safarov?
The Economist also raised questions about the EU’s credibility when it pledged €19.5 million to reform oil-rich Azerbaijan’s justice and migration systems. Since 2006, Azerbaijan’s economy, with its vast oil and gas reserves, has nearly tripled to $62 billion. May I ask the Minister what the EU’s justification was in giving €19.5 million to such a wealthy country? Moreover, there is widely-held concern over Azerbaijan’s massive investment in its military arsenal—a 20-fold increase in seven years. Apart from expenditure on arms, in a nation where many still live in poverty, there is deep anxiety over the propensity to renew war with Nagorno-Karabakh. This danger is exacerbated by Azerbaijan’s constant use of belligerent and hostile propaganda, which is not conducive to confidence-building or effective peace negotiations.
Finally, I refer to Azerbaijan’s disturbing record on human rights, particularly on freedom of the press and religious freedom. Accordingly to an article in Time magazine in April this year:
“Despite Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet economic success, international critics say the country remains an autocracy with little respect for human rights…The Human Rights House Foundation described the country’s most recent elections in 2010 as a farce. Azeri citizens who criticise the political elite face reprisal…Azeri authorities have ignored dozens of assaults on journalists in recent years, including two murders. According to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO, about 70 people are in jail for political reasons, where many are allegedly tortured.”.
There have also been frequent reports by Forum 18 of imprisonment of people for their religious beliefs. May I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government have raised these widely-publicised concerns over violations of fundamental human rights with the Government of Azerbaijan? Or does the situation remain as it did on a previous occasion several years ago, when I raised the issue of Azerbaijan’s violation of international human rights conventions when it was dropping cluster bombs on civilians? I was told by a senior representative from the Foreign Office:
“No country has an interest in other countries, only interests—and we have oil interests in Azerbaijan.”.
Azerbaijan pours massive funds into propaganda, disseminating positive images of its progress while trying to prevent access to Karabakh by intimidating potential visitors who wish to see the situation there for themselves. After one of my visits in recent years, an article appeared in an Azeri newspaper, entitled “Shoot the Cox!”. Parliamentarians visiting Armenia receive letters from Azeri authorities threatening to place them on a blacklist if they visit Karabakh. The British Ambassador is still not allowed to visit Karabakh, although the political and diplomatic representatives of other nations do so. Therefore, it is hard for the Armenians of Karabakh to have their story of Azerbaijan’s policies told.
I deeply regret having had to make such a critical speech. Of course, I can be accused of partiality, but if my contribution is partial, it is accurate, based on first-hand evidence and corroborated by many independent sources. I hope it is helpful to put on record some often untold aspects of the situation, because the search for a just and lasting peace can only be based on an understanding of historic and contemporary reality in all its multi-faceted complexity.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as someone who has visited Azerbaijan many times, although not nearly as often as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has visited Armenia. I took an interest in Azerbaijan and Armenia when I was in the European Parliament over 20 years ago and then more recently when I was in the Council of Europe. I was one of those who argued strongly for Azerbaijan and Armenia to join the Council of Europe on the same day, in the hope that by doing so and bringing both in equally, it would lead to a resolution of some of the very sensitive problems that exist. We have heard one extreme example of the problems in that part of the world.
I want to underline very quickly one or two things that have already been mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, mentioned United Kingdom investment. As he said, 50% of the foreign investment in Azerbaijan is by the United Kingdom—mainly in the energy field, of course. As the noble Lord, Lord Laird, mentioned, we must try to get greater British interest in other aspects of investment in Azerbaijan. I congratulate him on securing this debate.
It is a reflection on not only the present Government but earlier Governments that we as a nation, while so heavily involved financially in Azerbaijan, have never sent anyone more senior than a Minister of State to that country. Yet we find that even in the last two years, some 15 top politicians in Europe have visited Azerbaijan. Among them are the Prime Minister of Turkey—naturally, because Turkey and Azerbaijan have very close connections—but also the Foreign Minister of Germany and the French, Austrian, Czech and Polish Presidents. I could continue. These countries do not have as great an investment nor interest in Azerbaijan as we in the United Kingdom have. When one goes to Baku, it feels like little Scotland because there are so many people there from the oil industry. This is why we should be investing more in Azerbaijan and ensuring that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary go there in the near future. One thing for which we must pay tribute to the present Foreign Secretary of our nation is that he has been developing contacts with foreign countries right around the world. I would like to see him take a further initiative in Azerbaijan to strengthen the British economic presence there.
