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Lords Chamber

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 10 January 2013

House of Lords

Thursday, 10 January 2013.

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Death of a Member: Lord King of West Bromwich


My Lords, I regret to inform the House of the death of Lord King of West Bromwich on 9 January. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to the noble Lord’s family and friends.

World Food Supplies


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what importance they attach to the consequences of large-scale commercial land acquisitions in the developing world in their policies relating to the developing world and the prevention of a world food crisis.

My Lords, the UK Government are committed to improving food security and nutrition in the developing world. We believe that private sector investment in agriculture is important in achieving that. We are clear that those investments, particularly any that involve commercial land acquisition, must be socially and environmentally responsible.

Does the Minister agree with the estimate that, on average, every six days, investors buy an area of land the size of London in the poorest countries, which are often already facing acute food shortages? Do not those investors too frequently intend to export what is produced, although those countries are facing acute food shortages; and are not those exports often for biofuel, with all its questionable environmental dimensions? Do not such purchases tend to be made without proper community consent and, furthermore, without proper consideration of the economic and social consequences? What does the Prime Minister intend to propose to the G8 summit on land transparency and such purchases at the forthcoming meeting?

The noble Lord, who has worked in this area for a very long time, is right to highlight this as a potential problem. However, I cannot agree with his first statement about its scale because there is insufficient evidence. One thing that is extremely important and that we are pursuing is supporting the evidence-gathering in this area to see what the scale of the problem might be so that we can better address it. Nevertheless, the noble Lord is right to say that transparency is the key here. If we can promote that, we can see whether the acquisitions that people may have made reference to are simply anecdotal or whether there is evidence of the nature that he is talking about. I assure the noble Lord that we are emphasising transparency and that at the G8 summit the Prime Minister will indeed focus on food security as one of the issues.

What proportion of DfID’s aid budget has been allocated to the provision of more support for sustainable small-scale agriculture to help poor—mainly women—farmers feed their families? What measures are the Government taking to ensure that increased private investment in agriculture, as the Minister mentioned, is aimed at maximising poverty reduction and sustainable equitable growth, as highlighted by many NGOs, including Oxfam and ActionAid?

The noble Lord is right. DfID does support smallholder production, and one of the key issues here is trying to establish land rights. The United Kingdom is working in a number of countries to promote this and has increased the spending in this area. It is working in 13 countries to support smallholder farmers by supplying seeds, fertilisers and access to finance and by making sure that women, who are often the ones running these smallholdings, are particularly supported.

Do the Government agree that the land reforms implemented in rural Scotland over the past decade have shown the benefit of involving those who live on the land in its future use? That benefits both the wider community and the individual families concerned, and may provide some lessons that could be used in our international development policy to assist those who are currently fighting against their movement from the land or the exploitation of their land in other parts of the world.

The noble Lord makes a good point. He will probably be aware that at the G8 last year the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition was set up specifically to take forward that approach of looking at the responsible development of agriculture, recognising its importance in sustaining the poorest communities and making sure that people are engaged in that positively. The UK is continuing to press forward that approach.

Will the Minister look particularly at any adverse impact on pregnant mothers and nursing mothers and their crucial role in the early development of children in terms of their being denied food because their area is being used to grow biofuels or for other uses?

The United Kingdom is extremely aware of the importance of supporting pregnant mothers and infants in their first days. The noble Earl will be aware that the first 1,000 days of gestation and a child’s life are so important to the future health of that child. The areas that I have just focused on support this, but I also flag up the fact that we have social safety nets. It is extremely important that financial support reaches pregnant women and those who are trying to support their families so that they have enough money to provide for those families.

Is it not part of the evidence that could be considered the vast increase in local food prices in the poorest parts of this world? Is it not basically immoral to take food from countries in the developing world that cannot feed their own populations to feed biofuel incinerators here in the UK? We should be fuelling those biofuels from the massive food waste in developed countries, rather than have food scarcity in the poorest.

I was listening to the point on the “Today” programme about food wastage and it is extremely dramatic. Within DfID, we are working with other government departments to look at the impact of biofuels. It seems, although the evidence is disputed, that they have played a part in some of the food price spikes that we have seen. We are into the third one at the moment, which is largely because of the drought in the United States. However, the effect of using maize for biofuels is potentially significant and we are looking at this very closely.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that discussions are taking place, or are planned to take place, with the World Bank about a public freeze by the bank of all agricultural investments that involve large-scale land acquisition? Does the Minister agree that such leadership from the World Bank would leverage responses from other investors and developing country Governments in a much needed initiative?

We do not agree that there should be a freeze in World Bank lending for agriculture, the reason being that to do so could disrupt valuable projects and because the World Bank itself has high standards in place to try to ensure that things are transparent. We are pushing for greater transparency than is already the case in what the World Bank does. However, it is probably missing the mark to aim at the World Bank rather than looking in other directions. It is extremely important that we take forward the World Bank’s engagement in advising Governments to try to make sure that any land acquisition is to the benefit of their communities.



Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to reduce the number of amputations due to diabetes.

My Lords, foot complications of diabetes are usually preventable. Early identification and prompt treatment prevent amputations. NICE guidelines recommend annual foot checks, which are included in the quality and outcomes framework for general practitioners. NHS Diabetes has established regional diabetes footcare networks. People with vulnerable feet require expert protection, while those with problems need urgent specialist care. Local national health services are responsible for commissioning podiatry services and multidisciplinary specialist footcare teams for people with diabetes according to local needs.

I draw the attention of the House to my declaration of interests in respect of Diabetes UK. One hundred and twenty-five amputations take place each and every week in England alone, and 80% of those are preventable. The record of the Department of Health is not good; the figures are going up, not down. If I asked this question in a year’s time, what progress does the Minister expect that his department would have made to reverse that trend?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that this is a major public health issue and one that impacts very seriously on the health and well-being of individuals, so it is a priority for us. We are committed to reducing the number of avoidable amputations among people with diabetes. In fact, progress is being made: although the number of amputations is going up, the rate is falling. However, we are under no illusion that this will be a growing problem because of the growing number of people with diabetes. All our work on improving completion of the NICE nine care processes for people with diabetes and improving timely access to specialist diabetic footcare multidisciplinary teams will support that aim, and the Diabetes UK Putting Feet First campaign has real potential to improve awareness of foot complications in diabetes.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the real way to reduce the number of amputations is to reduce the incidence of diabetes and that the way to do that is to do something about the obesity epidemic, which is the main cause of diabetes and one of the main causes of amputation? What is he doing to try to prevent that quango, NICE, misleading the nation and politicians, as it did, into believing that the answer to the obesity epidemic was to take more exercise when, although exercise is important, the real answer is to eat fewer calories?

I agree with my noble friend about the importance of targeting obesity as a serious public health risk and one which leads to diabetes in many cases. I believe that, if my noble friend were to talk to NICE about its recommendations to prevent obesity, he would find that its line is slightly modified from the one that he has criticised. We should pay tribute to NICE for the good work it has done in the specific area of diabetes. The recommendations and guidelines it has issued have been very positive. There is, of course, a quality standard for diabetes, which is also excellent.

My Lords, people with learning disabilities and those with serious mental illness have a higher incidence of diabetes. They have a later diagnosis and are therefore more at risk of complications. Does the Minister agree that one way to reduce the number of amputations associated with diabetes would be to improve access to diabetic care for people with learning disabilities or mental illness?

My Lords, yes, I certainly do. There are a number of positive ways in which we can do that. One is the NHS health check, which should, if it is performed correctly, pick up those with undiagnosed diabetes. Early identification of diabetics is key in this area, particularly for those who are at risk of ulceration. Other ways are targeting preventive services at those most at risk, including those with learning disabilities; early management of foot infection and rapid access to multidisciplinary teams; and having good diabetic foot prevention and ulcer management services in local areas.

My Lords, the point at issue is surely this: that to prevent the four out of five needless amputations that currently take place, Her Majesty’s Government need to respond to the Question of my noble friend Lord Kennedy by saying how they will ensure that there are those multidisciplinary groups with specialist knowledge of feet and the ability to make sure that there is not a postcode lottery as there is now. They should be properly monitored by the Government to ensure that a proper service is offered to diabetics at a time of decline in the amount of money going into the National Health Service.

My Lords, there is no single magic bullet that will solve this problem, but undoubtedly better monitoring in general practice is one answer; the QOF incentivises that. The NHS outcomes framework will also incentivise clinical commissioning groups to ensure that those with long-term conditions—particularly diabetes—are properly looked after. The benefits of multidisciplinary teams are now proven. The evidence is there and, if we can shine a spotlight on the statistics—and there is, as the noble Lord knows, a wide variation in success rates across the country—that will be the key to driving better performance throughout the health service.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that part of the problem is that while the NICE guidelines, if implemented throughout the country, would reduce the variation rate in amputations, particularly of lower limb extremities, it is not mandatory to implement those guidelines? He may be aware that several nations, including Scotland, have recently reported a reduction of 30% in the amputation rate, following strict protocols in diabetic management.

My Lords, there are centres of excellence throughout the United Kingdom, from which I am sure the health service as a whole can learn. The noble Lord is absolutely right. He mentions the NICE guidelines; he is right that they are not mandatory, but they do point to best practice. By highlighting the data, we can ensure that commissioners and practitioners ask themselves the right questions about whether best practice is being followed.

Public Libraries


Asked By

All parts of the public sector are contributing to reducing the deficit, including local government. In the circumstances, it is right and proper that local authorities look afresh at how they deliver library services. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s library statistics reflect that authorities are reviewing and reconfiguring their services with a net reduction of 74 mobile libraries and 76 static libraries in England in 2011-12. Overall, however, there are 3,243 libraries in England, which remains an impressive network.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. In saying that, perhaps I may invite all Benches to regret that the noble Lord, Lord Marland, will be leaving us. With his colour and candour, he offered a lot to us and we will miss him.

According to our information, some 300 libraries closed last year across 40 local authorities. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 provides the Secretary of State with powers to take action where a local authority is in breach of its duty to provide a comprehensive public library service. But, according to the DCMS website, the Secretary of State is in correspondence with a mere four local authorities. Will the Minister confirm the current situation and indicate whether the Secretary of State will be using her powers to ensure that the country retains a high-quality public library service?

First, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. I am fast learning how to multi-task, as I cover both BIS and the DCMS, but only for the next two days.

Returning to the reality of the question, I would like to reassure the noble Lord that the Government are doing much to support and develop libraries. They have taken a number of actions over recent months, including transferring responsibility for library development to Arts Council England, giving libraries access to significant funding opportunities. In addition, Arts Council England has allocated £6 million of its grants from the arts National Lottery funding. The figures presented by the noble Lord could be disputed and we will need to come back on that, but I stick by the figures that I have given in terms of library closures.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on a quote attributed to Winston Churchill in the middle of the war? Churchill was told that there was a plan to close libraries to raise money for the war effort. He said, “No you won’t. What the hell are we fighting for?”.

I am not able to give a particular comment on that, except to say that I reiterate that the Government are very much behind the development of libraries. It is extremely important to ensure that we take note of technological change. There is changing demand for library services and it is important to bear that in mind.

My Lords, among the figures recently released, is the Minister aware of the 8% reduction in full-time library staff in the past year? That is almost double the number in the previous year, which will have had a significant effect on opening hours and other library services.

I am not aware of the figures that the noble Earl has given. However, I can say that this is part of the technological changes that are taking place. With his long interest in the arts, I am sure that the noble Earl will be aware that various changes are going on, particularly in terms of the move towards e-book lending, for example, and wi-fi. The issues are changing dramatically in terms of demand and we need to react to that.

Does the noble Viscount agree that the overall number of libraries is not really the significant issue? The issue is where they are and who has access to them. Does he further agree that the people who have most need of access to libraries are those who have very little other recourse to books and the benefits that books bring? What are the Government doing to ensure, whether directly or through the Arts Council England, that provision of libraries is available to the most deprived communities in this country?

I take the point raised by the noble Baroness. It is true that sometimes, particularly in rural areas, individuals have more of a challenge or a difficulty in reaching a public library. However, the actual figures of reduction do not necessarily represent a pure reduction. For example, in North Yorkshire, 10 ageing mobile libraries were replaced with one superior model. The service changes but does not necessarily reduce.

My Lords, I follow on from the previous question about the closure of libraries, particularly in the most deprived areas where minorities have settled. Does my noble friend agree that when we are emphasising to people the need to learn more about English and the history of our country, to deprive them of that knowledge, at the same time, could be very counter-productive?

In answer to the noble Lord’s question, I wish to say what I meant to say in answer to the noble Baroness’s question as well. It is very much up to the local authority to decide what type of library service is given. As the noble Baroness and my noble friend are aware, there is a statutory duty to give a comprehensive and efficient service to the community. That is defined as meeting local needs within the context of available resources in a way that is appropriate to the identified needs of the communities that they serve.

Following up the previous two questions, would the noble Viscount be kind enough to place in the Library a list of where these libraries have been closed? I think that he cited in his initial answer that 76 permanent libraries have been closed. Would he please publish a list of exactly where those libraries are?

The point is noted, and I will look into that. On the assumption that I am able to do it, the sentiment is there that I will put the note in the Library.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that libraries are about far more than books? In an age where community life is under great strain, they are focal points for a whole range of activities besides the traditional one. Does that not make the closure of any library a self-destructive act?

Not necessarily. The quick answer is that library services are changing, as I mentioned earlier, as a result of changing demand. It is, however, true that there is an opportunity to use libraries for different services rather than just taking books out. This includes the use of wi-fi and the provision of coffee shops; for example, there are some libraries attached to leisure centres. I repeat, therefore, that the situation is changing.

Welfare Benefits: Women


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the differential impact on women of changes to welfare benefits.

My Lords, the Government are supporting women and families, for example by changing childcare support through universal credit and by lifting 2 million of the lowest-paid workers, six out of 10 of whom are women, out of income tax altogether.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. The noble Lord says that the Government are supporting women and their families; however the House of Commons Library analysis suggests that 81% of the £1.065 billion raised from the new direct tax credit and benefit changes will come from women. When the Government decided to make these changes, were they really aware of the specific impact on women? If they were not aware of this, it is a disgrace. If they were aware of this, it is an even greater disgrace.

My Lords, the impact on women of the uprating changes, in a Bill that will come to this House shortly, is greater; 33% of women are affected, against only 29% of men. The redistribution under universal credit switches slightly and, in proportion, households with women do slightly better in numbers than households with men—40% of households with women are gainers, compared with 39% of households with men.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain how it can be fair that, because of the changes in child benefit, in households with three children where only one partner is working and has a student loan, if their salary goes up from £50,000 to £60,000, they will face an effective marginal tax of 75%? In contrast, households with incomes of £100,000, where both partners are working, will face a marginal tax of 45%. How is that consistent with a fairer tax system?

My Lords, the reason for the reduction in child benefit for those on higher incomes is so that it could be implemented in this way. As my noble friend will know, it has been adjusted to provide a taper at £50,000 to £60,000 to smooth that transition.

My Lords, the noble Lord’s right honourable friends in the other place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, are waging war on so-called shirkers, in part by cutting their benefits. However, as my noble friend has said, two-thirds of those benefit cuts are falling on women. If you take into account changes in pensions, pay and taxes, more than 80% of the cuts are falling on women who are bringing up children, caring for the elderly and holding down a part-time job at minimum wage. Does the Minister agree with his right honourable friends that apparently the face of a shirker is now that of a mother, a carer and a woman?

My Lords, as regards the reduction, or potentially below-inflation increase, in benefits, a lot is happening in the economy in relative terms. Today’s article in the Financial Times is one of the best analyses of that that I have seen. I am sure that others have seen that article, which shows how squeezed people are in the middle and upper-middle tiers of income distribution. They have fallen right back to the level of earnings in 2002-03, while real incomes in the bottom 30% were 3% to 4% higher than they were. That is the context in which we are looking at the adjustments to the benefit levels.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the average woman of child-bearing age loses about two eggs per hour, unlike the Minister who is making 50,000 sperm per hour? The consequence is that women’s fertility falls rapidly. Does he want to see equality of women in the workplace by trying to support them rather better during their child-bearing years?

My Lords, I will not go into the detailed figures that the noble Lord mentioned. There is very substantial support for women of child-bearing age as, over the past decade, statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance have moved up from being payable for 18 weeks to being payable for 39 weeks. That is the context in which that support should be looked at.

Information Committee

Membership Motion

Moved By

That Lord Lipsey be appointed a member of the Select Committee in place of Baroness Pitkeathley, resigned.

Motion agreed.

Administration and Works Committee

Motion to Agree

Moved By

My Lords, this is a short and straightforward report so I do not intend to detain the House for long. However, given that an amendment has been tabled to the Motion, I thought that it might be useful if I explained to the House how the committee reasoned its proposals.

As explained in the report, last year, under the chairmanship of my predecessor, the committee was asked to consider an alternative location for holding press conferences following the end of the lease on No. 1 The Abbey Garden. The committee agreed that the meeting room in Fielden House should be used for press conferences in place of No. 1 The Abbey Garden, and that arrangement has worked well since April 2012.

The committee was also asked to consider the appropriateness of continuing to use Committee Room G for press conferences. As the report explains, the committee felt that it was no longer appropriate to continue to use Committee Room G for several reasons. First, the committee felt that it would be useful to draw a distinction between those press conferences that are held by an official committee of this House and those that are organised on behalf on an individual Member. Members of the public often do not appreciate the difference between a parliamentary Select Committee, an all-party group and a collection of Members. The committee therefore felt that it would be sensible to amend the rules so that there was some distinction between them. If this report were agreed to, press conferences held by Select Committees would still be held on the Committee Room corridor while press conferences held by other Members would not.

The committee also considered the practical complications of holding press conferences in the Palace of Westminster itself. Members will know that meeting rooms are often in short supply, especially in the Palace. While there is not a large number of press conferences held each year preventing the use of rooms in the Palace, for some of them this will reduce the burden a little.

Although this may be seen as a relatively minor logistical change, it has been necessary to bring the matter before the House itself due to the fact that Committee Room G was originally included in the rules governing the use of facilities agreed by the House in 2010. As a breach of these rules constitutes a breach of the code of conduct, it is important that any amendments to the rules are agreed by the House and are clear and workable.

It is of course right that Members should be able to hold press conferences in Parliament as part of their parliamentary work, and this report is not intended to undermine that work. Indeed, I understand that there has been an informal suggestion that the meeting rooms in Millbank House could be used for press conferences. That would indeed answer any questions on limited capacity, and I welcome that suggestion. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, feels at the end of the debate that he does not wish to press the amendment, and if that suggestion on Millbank House is made, I would be more than happy to take the matter back so that the committee could consider that one specific amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

To move, as an amendment to the above motion, to leave out “agreed to” and insert “referred back to the Committee for further consideration; and that it be an instruction to the Committee that any future recommendations allow for Members to continue to hold press conferences in Committee Room G”.

My Lords, as the report of the Administration and Works Committee says, the House agreed on 16 March 2010 that:

“Members may not hold press conferences in committee rooms on the Committee Corridor, but they may do so in Committee Room G and other meeting rooms with Black Rod’s permission”.

That remains the position up until now, except that when the lease on 1 The Abbey Garden most unfortunately came to an end, it ceased to be available. That room held 40 people if the partition between the two rooms was opened up, and tea or coffee could be provided, a facility which is not available in Fielden House, or in Committee Room G for that matter. Now it is proposed that Committee Room G should not be used for press conferences, so that Fielden House will become the only location available to Members, rather than the three that we had before Abbey Garden was relinquished.

The committee says that,

“this arrangement was in place since April 2012”,

but that decision was not published or reported to the House at the time. I only found out about it after holding a press conference on Bahrain in Committee Room G on 23 August and a meeting on 17 September to mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Sadegh Sharafkandi, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, and three of his colleagues at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin by Iranian agents. On the Friday before the second of these meetings, Black Rod e-mailed me at 1522 attaching a paper he had submitted to the committee and the minutes of the committee’s meeting of 27 March, in which it purported to make the decision that we are now debating.

I telephoned Black Rod’s office at 1550, and when there was no answer I e-mailed him at 1652, saying that I had asked the attendants about transferring the meeting to Fielden House but was told that nobody was going to be on duty there on the Monday evening. In that e-mail I protested through Black Rod to the Administration and Works Committee about taking this clandestine decision without consulting Members. He replied later the same evening saying that as it was too late to change the arrangements for the meeting on Monday, the use of Committee Room G would have to stand. I wrote to Black Rod asking if the committee’s decision would be reconsidered on the grounds that it had been taken without consulting Members and particularly those who hold press conferences, however defined.

The commemoration of Dr Sharafkandi’s assassination was billed as such and the attendance of journalists was incidental to it. I would like to ask the Chairman of Committees whether, if this Motion is carried, it means that Members are not allowed to invite journalists to meetings in the Palace of Westminster that are not described as press conferences. I will come back to that point later. However, it does mean that press conferences have to be held between 9 am and 5 pm, because those are the hours during which attendants are on duty in Fielden House unless special arrangements are made. Fielden House accommodates only 24 people, to the 40 of Committee Room G, and is therefore unsuitable for important events. It is also unsuitable for events that are to be attended by disabled people, because Fielden House is some distance from the main Palace of Westminster.

Part 3 of the report suggests that the House itself might be associated with the proceedings of press conferences. Having held numerous press conferences in Committee Room G, Fielden House and 1 The Abbey Garden, I am not aware that any of them has been reported as an official event of the House of Lords, nor have words spoken at press conferences been attributed to the House of Lords. If evidence to that effect was presented to the Administration and Works Committee it was not thought worthy of mention in its report. I suppose that the risk was purely hypothetical.

In any case, if it suited the editorial policy of an unscrupulous newspaper—non-British of course—the proceedings could just as well be presented as effectively sanctioned by the House if they were held in Fielden House or anywhere else on the Parliamentary Estate. Members of another place have a large number of rooms for press conferences from which to choose. The rooms in which photography and TV are allowed include the Jubilee Room, the Attlee and Macmillan Rooms in Portcullis House, Room C in 1 Parliament Street and the W Rooms. No distinction is made between meetings of a general nature and press conferences.

The risks that are supposed to arise in Committee Room G must affect meetings in any of those locations available to the Commons, although it may be said that it is not for us to compare our decisions with those of another place. Surely it is illogical and perverse to come to a different view from theirs on a matter which is said to have a bearing on the reputation of Parliament as a whole.

The Chairman of Committees wrote to me saying that he would circulate my letter to the Administration and Works Committee for consideration at its next meeting on 23 October last, and after that he wrote again to say that the committee had decided to uphold the decision that press conferences could be held only in Fielden House. In the second letter he noted that the use of rooms for press conferences was contained in the rules governing the use of facilities in the House of Lords, which had been agreed by the House. Therefore the change, to cease using Committee Room G for this purpose, would also need to be agreed by the House. Until and unless that happens the previous rules apply and Committee Room G may continue to be used for press conferences. The suggestions that were made to me during the Summer Recess—that the two meetings to which I referred earlier should have been held in Fielden House—were erroneous, and I should like that to be acknowledged.

It is true that press conferences sponsored by Members often deal with matters that are controversial and of significant public interest. In December, for example, I co-hosted a meeting with Anne Main MP on the outlook for the Bangladesh general election in 2013 and I chaired a meeting on human rights in Gambia. There were no media persons at either of those meetings, as it happens, but on occasion it may well occur that journalists are invited for the contributions that they make to the discussion. For example, I am sure that there must have been meetings on the Leveson report sponsored by Members, in which journalists were invited to participate. Is it permissible for the media to be present at an event as long as it is not described as a press conference? What is the sponsor of the meeting supposed to do if attendees make notes of what is said, raising the possibility that they might give information to the media—or, even worse, take pictures on smartphones that might then be given to the press?

If any noble Lord or honourable Member seeks to use the Palace of Westminster to propagate illegal extremist views such as incitement to racial or religious hatred—as I believe may have occurred in hearings of the committee, although it is not mentioned in its report—the matter should be dealt with ad hoc by the Administration Committee in another place, or by the Administration and Works Committee of this House. We should not shut down the means whereby Members seek to give a voice to legitimate views, particularly of those who are silenced in other countries. This applies also to meetings at which, because of the theme, views may be expressed that would be strongly disapproved of by the majority of noble Lords.

There is a significant appetite among some in the foreign media for the views of oppressed people that are aired at some of the meetings held on the Parliamentary Estate, yet we are now being asked to reduce the number of possible locations of such meetings from three to one—a small conference room at some distance from the Palace of Westminster where you cannot even offer journalists a cup of tea. I suggest that we ought to give thought to ways of expanding the contacts we have with the media, and that reducing the means we now have would be moving in the wrong direction. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a moment. I have great respect for my noble friend and I listened to his remarks with considerable sympathy. However, I make it very clear that I support the refusal to hold press conferences in Room G. It is one of the consequences of the overpopulation of this House that the number of committee rooms available to noble Lords for general purposes is under great pressure. That being the case, it is right that unofficial press conferences, however worthy—I totally understand the point made by my noble friend Lord Avebury—should be held elsewhere.

I asked my noble friend whether he had considered going to Millbank House. I made inquiries about this. The Archbishops’ Room in Millbank House holds a large number of people, and other facilities are available. It was suggested that access arrangements at Millbank House are too difficult if one wants to have a number of people. I do not accept that for one moment. I was very glad to hear the Chairman of Committees say that Millbank House could be another location. I hope that my noble friend Lord Avebury might be prepared to recognise that that is a considerable step in that direction for which he is calling, and may not feel it necessary to divide the House.

My Lords, I have held a number of meetings in the Archbishops’ Room at Millbank House. You can get at least 30 or 40 people in there—I do not know the exact figure. It would certainly be big enough to contain any reasonable press conference. It is a very good room with a large table and a lot of chairs around it. You can have an extremely good meeting in that room.

My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I do so as the Member of your Lordships’ House who has held perhaps the two most controversial and packed press conferences in recent years—after the Dutch MP, Mr Geert Wilders, was banned by the then Home Secretary from entering this country, and, when he had won his appeal against that decision, after he had shown his film, “Fitna”, privately in Committee Room 4 to Peers and MPs.

The Home Secretary’s decision turned the whole saga into a world media event and both rooms at Abbey Gardens were not nearly big enough to hold even half the number of media outlets wanting to attend both events. For the second conference, I had applications to attend from 92 outlets worldwide, including two Japanese film crews, and spaces had to be severely rationed. From that experience, I fear I have to disagree with the key reasoning in this report, leading the committee to cease using Committee Room G for press conferences.

First, it states:

“Whilst it is right and proper that Members should be able to hold press conferences in Parliament as part of their Parliamentary work”—

as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has reminded us. What has happened to that? I say hear, hear to it, but it appears to have disappeared and been overridden by less worthy considerations. The quotation continues:

“the House as a whole may not wish to associate itself with the views given in such press conferences”.

At no time during or after the Wilders saga was there any suggestion from anyone that your Lordships’ House associated itself with Mr Wilders’s views. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Cox and I made clear that we ourselves disagreed with some of them, but our overall purpose was to secure his right to free speech as an elected Dutch politician. So that part of the report simply does not stand up. Nor does the next sentence:

“the setting of Committee Room G, right within the heart of the Palace of Westminster, means that it is not always clear from a public perspective that the press conference is not an official event being held on behalf of the House”.

Further down in the report, it states:

“Furthermore, press conferences can attract a large number of journalists and other guests, which can be difficult to manage from a security point of view”.

Committee Room G is not “right in the heart of the Palace of Westminster”. It is on its extreme fringe. It shares its public entrance with the Attlee and Cholmondeley Rooms, both of which regularly handle large numbers of strangers. There is a permanent police presence on duty.

On security grounds alone it would have been better to have held Mr Wilders’s conferences in Room G than in Abbey Gardens or Fielden House. I suggest that this may apply to other controversial guests whom your Lordships may wish to entertain in future. Mr Wilders would not have had to go by a circuitous route to Abbey Gardens with his bodyguard and all the rest of it. My noble friend Lady Cox and I would not have had to walk from the Palace of Westminster to Abbey Gardens under threat of what we were assured would be sniper fire. We would not have had to brave the blandishments of thousands from the English Defence League who were gathered—though I cannot quite remember on which side of the argument. Nor would we have had to fear the thousands of Muslims with whom we were threatened, but who did not in fact materialise.

Surely press conferences are usually confrontational events. Did the committee think of that point? If a press conference is controversial, which is what seems to be moving the committee, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the media will test the controversial viewpoint strongly. How does your Lordships’ House suffer from that? I fear that the conclusions of this report do nothing to support freedom of speech or the reputation of this House. Indeed, I fear they impede it.

Finally, there is the matter of capacity. Fielden House is limited to, I think, 30 people—the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned 24—but Room G is limited to 45. No doubt more journalists can be accommodated standing, but what about television crews? Fielden House is simply inadequate to hold any but a conference in which the media is not much interested. That cannot be in the interests of your Lordships’ House. Surely we can leave the decision about whether Room G or Fielden House should be used for any particular press conference to Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher. Why would they not get it right? What is wrong with that? I support the amendment.

My Lords, I strongly support the words uttered by my noble friend Lord Avebury following the remarks of the Chairman of Committees. It is a drastic suggestion to exclude the only room within the Palace precincts that would be available for the purposes of a press conference, or for use by any individual Member or Members together for meetings on any cause whatever, in the normal system of booking a room. It would be very drastic if it were completely removed because it is quite important psychologically, for a number of reasons, for a Member to be able to make an application for the use of a room within the Palace precincts. It makes a difference.

I declare an interest having done a book launch of my own, with an outside colleague, in February of last year: we used Room G and journalists attended. The idea that that would bind the House and Members as a whole to the content of my remarks in launching the book, and to other questions that arose from members of the audience, both non-media and media alike, is a most extraordinary suggestion. No such problem exists in the other place, where it routinely happens. However, given that MPs are more active Members, in one sense, one would expect that to be so.

However, bearing in mind that often Room G would be booked up anyway by other Members, and therefore not available if someone applied to use it, not having that choice in the Palace itself would be undesirable. Although I do not wish to comment on the more polychromatic and allegorical suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about the content of the meeting to which he referred, the points he made were valid. You must have that option as a Member and, perhaps, to make the choice to go elsewhere, to Fielden House or Millbank House, if you prefer. To narrow down the choice in this way is a strange request in the committee’s conclusions and should be reconsidered very carefully.

My Lords, I share the concern of other noble Lords who have spoken about this paper but, first, I ought to ask the Chairman of Committees: what is the problem that he and his committee are trying to solve? How many press conferences of the kind which will be banned from Committee Room G are held each year?

I know that there is pressure on rooms. I very occasionally hire a room to help, say, with a campaign, but if a couple of journalists happen to turn up, does that make it illegal? When is a press conference a press conference, rather than a few journalists with other people there? I do not know the answer and the Chairman of Committees may be able to help with that.

I do not often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, but on this occasion I agree about the problems of getting large crowds into Committee Room G, as it says in paragraph 4. Nothing like as many people come into there as come into the Cholmondeley Room for receptions at lunchtime and in the evening. The security arrangements usually handle them fairly well and so the numbers cannot be a reason for excluding people.

The other problem that has been mentioned is the issue of room bookings. If we are to make more use of Millbank and Fielden House, the hours they are available should be appropriate to when the House is sitting. However, surely the booking arrangements for committee rooms should all be done in one place. The booking arrangements for committee rooms in the House are extremely good and efficient now, so why should we have to phone someone else if we want to book a room across there? I know there is pressure on booking rooms but if it is a question of trying to reduce the number of events and press conferences that take place within the House, I would be very surprised if this recommendation would make much difference to the availability of rooms and the demand for them.

I shall be interested to hear from the Chairman the real reason for this and whether he can define what a press conference is that will be covered by this.

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Avebury, Lord Pearson and Lord Dykes, have all made an extremely strong case, and the committee would be wise to take us back to look at it again.

My Lords, in my opening comments I acknowledged that there had been an error in the way in which the process had moved toward implementation of the original decision by the Administration and Works Committee, in that its recommendation had not been brought before the House as it should have been. Once that was recognised, the decision of the Administration and Works Committee was not implemented. It has been held in abeyance until we have had this debate today. I freely acknowledge, therefore, that there was a fault in the process, which we have sought to rectify by bringing the report before your Lordships’ House today.

There have been three areas of argument on the basis of the comments that have been made. First, let us deal with what is and what is not a press conference. In about 99.9% of cases, it is obvious whether it is or is not a press conference. If Members are in doubt whether the event they are organising is a press conference, they should seek the advice of Black Rod. If they have sought his advice, they are deemed to have complied with the rules and to be in the clear. That is the way to deal with what is a press conference.

One of the other areas is distinction. Is it right that we draw a distinction between those press conferences that are clearly official parliamentary press conferences, which deal with reports issued by Select Committees or other organisations directly responsible to the House, or those press conferences that are held, quite rightly and understandably, at which Parliament provides in some way a platform for other people to give views? That is the argument on distinction. There is a strong case to say that a distinction ought to be maintained; that official parliamentary press conferences take place along the Committee Corridor, where the committees themselves are held, and that the platform type of press conference is held within Parliament though at one remove from the Palace itself.

I am very grateful to the Lord Chairman. As the noble Lord is probably aware, I am secretary of the All-Party Cycling Group. Next week this group will start an inquiry into the provision of cycling facilities, which will consist of between six and eight MPs and Peers, who will produce a report. Do I, as secretary, have to ask Black Rod’s permission to have a press conference to launch that report in the House?

Yes. Not to launch the report in the House; if the noble Lord has a press conference, it would be perfectly possible for him to have it in Millbank House. That would be allowable if the House accepts my suggestion, and if the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, accepts my suggestion, that he does not persist with his amendment, and we take back this report purely on the grounds of enabling the committee to consider the Millbank House option.

My Lords, further to that point; if Black Rod can decide what is and what is not a press conference, why can he not be trusted to decide where it should be held, particularly from the point of view of security, which may be vital to the event in question? It may be clearly more in the interests of security that it should be held in Committee Room G than in either Millbank House or Fielden House.

The extent to which we actually move decision-making away from the Chamber and on to Black Rod is a matter of fine judgment. There are some areas where that is perfectly reasonable, and seeking his advice on whether the meeting that was being held was a press conference, if the Member himself or herself was in doubt, would be helpful because it would mean that the Member was able to ensure that they were not breaching the rules by at least seeking the advice of Black Rod and acting upon it.

Clearly, though, with regard to the business of where that press conference should be held, the rule that we are trying to establish is that it is right to make a distinction between parliamentary press conferences, held to discuss and debate a publication, a report, of Parliament, which will be held within the Palace itself, and what are called platform press conferences where Parliament, quite properly and rightly, is being used to provide a platform for views expressed by people from beyond Parliament. The latter, although held within Parliament, would not be held within the Palace; they would be held in Millbank House or Fielden House, and on the whole people will feel very comfortable with that distinction.

The second argument is about capacity.

I have to say that I thought that this was going to be a short debate, but it is in danger of turning into yesterday’s debate.

I am very sorry to intervene again, and I am grateful to the noble Lord. Do the same rules about the distinction between official and semi-official press conferences apply in the House of Commons? Do Members of Parliament have to ask the Serjeant at Arms if they can book a room within the building?

I am unaware of the precise rules that apply in the House of Commons, but as I understand it the House tends to deal with this matter by having a very strict rule about recording, photography and filming. That is the way in which it has dealt with the problem. There is a very strong ban, as I understand it, on filming in House of Commons Committee Rooms.

On capacity, I understand the concern that the rooms in Fielden House may not be large enough to accommodate a significantly populated press conference, though I have to say that in my experience that does not happen very often in this House. That is why I am very much attracted to the suggestion that we open up rooms in Millbank House, particularly the Archbishops’ Room, which is a large room that can accommodate events, and I would have thought that this would satisfy all the arguments on capacity. On that basis—

From what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has informed the House, which is why I put the question to him, the room in Millbank is no larger than the room in Fielden House. It is the same size, so what advantage can there be? We can have two press conferences, but a single large one still cannot be held.

I am reluctant to challenge the noble Lord on that issue. From my somewhat cursory examination of the rooms it looks quite a bit bigger to me, but never mind. As I say, I am more than happy to take the report back specifically on the use of Millbank House if the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wishes to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Howell, whose influence I hope will lead to a favourable decision when we come to the end of this debate. I am not disposed to withdraw my amendment; I wish to press it to a Division, and I would like to explain why. First, the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has not dealt with the point that I raised about disabled Members having difficulty getting to Fielden House, and the same argument applies to Millbank House. That has been reaffirmed to me during this debate by a particular disabled Member who says that it is not possible for disabled Members to attend any meetings in Millbank House when there is a threat of a Division because they simply cannot get back from there in time. I suggest that no attention whatever has been given to the argument which I mentioned in my introductory speech: that it is grossly inconvenient and sometimes impossible for disabled Members to attend any meetings in Fielden House and the same applies to Millbank House.

If I have understood the situation correctly, the Chairman of Committees has said that he is prepared to take it back to the committee, including the issue of Committee Room G. Is that not right?

If I could clarify, I am prepared to take back the report purely on the limited area of the use of Millbank House. If, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, persists in his amendment, I will maintain the report and the Millbank House option will not be considered.

In that case, the situation is rather clearer and I had misunderstood. Would it not be more sensible for the noble Lord to take it back to the committee without any restraint on what it can discuss? If we go ahead and, as I think is likely, carry the noble Lord’s amendment, then we are tying the hands of the committee when it needs to take into account the wider issues, including the use of Room G. I should have thought we could proceed on that basis.

My Lords, perhaps I might offer a bit of advice. We did think that the Chairman of Committees had said that he would agree to a reference back to consider Millbank House. However, he said it on the basis of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, not pursuing a vote on his amendment. I sense the feeling of the House would be that, even if the noble Lord were to pursue the amendment to a vote—and he were to lose—the committee might still consider the Millbank House option. Might he not just reflect on that?

I am always happy to reflect. The difficulty is that we have a bit of a procedural problem about the nature of the Motion that is before us. I can give the categoric assurance that, if it is withdrawn, I can do it. However, if the noble Lord divides the House and loses, we will have divided on the report and the report will then be carried. I am sure that the committee would wish to take the sense of the House but I cannot give the cast-iron procedural guarantee that I could if the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

I am not prepared to accept that undertaking. The argument the noble Lord has advanced that Millbank House is adequate for the purposes of press conferences is spurious. The noble Lord did not even venture to say anything in his intervention just now about the difficulties that disabled Members have in getting to Fielden House. The difficulties they have in getting to Millbank House are no less.

In conclusion, I do not think the distinction between press conferences that are held by an official organ of the House, such as a Select Committee, and those that are held by private Members is fully appreciated. That was borne out by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. No one attributed the views that were expressed at the meeting with Geert Wilders to the House. Nor did anyone think that any sentiments expressed at that press conference either by the noble Lord himself or by his noble friend Lady Cox were attributable to the House. No one has ever said that things that are dealt with at private press conferences are the views of the House. So that was a spurious argument. I believe most people would agree that we should retain the use of Committee Room G and I would ask the House to decide accordingly.

My Lords, it has been possible to clarify in the intervening period what would be the best procedural method to ensure that the House’s will is properly expressed and acted on. In those circumstances, I think that the best way forward is for me to withdraw the Motion and to take the report back purely on the basis of looking at the Millbank House option.

Motion withdrawn.

Disability Services

Motion to Take Note

Moved By

To move that this House takes note of the report by Scope, Over-looked Communities, Over-due Change, on disability services for people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

My Lords, I rise, somewhat belatedly, to move the Motion standing in my name. To be black, a member of an ethnic minority or disabled is to know what it is to be invisible—to be there but somehow not be seen, or to be heard but simply not heeded. That concept is difficult to explain. It is difficult, frankly, for those of us who happen to be members of the black and minority ethnic community or who happen to be disabled to talk about. Yet it is, for all of us, a fact of life, and this valuable report demonstrates that most effectively, I would argue, because it reveals what a toxic mix it can be to be both black and disabled. You suffer a double whammy of neglect and disadvantage. All too often you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

The report, Over-looked Communities, Over-due Change, makes salutary reading. Disabled people from black and minority ethnic communities and their families are often left disengaged from the decisions of policymakers and practitioners, disconnected from support systems and services, and disempowered from finding local solutions to the problems that they face. In this House this afternoon we have an opportunity to address that issue. We will have the opportunity to do so again in the weeks and months ahead as the Government take forward their own legislative programme, particularly in relation to the children and families Bill. Today, however, we can ask Her Majesty’s Government to ensure now that the policymakers act not only on this report but on the whole body of evidence that has gone before—a body of evidence that goes back many years, including the period in which I was in government, when we, too, as a Government, had no reason to be complacent about this issue but where some progress was made.

I believe that we will hear the reality reflected in your Lordships’ contributions to the debate this afternoon—contributions that represent a body of unparalleled expertise in this field, for which I am particularly grateful. It is important that we read in the report about the experiences of the black and minority ethnic communities in all parts of the United Kingdom, that we learn about good practice, that we hear and receive the recommendations from the focus groups that contributed to this report, and that we hear and learn from the voices of those people who all too often are unseen and unheard.

We are grateful to Scope and to the Equalities National Council, which is itself a black and minority ethnic voluntary sector body and a centre of excellence in this field. We find from this report that we are confronting, as a country, what amounts to a demographic disability time bomb because the black and minority ethnic population is both growing and ageing. We learn that there are at least 1 million disabled people from black and minority ethic backgrounds in our country. Some 40% of those people live in household poverty, compared with 32% of all disabled people and 17% of the population as a whole. Only four in 10 of black and minority ethnic disabled people manage to find any employment at all, and 40% of those are self-employed or part-time employees. The incomes of those individuals are 30% lower than that of the rest of the general population, with half earning less than £240 a week.

This is not primarily a debate about resources but I would argue that these issues cannot be considered in isolation from the current context of the delivery of services. The issue is not about restraints on resources; we all understand that they are part and parcel of today’s reality and we have to live with that. Nevertheless, the reality is also that these restraints on resources are falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable in our society. We know from the work of, among others, the Afiya Trust that the equality impact assessments on social care budgets are all too often disregarded and that public sector equality duties under the law are flouted. The reality for those small black and minority ethnic voluntary organisations, which play such an important part in the care of the most vulnerable, is that they are suffering disproportionately from the impact of local authority cuts. In 2010-11, £3 million was cut from the sector and £1.5 million from London alone. One in five local authorities does not actually collect any data at all on black and minority voluntary sector organisations.

The question that one puts to the Government today is: will they confirm their commitment to public sector equality duties? Will they reassure the House that the Red Tape Challenge will not be used to water down a commitment to equality? We must also ask ourselves, and ask the Government, what steps are in fact being taken to ensure that their disability strategy reflects the special needs and concerns of black and minority ethnic disabled people. Will the Government meet representatives of the Equalities National Council and Scope to receive their input? A commitment was given on a previous occasion in this Chamber by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that there would be such a meeting. Despite requests from both Scope and the equalities council, no such meeting has yet taken place.

Do the Government intend to respond positively to the UN recommendation, endorsed in this report, that there should be a national equality strategy? All the signs and indications from the Government to date have been that they do not intend to embrace the need for such an equality strategy. However, if an equality strategy is not to be introduced, how are the various strands across different sectors and different government departments to be pulled together? Will the promised disability strategy be backed up by an implementation plan, with a focus on measurable outcomes and a means of monitoring progress?

Will the Government clarify their approach to translation services? There again, we have had conflicting signals from the coalition. On the one hand, the spokesperson in this House very rightly affirmed her belief, based on her considerable experience of local government in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, that translation and interpreting services have a very important role to play in the delivery of care to black and minority ethnic communities, yet the Secretary of State for Communities, no doubt concerned about resources, described such services as “divisive”. How can this be, given all the evidence, which is contained again in the report?

One example given was of a tape to describe the symptoms of and treatment needed for multiple sclerosis. It was given to an elderly, non-English-speaking Asian woman in relation to the diagnosis of her daughter and it created tremendous fear, concern and apprehension because it had not been translated very well. These services are absolutely crucial to ensuring that there is proper diagnosis, care and treatment. Will the Government clarify the situation and give service providers and users the reassurance that they seek?

All these questions speak to an issue that goes to the heart of how we care for one another in society. Yes, of course it is important that special needs are met and that we address those issues, so well articulated in the report we are considering, as they affect black and minority ethnic communities. However, the reality is that when the needs of one section of service users are consistently overlooked, it is the quality of service to all that is undermined. We are genuinely all in this together—whatever our race, colour or language and whatever the level of our abilities or disabilities. Responsive, respectful and relevant services, made accessible and inclusive, are to the benefit of us all, regardless of our race, background or relative abilities.

What the Government will hear today will not be special pleading; it will be a call to action for a decent society, one in which we can justly take pride. Last year, in the Olympics and Paralympics, we celebrated our diversity. We took pride in it; it said something important about us as a nation. Yet the reality is that when the celebrations have subsided, for all too many of our fellow citizens disadvantage and inequality remain a fact of life. There is disadvantage, inequality and an inability to access the services that they so desperately need.

I hope we will see in our House’s response to this important report, and in the Government’s response, a determination in this new year to resolve to translate the evidence, which is there for all to see, into policy and action so that we can celebrate good practice and a society that is truly diverse—and one that recognises the huge potential that is lost when we fail to meet the needs of those who currently are not receiving their due. When we take action to enable and empower all of us in our God-given and precious diversity, then we really do have something to celebrate. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, who has brought this very important report to the Floor of the House today. At the beginning, I refer Members to my interests in the register concerning various disability charities.

The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, has outlined in his opening remarks some of the core challenges and problems identified by this report, so in the time available to me I would like to focus on some of the recommendations made by the report. I begin with the recommendations for local authority commissioners. It is suggested that there is a need to redesign commissioning contracts to facilitate collaboration between small and large organisations to allow more consistent, wide-ranging care that meets both personal and community needs. This is a most timely recommendation because of the changes that are taking place, as we debate, in commissioning.

It has been my experience that commissioning, whether it is done at a national level by government, by local authorities or through commissioning structures within the health service, almost inevitably follows a pattern. The pattern is usually one where those who are commissioned tend to be larger organisations, for the reason that they are easier to deal with. Larger organisations cover the ground more and the financial control is easier, rather than if the commissioning is based on a lot of small and more independently, but perhaps more accurately, focused and targeted providers.

That is really the challenge in this recommendation in the report. I do not expect the Minister, who will reply to this debate today, to have all these answers, but I will make this request. This is such a timely report at a time of great change for disabled people that if she does not have specific answers to these questions today, I hope she will consult colleagues—this will often need to be across government—on these various recommendations and perhaps agree to put something in writing in the Library. I think that would be very helpful to those of us who are concerned about how practically the Government are going to address the very timely and helpful suggestions in this report.

I turn now to the recommendations related to policymakers in the report. The report states that,

“BME disabled people’s needs and views have often fallen between the two areas of disability and race equality policy. Finding ways to bring these two policy fields together is extremely important for developing effective support for BME disabled people”.

It is almost self-evident that that needs to be addressed, but I think it is a little more complex than the report suggests, because among the disabled community per se there has for a long time been the big challenge of people who have co-morbidities—people with more than one disability. When you bring into that the additional challenge of a range of ages and, as this report addresses, the BME disabled community, you can see that when you look at how you could try to address the needs of those individuals, it is almost inevitable that you will end up with a generic service.

I say to my noble friend at the Dispatch Box today that it is a real challenge to target the services that policymakers produce on individual needs, which will almost certainly be complex. It is a challenge to provide the strategy through the policy as to how to address the myriad requirements of people who have not just one but often a range of disabilities, where two disabilities might mean, for example, someone with an autistic spectrum disorder who also has either a diagnosed mental health problem or a physical disability and is also part of the BME community. Then there are the age concerns to be taken into account.

Of course, when we talk about disabled people, we must think not just of the disabled people themselves but of their family situation. Siblings and the effect of having a severely disabled sibling are extremely important. When you are providing, commissioning and looking at appropriate services, you have to take a more holistic view at the family, the primary carers and, of course—particularly as far as children are concerned—siblings in the same household.

These are therefore complex issues that are not easily resolved, and they are not resolved well at present. We have to do better for this community. I say to my noble friend that in looking at policy-making, some of the recommendations in this report are absolutely critical. These include, for example, a theme throughout the report: involving disabled people themselves, along with their immediate carers, and the BME communities with experience and background in what the needs and solutions are.

Another recommendation for policymakers is the one to develop a national race equality strategy, which includes the needs of BME disabled people. The noble Lord touched on this in his opening remarks. My noble friend will, of course, reply at the end of this debate, but that recommendation was made in the light of the Government’s announcement that we are to expect a forthcoming disability strategy. If it is not the Government’s intention to develop a national race equality strategy, it would be helpful to know exactly what is being done at present—I assume it is being done at present—under the disability strategy. This would reassure the House that this community’s needs are being considered and will be included when that strategy is made public.

There are also recommendations for service providers. A person-centred emphasis is recommended, and I totally agree with that. One can look at a range of disabilities, and there will be a common purpose in the services provided and commonality in the way in which disabilities affect people and in how some particular disabilities, which might be degenerative, are likely to affect people in the future. One does have to look at the individual; no two people are the same. Service providers should look at the individual and take that holistic look at the individual and their immediate surroundings and life chances.

Employment was mentioned. The figures are appalling for people who could carry out paid work or—and I always emphasise this at this stage—voluntary work. I know this is not the flavour of the month. Everyone is going to be in paid work, but for some people with a disability—and I must emphasise this strongly for my noble friend on the Front Bench—just getting them to the stage where they can maintain independent living is a milestone that many would not have achieved without a lot of support. For some people—and it is only some people—to expect them additionally to take on paid employment could diminish their ability to maintain a standard of independent living that is both safe and acceptable.

We all want disabled people, including the BME community on which this report focuses, to have the opportunity for paid employment wherever possible. However, I am old enough to remember, as I am sure other colleagues in the House today are, when the life chances and quality of life of many disabled people meant that they often lived at home with increasingly elderly parents, the inevitability of which was that at some point there would be a crisis in their care when the parents were no longer able to look after them, so that they, as disabled people, had to face decisions about their future at a point of crisis. That is something which I hope my noble friend will consider.

My Lords, I, too would like to congratulate both the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing this timely debate, and Scope, for producing such a valuable and important report. As president of the National Children’s Bureau—a declared interest of mine—I am particularly keen to draw attention to the compounded disadvantage that children and young people with disabilities in black and minority ethnic communities, or whose parents have disabilities, face to their well-being. Not only do children in general face particular vulnerabilities to poverty, but it is also well documented that disability increases the risk of poverty. When children are additionally members of the black and minority ethnic communities, their well-being risks can soar.

I had a lot of statistics that I was going to go through, but the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, has covered them very well. However, if noble Lords will bear with me, I have one or two points I would like to underline before going on to talk about some more general issues covered in the report. It is vital—the report makes this very clear—that we understand that the disadvantages of disability can be amplified for children from within the black and minority ethnic community. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, talked about a double whammy. However, if you look at children and young people, and the link with child poverty, as well as the links with disability and the disadvantages faced by black and minority ethnic communities—I am thinking particularly of some black or black British households and the nearly 60% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households which, according to Barnardo’s analysis of DWP statistics, were living in poverty in 2011—we are talking about something which is more like a triple whammy for children.

Scope’s very important report, Keep Us Close, also made it very clear that the children of disabled parents within the black and minority ethnic community fare no better. We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, about the very low employment rates for some disabled members of the BME community. Disabled women in this community, who are often the main carers, face incredibly low rates of pay. As we have heard, the median was almost half that of non-disabled adults. None of that will be made any easier with the forthcoming changes to financial support through the new disability addition to a family’s universal credit entitlement. For families receiving the current mid-rate component of disability living allowance, financial support for this group will be halved to £28 a week.

It is against that backdrop that the disabled children we are talking about today will face a range of other problems, which was highlighted well in the report. For instance, in many cases, they or their parents will face language barriers in trying to access the care that they need. Simply put, you cannot know what you do not know. For many in this community, the report has highlighted that language barriers mean that they miss out on services available to them simply because they do not know how to ask for them or what they are entitled to. Scope has also found that members of the BME community are less likely to be represented on some of the forums and committees that make decisions about public services. At these crucial moments for shaping policies and services, the needs of the black and minority ethnic community too often go unvoiced.

A concrete example of a missed opportunity in terms of support faced by disabled children with language barriers can be seen in education. Many young disabled people have a statement of special educational needs guiding their education. However, the report has shown that many black and minority ethnic parents did not know what that was or that they should have the chance to influence their child’s statement at an annual review meeting. Include Me TOO is a charity which specifically supports disabled children, young people and their families from the black and minority ethnic community. It has published a report that found that some parents did not even know their disabled child’s annual review meeting was coming up until it had already happened.

Unavailable, incomplete, or outright incorrect translation services, particularly within medical services, present another challenge to BME parents of disabled children, a point which clearly came across in the Scope report. It highlighted a particular case and asked people to imagine that they were the mother of Anita, a woman who was consulted during the writing of today’s Scope report. Her daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Rather than a thorough explanation of the range of MS symptoms, Anita’s mother was given a CD of translated information that merely laid out the worst-case scenario. Quite understandably, that really alarmed and upset her.

In addition to poverty and language barriers, the disabled children of black and minority ethnic communities also face a number of more subtle disadvantages of social isolation and stigma. Again, I thought that the report was very good in highlighting these issues. Perhaps I may pick up on a couple of other examples. One misconception that some members of the community face is that they will have significant family safety networks on which they can fall, although sometimes that is not the case and, indeed, the opposite can be true. The Scope report found strong evidence that social isolation can be very problematic for disabled people from black and minority ethnic communities. Most notably, it drew attention to the experience of women, who are generally the primary carers. A number of BME women who took part in the research highlighted social isolation as an acute problem that they had experienced. One female respondent to Scope’s survey said that when they ask social services for extra support, they are sometimes told, “No. You can do it yourself because you are from an Asian background”. She said that social services think that they have a close and extended family who can look after them, as well as religious leaders. Her view was that that was an excuse for social services not doing what they are supposed to do.

Parents in the BME community also voiced concerns over social stigma associated with their children’s disability. The Scope report highlights the case of a Muslim woman which demonstrates this very well. She felt constantly that she had to defend her son against her extended family’s constant judgment of him as “just a naughty boy”. She said that she was very grateful when her son was finally diagnosed with autism, which she felt gave her a sort of defence mechanism against her family’s accusations that bad parenting on her part was the root cause of her son’s problems.

As I hope I have demonstrated and as the report demonstrates very well, which is why it is so important that we are giving time to this subject today, more needs to be done to bring about a cultural shift in the perception and provision of services for all disabled children and all children of disabled parents—yes, for everyone, but particularly those from within the black and minority ethnic community. These children start well behind the starting line in the race of life from the triple vulnerabilities of youth, disability and minority community status, which then can be coupled with the higher levels of poverty, the language barriers, social isolation and stigma that I have talked about.

The question is: what can we do? We will have an opportunity to do something concrete in a Bill which will shortly be coming before your Lordships’ House. Scope has developed a “provide local principle”, which is designed to ensure that services in local areas are inclusive and accessible and, where services for disabled children do not currently exist, local authorities must guarantee their delivery and ensure that parents and families are involved in their commissioning.

Today, I ask the Government to consider including Scope’s “provide local principle” in the forthcoming children and families Bill as part of the local offer to which they have already committed. The introduction of this principle would do much to improve the services available to all disabled children, including those from BME communities. Given the will, I am sure that this can be done and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on this point.