As has been mentioned, we need to remember that Azerbaijan is a member of the Security Council of the United Nations and will be an important country over the next two years in terms of foreign affairs. It is a partner of NATO, facilitating what is going on in Afghanistan. However, we must always remember that there are two countries looking very closely at Azerbaijan which could destabilise it. One is Russia and the other is to the south: Iran. When I was there I discovered that Iran is now beginning to influence the mosques in the south of the country, and that is always a threat to stability in a Muslim nation. As for Russia—that pillar of democracy—when I monitored the elections on one of my last visits to Azerbaijan, who had the largest delegation there to ensure that democracy was taking place? Russia. They had even more there than the OSCE or the European Union. That is a warning that these two countries are watching Azerbaijan.
One of my great experiences when I went to Azerbaijan a few years ago was going to the border with Russia near Dagestan. I was monitoring an election in the city of Guba. It is mainly Jewish; I had not realised there were so many Jews living in Azerbaijan. It was a most wonderfully controlled election. The officers in the polling stations were very efficient, and it was a great thing to see in a Muslim nation that Jews were happy and welcomed as equal citizens.
However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned, there is of course the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. Twenty per cent of Azerbaijan is now occupied by Armenia. It is supported by Russia, which also has troops based in Armenia: do not ignore that fact. The United Kingdom should join the United Nations, NATO, the European Parliament and the European Commission in supporting Azerbaijan’s right to reassume control over its own sovereign territory.
I underline what the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said about the Minsk partners. Every time I look at who they are, I realise that there is no chance of them settling the problem. I was deputy leader of my own party in Parliament when we negotiated the Anglo-Irish agreement. There were three elements to it. One element was Irish-British relations. Another, of which I was in charge, was Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland relations. That was a very difficult subject, just like Armenia and Azerbaijan. You had to have an impartial chairman to succeed. Once we have the Minsk process we do not have an impartial organisation. I am sorry to say that it is biased in favour of Armenia.
I am not asking the Minister to reply to any questions tonight. I must apologise because I have to leave quickly. I have a meeting arranged with Christians and Muslims of the Middle East at 7.30 pm. However, one thing we need to look at is how to get someone impartial to help Azerbaijan and Armenia reach a settlement over this very difficult subject of Nagorno-Karabakh, which could explode and destroy stability in that whole region if it is not handled carefully. One thing I ask of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is that we join together in opposition to Azerbaijan when it next plays Northern Ireland in the football.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to underline a couple of the points which have been made in this debate. I declare my interest. I have been to Azerbaijan this year, supported by the European Azerbaijan Society. One of the things that has clearly come out of this debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, is the huge amount of foreign direct investment that the UK has in that country. What needs underlining is the potential for more. It is a country which has enormous amounts of regeneration prospects and the opportunity for other forms of investment from UK companies. I am afraid that we may be losing out to others, particularly Germany, which is seeking to do better and bigger business there as well.
In his winding up, will the Minister agree that we need a high-level trade delegation from this country led by a senior Minister to promote those new opportunities? After all, this country needs more opportunity to trade, to invest and to gain funding for this country.
The second issue that needs underlining underpinned some of our discussion. The amount of trade and investment that we have enables this country to be a critical friend of Azerbaijan. After all, we must recognise that it is not a perfect democracy—perhaps not even ours is a perfect democracy. It has had 21 years of existence since its life within the Soviet Union but it takes a huge amount of time to make the changes to reach a full democratic status. It is a country leaning towards that and it wants to achieve it.
As a critical friend, it seems that that is a role that the UK is well established to play. I regard investment in human rights and investment in justice systems as a crucial part of that journey, which I think this country wants to move on to. I suggest that justice systems’ support, supporting alternative measures and ways of approaching public order issues are things that this country can achieve. I believe that it is much better to support that from within than to try to complain from without.
We are in a unique position to influence the way in which Azerbaijan moves forward. It wants to move forward in a direction to which this country is sympathetic and I believe that we can undertake that. I have met Opposition MPs in Azerbaijan who have a role in human rights and say that they need support and help. They are not overcritical of the way in which their Government behave but they need the extra help that this Government could provide in the way of support. They need support for a free and open media. They have Opposition-leaning newspapers but we can provide more assistance in that direction.
In summing up, I hope that the Minister will give reassurance to noble Lords that we will be a critical but supportive friend working from within.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion. The debate illustrates the difficulties faced by the United Kingdom in balancing, on the one hand, a complex set of concerns which do not always sit comfortably together and, on the other, a very small capability as a single sovereign nation to influence the trajectory of the region. The issues concern us, but it may be more realistic to recognise that it is our work through the European Union and NATO that is likely to have the greatest impact on the country and the region.
I am obviously aware, as noble Lords have been throughout the debate, of the struggles for independence that have taken place in Azerbaijan and the region more generally. I emphasise that history because it appears to me that it is shared to a greater or lesser extent by the whole region. Independence has been fought for in many ways and with diverse allies, each with their own motivations. At the moment, at the heart of all these struggles, one can see the assertion of national identity, but it is based on some very different premises—some national, some subnational, some regional, some ethnic, some religious—in their identity. It is perhaps unsurprising that deep fault lines have appeared and will continue to appear, making it difficult to find simple solutions.