My Lords, I congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, on instigating this debate. It is important that this subject is being discussed today. I have spoken to several people who are involved with disability as a whole and, when I mention the services for black and minority ethnic people with disabilities, not much seems to be known. The Scope report presents some of the evidence and I am sure that your Lordships, like me, will look forward to the Minister’s response.

There are so many disabilities, many of which are complex. I want to add something to this debate which I cannot see in this report—namely, the need for prevention of disability, if possible. Disability can be a strain on families, as it can be very costly and time-consuming. Education for women who are so often the people looking after disabled people is so important.

My admiration has no bounds when I consider the bravery of the schoolgirl shot in Pakistan who was campaigning for education for girls. This outstanding girl would now be dead or disabled if it was not for the medical skill she received in Birmingham, her own hard work and will power, and the support of her family and the Government. That shows how important it is that people work together to help people with disabilities.

I mention today in this debate that the Leeds Children’s Heart Unit is fighting for its retention, as there are a high percentage of black and Asian babies born with heart defects in the area of Leeds, Bradford and West Yorkshire. The north is a special case; it needs units in both Newcastle and Leeds. I cannot understand why the consultants who perform the operations cannot travel between the two units to make the service viable. This would save stress and strain to many families with social needs, who would find long-distance travel too expensive and complicated.

Results show a range of variations between black and minority ethnic—BME—groups and white, British counterparts. Most differences are negative, which indicates that BME groups are less likely to report a positive experience. However, many areas show no difference and some show a positive difference. The research findings show that a source of dissatisfaction was that customers struggled to find out about the benefits available for a long time after they had developed their disabling condition. Many participants felt that it was very hard to find out what they were entitled to and that this applied similarly to all benefits available. Many participants felt that they could have applied for benefits and received help earlier on. This triggered some criticism of the Disability and Carers Service.

Information and forms for disability benefits are far too complicated for most disabled people, let alone black and minority ethnic groups. Language barriers often mean that BME disabled people do not know about, and cannot use, services available to others. Therefore, it is often disabled people rather than services that are perceived as hard to reach. Communication is vital in accurately translating someone’s condition or disability. Disabilities in communication can result in inaccurate or inappropriate diagnosis. A lack of information in an appropriate language can significantly hinder or prevent access to services and facilities. This is being stressed in this debate.

We must therefore take great care to send out the right information about services and impairment. This could mean simple measures such as using everyday language wherever possible, testing materials with BME disabled people, and refining these materials before publicising. Given the significance of these language and communication barriers, Scope is concerned about the proposal of the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, to cut translation services by printing official documents only in English as a way for local councils to save money, which claims that it undermines community cohesion by encouraging segregation. The withdrawal of such translation services will increase the already significant barriers faced by people from BME communities in accessing support. Can I ask the Minister if she understands that this will be most difficult for the growing elderly population of BME disabled people?

The Government have acknowledged the need to develop approaches to meet the specific needs of BME disabled people as part of the Fulfilling Potential—Next Steps paper on their approach to the forthcoming disability strategy. When will the disability strategy emerge? The report found that social isolation was particularly acute for women in BME communities. Many women who took part in Scope’s focus groups said that their impairment compounded the isolation effects on their household and children’s roles, with other family members rarely making adjustments to support the management of their condition.

The stigma attached to disabled people can be widespread and acute. It is far from limited to BME communities, yet Scope’s report found that many people in BME communities felt that it was a particular problem for them. The report also found cases where the most acute source of discrimination was from family members themselves, demonstrating the need to improve attitudes towards disabled people within BME communities. There is a lot for these communities to do to improve their attitudes towards their disabled people. It is possible to change attitudes. It has taken a long time to reach the support and enthusiasm which surrounded the 2012 Paralympics—but it happened. Therefore, I hope that better facilities will emerge for the BME population.

I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing this debate. I agree with the noble Lord that the Government’s response to the serious issues in this report should be seen as part of the legacy of the Paralympics. It was so wonderful, day after day during the Paralympics, to see the achievements of the athletes and also to see disabled TV presenters such as Ade Adepitan. However, one should not overestimate the effect on our country. In my view, the programming has virtually returned to what it was before. Most notable in this regard was the hugely popular “BBC Sports Personality of the Year” programme, in which Paralympians were nominated for the award but all three presenters were from the Olympics coverage. However, during the Christmas holidays, I was impressed to stumble across the actor Christopher Slater, who has cerebral palsy and appears in “Tracy Beaker Returns”. I assure noble Lords that this was the Christmas choice of television viewing of my niece, not me.

This is, of course, a report about not only disabled people but also those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. As I mentioned in my maiden speech, I have had the privilege of getting to know many within the British black community. Therefore, I am not surprised by stories such as that yesterday about Stuart Lawrence, Stephen Lawrence’s brother, who has been stopped by the police more than 25 times. However, I am surprised by the legacy in this area. Often when I talk about these issues I am met with the comment, “You sound rather like the Labour Party”. The legacy here has been the overpoliticisation of the issues around black and minority ethnic communities and racial equality. It is important that these issues are not seen as a matter of left or right, or Labour or Conservative.

It is vital that politicians show national leadership in this area. These issues are complex and nuanced. Leadership is vital so that everyone has the confidence to contribute to the debate. I have also often met people who talk to me about these issues but suddenly clap their hand over their mouth and say, “Was that the wrong word to use? Have I just been racist?”. Usually, I cannot for the life of me identify the word they have just used to which they are referring. Although language is important and racism still exists, this oversensitisation, which we also saw in a discussion on immigration, is helpful neither to free speech nor to resolving the serious matters outlined in the report.

Of course, I have to admit that, in the past, the understanding of my party on these issues has not been exemplary. However, things have changed and continue to do so. Your Lordships have only to wander down the Corridor to the other place to see the number of black and minority ethnic MPs sitting on the Conservative Benches.

Important decisions and actions have also been taken, notably the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill of Gavin Barwell MP, the removal of innocent people from the DNA database and the emphasis on the need for adoption and fostering of black and minority ethnic children. These are changes to key areas where black and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately affected for too long. However, these should not be party political issues. I say cautiously to noble Lords that as a Parliament we may have some reflecting to do on accessibility to parliamentary employment and experience. What if you were to lay out the photos, without any further identifying information, of all those who have a security pass issued by a Member of either House? How would we score on ethnic minority inclusion and disability? I am not overly confident in that regard. If lobby journalists have begun to be self-analytical and concerned, as an article in the New Statesman last year indicated, we as parliamentarians should be as well.

I turn to the specific issues in the report. First, it is important to note that the report was issued before the 2011 census results regarding this community were produced. We have seen a rise in the relevant statistic from 8.7% of the people we are discussing in England and Wales having a black and minority ethnic background to a figure of 14% now, so I think it is correct to say that the 1 million BME disabled people mentioned in the report may well be a case of underreporting.

As regards underclaiming of benefits and access to services, much in the report reflects what was reported by the Department for Work and Pensions back in 2010. It is very worrying to read that there is a reversal of the normal maxim that the very poorest are the most likely to claim. Black and minority ethnic disabled people are often in poverty but are not claiming what they need. I wonder whether the Government have thought about trying to enlist the assistance of religious institutions that understand these issues in promoting benefit and service take-up.

An intriguing finding in the report is that there is a lower prevalence of impairments among black and minority ethnic disabled people of working age, but that over the age of 40 prevalence increases dramatically. What are the reasons, rather than hypotheses, for this increase in impairment among members of the BME disabled community who are over 40? I would be grateful to my noble friend the Minister if she would commit to look at the reasons as we could then look at prevention.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, issues arise around language barriers. The report highlights a further legacy: namely, the effects of having placed insufficient emphasis on the need to be proficient in English. Lack of language hampers the ability not only to access services and benefits but to take up many of the opportunities that are available in the UK. Whatever one’s views might be on spending public money on translation, I hope it is not contentious to say that in the future older people who are less proficient in English, and often therefore less well integrated, will require residential care. The report clearly highlights the increased needs of disabled people in black and minority ethnic communities as they age. Can we suddenly expect every person over the age of 55 who has little or no English to learn a new language at that stage? I doubt that. How will residential care homes adapt, given this ageing demographic of the black and minority ethnic disabled population? As schools cater for children with English as a second language, will we need residential care homes that cater for people who speak English as a second language? Have the Government anticipated this matter and what is their response to this ageing demographic issue? We are in the midst of the assessments for PIP, the replacement for the disability living allowance. Are the Government ensuring that language issues are not a barrier here? Will my noble friend the Minister outline the guidance that has been given to Capita and Atos, the head contractors?

It is easy to forget how difficult it can be for people who feel stigmatised, have language problems and are then faced with the language of bureaucracy and end up not claiming what they need. Before Christmas, I had the privilege of meeting a disability rights campaigner, Jane Young, who I think could give any adviser, even my noble friend Lord Freud, a run for his money as regards knowledge of the changes that we have introduced to welfare legislation. However, what struck me most was how upset she was when her disability meant that she was no longer fit for work, after having always worked up to that point. She exemplified a principle that I think rings true for most people—there are times when you give into the pot and times when you receive. It is a privilege to have paid into a system that supports people such as Jane Young.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Boateng for giving us this opportunity to discuss the problems of the estimated 1 million disabled people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. As he has made clear, the Scope report makes a persuasive case in arguing that ethnic communities in particular are underinformed and poorly served. Their difficulties in accessing treatment are obviously worsened by problems with language, form-filling and bureaucracy and by simply not understanding the jargon of well intentioned specialists.

I strongly support Scope’s recommendation that a network of BME advocates be developed to improve the quality of communication that is so vital in defining medical conditions, patient needs and the nature of the support and treatment available from local commissioners and service providers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said, very little is simple when dealing with the range and complexity of disabilities, yet what we may experience as frustration and exasperation can deepen into despair for those most in need, especially if they are also socially isolated. Sadly, many of those questioned during research for this report claimed that they were stigmatised and isolated inside their own BME communities.

Of course, disabled people have been, and still are, stigmatised across our society, despite the progress made in recent years and the extraordinarily positive impact of this summer’s Paralympic Games. The Scope report also rightly stresses that cultural differences must be acknowledged and respected. Certainly, we must be very sensitive to them, but we must also be robust in constantly challenging attitudes that are rooted in prejudice or ignorance, whatever the cultural factors that nurture hostility to disabled people across the UK, whether those people are ethnic or otherwise.

Scope is a national disability organisation providing information and support, particularly to those with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is the most common motor disorder, with two or three cases occurring per 1,000 births. In the UK, that adds up over the years to 100,000 or more sufferers. In perhaps 20% of cerebral palsy cases there is also a related condition generally defined as dystonia. Here I declare an interest as patron of the Dystonia Society.

Dystonia is a neurological condition that causes involuntary and sometimes painful muscle spasms as a result of incorrect signals from the brain. Dystonia can affect many parts of the body. The symptoms include painful twisting of the neck, what we call writers’ cramp, eyes clamping shut, limbs contorting or difficulties simply in speaking or eating. An estimated 70,000 adults and children in the UK have some form of dystonia, of which there are more than 30 different types. The experience of the Dystonia Society may highlight some of the problems that voluntary groups face in relation to those in the BME communities with less common disabilities.

When a disability is little known or rare, the problems of access to treatment faced by black and minority ethnic sufferers are further increased. First, the general lack of awareness of dystonic symptoms is even lower in BME communities. Secondly, since dystonia sufferers often struggle to have their condition properly treated, those from BME backgrounds bereft of support and advocacy risk further marginalisation in the provision of services. However, lack of awareness does not imply lack of importance. Although individual diseases may be rare, collectively they present a major problem for the National Health Service. It is estimated that rare diseases of some kind will affect about 6% of the UK population at some time, perhaps 3.5 million people in total.

On that calculation, perhaps 300,000 or 400,000 people from BME communities will suffer at some point from a rare disease. Unfortunately, many will continue to suffer in silence, undiagnosed and untreated, unless their problems are more actively addressed. Too often we lack the evidence to pin down these problems.

For example, with lesser known conditions, the incidence of dystonia is still uncertain because the epidemiological data are limited. Worldwide there have been some studies that suggest that its prevalence is similar across Chinese, Egyptian and Asian groups studied, but for our BME communities in Britain, such as the Afro-Caribbean community, the data are very limited. It is therefore quite possible that prevalence in some communities is higher than average. For instance, it is known that a gene that causes generalised dystonia—the DYT1 gene—has a disproportionate incidence among Ashkenazi Jews. Despite the good work done by Jewish Genetic Disorders UK to increase awareness of the condition, the Jewish community in the UK is probably not as well informed as that in the United States.

Other problem areas are delays in both timely diagnosis and access to specialist treatment. The average time to diagnosis for dystonia is still longer than three years. For BME communities, we suspect that the delays must be even longer, but again we cannot be sure because no data are available on times to diagnosis. Neurologists who work with groups of dystonia patients also report that participants are very largely white and British born. Similarly, the 3,000-strong membership of the Dystonia Society does not reflect the likely incidence of the condition in BME communities, and ethnic minorities make little contact with our advice line or information website. That is despite the commendable efforts of Dystonia Society staff and the 38 branches to increase awareness and engagement across the country.

The truth is that voluntary organisations like ours, which help those with rare diseases, tend to be too small and underresourced to do effective outreach work with scattered BME sufferers. The Dystonia Society and others like it would therefore welcome the opportunity to contribute their specialist expertise to, for instance, the national race equality strategy advocated by Scope. We are also keen to work within the new structures of the National Health Service, especially at local level, on targeted information campaigns to build awareness of rare disabilities and to develop more comprehensive databases to ensure fairer access to services.

We should support the call on the Department of Health to provide leadership in improving collaboration among local authorities, the new clinical commissioning groups, service providers and ethnic communities on all disability issues. The Scope report, with its extensive research and cogent analysis, includes a series of other recommendations that seem, at least to me, both practical and affordable. I hope that the Minister will agree.

My Lords, when I originally saw the debate I was not going to speak, but then I had a little thought. I am dyslexic and have talked in this Chamber about dyslexia probably far too often. Vested and self-interests have been declared so often. One thing that people who are dyslexic have in common is the great difficulty we have in accessing forms and form-based information on benefits and access to the next point. That is what drew me in, because 10% of the population are dyslexic, a percentage of whom come from black and ethnic minorities. Suddenly there is a group with a double whammy.

If we have to access something by filling out a form, which is how we do it, we are in trouble if we cannot do it. If people do not get the help that is offered—and let us face it, we can all agree that Governments rarely offer money or support services for any length of time if there is no demand or need—we will have problems. If we do not fulfil these needs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, those who need them most will not get them.

An expression that I am far too fond of using, which I shall use again now, is that if you are a disabled person it is generally reckoned that you will do okay if you select your parents correctly. Articulate people who know how to play the system, have good English written skills and can express themselves well in consultations get through well, on average, thanks to the work that has gone on in this place over time. We have embedded culturally the fact that help should be given and have given it legal backing. That is one of the truths of the system. Hence dyslexia is the middle-class disease. Middle-class people who are dyslexic spot it, and decide to do something about the problem. When they cannot get help from the state they usually buy it from elsewhere. Other disability groups have similar stories at certain levels.

We then get to a group that cannot do that. The problems multiply and we end up paying for that in other places. There is low economic activity and a higher prison population in the case of people with dyslexia, for example. Other groups—the hidden disability groups—share this problem, and the group of people whom we are discussing are all paying for the failure to get them out there. Indeed, it has been suggested that there are more mental problems among people in this group. If we take another group, part of which is in this one, and add the fact that someone cannot communicate well in either spoken or written English, should we be surprised that there is an extra problem when trying to access help that society has decided is beneficial to society as well as the individual? The answer is, of course, no.

The only debate that I had with myself is whether this is an individual cocktail or layers of difficulty each time. That is about as far as it has gone. It is a case of how we get through and how we access help. I am sure that the current Government will not say that we do not want people to access this as it would cost money in the medium term if not the short term, and would be against all principles of fairness. But how will we do it? Translation services are clearly vital to many of these groups, particularly if someone is a new arrival and cannot access the language, either written or spoken. There may be a case for not having translations of every document for everybody.

I would be much more reassured if I heard today that the Government will encourage small, user-led groups to do this work. If cultural awareness and sensitivity are there, they may well do a very good job. Other reports, not even in the pack provided by the Library, show a misunderstanding of what is available and what benefits are supposed to do. Incredibly well entrenched in some of those groups were misunderstandings about benefits, such as: we are not supposed to get them; they are not for us; they will do everything for us; and so on. If that can start to be addressed by using voluntary sectors or the smaller groups referred to, we will start to address the problem reasonably.

We are calling on volunteers to help us on this occasion, but if we can ensure that the Government guarantee that this takes place we will solve many of these problems of communication by making sure that help is there for those who need it and that they get it. This problem is not, of course, totally confined to this group, although the evidence suggests that it is more intense here. Making sure that we identify and bring information to those who need it is very important.

My second point, which will be my last one, is on the Government’s language and the briefing that came from Scope—not the report itself—and the fact that people are very worried about “red-tape equality assessments”, and so on. When sitting on the Benches in front of where the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, sits now, I had to deal with health and safety issues for my party. I came to the conclusion that everybody was against red tape in health and safety until their child was up the ladder. That might be slightly cynical but only slightly.

Something is red tape only when you do not think that you need it—it is just something to deal with. On occasions all Governments tick-box things and all Governments must fight against it. However, if an essential duty is being fulfilled by what is put forward, tick-boxing is necessary. That bit of red tape is needed to hold the bundle together. Unless we can make sure when we talk about this that the regulations are necessary and as simple and as straightforward as possible, we are in trouble.

I am hearing from the disability community an increasing worry about certain statements, such as, “We are going to get rid of these unnecessary regulations”. Can we make sure that we get rid of unnecessary regulations but not the legal duty that is there? That is what we are interested in. We can rewrite and make the regulations simpler and easier to understand, but let us not for one minute suggest that we are getting rid of the legal duty that is required and which most of us agree is essential for ensuring that we have a civilised and fair society.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for introducing this debate and giving us the opportunity to consider the excellent Scope report and the issues contained in it, and bring them before the House to enable the Minister to respond. I also thank him for enabling us to pick up on any other related issues in the area of disabilities as they affect black and minority ethnic communities.

The challenge facing policymakers and decision-makers is to understand the multiple disadvantages being faced by black and minority ethnic disabled people, and to collaborate with community-based and community-led organisations to determine appropriate and effective responses. Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, had to say, this resonates well with how we involve people who are able to relate to those who have needs and how we help them to respond to these needs at the earliest opportunity.

Where available, the data show black and minority ethnic people having disproportionate adverse experiences of access to income, education and essential support services, in the job market and in utilising public facilities. When we add the disability characteristics, we find that the situation is considerably worse. Increasing numbers of BME disabled people are experiencing discrimination and disadvantages because of a combination of factors, including race, ethnicity, class, poverty, status and where they live. The latter is an important discriminatory feature that we must also consider.

The wide range of disabilities requires appropriate responses, whether the disabilities exist from birth, develop through disease or injury, or occur because of ageing and infirmity. My contribution is particularly concerned with two areas of disability. The first is that which is due to ageing and infirmity. The second regards mental illness. As they advance in age, more BME people are experiencing many forms of disability and impairment. My mother, who is 85 years old, disabled and bed-bound, is in the fortunate position of having care provided for her on a 24/7 basis. My siblings and I are able to make that provision without recourse to external involvement. However, many people are unable to experience that support. Many like her, with similar afflictions and who may not be able to obtain the same level of support, will more likely than not experience a diminishing quality of life in their latter years.

Quality of life and quality of care are essential components of growing old with dignity. As a society we are currently grappling to find solutions to the cost implications of making appropriate provision for the care needs of a growing elderly population with multiple impairments and disabilities. I have worked in old people’s and adult care homes with people with severe conditions, and I pay tribute to those who are carers. Occasionally we hear stories of where people have been let down by standards of care but on the whole we see in this situation committed and dedicated people helping others, whether in a professional capacity or on a voluntary basis. In the context of today’s debate it is important to acknowledge the work done by BME carers, both within the family setting and in voluntary self-help settings.

As the previous chair of an organisation called the Policy Research Institute on Ageing and Ethnicity, I had the benefit of observing at first hand for more than a decade the significant contribution of BME-led adult care organisations which reach out to BME elders across the country. Considerable work was done in outreach activities to make them aware of the increasing prevalence of dementia, so that the elders could be referred to services at the earlier stage of the condition. This work also addressed their multiple and complex health needs.

This is a good moment to remind the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, that he was involved in helping to launch a study with PRIAE in 1999, Managing Dementia and Ethnicity, which resulted in a film called “Dementia Matters”. The study has been distributed widely among educators and people in the profession.

Without minority ethnic, age or specialist organisations that cater for such groups directly, BME elders with disabilities would remain invisible and, worse, would still not be supported. The challenge for mainstream organisations, including large equality ones, is whether they are prepared to engage with and invest in minority initiatives and organisations. BME communities are part of British society. BME elders with disabilities are British, yet we see the dangers of parallel but unequal services developing, with different organisational resources, funding, capabilities and life spans.

That trend is even more accentuated in the area of BME mental health sufferers. Undoubtedly, in the area of mental health disability there are outrageous disparities. For example, the life expectancy of people from the UK’s African-Caribbean communities who come into contact with services under the Mental Health Act is reduced by a staggering 25 years, as they are routinely labelled schizophrenic or psychotic. Early intervention and culturally appropriate services remain at best sparse and at worst non-existent. There is an extensive body of evidence cited by Black Mental Health UK that indicates that the UK’s African-Caribbean communities are subject to the most coercive and punitive treatment, often with fatal consequences.

Deaths in custody and reduced life expectancy have blighted many African-Caribbean households. It is known that more than 50% of those who lose their lives in police custody are mental health service clients. The same data from the Equality and Human Rights Commission reveal that 20% of deaths in police custody involve black men, who represent less than 3% of the national population.

What is being done to safeguard BME disabled rights? Effective advocacy provision, particularly led by BME organisations, would be an essential requirement to assist in achieving fairness; this at present is lacking. Individuals being treated under the Mental Health Act, whether in hospital or in the community, have the right to access an independent mental health advocate to ensure that their rights are observed and that they are treated fairly. Black patients in detained settings do not have access to effective advocacy. In far too many cases, they are not even informed of this right.

Black Mental Health UK is deeply concerned about the effects of treatment to BME disabled people with mental health illnesses. Black people presented to the service are routinely labelled as psychotic and given high doses of anti-psychotic medication, which come with a raft of side effects that include irregular heartbeat, cardiac arrest, muscle and joint pain, jerkiness similar to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, severe sexual dysfunction, rapid weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and reduced life expectancy. These matters must be addressed as part of any overall strategy, and within the particular context of mental health.

I will raise one final concern: the presence of police, often in riot gear, on psychiatric wards. High-profile death in custody cases have reinforced distrust both of the police and of mental health services. It is necessary that there should be a consistent mechanism for monitoring deaths that occur after police restraint on psychiatric wards. Only in cases where there is a high-profile fatality and the family are vocal about the incident are such matters brought to public attention. It is right that the Minister should respond and say how we will seek to share information in an open and accountable way that will enable those who provide support services for those with mental health illnesses to be made aware of how they can contribute to ensuring that the latter’s rights are safeguarded.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing such an important and timely debate. I also thank Scope for the excellent briefings it made available, and the Equalities National Council for its very insightful report and studies.

There are at least 1 million disabled people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in the United Kingdom. We know that many face considerable difficulties in their daily lives yet are unable to access the services that they need. We heard in the most recent census about the demographic changes in our society that mean that there will be many more BME disabled people in future. It is therefore important that provision and policies are developed in a timely way for disabled people who rely on these services.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, I care for my disabled mother, who is 80 and whose language skills are not very good. She cannot read English very well, despite being in this country for many years. I do not know how she would cope without me. She probably would not be able to remain in her home without my family’s support.

I will talk today about the plight of disabled children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. I declare a personal interest in the issue; I have a grandson who has disabilities and special needs. He receives support from a number of excellent voluntary agencies. The report rightly highlights the problem that BME disabled people’s needs and views have fallen between the two policy areas of disability and race equality. Finding ways to bring these two policy fields together is becoming more urgent and important for developing effective support. This is a classic example of how people from BME communities struggle and face double discrimination.

Yesterday I was in Grand Committee, arguing against proposals to make changes to the Equality Act and to the remit of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The case was made very strongly by many noble Lords that we need to retain a strong and robust commission that retains its general duty to promote work that enables disabled people, as well as people from other protected groups, to participate in society with dignity. That phrase came across quite strongly yesterday. The commission should also retain a duty to promote and encourage favourable treatment of disabled people and to work towards eliminating prejudice and hate towards disadvantaged groups, which include disabled people from BME communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, asked an important question about the Red Tape Challenge that I will repeat because it is so important. When it was launched, I was very concerned that the Equality Act, a piece of primary legislation that affects the lives of so many people, was included in its remit. Will the Red Tape Challenge be used to reduce the public service equality duty? This is exercising and concerning many groups that rely on it.

Nearly half of all minority ethnic disabled people live in household poverty, compared with one in five of the population as a whole. Overall, we know that families from minority ethnic groups caring for a severely disabled child are even more disadvantaged than white families in a similar situation. Families’ experiences, needs and circumstances vary across ethnic groups.

Carers for people from BME communities are not always aware of the support that is available to them. A key way of addressing this would be for social care services to develop stronger links with local BME communities. I was struck by the case highlighted in the report of Anwar, a 16 year-old boy with complex physical needs and learning difficulties. It is a very good example, and sadly by no means unusual. For several years, Anwar lived alone in an unadapted flat above his family’s corner shop. He had no wheelchair and no way of getting down the stairs independently. He was not in school or able to access any services, and his only contact was with his family. Although they visited regularly, if he wanted to leave the house he had to be carried down the stairs by his brother. It was not until a neighbour told the family about a local support group, which he learnt about having met them at the local mosque, that Anwar’s circumstances changed. A support worker ensured that he was allocated a social services care package, given a wheelchair and eventually rehoused in an accessible ground floor flat, where he is able to live independently. As I said, this is a typical case.

Stigma is also a big issue that affects many minority communities. It can lead to social isolation, with families and carers struggling to cope behind closed doors for fear that they will be made social outcasts and blamed or in some way held responsible for their child’s disability. During my 16 years as a councillor in inner-city boroughs in Hackney and Islington with high levels of disability among BME communities, I spent much of my time on casework when people came to me to raise these issues. Many Turkish families came to see me because they had got nowhere with mainstream services. Because I could talk to them in Turkish, I was able to act as an advocate and try to get the most basic services for them. It was heartbreaking that they had to come to their councillor to get these services. What would have happened had I not been there? That is the test.

The report mentions that it is more usual for Muslim and Hindu communities to face social isolation and stigma. Recently I heard of a Turkish father struggling with his severely autistic child whose behaviour was extremely challenging. His wife had attempted suicide because of the strain of the situation and the lack of support. The father, whose English was not great, was the main carer and was unaware of the support that was available to him to apply for. Thankfully, he was referred to an excellent charity, Centre 404, based in Islington, where a Turkish specialist worker was able to help him apply for additional services such as much-needed respite support. We have heard how interpreting services and advocacy play a key role in this sort of case and in many others. Are the Government encouraging local authorities to ensure that advocacy is available to BME communities and carers? It can make such a difference in enabling a better and dignified life as opposed to an existence.

The examples I mentioned illustrate the reality that the mainstream social care system—my noble friend Lord Addington touched on this—is effectively adversarial. In effect, people compete for services. The most articulate and assertive—or those whose families or carers are the most articulate and assertive—are more likely to succeed and to get the right services. Specialist knowledge and research is also needed into ways of accessing support. For many families and carers from a BME background, it is incredibly difficult to navigate through the system to get the additional support that can make such a difference to their life chances and to their ability to fulfil their potential. Stigma and social isolation are widespread among carers for the disabled from a BME background, especially women.