For those reasons, the previous United Kingdom Government and, I believe, the current one, have been consistently concerned about the dangers inherent in conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territories, the question of the ethnic Armenians in the enclave and the alliances which have been formed around them. What does the Minister believe are the still current and useful bases of the Madrid principles and the work being done by the Minsk group? Do the Government believe that we can achieve a withdrawal of remaining Armenian forces from the country? How do they see the demilitarisation programme? How do they see the deployment of international peacekeepers? What are the prospects for reconstruction and the return of displaced Azerbaijanis? What programme do the Government have? If that programme is a European one, I make no criticism of that whatever; it may be the right way to go.
As I suggested, this is by no means the only fragile regional problem. The breakaway republics in Georgia, which have been supported by Russia, plainly in response to Georgia’s potential closeness to NATO, have created ongoing tension. David Miliband in another place was right in my view to describe Russia’s actions as aggression. The United Kingdom has been right to call for respect for Georgia and for its territorial integrity under international law. I should like to know that the Government still adhere to that position. Georgia is entitled to know that it retains our broad support. I do not for a moment underestimate the difficulties that would occur in discussing any future developments moving closer to NATO that would occur with Russia but, none the less, I am keen to know what the character of those discussions might be.
Several noble Lords made the point that visits to the region in general, including to Azerbaijan, by prominent politicians give signals. The first signal is one in the interests of the future of the country but it is also an opportunity—Hillary Clinton took that opportunity on 6 June 2012—to give signals about our expectations for a more normal and generous attitude to human rights, as well as to trade opportunities. Of course, there are signals being given all the time by Europe and by the United States; it may very well be that we can add to those. All speakers in this debate will appreciate the importance of energy supplies but, while we cannot ignore that, we need to place it in a context. The impact of having alternative sources of energy supplies to those provided by Russia unquestionably increases the prospects for energy security throughout Europe. I entirely see the arguments for developing the links and the commercial possibilities that BP and others have produced—not just in the extraction of oil and gas but in the construction of the pipelines. All of these are important economic developments.
In the last few moments that I have, I suggest that these interests should not for ever silence us to the issue of the poor human rights records in Azerbaijan. When one looks at how the wealth that has been generated has underpinned the power of just one political entity in Azerbaijan, it should concern us a great deal. The country is rated as not free by international indices; it has a number of political prisoners; its TV channels are controlled by the Government; its journalists are routinely threatened and, of 178 nations ranked in the 2011-12 press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders, the country ranks 162nd. The political opposition has all but been eliminated.
I therefore ask whether the Government have a view on whether the economic measures we have taken through the European Union and the discussions about the potential for NATO membership are, in themselves, having any kind of impact on a recognition of the need for human rights and democracy in that country. Like others, I do not say that out of a spirit of hostility but rather to make this point. If we believe that our influence has been significant, and significant through international bodies including the EU and NATO, how are we making sure that that influence is beginning to change what I believe is a human rights record which needs urgent attention?
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for this interesting debate. I am constantly struck by how much diverse expertise we have in this House on the many countries around the world. I can recall the questions that were asked some months ago on the Georgian Government’s reform of public services by a number of Peers who had just returned from Georgia. I recall my first visit to Yerevan in 1995, when the key lady on the floor of the hotel where I was staying said to me, in hushed tones, that I was staying in the very same room that Caroline Cox—the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—had stayed in some months before. I recall some years later in Abkhazia, with Anna Politkovskaya and a number of other journalists, meeting the Foreign Minister of what seemed to me that benighted and unrecognised country. His last words to me as I turned to leave were: “May I ask you, when you return to London, to please give my best regards to Lord Avebury?”.
We all recognise that there are many comings and goings. I enjoyed the pictures on the web that I looked at this morning of the noble Lords, Lord Laird and Lord Kilclooney, on their most recent visit to Azerbaijan. If I may make just one partisan point: when noble Lords demand that Ministers should travel more often and then demand that Ministers are always here at short notice to answer debates, it should be recognised that this coalition Government have visited more countries with more senior Ministers than our predecessors but that the demands of Parliament are one of the things that hold us all back.
The coalition Government are of course keen to promote Britain’s security and prosperity and, at the same time, to influence the Governments with whom we deal to improve the quality of their rule of law, human rights and democracy. None of the three countries in the Caucuses is yet a fully-fledged democracy. All of them have had problems with media freedom and media ownership; all have had problems with the rule of law. We are extremely happy that Georgia has just had an election which was ruled by most observers to be free and fair, and in which there has been a democratic change of Government from one party to another. Azerbaijan has not yet reached that stage, nor is there a fully-fledged opposition in Azerbaijan, but there was not one in George until relatively recently. Armenia has elections next year, which we very much hope will be up to the standard of being assessed as free and fair.