The report highlights the importance of services operating at local level having close relationships with community groups such as mosques.

One of the key recommendations, which has already been mentioned, is that following the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination there have been recommendations from Scope and other race equality groups that the Government develop a national race equality strategy. I want to underline the importance of this and ask the Minister if this is being taken seriously. These issues urgently need national leadership. Some of the concerns that I and others have raised are that, going by the proposals to reduce the duties that I mentioned earlier, the present mood music and signals are not encouraging. I will also ask the Minister about equality impact assessments. When producing new policy or legislation, as recommended, will these important matters continue to receive support?

My Lords, people from BME communities are significantly under-represented in the uptake of learning disability services. This is despite the much higher prevalence of learning disability in certain BME groups. For example, it is up to three times higher than average in some south Asian populations. It is also higher than average in the African and Caribbean community. The number of people with learning disabilities from minority ethnic communities is predicted to increase substantially over the next 20 years.

Research shows that minority groups have a different experience of mental health services and different outcomes from treatment compared to the white majority, as explained by my noble friend Lord Ouseley. The noble Lord’s comments also apply to people with learning disabilities who also have mental health problems. Valuing People Now, the Government's three-year strategy published in 2009 for people with a learning disability, spelt out the changes needed to make sure that the most excluded groups would benefit fully from health and social care services. I agree with many other speakers that failing to take into account differences in race, religion and cultural identity is the same as ignoring the needs of what can become a vulnerable and excluded group.

Black and minority ethnic groups have been shown to be at increased risk of mental health problems and those from black communities are more likely to be admitted to hospital than those from other ethnic groups. There are various reasons thought to contribute to this increase. For example, for first generation migrants, the actual event of migration is often a traumatic occurrence with major disruptions to family and other lifelong attachments. Many have difficulties adapting to a new culture. Migration is in itself a risk factor for psychiatric illness, particularly psychosis. However, following migration, communities can experience other challenges and insults that can further predispose them to mental health problems and subsequently maintain them.

Some have uncertain asylum status, living in limbo for several months or years while their application is considered, and rejection of asylum may lead to significant mental health problems. Although 90% of asylum applications made in the United Kingdom are rejected, the majority stay on, often because they have no passport or their country of origin will not take them back. Those allowed to stay have the same rights as citizens, but the experience of earlier traumatic events, coupled with new problems related to acculturation, may impede their uptake of services. Several studies, including one by the Leicestershire Learning Disability Register, found that people with learning disabilities from minority ethnic communities have similar levels of mental health and behaviour problems, but that their carers experience significantly more stress and receive less support than their white European counterparts. Low household income and more than one person with a learning disability in the household were also associated with high carer stress. It is perhaps significant that one study found that 19% of south Asian families have more than one child with a learning disability.

Differences in perception of mental health within various cultures and poor knowledge of availability of services can also significantly influence the health-seeking behaviour of people who have mental health problems and individuals with learning disabilities or their families. Some of these barriers are easier to overcome than others. Some take time and dedication and a truly person-centred approach—no two service users are the same. All available research shows consensus in terms of a lack of awareness of services being a major barrier to people from minority ethnic communities accessing care. Mencap and the Institution for Local Government found that families and carers from BME communities knew little about the services they could use or how those services operated and what their rights were. Information about services was so often found to be inaccessible and not in the right language. Language and communication difficulties present problems for potential service users and their families in terms of accessing and using services. Often clinicians have to rely on a family member to interpret and this can lead to further problems in terms of confidentiality and disclosure of information, which may be particularly concerning if there are safeguarding issues.

It may also be the case that family members who interpret select the information they want to disclose, thus withholding important information. When I was acting in clinical practice, I certainly had that experience. Even when professional interpreters are used, families may be hesitant to disclose personal or sensitive information via an interpreter from that same small community. Cultural factors and belief systems may have powerful influences over how families respond and may have significant impact on how or if support is sought. Some cultures may have different ideas about the cause of a disability and choose to seek more traditional healing methods. They may not be interested in exploring western medicine or western educational, psychological or rehabilitative programmes. They may even misunderstand the concept of learning disability and expect a “cure” for their family member's problem.

Research by Mencap showed that many families and carers feel isolated and powerless. A common misconception is that people in BME communities get a lot of support from extended families—which sometimes they do—and therefore need fewer services, such as respite. One professional working in learning disability support within a predominantly Bangladeshi community said:

“The shame and taboo surrounding learning disability makes it difficult for mothers to get help and support. They get little practical support from their families and little emotional support either. The situation is so bad that mothers are more likely to seek help from agencies that are outside their community rather than from Bangladeshi specialist agencies”.

Family roles and dynamics vary greatly across different cultures. Within some cultures, family structures and relationships are hierarchical and women can have a very different role from that in western cultures. Consanguinous unions may be acceptable and commonplace and may contribute to the increased prevalence of learning disability and other severe disabilities. If there are clashes between the views of families and professionals as to which decision is made in the best interests of the patient, a family may subsequently avoid engaging with services. A colleague gave me an example: she was requested by the forced marriage unit to conduct a capacity assessment for consent to be married. The man was a Pakistani gentleman with moderate learning disability who had been taken to Pakistan a couple of months earlier to be married. Although the man was clearly very fond of his wife, he had little understanding of the concept of marriage or of sexual relationships. His parents believed that the marriage was in his best interests and my colleague formed the view that interference by professionals would have caused great conflict between the family and services, and possibly resulted in future non-engagement with professionals.

Currently, many services lack appropriate provision for people from BME groups with learning disabilities. They may be culturally insensitive, not taking into account issues such as the gender mix of services. Many families prefer their disabled female relatives to be cared for in a female environment. Other services perceive BME communities as a homogenous group and may not take into account the many differences found between different communities and fail to identify service users as individuals with their own set of unique needs. There are many incidents of people falling through gaps in the care system. For example, the eligibility criteria used by services mean there must be a clear history of developmental delay. However, such histories are often not available in first generation migrants and problems in language and lack of educational opportunities in their country of origin makes such assessments even more complicated and sometimes invalid. People may be lost as follow-up, due to frequent changes of address during transition from child to adult services. Improving services requires a considerable amount of flexibility from providers in order to engage with the various minority communities effectively.

I want to end by thinking about the importance of cultural competency as an essential component to our services. I hope the Minister will agree above all that a person-centred and culturally competent approach will be key to the success of services in the future.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech highlighting disability issues, which are causing major concerns to the black and ethnic minority communities across the country. These concerns of inequality and the lack of understanding of needs are clearly outlined in the Scope report, as we have heard throughout the debate.

I should like to concentrate on one particular area covering those who suffer from sickle cell disorder. I declare an interest as a patron of the Sickle Cell Society. My contribution is based on evidence-based statements from experts, which are the experiences, opinions and views of the Sickle Cell Society’s stakeholders—that is, the professionals, service users and user groups from within the networks of the Sickle Cell Society and the UK Thalassaemia Society.

I was dismayed by the relevant evidence sent to me which expressed the frustration faced within the BME community by those suffering from sickle cell and the challenges posed by the appalling response in addressing the needs of BME people living with disability.

Sickle cell disorder is not a visible disability but its nature affects patients almost from birth and then has a marked social impact, including an inability to work, early death, stigma attached to disability, the need for repeated, unexpected admissions and a severe reaction to opiates, which are often given in error by medical staff, who in many cases are unfamiliar with the condition.

There are a number of key issues that I should like to cover which I believe will show just how necessary it is for action to be taken and for urgent consideration to be given to sufferers with this disability. BME people living with sickle cell suffer from the specialised nature of the disability that is unique to sickle cell sufferers. As I have said, the disability is invisible and varies between and within individuals. Feedback from the sector clearly identifies that those conducting the statutory assessment of disability need to be aware of these issues. A report by those dealing closely with sickle cell sufferers concludes that those with the condition almost always fail the initial statutory assessment that channels candidates through the Government’s Fair Access to Care Services, which is required for most disability welfare support entitlements.

Research has also shown that an inhumanity impact is experienced by sufferers. The loss of welfare entitlements is increasingly reducing people with disability as a result of sickle cell disorder to exist in inhumane living conditions. This social justice failure is a serious indictment of our society. Evidence also shows that such is the stigma of disability that some people would rather not undergo the ordeal of the label, despite the benefits to which it may entitle them, assuming that they are able to successfully brave the challenging FACS assessment.

There is also an NHS cost impact because, as a result of wrongful assessment under the FACS test, sufferers are forced to depend on acute hospital services, with huge cost implications for the NHS budget.

Prescription charges are another big issue that have a profound effect on sickle cell patients. A regular supply of medication is crucial. Evidence shows the beneficial effect of hydroxycarbamide medication in reducing the number and length of hospital admissions in this patient group. This clearly represents NHS cost savings as well as increased patient life expectancy. However, because of high prescription costs, many patients decline medication or frequently run out of supplies, making treatment ineffective and resulting in costly A&E attendances and hospital admissions. This is because the severe nature of the disease and complications may result in prolonged admissions, exchange blood transfusion and costly intensive care.

I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the Government will consider the idea of all sickle cell patients being exempt from prescription charges. The number will be small as, of the 12,500 sufferers, 60% are children and some of the adults are on welfare benefit, so it will mainly include those in work, who are often low paid or part-time owing to the nature of the disorder and its impact on their ability to study and work full-time.

There is some anxiety among those involved with sickle cell services that the complexity of the services needed effectively places them largely outside the scope of the clinical commissioning groups. Many are concerned about the type of policies that will be in place to ensure that a patient-centred, integrated approach to care engages primary care and community interests across health, social and community care. This is to help to reduce morbidity, needless hospital care and the health inequalities experienced by this seriously marginalised sector.

There are expectations that not only CCGs but local health and well-being boards should aim to reflect the make-up of their respective client communities. So, given that the steady establishment of CCGs and the view that community provision of sickle cell disorder management have a major role to play across the country, especially in high-risk areas within CCGs, can the Minister tell the House what priority is being given by CCGs to people in the sickle cell and thalassaemia community, who are feeling concerned, vulnerable and anxious about the situation and their future?

As yet, there is no cure for sickle cell and more research is needed both for a cure and for the treatment of current sufferers. The existing treatment involves a form of chemotherapy, which can have harmful side effects, such as damage to the immune system. Fortunately, Sparks, a charity which provides funding into research for childhood diseases—I declare an interest as a trustee—is funding a research project that aims to investigate the possibility of a safer, less toxic and more targeted therapy. However, in the mean time, there needs to be widespread education and awareness among those who assess the level of disability of sickle cell sufferers. They need to be made more aware and educated about the situation faced by people living with sickle cell and its associated conditions.

The Government also need to seriously improve the awareness of the wider population about the plight of people living with this inherited blood disorder and the disabilities that they may be facing, quite often invisibly so.

I know that the Sickle Cell Society, the UK Thalassaemia Society and the UK Forum on Haemoglobin Disorders would be more than willing to meet the appropriate government departments and agencies to discuss how they can work together to address the serious concerns that I have highlighted. I hope that this offer will be acted upon.

As the last US election showed, BME communities vote for people who they consider address their needs and concerns. This should be food for thought for us on this side of the Atlantic. I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s response, as I know that she is always sympathetic to inequality issues and, like me, strives towards a just and fair society.

My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for initiating it.

When I read the well-researched report produced by the charity Scope, and several others that I have looked up, and the many obstacles that disabled people in the black and minority ethnic communities have to face, it led me to reflect back to the days of discrimination based on colour, how long it took for us to address the issue and the legislation required to get rid of it.

Studies now show that people with disabilities—black, ethnic minority and white—face similar discrimination, but those from black and minority ethnic communities face further discrimination based on a lack of understanding by those who commission and provide services. Other noble Lords have already mentioned examples, such as the need for better and appropriate communication, the lack of understanding of the stigma attached to disability in some cultures, health services both for physical and mental health, and the failure to understand the differing needs of black and minority ethnic people with disabilities.

We have heard on several occasions in this Chamber how people with disabilities are discriminated against, particularly from the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Grey-Thompson. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, described how she becomes invisible when trying to get a taxi or catch a bus, despite being one of the most recognised faces in the land.

The Scope report findings confirm that there is discrimination against people with disabilities in black and minority ethnic groups. It says:

“We found little evidence of direct racism in service provision and encountered no reports of staff being explicitly discriminatory. We did find evidence of discrimination on the grounds of disability … Consistent low-level discrimination can have a serious impact on people’s wellbeing. Non-discriminatory practice is about more than accommodating cultural preferences”.

The Scope study also identifies several issues relating to health—issues that commissioners and providers of health services should be aware of, and I hope that the Government will make sure that the Department of Health notices this report. It goes on to state that,

“black and minority ethnic disabled people are … less likely to access healthcare services. Evidence shows that they suffer from poorer health, have a shorter life expectancy and yet are less able to access care than the majority white population. Despite large amounts of research, and a variety of local and national strategies for change—including the … Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health initiative introduced in 2005—these problems remain.

Research … indicates that only a minority of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi disabled people … interviewed had had any contact with hospitals, physiotherapists, and specialist care”.

The only people who fare well in the report are GPs, who,

“provide a notable exception to this trend, and numerous studies report that GP surgeries provide a key access point to services for BME people … Yet there is … evidence to suggest that … prejudices are alleviated by close contact with medical services. Indeed, western medical paradigms may provide some relief from stress for families burdened by feelings of shame or stigma”,

in some cultures. The report also notes several recommendations for commissioners and providers of health, and, as I said, I hope that the Government will take notice of them.

I should now like to devote a few minutes to allude to the problems faced by black and minority ethnic families with a severely disabled child. Before I do so, I declare an interest as a trustee of the White Top Foundation, which over the years has given tens of millions of pounds to make life better for families with a severely disabled child, and to care for these children. I am pleased to say that this charity continues to carry out this work.

The study I will refer to was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and was carried out by the University of York and the University of Bradford. It used the same methodology that it had used to study white families with severely disabled children. The findings, which were quite salutary, were as follows:

“Families from ethnic minority groups experience even greater disadvantage and difficulties in caring for a severely disabled child than their white counterparts”.

The study was,

“based on interviews with 600 ethnic minority parents of severely disabled children”,

throughout England, and, as I said, it was carried out jointly by researchers at the two universities. They found that:

“Most families had net incomes below £200 a week. Those experiencing the greatest economic disadvantage were lone parent families—a group that included two out of three Black African/Caribbean families … Levels of employment were low, including three out of four mothers who had no work … Fewer parents were receiving Disability Living Allowance or Invalid Care Allowance compared with white families previously surveyed. Although all the ethnic minority parents interviewed were caring for a child with severe disabilities, they were less likely to have been awarded benefit at the higher rates. Parents who understood English well had much higher levels of benefit take-up than those with a limited understanding. Among one in three Asian parents who said they needed translation help when talking to health and social care professionals, a large minority had not been provided with an interpreter. There was little evidence to support stereotypes—

which often develop among social workers—

“suggesting that ethnic minority families generally benefit from extended family support”.

The study found that,

“Fewer mothers received practical and emotional support from partners than white counterparts … Ethnic minority parents reported that their disabled children had many more unmet needs than white families in the earlier survey. Half identified seven or more areas where they needed more support than currently provided. This included help with their child’s learning, communication and physical abilities, access to leisure opportunities and learning about culture and religion”.

As Professor Waqar Ahmad, who was co-author of the report, said:

“We know from the previous national survey that financial difficulties, unmet needs and inadequate support networks are common problems among families who care for severely disabled children.

But this research reveals that there is an added depth and intensity to the problems faced by ethnic minority families which policy makers must take on board as a matter of urgency. Poor communication with professional care services, lack of recognition of parents’ needs, as well as lack of support and high levels of economic disadvantage, have left too many of these families living ‘on the edge’”.

My question to the Minister is: will the Government’s disability strategy include implementation plans involving all the various government departments, and how will the implementation be monitored?

As noble Baronesses speaking in this debate outnumber noble Lords by three to one, I dare say that women in all communities are more likely to be carers of disabled children. However, for BME women, the experience of social isolation is disproportionately high. Reducing social isolation can be achieved through greater community involvement in the design, commissioning and delivery of services. What steps will the Government take to enable greater community involvement, particularly of BME groups, in the co-design, commissioning and delivery of services?

My Lords, I declare my interest as vice-president of the RNIB, and I hold a number of other roles in the disability sector that are declared in the register. I am particularly glad to have this opportunity to make a brief contribution in the gap, because the Minister will recall that only yesterday, with the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, we debated the Government’s efforts to strip measures and resources that support the equality agenda out of the Equality Act and the EHRC. I cast doubt on the Government’s commitment to the equality agenda. I therefore congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, particularly warmly on securing this debate today, for nothing could demonstrate more cogently that I was on the right track than this excellent report.

It is worrying that the Government seek to review the use of both the public sector equality duty and equality impact assessments, potentially undermining the framework for making progress in addressing the needs of black and minority ethnic disabled people. It is of great concern that the review has been announced as an outcome of the Government’s exercise to cut red tape.

In response to a letter from Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister stress the need to make the promotion of race equality central to the way that public authorities work. The public sector equalities duty should be seen as a powerful tool for achieving this. The review should happen, as originally planned, in 2015, when there will be sufficient evidence of whether the duty is working as intended. The Prime Minister’s recent statement that it was time to call time on the equality impact assessments reinforces my concern that equalities issues are slipping down the Government’s agenda.

Given the evident need to give more priority to the needs of black and minority ethnic disabled people, it is worrying that the Government are looking to reduce the ability to determine the impact of public policy on protected groups. Although the Prime Minister may consider them bureaucratic nonsense, equality impact assessments are in fact an essential means of ensuring that policies do not adversely affect those groups that were already disadvantaged. This is not about tick-box stuff, as the Prime Minister calls it; rather, it is a means of ensuring that policymakers have the right information to make informed decisions.

The Scope report highlights the fact that the BME disabled population is growing rapidly. In September 2011, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticised the Government’s failure to address racial equality and introduce a national race equality strategy. The refreshed disability strategy to be published in May, linked to a race equality strategy and underpinned by a joint implementation plan and bringing together the Office for Disability Issues, the Government Equalities Office and the DCLG, presents an excellent opportunity to address the issues facing BME disabled people that have been rehearsed in this debate.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Boateng for bringing forward this debate. I asked a Question about this report in the House when it was first published, so I am very pleased that we have been able to have this debate today. I congratulate Scope on an excellently researched report.

Almost everything that can be said about the importance and urgency of this issue has been eloquently said by most noble Lords; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Low, has pretty much stolen my thunder. I intend to ask three questions about the report, and I am putting them in the context of what the Government are doing to their equality strategy at present, which was also alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. The Government’s review of the public sector equality duties and equality impact assessments has the potential to undermine the framework for making progress in this area, and we need to be quite clear about that. Indeed, that might answer some of the questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, had when she was wondering why this might have become a party political issue. While it ought not to have become a party political issue, this is possibly the crux of why it has become one.

Scope has been very concerned about the potential shift within government to a more watered-down commitment to assessing equality implications as a crucial part of decision-making. The noble Lord, Lord Low, referred to the fact that the Prime Minister said to the CBI that the Government were calling time on equality impact assessments, and indeed a statement from the Minister at the DCLG just this week has said that that department is informing local councils that equality impact assessments are not mandatory. That is the unhelpful context in which this discussion is taking place.

If we see a diminution in the commitment to monitoring, consulting and impact measurement, that also needs to be seen in the context of the impact of the welfare reforms that the Government are pursuing with regard to disabled people. Here is just one fact: disabled people have seen a drop in income of £500 million since the emergency Budget of 2010, and recent reports have shown that cuts have ranged from £200 to £2,065 in a typical disabled household over the past year.

Despite widespread criticism, the Government have refused to monitor the impact of their welfare reforms as they are implemented in order to understand how they affect disabled people and their families and mitigate any adverse impacts where possible. Impact assessments should consider not just aggregated impacts from one specific policy but the cumulative impact of several policies on individuals and their families. It is in that context that I pose my three questions.

First, the Government’s Fulfilling Potential—Next Steps White Paper, on their approach to the forthcoming disability strategy, emphasises the need to build better linkages between government departments and agencies to work together to achieve shared objectives for disabled people facing multiple disadvantages. Will the Minister confirm that this will include the development of a joint implementation plan between the Office for Disability Issues and the Government Equalities Office as well as other government departments, as recommended by Scope?

Secondly, following criticism from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, what plans do the Government have to implement a national race equality strategy? What plans do they have to ensure that the overlaps between different equality characteristics in future equality impact assessments are recognised, given that the needs of BME disabled people are not easily captured in a system designed to assess only one single equality characteristic? Can the Minister clarify the means by which the Government will assess the equality implications of their proposed policies on protected groups, including disabled people, in the light of the Prime Minister calling time on equality impact assessments?

Thirdly, does the Minister agree that in the light of this debate, the public sector equality duty, which is currently under review and includes the race equality duty, is as vital now as it has ever been and should not be equated with bureaucracy and red tape, as the Government are so often seen to do?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing this debate and the opportunity that he has provided for us to discuss the important issue of how to ensure that all members of society, from all backgrounds, are able to access the services and support that they need.

I am grateful, too, to Scope and the Equalities National Council for the central report that we are debating today. It brings to the issue a great deal of detail and much needed information about the black and minority ethnic communities in particular, and the difficulties that they face in receiving the support that they require.

A wide range of topics has been raised in today’s debate, but what underpins much of what noble Lords have said is that we must provide policies and services developed and delivered based on the individual.

In responding to the debate, I shall provide some context and talk first about the Government’s equality strategy. As a country, we have come a very long way over the past 50 years, but too many people’s life chances still depend on who they are or where they come from. Our equality strategy set out our vision for a strong, modern, fair Britain built on two key principles: equal treatment and equal opportunity for all. We are moving away from the identity politics and categorisation of the past and instead focusing on equal opportunity for everyone—most importantly, recognising individual needs.

I believe that this approach is very much in line with the recommendations in the report that we have been debating today that services delivered locally should follow person-centred principles, delivered in ways that take into account the needs of individuals, utilise community resources and are responsive to the local community.

I shall focus on the disabled strategy. Part of our commitment to removing barriers is about enabling disabled people to fulfil their individual potential and, by right, play a full role in society. As a country, we have a strong record of provision for disabled people. Here I am talking not just about this Government but about this country in the past. We are a world leader for both disability rights and independent living. The recent OECD statistics have shown that UK spending on disability as a proportion of GDP is nearly twice the OECD average—more than the US, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Japan. This Government are proud of that and will ensure that the money that we dedicate to disabled services supports those in the greatest need, as well as in ways that are important to all disabled people: providing them their right to live independently, and to have greater opportunities to work. On that point in particular, in the spending review we have protected the annual budget of £320 million for specialist disability employment programmes. These programmes focus on removing barriers to work and supporting those with extra needs to work. In saying that, I recognise the point made by my noble friend Lady Browning about the challenge that this presents for some people.

Our aim is to open up more opportunities for all disabled people, and although government should provide the strategic leadership needed to achieve this aim, we cannot do it alone. In answer to a point made most recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, but also by many other noble Lords, we are working across government and with disability organisations to develop plans for action and mechanisms for monitoring progress which we will publish in the spring. As part of that, we are working and consulting with the widest range of disability groups, such as Include Me Too, the Afiya Trust and the Equalities National Council. We are making sure that the voices of BME disabled people are heard and have input to our disability strategy and, importantly, to the action plan that will flow from it. As part of this, we are setting up a new partnership—a disability action alliance— to bring disabled people and their organisations together with public, private and voluntary and community organisations to help shape and deliver what disabled people want.

I have already referred to the Equalities National Council, as have other noble Lords, and it is the joint authors of the report that we are discussing today. It and others are working with us to establish the alliance and have already identified some potential actions for us to take forward. These include, for example, building on the work they are doing to mentor BME prisoners with mental health conditions. If I may, I shall use the particular point about mental health conditions because I think that it helps illustrate our approach to quite a wide range of different areas. I am sure that noble Lords will understand that I am not able to respond on those areas in great detail.

The ENC is working with the Office for Disability Issues on the Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations programme and has been awarded £25,000 to create an ambassador programme. As part of that programme it will raise the profile of good mental health experiences and positive outcomes and help reduce the stigma attached to mental health conditions. The plan is also to give disabled people the confidence to approach mental health services earlier and be treated by GPs and community health teams before they reach crisis point, where interventions are more traumatic and punitive.

The noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, spoke at some length about the issue of mental health and BME people. He raised a number of issues, but on his specific point about excessive detention of BME people under Section 136, we are developing a programme of work with the police to improve the experience of people who are removed from a public place to a place of safety by police using Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. We will make sure that this takes account of BME people and that the solutions suggested are evaluated for any differential impact on BME groups. From the briefing that I have had in preparation for today’s debate, I am aware that there is quite a lot going on in this area. So, if I may, I will send the noble Lord a follow-up, because I think that I can provide him with some more information which I hope will serve to address some of his concerns.

The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and indeed many other noble Lords, raised the point about language barriers in a wide range of contexts. We recognise that English language skills are fundamental to people’s ability to participate in our society, to break down barriers and to do the everyday things that we all take for granted—and just basically to get on. It is important that we are clear about the distinction drawn between the automatic translation of public authority documents and the training that is available and the services that might be provided to people with specific translation needs. People refer to comments by my right honourable Friend Eric Pickles, but he was talking about automatic translation of public authority documents and the fact that they can be expensive and entrench segregation. That is separate from the specific issue of translation and cases in which someone has an individual need.

The Government have provided more than £8 million to 35 English for speakers of other languages providers, mainly in FE colleges in areas of England where there is the highest demand. The Government fully fund this provision for those on jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance in the work-related activity group. Under this general heading of translation, my noble friend Lady Berridge raised the issue of language barriers in the provision of PIP—the replacement for DLA—and what guidance was being given to the service providers. As she was kind enough to give me advice warning of that, I am able to respond to her in a bit more detail. I hope that my answer to her question will help give an indication of our approach to other noble Lords who raised the same point but in a different context.

We have committed to making the assessment process as accessible as possible to those with communication barriers. We have built this into our contractual arrangements with both assessment providers. They will make letters and other materials available in other languages on request, and will meet any reasonable request to accommodate claimants with additional requirements, such as provision of interpreters. If an additional requirement is identified on the day of the consultation then the provider will rearrange the appointment.

My noble friend also asked whether residential care homes will adapt to reflect the ageing demographic of BME disabled people and of those who cannot speak English or who have English as a second language. I will write to her specifically on that point. However, it is worth emphasising—and again, I hope that this point will give noble Lords wider comfort—that through the Health and Social Care Act 2012, for the first time ever, there are specific legal duties on NHS commissioners and on the Secretary of State for Health concerning health inequalities. That is something that exists now that did not exist before.

Many noble Lords raised a point which is in the Scope report regarding whether the Government should develop a race equality strategy. We know that particular issues can be exacerbated by race and noble Lords have pointed to some of them, including educational attainment, unemployment and ageing, as we have just been discussing. We do not think that dealing with these problems is easy, but we believe that the best way to make progress is to tackle the root cause and not the symptoms. That requires a new approach and a single equality strategy—one that is based on underlying principles and that moves away from treating people as groups or “equality strands” and instead recognises that we are a nation of 62 million individuals. In saying that I am reinforcing what I said at the beginning and what underpins most of what has been said today—that what we are looking for in our approach to all these issues is individual attention and being able to treat people in that way.

This approach not only requires but forces joined-up work across government and requires us to focus on the problems that an individual is facing. Perhaps I can give noble Lords just one example under the heading of employment. We have done a lot in south London where our Jobcentre Plus provision is working with a group in Brixton to support work experience candidates. In Birmingham, where more than 83% of the population is from a minority ethnic community, Jobcentre Plus and the city council have formed a co-designed project with a range of BME community groups to support local people.

It is worth me putting on record that the number of ethnic minority people in employment is more than 3 million for the first time ever, which is 380,000 higher than the figure in spring 2010. Claims for JSA have fallen faster among young black men than for any other ethnic group over the past year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, the noble Lord, Lord Low, and my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece all referred to equality impact assessments. Let me be absolutely clear on this. The Equality Act was designed to ensure that the needs of people are taken into account when we change or develop and implement a new policy or service. Impact assessments cannot and must not be a tick-box exercise. Completing these forms has never been a legal requirement. Having due regard to equality when forming policy and services is the legal responsibility on all public bodies; and that is not changing. Neither is the requirement to be able to demonstrate that it has happened.

What we are reviewing, because I believe that we owe it to everyone to keep strengthening our approach in this area, is how the public sector duty operates. We want to ensure that it is delivering, as effectively as it can, what all of us believe in and want: equality, fairness and the elimination of discrimination as policy is made and services designed.

Several points were raised by noble Lords which I will do my best to get through quickly now, although I know that I will have to follow up several of them in writing. If I fail to address them now, I will of course ensure that I follow them up afterwards.

I start by referring to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, about a meeting between Ministers, the EMC and Scope. To be honest, I am somewhat confused here, because I have been advised that the Minister for Disabled People met both organisations last autumn. I will find out what has happened there and, obviously, follow up in writing on that point.

My noble friend Lady Browning talked about local commissioning and suggested that I provide some explanation about what is happening in that area for the benefit of all noble Lords. That I will do. In doing that, I hope that I can address the specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, about dystonia.

My noble friend Lady Benjamin referred to sickle cell. Again, I will certainly look into that after the debate and follow that up in writing to her. My noble friend Lady Tyler and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, in particular, among other noble Lords, talked about disabled children and the impact on those from the BME community. They referred to the Children and Families Bill. As that comes from the Department of Education, which is not a department that I work with, let me look at what is expected in that area and I will of course follow up.

I draw to a close. Another point made in the course of today’s debate was about role models and how we inspire people. Reference was made to young people. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, and others referred to the Paralympics and the whole atmosphere and culture created out of that fantastic event back in September. I remember clearly, just as we led into the Paralympics, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, saying that she was concerned that because there would be fantastically successful, brilliant and able Paralympians who would win medals, we should not give the impression that all disabled people could do so. For me, what was so important was that the Paralympians were role models not only to disabled people and people who have a great interest in sport; they were fantastic role models to all of us. We, the able-bodied, those of us who do not face barriers that other people face, should reflect on what we could achieve if we approached life in the way that many of them do.

We are working as a united Government to break down barriers of disability, race, religion, gender, age and social background. We are taking a personalised approach to enable people to reach their potential, rather than assuming that one size fits all. We believe that that mechanism best responds to individual needs, local circumstances and, in our view, is what works best to achieve the equal society that we are all striving for.

We have had a good day. I have listened and learnt a lot. I am grateful for this opportunity to share some information about what the Government are doing. I look forward to your Lordships holding me and my colleagues in government to account for delivering on that vision regularly over the rest of the Parliament.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right: there are many role models in the disabled and black and minority ethnic communities. Our concern is that they should be role models for what they are, not for their success in overcoming the barriers that they have had to face because they are black or minority ethnic or because they are disabled. This has been an important debate. Members who have spoken on all sides of the House have demonstrated a depth of experience, knowledge of the subject and passion that is truly inspiring to us all. I am grateful to the Minister for her willingness to write to us to address the detailed questions that many Members of the House have raised with her, and I urge her to adopt the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, of lodging all of those in the Library, so that we have a comprehensive response of the Government to the debate and the report.

Motion agreed.

Northern Ireland


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on events in Northern Ireland.

“Before updating the House on the recent protests and disorder, I wish to report on an attempted terrorist attack. On 30 December, an officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland discovered an improvised explosive device attached to the underneath of his car shortly before he was due to drive his wife and family to Sunday lunch.

The IED was viable and, were it not for the alertness of the officer in checking his car, it is highly likely that he and his family would all have lost their lives. This despicable attack bears the hallmarks of the so-called dissident republicans and looks to be the latest example of the relentless efforts these groupings make to try to murder police officers. It underlines the need for continued vigilance. The Government will continue to do everything that they can to help the PSNI combat the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. The House should also be aware that two individuals have been charged in relation to the murder of prison officer David Black.

Turning to the disturbances in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, since I reported to the House on 11 December, protests over the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall have continued, with only sporadic respite over Christmas. While many of these have been peaceful, even these peaceful protests have seen roads blocked and daily life disrupted. A significant number of protests have led to serious disorder, mainly concentrated in east Belfast. While, thankfully, there were no significant public order incidents last night, the violence during the preceding six days saw masonry, bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs being thrown at police, and in one instance shots were fired. Police vehicles have been attacked with sledgehammers. On 5 and 7 January, water cannon and AEP rounds were deployed. In total, 66 police officers have been injured since these protests first began. Threats and intimidation against elected representatives continue, with the office of the honourable Member for Belfast East still the subject of daily intimidation.

The intimidation and violence are unacceptable and intolerable. The Government condemn those responsible in the strongest possible terms. We reiterate our full support for the chief constable and his officers in their efforts to maintain law and order, and we pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of PSNI officers, who put their safety on the line every day to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure. According to the chief constable, senior individual members of the Ulster Volunteer Force are involved in orchestrating the violence, although the chief constable’s view is that it is not being sanctioned by the leadership of that group.

Since 3 December, 107 people have been arrested and 82 have been charged with various offences. So the perpetrators of this violence should be in no doubt that, as the chief constable made clear on Monday, they will face the full rigour of the law. Those who continue to organise these protests and engage in violence really need to ask themselves what they think they are achieving. The idea that hurling bricks at police officers is somehow defending the union flag or protecting Britishness is incomprehensible. These people are not defending our national flag; they are dishonouring our national flag and our country. What is more, they are being reckless with the peace settlement and all that it has delivered.

The damage that they are inflicting on Northern Ireland’s economy must be considerable. Huge efforts have been made in recent years to project a modern, confident and outward-looking Northern Ireland that is a great place to do business. But the pictures beaming round the world of riots and disorder make it far harder to compete in the global race for inward investment. Jobs and livelihoods are under threat. So it is essential that these protests and this violence stop now.

Since these disturbances began, I have been in regular contact with the chief constable, the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Justice Minister and other political leaders. The Northern Ireland political parties need to work together to find a way forward. It should not be impossible to find a way which sees decisions on flags made in a way that respects different views and takes into account the different traditions and identities present in today’s Northern Ireland. For that to happen, the issue needs to come off the streets to allow local politicians and community leaders the space to sit around a table and engage in constructive dialogue.

I have used recent weeks to highlight the urgent need to make progress on addressing the underlying divisions within the community in Northern Ireland, which can make decisions on issues such as flags so fraught with tension. On many occasions, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have expressed their firm commitment to building a shared society free from sectarian division. It is a theme to which I and my predecessor, along with the Prime Minister, have returned many times.

So much has been achieved in the 20 years since the peace process really got under way. The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland can lead their lives with a normality and a freedom from fear that would have been impossible back in the dark days of the Troubles. However, we all need to acknowledge that the process is not finished, and the stability delivered by the Belfast agreement should never be taken for granted.

For some, sectarian divisions remain deeply entrenched, and it is time for bold moves by Northern Ireland’s political leadership to address them. We need to build a genuinely shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland. It will not be easy, but Northern Ireland’s political leaders have already shown themselves capable of taking difficult decisions in order to make progress on many matters. They have fixed tougher problems than the ones that we are discussing today. I believe that they can rise to this challenge, as they have to so many others in the past two decades. The UK Government stand ready to work with them and support them in their efforts to deliver a better and more cohesive future for Northern Ireland. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place. With the leave of the House, I will now repeat the response to the Statement made by my honourable friend Vernon Coaker.

“Mr Speaker, I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for her statement and for advance sight of it. I join with her in condemning the disgraceful violence we have seen over the last number of weeks. The serious rioting, the attacks on the police and the threats against elected representatives have been appalling, including that against the honourable Member for Belfast East, who has behaved throughout with real dignity and courage. This violence would not be acceptable in London; it would not be acceptable in Cardiff; it would not be acceptable in Edinburgh; and it is not acceptable in Belfast. People in Northern Ireland need to know that the UK Government are giving this the highest priority and that Northern Ireland matters. So can I ask the Secretary of State what discussions she has had with the Prime Minister about the recent violence and what discussions he has had, or intends to have, with Northern Ireland Ministers about what might be done to support them?

The dissident republican terrorist attempt to murder a police officer and his family over Christmas was sickening. It reminds us, as the Secretary of State has said, of the ongoing threat from those who wish to destroy the peace and progress. It is good that the police have made arrests in relation to David Black’s murder, and it sends out a clear message that the perpetrators of those crimes will be brought to justice.

The public disorder and violence we have seen on the streets began, as we know, when the decision was taken by Belfast City Council that the union flag should be flown only on designated days. In a democracy, you cannot try and change decisions by the use of force. Will the Secretary of State join with me in saying that those who break the law can expect to be dealt with by the full force of the law? Violence cannot be allowed to win.

Once again, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has shown exceptional bravery and courage even at great personal cost, with more than 60 officers already injured. Let us once again commend them for their professionalism and dedication to duty. The chief constable has clearly stated that senior figures from the Ulster Volunteer Force are involved in much of the violence. What assessment has she made of loyalist paramilitary involvement? Does she agree that attacks by paramilitaries on the police and elected politicians are matters of national security, and is she confident that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources to continue this level of commitment without impacting on its other policing duties?

Today, I was due to be visiting a project in Belfast to help young people back to work. I have seen in communities across Northern Ireland, both nationalist and unionist, initiatives to try and ensure that every young person has hope, every community looks to the future, jobs are created and everything possible is done to overcome sectarianism and the divisions of the past. Much of this is devolved but will the Secretary of State ensure that the consequences of any of her Government’s economic and social policies are fully considered with respect to Northern Ireland? Deprivation, disengagement and alienation in any community are a challenge, but one that if not met in Northern Ireland can have particular and dangerous consequences.

I want to close today by saying clearly that although this violence is serious, worrying and wrong, and that it must stop, we will not and cannot let it undo all of the good work being done in Northern Ireland. We have continuing work to do to reassure people outside of Northern Ireland that it is a fantastic place, open for business and tourism. We must do all we can to highlight all that is good—and there is so much that is good.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the scenes we have witnessed in recent weeks on our TV screens do not represent the real face of Northern Ireland? We need to work together to find answers to the difficult questions about how to overcome sectarianism, deal with contentious issues and confront the past. That will not happen through violence but only by dialogue based on mutual respect—a respect of both Britishness and Irishness. There are many people engaged in ongoing work on these issues that is being done quietly and effectively. We must extend and develop that. The majority of people I speak to, especially the young, offer real hope for the future. Let us encourage them and not allow the actions of a few to damn them all.

There has been real progress in the last number of years in Northern Ireland. It is not easy and sometimes there will be setbacks, but these setbacks cannot and must not be allowed to define Northern Ireland and its people, or derail the progress that has been made”.

I commend this response to the Statement by Vernon Coaker to the House.

My Lords, I appreciate the spirit of the response that the noble Lord has made to the Statement, the tributes that he has made to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and indeed the ongoing support of his party and its commitment to the peace process. In answer to the various questions, the Prime Minister has been briefed every day on events in Northern Ireland. He takes a very keen interest in Northern Ireland and has a very strong commitment to the country, as evidenced by the fact that he selected Northern Ireland as the venue for the G8 later this year—a matter of considerable importance to the Northern Ireland economy.

I also want to say how much the Government appreciate the tributes being made to the honourable Member for Belfast East. She has dealt with the attacks on her office, on her and on her reputation by behaving with great dignity and courage throughout. It is important to bear in mind that her staff are also having to bear with these attacks, as indeed are a large number of other elected politicians from across political parties. It is important that we bear in mind that they, their families and their staff are very much under pressure at this time. I would respond to the noble Lord’s comments by saying that the history of Northern Ireland shows that only discussion will work; only by getting round the table and discussing the problems and the differences of view will any solution come. Violence has not been effective in the last 50 years and it will not be effective now.

In relation to the question on the UVF, the Chief Constable has stated that he believed that the leadership of the UVF was not directly involved and has not sanctioned the action that has been taking place. Violence on the streets is not acceptable; it is not acceptable wherever it is in the UK and it is certainly not acceptable in Belfast.

In relation to the issue of whether this is a matter of national security, the response has to be that, whatever label you put on this and whatever category you put these events into, the services involved are working together very closely to deal with the problems. Of course, that leads me on to another question from the noble Lord. This takes resources from community policing and from other aspects of Northern Ireland’s budget. Community policing is so important to progress in the most disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland, from which many of the protesters are coming. Rioting on the street makes it more difficult for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver on education, the health service and the development of the economy.

Respect for both Britishness and Irishness in Northern Ireland has been a symbol of the last 20 years and it must continue. I appreciate the points made by the noble Lord on a modern Northern Ireland. It is a country of tremendous opportunities and 2013 will host some exciting and very important events.

My Lords, I remind the House of the benefit of short questions to the Minister in order that she may answer as many questions as possible.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for repeating the Statement and for the recognition in the Statement of the great courage of the Police Service of Northern Ireland: the police officer whom the dissident Republicans attempted to murder—actually, just around the corner from my own home—and the dozens of police officers who have been injured in the riots and disturbances created by loyalists.

However, despite what is said in the Statement about flags, do Her Majesty’s Government understand that this is not fundamentally about flags or flying the flag on designated days? Since the time when I was Speaker, starting in 1998, we had an understanding and agreement among all the political parties. The union flag would be flown only on designated days over Parliament Buildings. It was not an issue of contention at that time, or in the decade and a half since that time. This is about other issues. It is about a context being created by some political leaders for their own political interests. That is why I would like to pay particular tribute to the courage of Naomi Long, the honourable Member for Belfast East, and many other Alliance representatives and representatives of other parties who have been standing up for democracy and have been personally attacked and had their lives threatened for that courageous stand. I also pay tribute to the many ordinary people who have been terrified: cancer patients trying to go for treatment; business people trying to keep their businesses open; and ordinary people going about their business and trade who have been frightened and intimidated by what has been going on.

During the time when I was a member of the IMC, we were able regularly to brief the community in some detail about what was going on and who was doing it. That has not been the case. Despite the undertakings of the previous Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, that there would be six-monthly analyses of what has been going on, we are really not getting much detail—for example, of the activities of loyalist paramilitaries like the UVF. The noble Baroness has repeated that “the leadership” did not sanction this. That may be so, but is it the case that the leadership of the UVF in East Belfast has actually been involved in this? This is the kind of detailed question that some of us would like to explore and I fully recognise that the Floor of the House may not be the appropriate place for questions and answers. I ask my noble friend to encourage the Secretary of State to meet those Members of your Lordships’ House who are interested and concerned about Northern Ireland and who feel it is urgently important that we have a meeting with her in the near future to explore these things.

Finally, I ask the Government to recognise that the British and Irish Governments were the drivers of the peace process and without them there would not have been an agreement. Can they understand that they are also the guarantors of the settlement and therefore cannot back off and suppose that those who are there and sometimes have their own games to play will be trusted to deliver the peace that needs to be maintained?

I thank the noble Lord for his comments, particularly those on the courage of the PSNI. The Government fully appreciate that there are complex issues behind these protests and that it is about more than just flags in many cases, not least about issues of deprivation. Ironically, the more unrest there is in Northern Ireland, the less likelihood there will be of further economic investment, so it becomes a real problem.

The noble Lord referred to the Assembly agreement, with which he was intimately involved, on the flying of flags. I believe that Lisburn city hall uses a similar method. There are a variety of agreements on the flying of flags. However, these decisions must be made in Northern Ireland. They are devolved, democratic decisions to be made in Northern Ireland and cannot be made by the UK Government.

We have to keep repeating the importance of democracy in relation to Northern Ireland. Democracy must be our watchword. I will of course take the noble Lord’s words to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. It is important that your Lordships are fully involved and fully briefed where possible on issues relating to Northern Ireland. I will ensure that those comments are repeated to my right honourable friend.

Finally, the roles of the British Government and the Irish Government remain crucial in supporting and encouraging the Northern Ireland Executive but it would be counterproductive on many issues for the British Government to intervene on matters which are devolved and must remain devolved.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I and my party condemn utterly the rioting and the violence and the threats and attacks against elected representatives. I again plead that these stop immediately. Rioting is wrong. It destroys the very position and arguments being put forward by the protestors. Furthermore, some 60-plus police officers who nightly are standing on the streets of Northern Ireland holding the line against violence have been injured. I join the Minister in praising and paying tribute to the bravery and the professionalism of the PSNI officers on the ground in these difficult days. If these riots should continue and escalate, as I fear they might, and the PSNI chief constable asks for further resources, be they financial or police personnel from the mainland, will these resources be readily available?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I wholeheartedly agree with his thoughts in terms of the fact that rioting destroys the arguments that the protestors purport to be making. The danger of escalation is very real and the situation is very serious. As far as I know, the chief constable has not asked for additional resources but the UK Government have always stood ready to provide what Northern Ireland needs for its security. I am aware that the chief constable will be assessing the impact of these nights of violence on his resources as the year progresses.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most depressing aspects of this very sad situation is, as the chief constable of Northern Ireland said, the number of young people who are involved in these disturbances? Our difficulty, of course, as the Minister said, is that because the powers to deal with these things are mainly devolved, there is very little that we can urge the Government to do. If I were a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I would ask the Executive whether it was time that they dealt with the tremendous disadvantage facing young people in Belfast. It has been there for years and I hope that it is not too late to deal with it. What they ought to do is bring together urgently the teachers, voluntary organisations, the police, the health service, local government and the churches to see what can be done to give the young people of the disadvantaged parts of Belfast some sense that they have a future too.

I appreciate the noble Lord’s comments and I agree with him that the outstanding tragedy of recent weeks has been the incredibly young ages at which some of these people are becoming involved. One feels that they cannot fully understand what they are participating in. I agree entirely with the noble Lord that we must all redouble our efforts to deal with youth unemployment, which remains too high in Northern Ireland; to deal with low levels of educational achievement in many of the areas affected among the loyalist community; and to deal with attempts to improve the prosperity of Northern Ireland in general. That is why it is so very sad, when 2013 is a year of opportunity for investment, that this has occurred.

My Lords, I understand that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, at the opening press conference of the year on Monday morning, were not asked even one question on this topic by the assembled media. That tells us perhaps two things about the situation. First, there is an acceptance of violence in Belfast that simply would not exist in Aberdeen, Newcastle, Cardiff or anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Secondly, following devolution—we experienced this in Scotland and it has been experienced in Wales sometimes as well—there is almost a disinclination at the centre of UK government here in London to become involved in the issues that have become devolved.

My question is therefore whether the Government will assure us here today that they will retain a close interest in this. While the Police Service of Northern Ireland may well be devolved to the Assembly, and the issue of flags above Belfast City Hall may well be devolved to the City Council in Belfast, rioting on the streets of any UK city is a matter in which the UK Government must have an interest. The UK media must be interested too.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I agree wholeheartedly that it is absolutely essential that the UK Government maintain an interest in what is happening in Northern Ireland and that there are very close links between the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive. I know that those links exist and that they are very active. The Secretary of State has been in daily contact with the Northern Ireland Executive and Ministers in the last few weeks. We must not accept violence on the streets of any of our cities. What is perhaps most poignant about the recent weeks is that we had almost come to believe that Belfast was entirely stable and secure from the outside. I think it has come as rather a shock to many people how difficult it has been to control this violence.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting this debate and for both its tone and its detail. I would like to focus just on one point: the mode of address of government in these circumstances.

One of the reasons for what has happened and for the many disgraceful scenes that we have seen on our television screens—I come from east Belfast and I have seen them happening right in front of me—is a sense among a wide section of the unionist community that some kind of erasure of their British culture is going on. I do not want to comment on the validity or otherwise of that perception. However, there is no doubt that part of the reason why respectable sections of unionism initially showed some sympathy for these protests is dependent on that feeling. It seems to me that there might be a case for the Government attempting to address it. This Government in particular have made a point of saying that they are not tepidly neutral on the union. This is a complicated question that has to be addressed with balance.

My next point will have no effect on the young people who are rioting, but if the Government remind the people of Northern Ireland that their place within the union, based on the principle of consent, is secure and that the Government are in no sense tepid about this prospect, that would help to draw away support for this protest from respectable sections of unionism. By the way, I believe that that drawing away of support is already happening.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear in her response in the other place this morning—I repeat it here this afternoon—that the union is secure and that this Government are committed to it in every respect, but that does not mean that there can be a lack of respect for people who come from different backgrounds. It is absolutely essential that the future of Northern Ireland is based on respect for those who see themselves from the perspective of Britishness and those who emphasise their Irishness. The two have lived together for the past 20 years as the peace process has developed, and that must continue. There must be mutual respect and respect for democratic decisions. I think that anyone who thought that supporting, or giving tacit approval to, protests on the streets of Belfast now realises that they have dealt with a very dangerous situation.

My Lords, the Question refers to the trouble in Northern Ireland and not Belfast. Can the Minister confirm that there have been hundreds of demonstrations right across Northern Ireland opposing the decision by Belfast City Council to lower the union flag, and that the vast majority of those demonstrations have been peaceful? Will she dissociate herself from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who said that peaceful protests should not be allowed? That was an outrageous statement for a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make.

Does the Minister realise that the real cause of this problem was in fact the decision of Belfast City Council to lower the union flag from the city hall, that violence was anticipated by the honourable Member for Belfast East, Naomi Long, and that the Alliance Party, in coalition with its colleagues in Sinn Fein and the SDLP, recognised that there was going to be violence? Would it not therefore have been better for the city council to have delayed its decision until January rather than rush it through before Christmas, thereby damaging the retail trade in the city centre of Belfast?

Finally, since the noble Baroness mentioned democracy, does she recall that when we negotiated the Belfast agreement, it was agreed that democracy varied from one country to another? Democracy in Northern Ireland is not simply majority rule. The lowering of the flag at Belfast City Hall has certainly upset the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, but majority rule does not apply in Northern Ireland. The Belfast agreement made sure that democracy in Northern Ireland meant shared rule in the Assembly at Stormont: in other words, decisions being taken with the consent of the minority. Does the noble Baroness accept that the decision of Belfast City Council was not democratic and did not have the consent of the 45% minority in Belfast?

The noble Lord is correct in saying that there have been protests across Northern Ireland. There has been a small number of violent protests in other places, but there has been concentration in the media on Belfast because that is where the vast majority of problems have occurred. The Secretary of State has emphasised the importance of peaceful discussion in a democracy where we are able to protest and gather on the streets, but it is through discussion that we will get change. It is always very important to bear that in mind.

The noble Lord makes a point about the timing of the decision of Belfast City Council. It made the decision according to its own standing orders and established democratic procedures. I agree with the noble Lord that the retail trade is bearing the brunt of these protests and the disruption caused. That was particularly acute in the pre-Christmas period.



My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, with permission I will make a Statement to update the House on the crisis in Syria—a crisis which is still intensifying. Sixty thousand Syrians are now believed to have died, 600,000 people have become refugees, 2 million people are internally displaced and 4 million people are in desperate need.

To illustrate the true horror of the conflict, 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed in one six-day period over Christmas. On Christmas Day opposition activists reported that 17 people were executed at a checkpoint in the Damascus suburbs, nine of whom were from one family. The regime has used SCUD missiles to target populated areas, and deployed cluster munitions. Entire urban districts have been reduced to rubble in cities like Homs and Aleppo.

The House will join me in expressing our solidarity with millions of courageous Syrian people in the face of this appalling brutality. We continue to believe that the best way to end this bloodshed and to protect all Syria’s communities is through a political transition. Our country has a moral obligation to help save lives in Syria, and a national interest in ensuring that the country provides no haven for terrorist activity. We know that to achieve lasting stability we must work with the Syrian opposition and countries of the region and not try to impose a political settlement from the outside. We are determined that all our actions will uphold UK and international law, and support justice and accountability for the Syrian people themselves.

In the coming weeks we will focus on six principal areas. First, we will intensify our diplomatic efforts to reach a political transition. We are actively supporting the efforts of UN-Arab League special representative Lakhdar Brahimi who has travelled to Damascus and to Moscow for talks with the Russian Government, and who is due to hold trilateral talks with Russian and US representatives this week. My ministerial colleagues and I are in regular contact with him and expect to hold further talks with him in London later this month. Our goal remains to persuade Russia and China to join us in putting the full weight of the UN Security Council behind a political transition plan for Syria.

Secondly, we will continue our work to help the Syrian national coalition to develop its plans for the future of Syria. Since I last updated the House I attended the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech, where the US and many other countries followed us in recognising the national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and where $150 million was pledged to support the humanitarian effort. The coalition is enlarging its membership to include Christian, Kurdish and other minority communities. At a meeting in Istanbul this week we saw encouraging signs of the coalition making every effort to broaden its support further and build on its legitimacy, although much work remains to be done.

We are working to strengthen moderate political forces in Syria committed to a democratic future for the country. We have provided £7.4 million of non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition, to civil society and to human rights defenders, and I can announce that we will provide an additional £2 million of support, bringing the total to £9.4 million. Our assistance is designed to help to save lives, to mitigate the impact of the conflict, or to support the people trying to achieve a free and democratic Syria. It includes solar-powered lighting, generators, communication equipment and water-purification kits to help opposition groups, and satellite communication devices for activists to document human rights violations and abuses so that one day the perpetrators of these appalling crimes can be brought to justice.

This involves support for local-level administration councils providing services to Syrian people during the conflict. We have given training to more than 300 Syrian journalists, who are striving to develop alternative sources of media and freedom of the press in Syria, and we are training activists working to create a network of peace-building committees across five Syrian cities. We are also helping the national coalition to co-ordinate the international humanitarian response and have provided a humanitarian adviser to work with them. At all times we urge the coalition to ensure that all opposition groups meet their commitments on human rights.

Thirdly, we will continue to increase the pressure on the regime to stop the violence. In December we argued that the EU sanctions regime on Syria, including the arms embargo, should be rolled over for three months until 1 March rather than 12 months, so that there would be an earlier review of it. We believed that it was important not to freeze EU policy for a whole year just as a new opposition coalition was being launched and the conflict on the ground was intensifying.

No decisions have yet been made to change the support that we provide to the Syrian national coalition or the Syrian people but European countries now have the flexibility to consider taking additional steps to try to save lives if there is no progress in the near future. Clearly the best outcome for the Syrian people would be a diplomatic breakthrough, bringing an end to the bloodshed and establishing a new Syrian Government able to restore stability. However, we must keep open options to help save lives in Syria and to assist opposition groups who are opposed to extremism if the violence continues. We should send a strong signal to Assad that all options are on the table. We will therefore seek to amend the EU sanctions so that the possibility of additional assistance is not closed off.

No one can be sure how the situation in Syria will develop in the coming months. There is no guarantee that Mr Brahimi’s efforts to mediate a political agreement will be successful. President Assad’s speech last week urged the Syrian people to unite in a war against his opponents. Given the regime’s intransigence and brutality there is a serious risk that the violence will worsen in the coming months. If that happens the international community’s response will have to be stepped up. We will not rule out any options to save lives and protect civilians in the absence of a political transition in Syria. We will ensure that our efforts are legal, that they are aimed at saving lives, and that they support at all times the objective of a political transition and encouraging moderate political forces in Syria, and we will keep the House properly informed.

Fourthly, we continue to increase our life-saving humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. The United Kingdom is the second largest bilateral donor to UN relief efforts, supporting more than 100,000 people across the region with food parcels, blankets and warm clothing. On 21 December my right honourable friend the International Development Secretary announced a further £15 million in humanitarian aid, bringing our total support to £68.5 million so far. Honourable Members will have seen images of Syrian refugees struggling with rain and cold in refugee camps across the region. The latest £15 million of funding will be used to provide food, clean water, blankets and shelter to help Syrians cope with the misery of these winter months. There will be medical supplies to treat the sick and wounded, since so many Syrian medical facilities have been destroyed, and armoured vehicles to enable humanitarian agencies to deliver aid safely inside the country.