We are working across the region with our partners in the EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that our assessment of the EU’s mission is that it is there to strengthen the stability of our neighbourhood. The basis of the European neighbourhood policy—the eastern partnership is part of this—is that we export security or we import insecurity. It is much better to export security. There is no more expansionist mission than that. I have visited Georgia on a number of occasions and talked to the EU and OSCE representatives there, and that is very much what they are attempting to do. He commented that the relationship between Russia and Georgia is very similar to that between Britain and Ireland. I did once say in a discussion in Moscow that it seemed to me that the attitude that the Russians—with whom I was talking—had towards Georgia was very similar to that which the British had towards the Catholic Irish in the middle of the 19th century. That is part of the problem of accepting that these are countries which are entitled to their independence and to be treated as equal partners. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who complained about the Azeris acquiring weapons in large quantities from others, that the Russians sell weapons to Azerbaijan and to Armenia. That is one of the problems in trying to resolve that frozen conflict.
We are, as several noble Lords have remarked, the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan—primarily in the oil industry, but also now spreading to the retail sector and others. I recognise that several noble Lords have commented that they would very much like to see a senior Minister going there. As we speak, the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, is in Baku attending the internet governance forum. The Prime Minister has met the Azerbaijani President twice in the last six months. Other Ministers have visited the country. There are at the present moment no plans for a Cabinet Minister to visit in the near future, but such plans are kept fully under review. I had the great pleasure last night of speaking at the Iraqi-British business commission with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, who was, as always, fully up to speed. It is not simply a matter for the Government: I encourage all noble Lords to be as actively engaged as possible in encouraging further British investment and trade with all these developing countries.
Why are we interested in the region? Of course for all these connections; the transit of oil and gas to Europe via a southern energy corridor is of considerable importance to Europe’s energy security as a whole. The region is important to us in terms of security, and is one of the many transit routes to Afghanistan. Noble Lords have mentioned that Iran is also a neighbour and that the sanctions on Iran have led to an increased Iranian interest in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Azeris are always conscious that there are more Azeris living in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself and that to go to Nakhchivan you have to go partly through Iran.
However, our common security means that we are engaged with the region. All three countries have contributed to the ISAF in Afghanistan. There are now two Georgian battalions in Helmand, taking over some tasks from the US Marine Corps and thus actively assisting the British forces in that region. The Eastern Partnership sees this as a collective Western relationship with the region. Georgia is the country which has most openly declared its intentions of joining both the European Union and NATO. This is a long-term process, but deeper relationships are currently being negotiated with Armenia and Georgia, and a deep and comprehensive free-trade area, to use the EU jargon, is now under way in terms of negotiation with both these countries.
We have also talked about the frozen conflicts. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, what happened across Georgia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in a number of other areas as the Soviet Union broke up, were some very bloody and disorderly conflicts, which have left us with what we have now. There were faults on all sides. Let us also touch on what happened in Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. We are left, however, with the enormous problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh and with people on both sides of this ethnic conflict who feel deeply aggrieved at each other.
The Minsk process has failed yet to make much progress. We do, however, have only that process to work with. The United Kingdom, which is not a member of the Minsk group, continues to support the Minsk process, difficult as it is. We cannot entirely get rid, for example, of Russia as a major player in all this. Therefore, to rebuild a group which would attempt to negotiate without Russia would not be particularly helpful. If we were to invite China to adjudicate, I am sure that the Chinese Government would be much more impartial than the current chairs of the Minsk group but they might not necessarily be that much more helpful.
The British Government are putting in a certain amount of money themselves in terms of supporting NGOs, British and others, within Azerbaijan and across the region. We also support what the EU is doing in terms of promoting human rights and the rule of law. Of course, we invest as well. We would love the Azeris to fund what we do but we have, across the whole of eastern Europe, invested heavily, as we now are also doing in north Africa, in rule of law missions, in improving the capability of political parties to take part in elections and in looking at the administration of elections. That is very much how we see our democratic mission.
To wind up, we are committed to this region because it is part of the wider European neighbourhood. We are committed with our European partners because we share common interests. We are committed as a country that is an active exporter to compete with our European partners—the Germans, the French and others—for business and investment in the region. So we have a mixture of interests in which we recognise the growing importance of Azerbaijan, the importance of the Caucasus as a whole to our future energy security and the importance of helping the Caucasus to become more stable, more prosperous and more democratic for the peace of that region and of our broader region as a whole.
Committee adjourned at 7.44 pm.