The UN has appealed for $1.5 billion for the first six months of 2013. This is the largest ever short-term UN appeal but it remains seriously underfunded. At the donor conference hosted by Kuwait and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later this month we will again call on other countries to pledge the additional humanitarian aid that is so desperately needed.

I pay tribute to the 26 humanitarian workers who have been killed in Syria since the fighting began and deplore the rise in attacks on medical facilities in Syria, which are contrary to international law and an affront to basic humanity. We urge all parties to stop the violence and allow humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance safely and without interference, in accordance with international law.

Fifthly, we are continuing detailed planning for how we can help a future Syrian Government deal with the many challenges that Syria will face during a political transition. This process must be led by the Syrian people, but they will need help from the international community as they repair roads and hospitals destroyed during the conflict, and restart their ravaged economy. Today we are hosting leading members of the Syrian opposition, and representatives of 14 countries and international organisations, at a Wilton Park conference designed to advance detailed planning of that support, including in the areas of political reform, security, institution-building and the economy.

Sixthly, we are supporting UN efforts to document and deter human rights abuses in Syria. The UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria published its latest report on 20 December. It showed that the international human rights violations highlighted in its previous reports were continuing. We will continue to do all we can to support its work. We are providing specific leadership in efforts to confront rape and sexual violence in Syria. We have deployed experts to the region to provide training in how to respond to reports of sexual violence, and how to improve the prospect of future investigation and prosecutions. We will intensify this work as a matter of urgency. We are also urging the Syrian national coalition to commit itself to ensuring justice and accountability for the Syrian people, and are drawing its attention to the right of a future Government of Syria to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court—even though some members of the UN Security Council are blocking that option at present.

This is our approach: intensifying our efforts to forge agreement at the UN Security Council; pursuing a political transition on the ground while ruling out no option to save lives if the situation deteriorates; supporting the opposition and the Syrian people; increasing the pressure on the regime and being prepared to do so in new ways if necessary; working to deter human rights violations and abuses; and planning to help Syria get back on its feet once the conflict comes to an end. The Syrian people are enduring unimaginable suffering. They are at the heart of this crisis, their future is at stake, and our country and the world must not abandon them”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for repeating a Statement on the situation in Syria given in the other place earlier today by the Foreign Secretary.

It is a matter of profound regret that the biggest single change that we in this House have seen since we last considered Syria is the numbers of casualties. On 2 January 2013, the United Nations estimated that the war’s death toll had now exceeded 60,000, of which about half were thought to be civilians. It predicted that the death toll would increase at a rate of 5,000 a month. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been imprisoned, nearly 30,000 have been reported missing, about 2.5 million are currently thought to be internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recently warned that as many as 100,000 people could die in the next year if a way cannot be found quickly to end the country’s civil war. He described the situation as nothing less than the descent of a country into hell. I join the noble Baroness in expressing solidarity with the millions of courageous Syrians in the face of this appalling brutality.

I turn to the four central points addressed in the Statement. First, on diplomatic efforts to reach a political transition, the continued stalemate at the UN Security Council is beyond regrettable—it is utterly deplorable. The position of the Russians remains central to this impasse. Recent statements by the Russian Foreign Minister have suggested a possible shift of attitude in Moscow. It is now the responsibility of countries such as the UK and its partners to capitalise on this. I note the trilateral talks with the Russian and US representatives this week. Will the Minister tell the House when the Foreign Secretary personally last spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and when he will next discuss the issue of Syria with him?

Secondly, I turn to support for the Syrian national coalition. Any diplomatic support that the Government can offer the SNC to encourage it to draw up a credible transitional plan for Syria is indeed to be welcomed. In this spirit, the opposition welcome the conference being held at Wilton Park aimed at doing just that. Will the noble Baroness set out what she believes are the principal barriers to unity that have so far prevented the Syrian opposition from uniting around a transitional plan for government? I note the announcement today of additional funds to support the SNC, but will the Minister provide further details on how this non-lethal support will be spent? We welcomed the Geneva plan agreed last summer, but do the Government agree that, notwithstanding the support of the international community for the SNC, currently neither side within Syria appears committed to helping to implement it? In light of this, are the Government still in fact encouraging the SNC to accept the Geneva plan?

Thirdly, let me turn to the central issue of EU sanctions on Syria. I note, with some concerns, what the Statement mentioned, but I urge the Minister to provide more detail to the House on the following matters. Will the Minister set out, as much as possible, the latest assessments of the role that al-Qaeda and other extremist groups are now playing in Syria? Does the Minister fully recognise the grave difficulties of guaranteeing the end-use of weapons supplied into Syria, given the uncertainty around the present identity, intent and tactics of some of the rebel forces? Does she accept that if Europe were to decide to arm the rebel forces, it is perfectly possible that that Russians would simply increase their own supply of weapons to Assad? I also ask the noble Baroness—not least given the recent warnings of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place—what would encourage the Government to believe that intensifying the conflict at this stage will reduce the present appalling level of suffering of the Syrian people?

Fourthly, I turn to the humanitarian consequences of the violence. For some time, aid workers have been warning of the onset of winter and the worsening conditions on the ground. Their worst nightmares have been realised. Only this week, aid workers in the Zaatari camp were attacked by frustrated refugees with sticks and stones after fierce desert winds and torrential rains swept away their tents. Warnings of a major snowstorm later this week will bring even deeper misery to those already desperate. Latest figures from the UN state that $622 million in aid is now needed to help Syrian refugees in countries around the Middle East, while $312 million alone was required to help refugees in Jordan. The latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency show that 597,240 people have registered or are awaiting registration with the agency in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Given that by the Government’s own admission the UN appeal “remains seriously underfunded”, what steps will the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister take to help secure those addition funds ahead of the vital donor conference in Kuwait later this month? Will the Minister set out for your Lordships’ House how much of this additional money she expects will be committed and how much of it has been delivered?

To conclude, the principal responsibility for the appalling suffering being endured by the Syrian people rests with the Assad regime. Assad’s latest speech last week once again demonstrated a callous disregard for human life by showing no real intention of helping to bring the conflict to an end or take responsibility for its beginning. However, the burden of responsibility on the international community is also a heavy one. In the view of the Opposition, rather than now directing their efforts towards intensifying the conflict, the British Government must remain focused on building international agreement around an inclusive post-Assad Syria, in which all communities of Syria have a stake.

I thank the noble Baroness for her response to the Statement. As always, I thank the Benches opposite for their strong support in this matter. There is clear unity across the Dispatch Box on what is clearly a continuing and worsening crisis. The noble Baroness raises some specific points. Unfortunately I cannot give her the specific date when the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Russian Foreign Minister, but I do know that both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been in constant contact with their Russian counterparts. My own discussions took place towards the end of last year, when I spoke to the Russian ambassador. I can assure the noble Baroness and the House that we use all opportunities, both private and public. Indeed, at the United Nations General Assembly the Prime Minister commented very clearly about our belief that Russia needs to play a more constructive role in achieving progress.

In relation to the opposition and the meeting today at Wilton Park, one of its main purposes is to build further consensus and an action plan relating to political, economic and institutional reforms. It is, of course, planning for a future where it will have a say; where the views of the Syrian people will be expressed through a legitimately elected Government. The further funding and support for the opposition is to ensure that they can continue in that.

A specific addition is the UK humanitarian adviser who has been seconded into the assistance co-ordination unit, which is based in Turkey and is run by the national coalition. It effectively co-ordinates aid going both into Syria and into the refugee camps outside Syria.

The noble Baroness asked for some detail in relation to AQ and other extremist groups, an issue which concerns us. The number of fighters currently in the opposition runs into six figures. It is not, of course, an organised army—people come and people leave—and at this stage it is anticipated that the numbers who belong to an extremist ideology or are fighting on the basis of religious fundamentalism are limited. However, we are keeping a close eye on the matter.

As to the noble Baroness’s question about weapons, at this stage there is no change in the UK’s policy on their supply. We are mindful of our obligations under the EU embargo and sanctions—which we, of course, led—and of our obligations both internationally and domestically. We feel that an escalation of the supply of arms into the region would not help but, of course, we must remain flexible as to what is required to save lives in the future.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of aid efforts to increase funds. The Foreign Secretary has been in discussions with Nabil al-Arabi. He is building on those discussions, as he is with his opposite numbers, in the lead-up to the conference. I cannot give precise details of the amount of funds that have been collected or pledged but we are urging all nations to play their part.

My Lords, the Government’s actions are welcome in so far as they go. They will have an effect but, I fear, it will be far less than we might wish. Does my noble friend accept that one of the reasons for that is because many people, especially in the Arab world and the Middle East, do not see this as a conflict within Syria between an oppressed citizenry and an oppressive dictatorship but rather as the front line in a widening war between the Sunnis and the Shia? Does she agree that such an event would be extremely damaging for the Middle East and have grave consequences for stability world wide? Does she understand and know that many rich Saudi businessmen—just as they did in Afghanistan—are now actively funding Salafi and Wahabi tendencies in Syria and throughout the Middle East? They are supported in large measure, with great unwisdom, by the Qatari Government, who are playing with fire. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to advise both the Saudi and Qatari Governments of the hazardous policies that they are following and the very dangerous consequences that they could have?

My noble friend speaks with great experience in relation to these matters. I can assure him that we are extremely mindful of the consequences of where this may go. It is for that reason that this crisis—which has now been on-going for 22 months—has left us in a situation where we feel consistently frustrated by the fact that we need to do more to save lives. However, we are not at this stage managing to achieve a consensus within the international community on the direction in which we need to travel to achieve that. We are acutely mindful of the role that other countries from the region could play in Syria.

The noble Lord will be aware of the work that we have been doing bilaterally with Saudi Arabia and other countries to tackle extremist ideologies. I am familiar with the work that has been done in relation to extremist ideologies and deradicalisation programmes; for example, within Saudi Arabia. We always build upon those discussions, not just for people who are radicalised within Saudi Arabia but those who may use that as a basis for fighting in other countries.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement, which raises a large number of very serious issues. I will limit myself to three brief questions.

First, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s assurance that we are activiely supporting the efforts of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi. However, will the Minister accept that our recognition of the Syrian national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people not only amounts to a virtual declaration of war against President Assad’s Government but seriously undermines the already difficult mission which Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to carry out at the request of the United Nations and the Arab League?

Secondly, I am glad to learn that we are the second largest bilateral donor to United Nations relief efforts in Syria. However, does the Minister accept that giving massive assistance—the Statement mentions over £7 million—to a Syrian opposition, of which one of the most effective and murderous elements is the terrorist organisation, al-Nusra, contradicts our alleged efforts to get all parties to stop the violence?

Thirdly, I note that we have given training to more than 300 Syrian journalists. Does the Minister accept that a more balanced and objective assessment of the current civil war in Syria is needed, both of the extent to which President Assad still has the support of a significant part of the Syrian population, and of the extent to which terrorist activities by al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and other extremist movements have contributed to the distressingly high casualty figures? We may, as the Statement says, have a moral obligation to save lives in Syria, but direct intervention in a Sunni-Shia war, and even the threat of providing military assistance in the future, can only precipitate a further deterioration of this tragic conflict.

The noble Lord raises a number of important issues. I understand his concerns in relation to what could be perceived by our recognition of the Syrian national coalition as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people, or the consequences that could flow from that. However, when a regime has inflicted such brutality upon its own people, it is right that we engage with a coalition of those in opposition. I can assure him that al-Nusra is not part of that coalition, and that it is therefore not in receipt of any funding that is being given to the recognised opposition coalition.

With regard to the balance of reporting that is coming out of Syria, it is right that we fund human rights defenders and journalists to take records and keep material for potential future prosecutions. The noble Lord will be aware, as will other noble Lords, that we must not allow a culture of impunity to exist at the end of such crises, and that there must, therefore, be accountability for the actions that took place during that crisis. The noble Lord will also be aware that for access and security reasons, it is very difficult for independent observers to be on the ground in Syria. It is therefore right and appropriate that we fund and support those who are there on the ground to take records.

My Lords, the Minister painted a very bleak picture of this appalling civil war, in which there will be no winners and only losers—those being the people of Syria themselves. She described the frustration at the United Nations Security Council, and an underfunded aid effort. Will she answer three questions?

First, the Minister spoke of working with the Syrian opposition and the countries of the region. Presumably those countries include Iran and Russia. Certainly, President Assad’s speech was very intransigent, but is there any evidence of any softening of the position of Russia, and to what extent do we believe that Iran should be brought into the discussions?

Secondly, we know of the Russian naval presence in that area. How do we interpret that—simple sabre-rattling, or worse? Thirdly, quite properly, the Minister spoke of seeking to ensure that the perpetrators of these appalling crimes are brought to justice. What efforts are we making to ensure that those who are guilty of such violations of human rights are aware that we are monitoring their actions and indeed that we intend that ultimately they will face justice? What are the means of communication to such people directly?

With regard to working with the opposition and other important allies in the region, we have of course been working closely with Turkey, which unfortunately has had to bear the brunt of taking on the majority of refugees who have come out of Syria. Other partners in the region are playing a constructive role.

With regard to Russia, I think that I made clear when I repeated the Statement that we are using all opportunities to impress upon the Russians, using discussions with our opposite numbers and counterparts in all fora, that there has to be some progress in this matter. Is there a softening of their position? Are we facing a brick wall? At this stage I could describe what we are seeing as a potential crack in the brick wall, but we must continue to ensure that we keep pushing.

With regards to perpetrators of crimes, there is always the possibility—provided that the United Nations Security Council can pass a resolution, which of course would have to be supported by China and Russia—that those crimes could be referred to the International Criminal Court. There is also the alternative option that, at the end of this crisis, these matters could be tried within Syria by a democratically elected Government.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the aid given to our allies like Turkey—particularly Jordan, which has almost 250,000 refugees, and Lebanon—is not merely a humanitarian issue? Let us recall the destabilisation of Jordan in 1970 by the Black September movement. There is a real danger of countries—not so much Turkey but certainly Lebanon and Jordan—being destabilised by the number of refugees coming in. Do Her Majesty’s Government understand that this is not just a humanitarian question but one of stabilisation?

In discussions with the opposition, are we trying to ensure that we get an undertaking from them that, should they find themselves in a position of governance at a later stage, they will hand over all stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear materiel to an appropriate international organisation? Can we get that agreement at this point, rather than waiting until we are bemoaning their being abused, should these folk find themselves in government at a later stage?

I agree with my noble friend’s first point; of course our support in the region has both a humanitarian element and a stabilisation element. Countries can find themselves with a large number of refugees and that can lead to internal challenges for those nations. We are therefore supporting countries in the region in dealing with those issues.

My noble friend makes an important point with regard to chemical and biological weapons. We have had these discussions with the opposition coalition. We have asked them to appoint an individual who will be specifically responsible for co-ordinating the discussion of these matters with a view to ensuring, if at all possible during the crisis, that these weapons are safeguarded, and we have urged them, at the end of this, to sign up to the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxic weapons convention. The opposition coalition is in agreement with us on that.

My Lords, I am glad to hear from the Statement that the coalition is enlarging its membership to include Christian, Kurdish and other minority communities. With regard to those Christian minorities, as the Minister knows, Christians are particularly vulnerable at the moment because they have been relatively protected under the Assad regime, they are disproportionately represented among refugees and people who are internally displaced and of course they are particularly at risk with the wholesale outbreak of sectarian violence. What are the Government thinking with regard to the particular protection of those minorities?

The second question concerns the Kurds. As we know, since the First World War the Kurdish people have been seeking their own country, which they feel they have been denied. There are reports that they will look for an opportunity to bring this into being now. In what way are the Government bearing this possibility in mind?

My Lords, as I said in the Statement, the inclusion of minorities in the national coalition has formed a large part of our discussions. The president of the national coalition is Sheikh al-Khatib; below him are four vice-presidents, one of whom is from the Christian community. A further two have been appointed from the Muslim community and a fourth position has been reserved for the Kurdish minority. However, that appointment has not yet been made because there are discussions within the Kurdish minority as to who would be the most appropriate person. The rights of all minorities, including the Christians and Kurds, have formed part of the discussions in relation both to the way in which the national coalition has been set up and to how those reforms are to be taken forward.

On the wider question about the Kurds, I hope that, in the discussions that we are having with the national coalition, those are matters that we can move towards resolving, certainly as far as Syria is concerned.

My Lords, I welcome this detailed Statement. In the light of yesterday’s discussion in this House on rape being used as a weapon of war and the Minister’s reference to a specialist team being sent to monitor violence against women, what assessment have her Government made of the number of women who may have reported rape and who the perpetrators may be? With regards to the discussions both here and in Turkey, what proportion of women are taking part in these so that a post-conflict Syria is truly representative and equal?

The noble Baroness asks a very important question. She will be familiar with the initiative to prevent sexual violence, to which the Foreign Secretary has given a huge amount of time and energy. Too often, as in the case of Syria and, as we saw, across the Arab world during the Arab uprising, sexual violence is used as a tool of war—sadly not just against women but against men as well. I do not have specific numbers for reports of sexual violence during the Syria conflict. If the office has those numbers, I will write to the noble Baroness and send her those details.

She also asks an important question about the participation of women. Again, the answer is not immediately obvious from the brief that I have here but I will make those inquiries for my own information as well as to ensure that I can send the noble Baroness a detailed response.

My Lords, there is widespread concern at what might appear to be unconditional support for the so-called opposition forces, not least because of the treatment of minorities that has been referred to already. Did the Minister see the report in the Sunday Times recently about how a group of Jihadists beheaded a Syrian Christian and literally fed him to the dogs? Did she also see reports concerning links with family members of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda? Therefore, as my noble friend Lord Wright and the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said earlier, should we not be prudent and cautious before feeding a situation where we could simply make bad matters worse? Would the Minister not agree that, in the list of priorities that she mentioned earlier, the treatment of minorities and the upholding of their human rights should be an unconditional issue as far as our support for any opposition group is concerned?

May I also ask her to revisit a reply that her noble friend Lady Northover gave me on 18 December when I asked about support for Hand in Hand for Syria, a British medical charity? She replied that there were no current plans to fund its work. In view of the massive humanitarian needs in Syria at present, will she undertake to look again at that reply?

I will look again that reply and I will certainly make inquiries of the Department for International Development. I know that we are currently using international NGOs for the specific work within Syria but if this is an option that could be looked at, and one that DfID feels is appropriate, I will certainly feed that information back to the noble Lord.

I can assure the noble Lord that our support for the opposition is not unconditional. It is very clearly conditional upon the fact that we require reform, we require a plan and we require them to sign up to basic requirements such as the need for equality and non-discrimination towards minorities. We must also be careful since when we make this argument, which has been made before on a number of occasions, it surely cannot be right that we sit here in Britain and feel that the only way that the rights of minorities, including Christians, across the Arab world can be protected is if they are being ruled by a dictator. There surely has to be another way in which Christians and other minorities are protected as part of a democratically elected Government under which all communities feel part of that nation.

Given the horrors endured by the people of Syria and the impotence of the international community in 2011 and 2012, does this not reinforce the need for reform of the UN Security Council? In their discussions with the newly re-elected President of the United States of America, now starting his second term in office and therefore not facing re-election in four years’ time, do the Government plan to make taking forward reform of the UN Security Council a priority?

My Lords, I also have the privilege of being the Minister responsible for the United Nations. Indeed, on Sunday I will be travelling to the United Nations for a full day of talks focusing specifically on the reform of the UN.

My Lords, many noble Lords have raised the question of recognition. When Her Majesty’s Government recognised the national coalition some weeks ago, was that on a de jure or de facto basis? Presumably it was the latter because there has been no ambassadorial representation—nor is there any intention of it, as I understand it. Indeed, can the Minister confirm that, if any de jure recognition is contemplated, many considerable and complicated problems of public international law arise from the nature and composition of the opposition that we are talking about.

My Lords, it is at moments like this that I realise why the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was such an institution—I will continue to strive to fill his large shoes. This is the kind of question he would be able to answer immediately. What I can say is that, interestingly, some of the questions around the recognition of the national coalition and the implications of that for us—of course we continue to have a diplomatic relationship with the state of Syria—were questions that I asked in my briefing about an hour ago. When I get those answers, I will write to the noble Lord and give them to him.

Bee Population

Motion to Take Note

Moved By

That this House takes note of the decline in honey bees in 2012 and of measures to combat the prevalence of disease in bee colonies.

My Lords, in preparing for this debate, I would like to place on record my thanks to Phil McAnespie, president of the Scottish Beekeepers Association; Dr Stephen Palmer, a master beekeeper with over 30 years’ experience; Professor Ratnieks from the University of Sussex; Professor Poppy and Dr Newman from the University of Southampton; the British Beekeepers Association; Dr Peter Neumann from the Swiss Bee Research Centre; David Wootton, whose Bee Keeping: A Novices Guide is invaluable to the beginner and expert alike; and Richard Carlile, Bob Bridle and Robert Stovell, who assist me with the hives we manage for the love of beekeeping and no commercial gain at our home in East Sussex.

First, I have some positive news. Since I had the good fortune of securing a debate on this subject in 2009, in which my noble friend Lord Patten made a memorable and impressive speech, beekeeping has undergone a dramatic increase in popularity. The number of beekeepers has doubled in the past 10 years, with impressive developments in urban areas. There has been a corresponding growth in awareness and public concern regarding honey bees. However, I have tabled this Motion for debate because there is real and serious cause for concern about the plight of bees in recent years, as well as wider concerns about pollinators and pollution.

Before focusing on the situation in the United Kingdom, it is timely to remind ourselves of what is happening elsewhere in the world, summarised best in the findings of the United Nations Environment Programme Report, published as we headed into 2012, and well covered by Michael McCarthy, the environment editor of the Independent. That report demonstrated the decline in managed bee colonies, seen increasingly in Europe and the US in the past decade and now also being observed in China and Japan, with the first signs of African collapses.

The authors, who include some of the world’s leading honey bee experts, issued a stark warning about the disappearance of bees, which are increasingly important as crop pollinators around the globe. Without profound changes to the way human beings manage the planet, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue. The scientists warn that a number of factors may now be coming together to damage bee colonies around the world, ranging from declines in flowering plants and the use of damaging insecticides to the worldwide spread of pests and air pollution. They call for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, including key flowering plants near crop-producing fields, and stress that more care needs to be taken in the choice, timing and application of insecticides and other chemicals. Although managed hives can be moved out of harm’s way, wild populations of pollinators are completely vulnerable, the report states.

The way that humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees. Some human beings fabricate the illusion that, in the 21st century, they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services in a world of 7 billion people.

Declines in bee colonies date back to the mid-1960s in Europe, but have accelerated since 1998. In North America, losses of colonies since 2004 have left the continent with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the past 50 years. Chinese beekeepers have recently faced several inexplicable and complex symptoms of colony losses in both species. It has been reported elsewhere that some Chinese farmers have had to resort to pollinating fruit trees by hand because of the lack of insects.

The report lists a number of factors which may be coming together to cause the decline. They include: habitat degradation, including the loss of flowering plant species that provide food for bees; some insecticides, including the so-called systematic insecticides, which can migrate to the entire plant as it grows and can be taken in by bees in nectar and pollen; parasites and pests, such as the well-known varroa mite; and air pollution, which may be interfering with the ability of bees to find flowering plants, and thus food. Scents that could travel more than 800 metres in the 1800s now reach less than 200 metres from a plant.

“The transformation of the countryside and rural areas in the past half-century or so has triggered a decline in wild living bees and other pollinators”,

said one of the lead authors, Dr Peter Neumann of the Swiss Bee Research Centre. He continued:

“Society is increasingly investing in ‘industrial-scale’ hives and managed colonies to make up the shortfall and going so far as to truck bees around to farms and fields in order to maintain our food supplies. A variety of factors are making these man-made colonies vulnerable to decline and collapse. We need to get smarter about how we manage these hives, but perhaps more importantly, we need to better manage the landscape beyond, in order to recover wild bee populations”.

Moving from the international scene to the United Kingdom, the awful weather of 2012 has compounded the problems. The honey crop of 2012 was dramatically reduced, and there are concerns about how bees are currently over-wintering because of poor queen-mating during last season, leaving some hives queenless or with the real risk of becoming drone laying queens. The incidence of beekeepers resorting to regular feeding is known to have increased to record levels. As the BBKA honey survey found, the productivity of the average hive has dropped by 70% to eight pounds of honey compared to the more typical average of 30 pounds in the past. Losses have also occurred through starvation.

Of course, one bad year can ultimately be reversed, but the trend is disturbing, with a reduction in the British honey bee number of 75% in the past 100 years. Honey bees are in serious decline and that should be a matter of concern to all of us. For with their decline come wider issues around the importance of pollination for food production. It is incumbent on government, working with the beekeepers, to reverse this trend and to maintain high levels of pollination.

Diseases are important, but in my opinion the biggest challenge facing honey bees and much of British wildlife is agricultural intensification. Agricultural land makes up 75% of the United Kingdom. Despite the growth of beekeeping in urban areas and a welcome variety of flora in back gardens, it is on and around agricultural land where bees mostly forage and live. Even if we could cure all bee diseases, bees still have to eat. Of course, food production, at a time of rising demand, meteorological unpredictability and change, is vital, but in the coming decades we have to look for win-win situations in which we can make farming more wildlife-friendly, yet still satisfy growing consumption. One way we can do this for bees is to have more flowers in grazing land.

The use of pesticides has long been recognised as a serious problem. The neonicotinoid group of chemicals is widely used and may be having a serious and deleterious effect on honey bees, as was highlighted in the report provided for your Lordships before this debate. There will be those contributing to this debate who have far more expertise on this subject than I, but I would proffer one observation. My reading of the situation is that the use of insecticides in the UK is probably not the principal cause of the decline in honey bees or bumblebees. The increasing loss of biodiversity also affects the state and health of the insect population. Despite the greater awareness among the farming population, farming practices remain which are highly damaging to the welfare of honey bees. Widespread monoculture is a vector for disease and decline.

The diseases and pests of bees are also on the increase and the use of medicaments may be becoming less effective as the result of resistance. In addition, the British beekeepers have much to learn from a new generation of pests and parasites, previously unknown to these shores, which are making their way here. In the past few decades some additional pests and diseases of honey bees have been transferred from an Asian honey bee species, Apis cerana, which is very similar to the western honey bee, Apis mellifera. The best known of these is the varroa mite, but, even with varroa, existing diseases are not fully understood, and problems such as CCD—colony collapse disorder—are as yet not fully explained or resolved.

The solution to these challenges comes through research and education, and that is my key point today. In this context, the report of the Public Accounts Committee, published soon after our debate in 2009, is telling. It states:

“Despite their importance to the agricultural economy the Department has given little priority to bee health”.

In 2007-08, research expenditure in this field was just £200,000. In 2009, the department announced that this sum was to be supplemented by an extra £2.5 million over the following five years. However, this additional work to support the department's new bee health strategy will be diluted by including research into other pollinator insects as well as honey bees.

Regular inspections of colonies are also very important and enable the department to monitor the health of colonies and the incidence of disease and parasites. Nearly 80% of cases of notifiable disease in England are identified through such inspections, but the effectiveness of these inspections is hampered because around half of the estimated 37,000 active beekeepers in England have not joined the department's voluntary register, BeeBase. In marked contrast to registered beekeepers, very few reports of notifiable disease are made by previously unregistered beekeepers.

I ask my noble friend the Minister to provide an update on the current position and to confirm that the Government attach priority to ensuring that UK research councils and government-funded initiatives continue to support research into the health and welfare of both honey bees and other classes of pollinators. For example Professor Ratnieks, who has been undertaking considerable research on the Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Heath and Well-Being at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex, and who inspired me to keep bees as a hobby, is looking at ways to control or reduce honey bee diseases. In particular, he is working on hygienic honey-bees.

The word “hygiene” in this context requires a brief explanation. Hygiene is a natural disease resistance mechanism in which the bees themselves remove dead or sick brood, thereby reducing the incidence of brood diseases in a colony, including varroa. Hygiene occurs in British bees but is rare, so we have to look for hygienic colonies and breed from them. Hygiene is inherited and, as at least 92 noble Lords therefore understand, it is in the genes. Bees do not learn to do it; they do it instinctively if they have the genes. Only 10% or less of British bees are hygienic, so with focused research there is substantial potential to increase their contribution to healthy hives.

I hope the Government will look favourably on supporting research of this type, for such research is not a cost on the Exchequer. It is an investment in the future—an investment which will see returns well in excess of the sums under consideration. Healthy pollinators are the building blocks for high-quality food production. The seasonal bee inspectors do a great job and this is not the time to cut back their numbers or their workload.

As Tim Lovett of the British Beekeepers Association wrote in preparation for this debate, in general the BBKA and its member associations are cautiously optimistic about the future of the honey bee here in the UK. It believes there remains much practical applied research to be done to give beekeepers better tools to improve their bee husbandry skills and funds should be provided to fill these data gaps. It is hoped that the planned Defra public consultation on honeybee disease legislation and control will emphasise the need for effective measures to help the beekeeper to manage the health of their colonies and provide the necessary resources. Education and training are high priorities in the work of the BBKA and its member associations and it is hoped that the current modest contribution of funding from the public purse will improve the skill of bee-keepers and will continue.

However, poorly maintained hives can compound the problems we are considering today and well informed beekeepers are critical to the future welfare of honey bees. Relatively inexperienced beekeepers may also be a factor as diseased colonies, if not dealt with effectively, may act as reservoirs of infection. Current evidence is that, rather than there being a single smoking gun underlying bee declines, the cause is multifactorial. Factors include availability and a lack of diversity of forage crops. There is evidence that the immune systems of honey bees are impaired if they do not forage on a sufficiently broad range of flowers. This in turn may contribute to the prevalence and impact of particular pests and pathogens, such as the varroa mite and deformed wing virus.

While no single factor is, in my view, the cause of decline or poorer honey bee health, steps to control and understand the impact of the individual factors will contribute to improved hive and colony health. I urge my noble friend the Minister and the Government to redouble their efforts to support research in this sector and reverse the trends which are decimating populations of honey bees in this country and abroad.

My Lords, the House is extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for such a well informed and expert speech. A honey bee beekeeper is prized indeed in this kind of debate. My interest in bees goes back to the long, hot summer of 1976, when the Liberal candidate for Winchester told me that his bees had collected four times more nectar than usual in May, as if they knew what was coming. Honey from the wild flowers of the Hampshire chalk downland is second to none, and I hoped there would be a limitless supply. However, we now know that things are very different today in the bee world, with fewer flower-rich meadows, unpredictable weather, the stranglehold of the varroa mite, and the possible weakening effects of even small amounts of the widely used systemic insecticides known as neonicotinoids.

As we have just heard, the importance of bees is not just because of the honey they produce, but because of their vital role as pollinators. They are the most efficient pollinators in the insect kingdom and the crisis in the bee world, if it is not halted, could have devastating effects on crops worldwide. In this country, it is estimated that 39 commercial crops rely on insect pollination, although there are wildly different estimates of how much this is worth. The figure seems to vary between £400 million and £500 million per annum. Perhaps the Minister could give us the latest estimate.

Although pests and diseases, as we have heard, are still thought to be the main threat to honey bees, it is significant that the UK has lost a staggering 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s. The evidence is mounting about the possible harmful effects of systemic insecticides. The many research findings now in existence simply cannot be ignored, particularly those that are field-realistic rather than just laboratory findings.

Last month I tabled a Written Question asking the Government what assessment they had made of the impact of these insecticides on bee colonies, at the request of another beekeeper I know in Hampshire. Reading between the lines of the Answer from my noble friend, I got the impression that although Defra is very cautious in its approach, it nevertheless is taking seriously some new studies published last year which suggest that even low doses of neonicotinoids could have sub-lethal effects on bees: that is to say, they do not kill the bee, but alter its physiology or behaviour. In particular, research from the University of Stirling concluded that there was a clear need to re-evaluate the safety of these chemicals. Professor Dave Goulson, who supervised the work, said:

“Our work suggests that trace exposure of our wild bees to insecticides is having a major impact on their populations. Only queen bumblebees survive the winter to build new nests in the spring, so reducing the number produced by 85% means far fewer nests the following year. Repeated year on year, the long-term cumulative effects are likely to be profound”.

As we know, this is not just a British phenomenon. Last month, the European Environment Agency and MEPs issued a policy document, in which the first of the key findings was:

“Although bee declines can be attributed to multifarious causes, the use of neonicotinoids is increasingly held responsible for recent honeybee losses”.

The European Food Safety Authority, on behalf of the European Commission, is carrying out a review on bee health and insecticides which should provide new insights into the issue and may recommend a reassessment of EU regulatory guidelines. Some countries, most notably France and Italy, have taken action to mitigate the use of some of these insecticides, but I do not think any country has yet banned them altogether. However, some research carried out in France is, perhaps, significant. This is research by a team led by Professor Mickael Henry at INRA Research Centre in Avignon which analysed the effect on honey bees of a new generation of systemic insecticides called—I hope I have the pronunciation right—thiamethoxam. They fitted tiny electronic tags to over 650 bees and monitored their activity around the hive. Those exposed to commonly encountered levels of this insecticide suffered high mortality, with up to one-third of the bees failing to return. Professor Henry said:

“They disappeared in much higher numbers than expected...Under the effects we saw from the pesticides, the population size would decline disastrously and make them even more sensitive to parasites or lack of food”.

Therefore, what are we to make of the conflicting evidence of the chief causes of the decline in bee health? Is it the widespread use of these systemic insecticides, or is the picture more complicated than that? On the one hand, many beekeepers and concerned members of the public find some independent studies on the sub-lethal effects of these insecticides on bees very worrying. On the other hand, many farmers quite understandably say that if there were to be a ban on, for example, the planting of oilseed-rape-treated seeds, far less oilseed rape would be planted, which could mean that many bees would starve. Of course, fields planted with ordinary oilseed rape seeds would then have to be sprayed. What are we to make of the evidence from Australia where, apparently, these systemic insecticides are widely used but where there is no varroa mite to weaken the bees’ immune system? Australian bees are thought to be the healthiest on the planet.

We have to look for help to independent scientists whose job it is to carry out trials and publish the results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The scientists at the Rothamsted Research station in Hertfordshire are old hands in this field. Yes, a small proportion of its work is funded by agrichemical companies—it is quite open about that—but most of it is publicly funded. It has always been committed to sustainable agriculture by improving and developing novel methods of pest and disease control while ensuring minimal harm to wildlife, including pollinators. It says that the management of pesticide use is not as simple as “use it” or “don’t use it”. If the concentrations used and the methods of application were strictly adhered to, the risk to insect pollinators would be minimal, which has to be balanced against the risk of not protecting farmers’ crops. It also acknowledges some of the evidence linking neonicotinoid use with sub-lethal effects on pollinators.

Therefore, the scientists, the public and beekeepers, including, I think, the British Beekeepers’ Association, want this research to be done as speedily and effectively as possible, otherwise the calls for neonicotinoids to be banned altogether will grow louder and louder. Perhaps my noble friend could help me with whether any of these pesticides are licensed for use domestically or by local authorities for use perhaps on roadside verges.

Turning to the role of Defra, I hope that it will continue to work closely with the farming community to encourage more bee-friendly measures, such as the planting of flower-rich field margins and wildflower meadows, particularly through agri-environment schemes. I believe that the funding of those schemes is due to end in a few months’ time. Will the Minister tell us what will happen then?

Perhaps the Government will also consider encouraging all those who have gardens, however small, to plant nectar-rich flowers, shrubs and even trees, to help bees obtain the nectar that they need for survival. This is especially true in big cities such as London, which is home to many beekeepers and whose bees need as much help as they can get from ordinary garden owners. We hear that bees in urban settings are often flourishing better than their rural neighbours, possibly because they are not so exposed to pesticides. However, before the expansion of beekeeping in big cities, we have to make sure that there are enough nectar-rich sources. I applaud the mayor of Runnymede who I have just heard is encouraging primary schools in the area to plant nectar-rich flowers.

Defra is to be congratulated on spending more money on research into insect pollinators in recent years, but I hope that it will continue to act vigorously in trying to get to the bottom of the very alarming decline in the health of honey bees, and will be fearless in pursuing the goal of a healthy and sustainable bee population.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Moynihan on returning to this important subject today and reminding us of the disease affecting our native honey bees, which is even more acute than it was when he had his debate in 2009. He spoke about the importance of biodiversity, which I totally support, and the seriousness of the honey bees’ decline. At the time of that debate, the Government pledged some £10 million to research projects. I hope that the Minister, in winding up, will be able to tell us more about the outcome of that and what the work has produced.

I pay tribute to the British Beekeepers Association, bee farmers and others who promote good beekeeping practice and are willing to share their knowledge. As we have heard, finance is limited and, therefore, the amount and quality of the help available for those starting up in beekeeping is rather patchy. It is better in some areas than others.

We do not keep bees at home but our lime trees attract wild bees, although there were noticeably fewer of them around this year. I know that they do not fare very well in cold, wet conditions and we all know what has happened this year. The Met Office has provided statistics to remind us of the preponderance of abnormal rainfall over the past decade. We also have flowers and a vegetable patch and we grow fruit at home. We have a few beehives on the farm in Suffolk, which we believe makes good sense. I think that it was estimated in 2009 that the bee contribution to commercial crops was worth between £150 million and £300 million. The last figure I had for this year was £500 million but, again, the Minister can clarify that for me. We grow oil seed rape and cereals on the farm. Indeed, I can tell the noble Baroness that we are members of the entry level scheme and that we try to have areas that allow for biodiversity. I think that more farmers are increasingly aware not just of their responsibilities in producing biodiversity areas but of its importance, particularly for bees.

In January, Natural England announced changes to the regulations affecting the importation of bumblebees for commercial pollination which are designed to safeguard the health of the native bee. Non-native bees are important and are used for pollination in commercial horticulture in England. I believe that some 10,000 colonies were imported last year. One of the questions raised is whether it is possible that long-distance transportation also affects their health. I do know the answer to that at all. The new licensing regime requires all growers wishing to use non-native bumblebees to register their premises with Natural England. I am not in favour of lots of regulation but I am sure that this is a very essential step. The rules include a requirement to follow improved disease-screening protocols, to restrict the use of these bees to polytunnels or greenhouses, taking all reasonable steps to prevent them escaping, and, finally, to destroy them to prevent them establishing in the wild.

We have heard that disease can wipe out colonies very quickly. The Food and Environment Research Agency has a bee unit, which is responsible for the enforcement of statutory disease and pest controls. It also runs programmes giving training and advice to beekeepers. I welcome the voluntary surveillance studies initiated by the European Commission and currently undertaken by 17 member states. The first results are due in the spring and we await their analysis with interest later this year.

For many years, it has been suggested that treatments applied to plants and the land to improve the quality and quantity of agricultural produce were the cause of deaths among birds, small animals and wildlife. We now know that many things that are recommended for the lessening or eradication of one problem may well worsen another. It is therefore surely right that the research continues. In September last year, a Defra report stated that the use of pesticides was not unequivocally linked to bee deaths. Continuous review of research is essential if we are to reduce this infection in the bee population. Looking at Parliamentary Written Answers over recent weeks tends to make one feel that climate change is not the sole or even the main cause of bee deaths. If it were, there would be a chance that nature might adapt and find a new balance.

On 29 November, the Minister referred to the publication on 18 September 2012 of a study on honey bees and bumblebees and a subsequent study on bumblebees that was discussed on 13 November by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. He did not have any resulting recommendations. Is he able to update us on that? In December last year, the Minister stated that the Government are,

“currently considering a range of evidence on the state of bees and other pollinators in order to determine what action is required”.—[Official Report, 3/12/12; col. WA 97.]

I understand that this will be completed early in 2013. If the underlying research is successful, we should then know whether the actual levels are abnormal. I also understand that the Government have commissioned work into the exposure of wild bumblebees to sub-lethal insecticide doses, to which my noble friend referred earlier.

On 11 December last year, the Minister wrote about the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which was published in 2012. It concluded that wild bee diversity had declined in most landscapes, as had many insect species with specialised feeding or habitat requirements. The Minister drew attention to a recently begun review by Natural England on the status of invertebrates in England. What is the timetable for that? Has the Minister any news on it?

I also wonder whether we are looking in all the right places. Over the past decade there has been an increase in the number, nature and variety of diseases affecting plants and trees. Has there been any research into the effect of such disease on the insects that visit them? Is there any evidence that insects can recognise when a plant or tree is affected and, if so, do they avoid it? Is there any possibility that diseased plants or trees are more attractive to insects? We continue to import huge numbers of trees and plants into this country. One has to pose the question whether that is bringing in disease as well.

I read with interest the POSTnote of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology on insect pollination, which stated that there have been large-scale honey bee losses over the past 200 years, and that those had occurred some 30 times in 200 years. It would be interesting to know how many have occurred in, say, the past 50 years because, if a lot of them occurred prior to that, the use of herbicides might be questioned and the changes in the way that farming has been carried out in recent years might also be taken into account. I had not got my mind round that interesting issue and was very grateful for that document.

As other noble Lords have said, honey bees are hugely important to us as individuals but this issue is a global phenomenon. If we in this country could be part of research and development that managed to resolve this problem, we would do the world a great service.

The NFU briefing reminds us that our investigations need to be based on science rather than accepting the claims of people who say that this problem is all due to pesticides. I know that the Government are very focused in their approach to the whole question of the bumblebee and bumblebee research. I congratulate my noble friend on his past three years of work and on his work as a beekeeper. As I say, my family do not keep bees but we know how valuable they are on our farm.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, very much for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue again, and for the very clear way in which he presented the wide extent of the problem. He emphasised the importance of honey bees as pollinators, as will all speakers, but, of course, several other wild insect species are also pollinators, and there is evidence that some of these, such as bumblebees and butterflies, are also in decline. The topic has been raised on a number of occasions over the past few years in both Houses, most recently in a series of Questions for Written Answer by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and answered in fact by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, perhaps in a warm-up exchange for this debate.

I am no expert on apiculture but I have chosen to join this debate since I have had personal experience of keeping bees—admittedly in a very amateur and unregistered capacity—for a number of years. I confess that I have never been on a formal training course in bee husbandry and have learnt what I know from talking to other beekeepers and through reading around the subject. But most of all I have learnt from experience through trial and error. Over the years I have lost several colonies which failed to survive the lean winter months. This was due to various identifiable causes, such as raiding of the hive by mice and even by woodpeckers, harvesting honey too late in the season for the bees to collect winter stores, not feeding the colony with enough sugar, and other errors that could be attributed to incompetence or inexperience.

However, I have always managed to keep the hives free from varroa and, as far as I am aware, other infestations, although wax moths have sometimes been a nuisance. In good years I have collected, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, about 30 pounds of honey per hive, which is a good yield that is enough to keep family and friends in honey for a year or so. I keep only one or two hives. In the past three years, though, I have lost two colonies for no explicable reason. There were more than adequate winter stores of honey but the bees did not use them. In one case the colony simply died and in the other the surviving bees in March or April appeared disoriented and unable to forage. The old queen had died but the colony had not replaced her, as would normally be the case, and it soon dwindled in strength and numbers and perished. Perhaps an expert would have spotted this early enough to requeen the colony but it was too late in my case.

This unusual behaviour alerted me further to reports, which I was already aware of, describing how low-dose, sub-lethal amounts of certain pesticides—especially the systemic neonicotinoids—have been shown experimentally to result in damage to bees’ central nervous system, with subsequent aberrant behaviour. For instance, in one study affected bees appeared to become disoriented and a higher proportion than usual, as the noble Baroness said, failed to find their way back to the hive from foraging flights, due possibly to memory failure or loss of communication skills. It has also been shown recently in several studies that neonicotinoids can increase the severity of infections—for example, from the common fungal infection of bees, Nosema apis. A study of bumblebees given low doses of a neonicotinoid showed that the number of new queens produced fell markedly compared with control colonies. These findings seemed to me to be quite relevant to the fate of the two lost colonies that I described. The loss of bee colonies may not be due to the direct lethal effect of the high doses of pesticide on bees; rather, it may be due to the reduced resistance to other pathogens and maladaptive behaviour caused by quite small doses.

There is a recent report from the policy department of the European Parliament, published last month. I am not sure whether this is the document circulated by the noble Lord, but I am afraid that I did not receive it anyhow. It is entitled Existing Scientific Evidence of the Effects of Neonicotinoid Pesticides on Bees and it gives a very up-to-date picture of current research. It has 48 references to scientific papers, mostly published between 2009 and 2012. These describe the evidence on which the descriptions of the effects on bees, including bumblebees, of low doses of what I am going to call “NNs” are based. I have described these effects. The case seems to be clear that the use of these chemicals should be reduced and/or further controlled. Those that are shown to be most damaging should be banned. There is enough evidence, I feel.

This is already the case in Italy, where bee health was seen to recover after the use of some NNs was forbidden, and also in certain German Länder, and in France and other countries. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, can fill us in on the whole international picture. In the UK, Defra has until very recently taken a very cautious position on the effect of NNs, as has the British Beekeepers Association. Many of us wonder how much influence the agrochemical and farming industries are having on the Government’s position. The use of pesticides can certainly increase crop yields, so I can understand that evidence of the damage that they also cause to pollinators needs to be robust. However, I hope that the Minister will now recognise that the scientific case for action is becoming stronger all the time.

As other speakers have pointed out, not only are beekeepers losing their livelihood but the health of our horticulture and natural environment are at stake through the loss of pollinators. There are reports that insectivorous bird numbers are diminishing in some areas because of the decreased numbers of insects due to agricultural pesticides. It is not yet Silent Spring in the UK but there is a strong case for tighter regulation of pesticides and increased research to develop new, less harmful ways of obtaining good crop yields. This could be done through plant breeding, for example, and—dare I mention it?—genetic modification, and the development of plant-pest predators so that harmful pesticides can be phased out. However, I am of course aware of the useful nostrum, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution and it is wrong”. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that many factors may be responsible.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether he agrees with one of the recommendations of the report from the European Parliament which I mentioned that, as long as there are uncertainties concerning the effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees, the precautionary principle in accordance with the EC Regulation 1107/2009 should be applied when using neonicotinoids.

My Lords, it is not all bad news for bees. It is truly paradoxical that at a time when, as my noble friend pointed out in his introductory and wide-ranging speech, there are so many major threats to the health of our honey bees, the number of people taking up beekeeping is surging, with the numbers of those seeking membership of the British Beekeepers Association having doubled in the past three years. After listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I do not know whether he may also be seeking membership of that great organisation.

It is, however, equally paradoxical that at a time of challenge to our honey bees the numbers of bee inspectors have plummeted. I have never seen one of these great public servants, a bee inspector. I have been looking out for them but I have never spotted one. I do not know whether perhaps they wear a uniform. I do know that in statute they have more or less unfettered and police-like powers of entry in the matter of hive-patrolling. So my noble friend Lord Moynihan and other noble friends—such as, in his beekeeping activities in Wiltshire, my noble friend Lord Marland, who is sad not to be taking part in this debate—should watch out for the thud on their drive of the boots of the bee inspector, if such a person still exists. I wonder whether they are in as much decline as our honey bees. I ask the Minister what their role now is. Are they of any help or are they in fact extinct? I look forward to hearing more about them later.

All that said, the problem that we face is Europe-wide, just like the ash tree issue. That is complex, but the threat to honey bees and bumblebees is even more complex. In the matter of bees, as in the matter of ash trees, I assure the Minister—a countryman himself—that I do not blame the Government for every lack of foresight or lack of action. That is too easy to do. It is a very complex problem and we are all—farmers, beekeepers, the agrochemical industry and others—up to our necks in the issue.

I know that up to one-third of our domestically produced diet is bee dependent; it needs pollination, as my noble friend Lord Moynihan pointed out. Of course, bees do not have a monopoly on this activity—there are other pollinators—but they are certainly the nation’s prime pollinators both for legumes such as peas and beans and for top fruit such as apples and pears, for which they are absolutely vital. Overall, the impact on our rural productive economy of substantial failure in the pollination cycle has been estimated—as my noble friend Lady Byford pointed out—at many hundreds of millions of pounds. That was pointed out also by my noble friend Lord Moynihan.

That the problem is not fully understood is self-evident. It cannot be explained, otherwise, with the expertise of your Lordships’ House, we would have had the explanation by now in the debate. Just as there are cyclical changes in climate, with the Met Office recently “fessing up” that there has been little global warming since 1998, so there are sometimes extraordinary population explosions in the animal world, mirrored by equally extraordinary population declines on other occasions, generally but not always self-regulating after a period of mutation. There is an unpredictable asymmetry to these swings of nature, in which mankind is sometimes potentially a damage-doing participant—as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, pointed out—but sometimes merely a puzzled spectator, as are many of us in your Lordships’ House today. We are unclear about the root cause or causes of the problem.

Good science will one day reveal whether what we are discussing today is simply one of those cyclical swings, willingly working itself out over time, or whether this time there is some terminal quality to what is going on in this country. I do not know the answer but I suspect that the trend is not down to a single cause. A consensus seems to be emerging from noble Lords on both sides of the House that there is probably not one single cause but a mixture, from the spread of the varroa mite, to which my noble friend Lord Moynihan first alerted me in 2009, to the currently fashionable suspicion that we may be having a Silent Spring for honey bees because of new “killer pesticides”. I simply do not know. That would be an easy explanation but, as I understand it, it is not clear scientifically. The only assurance that I seek today from the Minister, in addition to confirmation of the existence or non-existence of bee inspectors, is that the Government and our European partners are doing all they can, as quickly as they can, to deal with the issue through good science of the highest quality. In the end, that is what we who are not scientists must depend on.

In the mean time, I have two suggestions of a rather pragmatic sort. First, there is a need for ever-improving pest and hive management that not only strives to find ways of dealing with the mite but involves better treatment of gut diseases by antibiotics, ever-closer attention to hive hygiene and particularly to the introduction of new forms of hygienic bees—pinpointed by my noble friend Lord Moynihan—and very careful temperature control in winter. It is a matter of integrating all measures to sustain our colonies—easier said than done in your Lordships’ House but critical to their preservation.

Secondly, much can be done by farmers and landowners in the smallest of ways by sustaining wild plant species that provide nectar for bees. The cumulative effect of changes to relatively small patches of land over a number of years could well be one of the factors in the decline of pollinating insects such as bees. This has occurred not just because of monocultural clearances in the agricultural landscape but because of nectar-producing plants in patches here and there being effectively crowded out by the growth of more competitive plant species, encouraged by airborne nitrogenous compounds being deposited around them just like fertiliser. Undoubtedly we need food and good agriculture, but it is also a fact that intensive monocultural agriculture offers little forage to pollinators—QED. That is just a simple fact.

So let us hope that with the Government having done all they can, the honey bee will bounce back like its relative the bumblebee, having drunk too freely of the flowers of that beautiful lime tree tilia petiolaris. It is a magnificent tree. It is highly floriferous and is wonderful for human beings to smell, but it is deeply narcotic to the bumblebee, as anyone who has stood underneath tilia petiolaris, as we do in our West Country home, has seen. After a short period of sniffing—or perhaps I should say snorting—by the bumblebees, they generally fall intoxicated to the ground, on their backs, legs twitching. There is a short recovery period, then they generally bounce back, although some, like humans, often return, recidivist-like, to the scene of their earlier intoxication. They are rather like the old habitués of the Bishops’ Bar in the old days of legend in this House—a long time before I came to join your Lordships and naturally much before the time of anyone represented in the Chamber today. One can only hope, as I do, that the honey bee turns out to have the same bounce-back resilience of the lime flower intoxicated bumblebee, recovering from the damage that, alas, both bumblebee and honey bee have had because of nature and self-indulgence.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on his wonderful introduction to this debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Patten. I must get a lime tree from somewhere. I first became aware of the serious nature of the decline in the population of honeybees and other pollinators when a campaign began in my former constituency of Cheltenham some years ago. It was started by some keen environmental campaigners who wanted to protect a meadow from development. I went to see the save the meadow campaigners to hear their case and was impressed by their knowledge—and somewhat alarmed by what they told me. As we have heard, there has been a massive loss of wild habitat for bees and other pollinators.

According to Buglife, 3 million hectares of flower-rich grassland has been lost since the end of the Second World War, leaving only 100,000 hectares remaining. Plantlife says that only 2% of wildlife meadows and grasslands that existed in the 1930s survive, with over 7 million acres lost. I commend to noble Lords Plantlife’s Saving Our Magnificent Meadows campaign, which aims to save 75,000 acres of the most vulnerable habitat. I would be interested to know from the Minister what assessment the Government have made of the effect of loss of habitat on bee populations. The Open Spaces Society has concerns about this too. It points out that open spaces in town and country are crucial to the nation’s health and well-being. Unfortunately, it says that the Growth and Infrastructure Bill threatens people’s ability to protect their rights to land which they have long used and loved. The Bill outlaws the registration of land as a town or village green once it is threatened with development. It hopes that the Bill will be amended to ensure that people can still protect their precious open spaces. Will the Government consider protecting meadows—and indeed village greens—in any future planning legislation?

We have heard that honeybees are only part of pollination: wild pollinators are crucial, too. Hoverflies and other fly varieties, butterflies and moths, bumblebees and other wild bees all play their part in pollination. However, these species, too, as we have heard, are in decline. Buglife tells me that scientific evidence suggests that in the UK only between 5% and 10% of pollination is done by honeybees and 90% to 95% by other pollinators. Does the Minister agree with Buglife that, while important, honeybees form only a small part of the insects which pollinate crops?

Honeybees are generalists that do not and cannot pollinate many plants. For example, bumblebees and flowerbees use buzz pollination—their wings must vibrate to ensure pollination. Many wild flowers have very specific relationships with certain insects which have long tongues or corollas. Because solitary bees carry pollen loosely on their abdomens and not packed tightly in bags, they are 300 times as effective at pollinating apple flowers compared with honeybees.

There is some scientific evidence that increasing the number of honeybees reduces the fitness of bumblebees in the local area. The last thing we want to end up with is a monoculture pollination system relying on one species that has been, and will be, subject to cycles of devastating disease. Six of 25 species of UK bumblebees have declined by at least 80 per cent in the past 50 years; short-haired bumblebees have been extinct since the early 1990s; 72% of butterfly species are declining; and two-thirds of larger moth species have declined. In the past 35 years, 75 species have declined by more than 70% and more than 250 UK pollinators are in danger of extinction and are listed on the UK BAP priority list.

If these losses continue unabated, there could be the loss of up to 80% of plant species and 13% of agricultural production, which would limit future food production options and add considerable costs to the agricultural industry. In the context of a global population that is predicted to reach 9.5 billion by 2075, this is very serious.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust points out that 84% of European crops and 80% of wild flowers rely on insect pollination. Soft fruit pollination is carried out predominantly by bumblebees. The trust suggests that in the absence of bees, food prices would rise. For example, the farm gate price of strawberries would increase from a 2009 price of £2.21 per kilo to £4.06. There are many different estimates, as we have heard, of the costs to British agriculture. What assessment have the Government made of the cost of the decline in honeybees and other pollinators? Do they agree with the highest figure that I have seen, from Friends of the Earth, that the decline in pollinators could pose an annual cost to British agriculture of £1.8 billion to pollinate crops?

Let me turn to professional beekeepers and their most wonderful product—honey—for which I have a particular weakness. Noble Lords will know that honey products from around the world can be bought in British shops. Indeed, a visit to Fortnum & Mason’s will be rewarded with the opportunity to buy honey from Pitcairn Island, where the human population is around 50. The island must have the highest ratio of beekeepers in the world. My particular favourite is honey from Botswana—I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. I believe that the beekeepers of Botswana have applied for approval to export their honey to the European Union and I hope that they are successful.

I asked Mr Chris Broad, the secretary of the Worcestershire Beekeepers, for his view on the decline in the population of honeybees. He currently manages around 350 hives and has some interesting views. His main concern is that the Government’s policy should be driven by a good understanding of the true state of affairs and he believes that in recent years there has been a lot of misinformation and spin on honeybee health. He paints what he believes to be a more accurate picture.

He says that honeybee decline has been badly misunderstood. Population has only ever been measured by estimating the number of beekeepers and the average colonies per beekeeper. Even when beekeepers lose colonies in winter they can easily double their hives in summer using the bees’ urge to reproduce.

The beekeeper population has approximately trebled in the last five or six years. This has resulted in a trebling of the measurable honeybee population. It also means the average beekeeper is inexperienced.

In 2005, for example, Worcestershire Beekeepers had 170 members. Now they have 524. The umbrella organisation, the British Beekeepers Association, has shown a similar percentage growth over the same period.

Mr Broad says that honeybee health is a different thing entirely. He is expecting poor survival statistics this winter as a knock-on effect of the atrocious summer, combined with the relatively low skill level of the average beekeeper. My noble friend Lady Walmsley told me yesterday that she had lost all her bees this summer, and I have been trying to imagine her in full beekeeper’s outfit, tending to her hive. I must also now add the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, to that picture.

There are a number of major health threats to honeybees, Mr Broad tells me, primarily varroa, nosema and foulbrood, but he believes that all these are manageable by competent beekeepers. However, he points out that we are struggling to deliver adequate training to novice beekeepers while also attempting to train waves of brand new beekeepers each year. Virtually all training is given by volunteers. Pesticides are a concern because they could potentially cause localised beehive deaths. However, Mr Broad knows of only one such incident in the last 10 years in Worcestershire and says that it would be nice to have some kind of compensation scheme in case of big kills but that practically speaking no knowledgeable beekeeper would treat this as a priority. He believes that our short-term priority should be to increase the skill level of beekeepers by any means possible. Mr Broad criticises the overreliance on the bee inspectorate—FERA—service, which in its current form acts as a very expensive crutch to inexperienced beekeepers, and could be regarded as a disincentive to them to learn to manage honeybee health on their own.

Do the Government have any plans to encourage new beekeepers, to improve training for those who have started beekeeping recently; and what measures are available, for example, on capital allowances to help those setting up and maintaining hives?

This morning Mr Broad informed me that he had received something from Defra regarding the consultation “Improving honeybee health”, which runs for two months from today. After skimming through it, he says that it looks very positive; you might say that the consultation has received broad approval. The consultation includes a list of consultees. I suggest that the Government also invite responses from Buglife, Plantlife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which have been very helpful to me in preparing for this debate.

We have heard a lot about insecticides from noble Lords more experienced than me. My contact at Plantlife, Adrian Darby, is particularly concerned about the effect of neonicotinoids. What assessment have the Government made of research by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health into colony collapse disorder?

In my view, the population decline of bees and other pollinators needs to be treated as a national emergency. The public needs to be more aware of the problem and encouraged to play a part in solving it.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a section on its website where individual gardeners can assess the bee-friendliness of their current garden, and it suggests the right plants to grow. The top 10 recommendations are mahonia, pussy willow, viburnum, lavender, scabious, borage, comfrey, pink allium, bell flower, and yellow aquilegia.

Do the Government agree with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust that encouraging individual gardeners to grow particular bee-friendly plants would be beneficial to bee populations and other pollinators? In addition, do the Government have any plans for an awareness campaign to inform the public of the importance of bees and other pollinators? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, one of the great privileges of being in your Lordships’ House is that when one speaks late in the list, one gets the feeling of being an outpatient at some form of university college hospital where you are bound to learn. You also get a dry feeling in your throat while you are waiting to speak. The answer to that is very simple: you should wiggle your toes, and just before you come into the Chamber you should have a small spoonful of liquid honey. Then you will not have that problem.

I am probably the least qualified person to speak today, and I do so mainly because I have a great regard for my noble friend Lord Moynihan. We had two great mentors: Lord Jellicoe was one, and for me the other was Lord Shackleton.

My involvement in beekeeping is rather strange. All I can do is to explain what happened to me rather accidentally in my life. At the start of the war I was exported, to be kept out of the way so I would not be knocked off. I came back as a five year-old to be put on my grandfather’s farm, and I had no coupons or sweets. I was told that my job was bees, and that I should move the beehive at night to put it near the chickens so that no one stole the eggs.

I was introduced to the bees as a small boy by someone who today we would call a beekeeper but was actually a German prisoner of war, who had great knowledge of such things. We had a whole range of people on the farm. I got quite interested in honey but I had been brought up in Canada with maple syrup. I was not quite sure how you got honey, and I thought it was probably illegal to try to do so because I did not have any coupons. When I was introduced to the bees, they became my friends. It was one of those strange relationships that you have as a child; I could not quite understand why, but I had a feeling that they got to know me.

I move on to many years later, during which I went into various activities. When I was in the banking world, one of the jobs that I had was to help to advise the Government of Jamaica—I suppose because I was conceived on the beach there during my father’s honeymoon, which is as good a reason as any. I was asked by Eddie Seaga if I could help with bees. I said, “I don’t know anything about bees”, but then I remembered Winnie-the-Pooh’s line,

“Isn't it funny how a bear likes honey?”.

When I first met the bees on my grandfather’s farm, I had a small teddy bear called Marmaduke, and I thought that by using that teddy bear I might possibly get a larger allowance of honey. That stuck in my mind when I was in Jamaica, and I was officially asked to help to reinstitute Jamaica’s logwood honey business. I have to say that I had not heard of logwood honey but I knew that it was quite important. I did not realise that Her Majesty had been given a patch of it, as well as a patch of Blue Mountain coffee. Together with the high commissioner, John Drinkall, I thought, “What do we do? They need some honey equipment”, but I had no idea where to get it. We formed the Wild Flower Honey Company of Jamaica and I managed to arrange export credit from Her Majesty’s Government, with the guarantee of the Wild Flower Honey Company of Jamaica, which had 10,000 Jamaican dollars. I did not know that I had put in half of that sum; indeed, at the time I had not, but I was soon asked to make the payment.

So you arrive back here, and then Mr Seaga arrives here on a visit and you get invited to go to Downing Street for the first time for lunch because you are an important investor in Jamaica. The Prime Minister gets up and says, “We are very happy to have some big investors in Jamaica here, particularly Lord Selsdon, who has a substantial investment in the honey business of 5,000 Jamaican dollars”.

Those are the sorts of things that stick in the back of your mind and suddenly come to the fore on occasions such as just before Christmas, when the wax chandlers brigade invited me to go and speak at their annual dinner where they would introduce a new master. Although I introduced the Powers of Entry Bill and the Bees Act was within that, I knew only roughly what I was talking about—but they gave me some help.

Your Lordships will know that under the powers of entry in the Bees Act, if you happen to see a bee on your property supping nectar, you may follow it wherever it goes to take a share of what is in the hive. The Home Office confirmed that that provision is still extant, which is an interesting point for noble Lords who are beekeepers and feel that their bees may be roaming.

As I roam around, I come back to perhaps the more serious issue here. By various accidents, I happen to be a peasant farmer in Provence. We have an ancient vineyard: my neighbours have all been there since the Templiers or even before and, of course, you have the normal combination of honey, olive, wine and fig. If one goes back into the mists of time, it is not all about eating locusts and wild honey, but you realise the importance of the history of honey throughout the whole of the Mediterranean. It was more than just a product—it was a culture. We do not have bees, but we have commuting bees. I look after about 15 hectares of vines for other people, and I have a fairly rough team down there, who will be longing to get the full translated text of this debate today. I will try to arrange this, perhaps through the Information Office here, because it is an important cult.

In general, what we deal in is mono-floral honeys. That means that you want the bees to sup off the chestnut trees or the lavender, so they commute. They come in on a lorry in hives painted in different colours, because I am told they can recognise colours and know where to go. These are placed in strategic positions and then later they are moved on up to the Haut Var when the lavender harvest starts. It was suggested that I should have a whole range of hives and become a beekeeper myself. However, the instructors there—as I call them, because they are pretty switched-on—said that I would have to spend at least half the year there for the bees to trust me. I said, “Even if they are commuting bees?” They said, “Yes, because they do get to know you”.

Normally, every year I bring back a bit of olive oil in small bottles to the important people who make decisions—who are not Members of this House—either olive oil or lavender bags or honey, but this year we had no honey. The problems were partly on account of the weather because we go from plus 40 degrees to minus 20, but the bees survive. There is very little varroa disease, and I cannot quite work out how it all fits together.

One of the projects I was involved with previously was with Lord Shackleton. He said to me, “Ah, you know a bit about bees and honey, can you help with the Noah’s Ark?” The Noah’s Ark was the project to reinstitute agriculture and other things in the Falklands. What they wanted were some more bees that could effectively increase pollination. I always used to be given these strange tasks in your Lordships’ House when no one knew anything; they thought that neither did I, but I had to find out. The idea was that we should get a bee that would take off into the wind, rather than flying downwind to take off, and would go short distances, load up and be blown back down.

Now, often when there are many things to deal with, I go to the church and I go to the monasteries. In the end, I got Brother Peter from a monastery—or monkery as I call it—up in Cyprus, who said, “No problem, you want the Braemar bee. Ask the Queen Mother”. We got hold of the Queen Mother’s office and found that the Braemar bee had come from there, so we got a whole lot of bees put in a basket and off they went. But effectively we had to produce some queens as well, because queens can cost quite a lot of money. I did not know what the monks did, but you just make a bigger hole in the comb and the worker bees feed it and you get a bigger bee and therefore a queen bee, but that is beyond my competence. They went out there and, needless to say, it worked.

Over time, I have found that I have gained such affection for this particular subject and topic, but I did not realise that there are certain things that are helpful because of where I am in France. You need a jolly good fire every so often, and we have them in abundance. They clear everything up and, within months, the spring flowers are back as never before. You are not able to clear the sorts of forest that we have otherwise. One trick is to watch the tortoises because, when a fire is coming, the tortoise knows and goes to the side of the tree away from the fire and slowly digs down. He survives, whereas all the small birds fly around. The bees know the fire is coming long before anyone else; they move off and out and then come back.

I have found this an interesting subject. I think it is important and I would like to know more about it. The Bees Act will give you an introduction to it—but above all we should promote the bee and we should promote honey. Honey has medical abilities, for bruises and everything else. At the moment we are all talking every day about health. Every single problem in the health world is being announced on television, and scare ads are put in—but the medical contents and abilities of honey are considerable.

I support my noble friend and I believe that we should advance upon a major bee promotion business: have yourself named after a bee.

My Lords, I add my thanks and congratulations to my noble friend on having given us the chance to debate this important topic this afternoon. I am the eighth speaker on what is a fairly narrow subject, so I will endeavour not to re-plough the ground that has already extensively been discussed.

I grew up in a bee-focused household. After the war, my mother began to raise and look after a few bees. We reached a peak of about 60 or 70 hives, which represents a tonne of honey. In my teenage years my pocket money was supplemented by having to look after these beastly things. I had to carry the heavy supers out of the fields back to decap them, extract them, strain them clean, bottle them and label them, and to do so in the height of summer in a room that was completely sealed and therefore roasting hot, because if it was not sealed you had some angry bees joining you very quickly indeed.

In addition, the local authority pest control department quickly gets to know that you are the source of bee collection, so when there is a problem with a swarm and a householder rings up you are sent to pick up the swarm. My noble friend Lord Patten talked about the dangers of being under the tree with inebriated bumblebees. Up the tree, on a ladder, trying to scoop a swarm into a box is a challenge of a different kind.

More seriously and most importantly, we used to get calls from local farmers asking us to move our hives to the edge of their fields to improve pollination. My noble friend Lord Patten referred to apples. The area I am talking about, south Shropshire and north Worcestershire, is a big cider apple-growing area and bees are the major pollinators of these fruits. Moving hives is also a challenge because it has to be done at night: you seal up the hives, strap them together, put them into the back of your pick-up truck and drive them to the edge of the field. Invariably, from time to time one of the straps comes loose, the hive breaks open and the result is not attractive for the driver.

Despite all this, I admired the determination and single-mindedness of bees. When I was about 18, I was told by a doyen of the British Beekeepers Association that to make a pound of honey the bees would fly 24,000 miles around the world and would visit, depending on the size of the flower, between 3 million and 9 million flowers. I thought that was a pretty impressive achievement. Clearly, bees also did an enormous amount in improving crop yields and increasing biodiversity.

As for my personal experience of bees, I liked bees but they did not like me. I was stung so many times during those years that I now have an extreme allergic reaction to bees and therefore have to carry an Epipen antihistamine injector with me as my reward for having stolen all that honey.

My family’s bee colonies have experienced the familiar story that has been described earlier in this debate; that is, weakening and dying colonies. A lot of focus has been put on varroa and similar diseases that kill outright. Like my noble friend Lord Moynihan, I wonder if that is not too simplistic an approach. Yes, we have seen hives dwindle and die and sometimes it has been because of varroa, but more often there appears to be a gradual diminution of the health of the hive, which precedes complete collapse. The diseases that weaken hives include the chalkbrood fungus, which kills the larvae, and nosema apis, which causes dysentery in the hive. These and similar diseases cause enormous stress.

Stress and bees may seem an unusual combination but when you move hives, even if you take them to the edge of a field where the pollen collection opportunities are very great, it is two or three days before the bees settle down and start to fly normally. It would be very helpful if the Minister could spend a minute or two explaining to my noble friend and me what is the wider view of colony susceptibility. We could usefully spend some time trying to pick apart the different strands of that problem.

As my noble friend also said in his excellent introduction, there have been attempts to increase the number of hygienic honey bees. He gave the figure of 10%; I am told that it is about 15%. Nevertheless, as he pointed out, it is important to see whether we can increase those strains to tackle those diseases in a different way.

As an alternative approach to improving the health of a hive, there is the facilitation of food collection. Research has shown that, in spring and early summer, bees, on average, fly only about 700 metres to find food. By March, that figure has risen to nearly 4,000 metres. That is another type of stress for a hive and, as many noble Lords have said, is a direct result of the intensification of our agriculture. We need to find ways to increase pollinated habitats. Perhaps the Minister could update the House on developments in that area through the environmental stewardship schemes or similar policies. We need not just to increase the pollinated habitats, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, said, certain plants in the pollinated habitats can be particularly effective and helpful to bees, and we need to focus on them.

That takes me to the important point: who is in charge of all this? My research, via my mother, found a range of bodies involved. Of course, there is Defra. There is the 10-year healthy bee strategy referred to by my noble friend Lady Byford. That covers England and Wales, but not Scotland. There is a five-year insect pollination initiative, which is led by the research councils, also includes Defra, and covers Scotland. There is the Natural England environmental stewardship scheme and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, covering the licensing of honey bee medicines. Are those bodies, plans and programmes properly co-ordinated to best effect, and, if so, by whom?

The debate has, understandably, focused on honey bees, but I add my support to those noble Lords who have talked about the importance of alternative pollinators: bumblebees, moths, which have not been mentioned in the debate so far today—67% of common species have declined in the past 40 years—and butterflies, which are making a comeback in ordinary species, but specialist species appear to remain in decline. There is work to be done. Research and assistance is needed if we are to reverse those trends, which broadly follow the decline of the honey bee.

To conclude, it is easy to see this issue as one of the availability of honey—the Rupert Brooke romantic vision, “Is there honey still for tea?”—but it has a much wider dimension. A 2009 study by Reading University suggested that a total loss of pollinators would drastically cut the yields of oilseed rape, orchard fruit, soft fruit and beans. The Reading estimate of the cost was £400 million, or 13% of UK farming income. That, in a nutshell, is why my noble friend Lord Moynihan has performed such a valuable task by introducing the debate today.

My Lords, I apologise to the House that I am not my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth. I should have spoken earlier in the debate and I am sorry for the shock that that caused the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, who had to come in early. My noble friend Lord Knight could not stay and I offered to stand in on the Front Bench for him.

I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for securing this debate and for his excellent speech, which gave a wonderful tour d’horizon of the issues, and to all noble Lords for their contributions. It has been interesting that we have had contributions not just from the amateur beekeepers—of whom I am one—but from the profession. I was very interested in the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. Sometimes, policy in this area seems to be dictated by the large number of amateurs, to the possible exclusion of the interest of those who have to make a living out of this operation. It must be difficult for Defra to come up with coherent policy in this area, but that should not stop us criticising its efforts to date, which I shall do later.

As I said, I am a beekeeper. I got into it because my grandfather, who was a doctor in the north-west of Scotland, kept bees. He had about nine hives at one stage. I got fascinated by it. I can still remember the excitement of lifting the heather honey and the effort it took to carry all the supers away, even as we were being pursued by large numbers of bees. I have two hives, sometimes three if I am lucky and capture a swarm. As we have heard, it is a rather odd industry. You can have a good year and have no honey and you can have a bad year and still get honey because you have managed to prevent your hives from swarming.

I am obviously not very bright about this stuff because in my research for this speech today I discovered all sorts of things that I thought I should have known. For example, I had spent a lot of time in my garden trying to align my beehives and my greenhouse in order to make sure that my tomato crop was properly fertilised, only to discover when I did my research that honey bees are absolutely useless at fertilising tomatoes. You need bumblebees because they vibrate at the right frequency and the pollen somehow shakes itself off and does the necessary. I wish I had known that because it would have saved quite a lot of effort. I also did not realise that the masonry bees that were in our house when we first moved in and which I carefully had excluded at great cost by professional insect killers would have been a blessing for my orchard; but you live and learn.

I am very enthusiastic about my bees. I am not very knowledgeable but I am quite good at talking about them, and that got me into trouble. I will indulge the House very briefly with a short anecdote. A few years ago, when I was working in No. 10, there was an initiative to think about ways in which we could look at environmental issues, including bees. I had been talking up my highs and lows in relation to bees and I got saddled with doing something on the bee front. I will not go though all the details, but eventually we decided that there was one thing that would be interesting and perhaps of long-term value. Chequers, although not owned by the Government or indeed by the Prime Minister but by a private and separate trust, had lost its bees some years ago and there were no bees there. It seemed a pity because such a wonderful estate—those who have visited it will know—could easily support a large number of hives. So I was charged with trying to get bees back into Chequers. It took a bit of time but, working with a local beekeeping association, I found a willing beekeeper, who helped with the negotiations with the trustees, who were very hard task masters. I discovered a fundamental flaw, which was rather surprising for that part of Buckinghamshire: Chequers has no natural water. As any beekeeper will tell you, bees need three things: a secure base, access to forage—particularly to the stuff that they use to gum up the insides of their hives so that they protect themselves again rain and wind—and water. Water is the element or the chemical that they use to get the nectar that they collect from the flowers to the right consistency so that it will stay in the comb and not ferment—you see how one can get carried away with these things and start boring people to death. Anyway, I got involved in that project and we ended up with two hives just as you approach the back of Chequers from the road. You can actually see them against the former orchard. They have been moved this year partly for weather reasons. I mention this only because it illustrates the problems that a beekeeper has. Two hives were put in four years ago. There was no honey in the first year, which is quite common. There was some honey in the second year, just at the change of government. I leave noble Lords to speculate what we felt about that. There was good honey last year, but over the winter one hive went queenless. We are now back to one hive and we are trying to recover. That is the story, in a nutshell, of what happens in beekeeping. I am sure that the Prime Minister now and in the future will have access to Chequers honey for himself and guests, should they wish to do so.

We have heard about the substantial challenges during this debate. We have touched on the weather, pests and diseases and loss of habitat. We have touched on how agriculture impedes the way in which bees operate, pesticides and the need to train better our beekeeping force—that is really important. We have talked about the need to register and keep a record of not only our beekeepers but our beehives. We had a good example from my noble friend Lord Rea about those who are operating outside the system. They are having a perfectly good time and doing all the things that we would want from our beekeeping activity but are not part of the formal systems.

All these issues, including the question mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, about leadership and who is in charge here, interact in a complex and varying matrix—compounded by the fact that there is an ongoing and chronic lack of research to help us understand all these issues and put in place appropriate measures to respond to the challenges. The only real research is the insect pollinators initiative. The IPI is centred on nine projects, each receiving about £1 million. Of those nine projects, only four are related to honey bees, yet there are real problems in honey bee health and numerous questions to be answered.

One good example is of the lack of effective medicines to treat the diseases that we already know bees face. The varroa mite not only debilitates bees, mainly through attacking the larvae of the drones—the males—but allows worker bees to be attacked by viruses because it weakens their strength. There are no effective medicines for that. We can add nothing except palliatives, which seem to have some effect in reducing the ability of the varroa mite to thrive. However, there is no killing of them. That simply reduces the numbers rather than destroying them. Why can we not get some research going on that? It seems absolutely vital to make sure that we can do that.

The foul broods, European and American, are terrible things to have happening to your colony. They effectively kill it off, yet they are very difficult to eradicate. Again, we are not on top of the chemistry there. Then there is nosema, which is likely to become much more prevalent following an absolutely ridiculous decision to permit the EU to withdraw the only known effective medicine on the grounds that it was affecting other animals and things, not bees.

I think I have eight questions to pose to the Minister. Some of them are obviously more detailed and I would be happy for him to write to me at the end of the debate if that is a better way of doing it. The first is about agriculture, which was touched on by many noble Lords. Clearly, the use of our landmass in relation to the production of food and the way in which it interacts with bees is important. The way that agriculture is operated has a significant impact on bees. It affects the quality and diversity of habitat within the landscape. Can the Minister say what the UK Government could do to further “green” farming in the UK and provide much needed support to fruit and vegetable growers, perhaps by encouraging and supporting environmentally friendly farming systems? Here again, research would be important because we simply do not know the pollination requirements of crops, so if there was more information that was better disseminated to farmers and better applicable to bee keepers, that would certainly help.

A number of speakers mentioned pesticides. They clearly are having an adverse impact on bees. Why would they be used if they did not? What is worrying is how they may be affecting the breeding success of our bees and their resistance to disease, which is a component of that. Will the Government commit to introducing a targeted reduction of pesticide use by 2020? Perhaps that could again be with funding for research on the impact of all these pesticides on bees, not just honey bees but others which are available to pollinate.

Agri-environment schemes, which have been mentioned, have great potential to provide forage and nesting sites for bees but the uptake of the most beneficial options has been limited. What support will the Government give to Natural England to improve the uptake of those options and develop more targeted objectives for agri-environmental schemes? I think that would help.

Many habitats of national conservation priority provide important forage and nesting resources for bees, yet despite protected designations they are in decline. Can the Government strengthen protection for these sites by designating more sites with priority habitats for bees, reforming environmental impact assessment regulations and improving cross-policy co-ordination to deliver the strongest benefits to bees over the whole landscape?

One of the earlier speakers mentioned planning. Despite the importance of bees to the economy—and of course to human well-being—the new planning guidelines do not provide detailed information for local authorities so that they could develop green infrastructures that might benefit bees. I am thinking here of things such as allotments or flower-rich road verges. Why would it not be possible for the Government to introduce new guidelines for local authorities that integrate these beneficial options and ensure that environmental damage is reduced?

There is also the question of whether we should make a special priority for bees. Several bee species are recognised as national conservation priorities but, as a group, bees have never received very much formal monitoring. Will the Government include bees as a priority species, for example, in the new England biodiversity strategy? Will they establish a network of experts to advise local authorities on developing bee-targeted action plans?

A policy on bee health is limited by a lack of research on possible cures. We really must change that. There is also a rather adverse regulatory structure, which does not take the needs of bees into account. Can we have some initiatives in that area? Perhaps there should be a trial period, within which restrictions on veterinary medicines, which apply largely to animals and not to insects, could be lifted.

Finally, will the Government take steps to create a statutory beekeeper register? Again, without the actual knowledge of how many beekeepers we have, how many hives, and what effect they are having on the environment, we will not be able to make progress on this. That goes alongside a cause which I absolutely endorse for national standards for education and training. Like a number of other noble Lords, I was trained by a local volunteer. It was a terrific exercise—heavily weather-dependent, so I got only two out of the four possible slots, but it was enough to get me going. There is no national accreditation for this, and it really would help if we had a common standard to which everybody was working.

In that context, I just wanted to make one other important point that has not yet been raised. We are talking about the bees we know—the bees we can identify as being related to the hives that we ostensibly organise, although the truth is that we are not very good at running them. There are probably at least as many wild bees about which we know absolutely nothing. I am almost certain that my bees are bred and crossbred with the wild bees in the area. What do we know about their disease resistance, their capacity or their livelihood?

A few years ago a book entitled A World Without Bees was published. It was written by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum. A number of noble Lords will know about it. It was an interesting book, but the most interesting thing about it was its starting premise. It was a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein, no less:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the Earth, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man”.

It probably reads better in German. It seems to be the case that Albert Einstein never actually said it, but that should not devalue the message it gives across—a message which has been running through this debate and is something of which we must take account. Bees matter: we must do something about it.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Moynihan for initiating this debate and for giving me this opportunity to highlight what the Government have been and are doing to improve honeybee health and to outline our future plans for this important area. I would like to thank all noble Lords for their fascinating contributions. They have almost talked me into developing a healthy conflict of interest.

Honeybees are extremely important for pollination, yet, as almost every noble Lord who has spoken has said, they are facing a growing number of threats from pests and diseases that pose a significant challenge to beekeepers. Noble Lords will also be aware of the very poor summer we experienced in 2012 and the effects that this had on agriculture and the environment. Last year was described as the most difficult beekeeping year ever, even by experienced beekeepers, and the annual honey crop is estimated to be down—as I think my noble friend Lord Moynihan said—by more than 70% compared with 2011. Therefore, we are taking this very seriously and are taking action to improve honeybee health and support beekeeping for the future.

Let me first explain the work we have already got under way. The main focus of our efforts in protecting bee health is through the work of the National Bee Unit, which is acknowledged as having one of the best bee health surveillance programmes in Europe, with a global reputation for excellence. The first of the unit’s main activities is inspection and enforcement. We have a team of professional bee inspectors out in the field, about which my noble friend Lord Patten asked and to which I will return, controlling notifiable diseases and surveying for exotic pests. I am pleased to report that, because of their work, we are able to say that the incidence of the two notifiable diseases—European and American foulbrood—remains low, with infection rates around half of those observed during the 1990s. Most importantly, no evidence of exotic pests, such as the small hive beetle, has been found and fortunately these pests remain absent from the UK.

Secondly, the unit provides advice to beekeepers, which was particularly important in view of the very poor summer weather, and specific advice was published to help beekeepers during this period. Thirdly, among the unit’s main activities is research development, such as developing control methods for small hive beetle. Fourthly, it contributes to evidence-based policy development, including quantifying risks to bee health from current and emerging threats, diagnostic services for pests and diseases, and contingency planning against the arrival of exotic pests and diseases.

Fifthly, the unit helps beekeepers to become more self-reliant in controlling pests and diseases through training and education programmes jointly run with beekeeping associations. The National Bee Unit was involved in nearly 500 training events last year, which were attended by more than 22,000 beekeepers. Feedback from those attending has shown that beekeepers have valued and benefitted from these events.

The Healthy Bees Plan, which has now been under way for more than three years, was initiated by the previous Government and has been enthusiastically pursued by this Government. Let me set out what has been achieved so far and our plans for the future. A first priority of the plan was to get a more accurate picture of the numbers and distribution of beekeepers and the health of their colonies. Between 2009 and 2011, the NBU visited and took samples from around 5,000 apiaries in England and Wales, which was one of the biggest surveys of its kind ever undertaken.

As the results on the health of our bees became available, we began a review of our pest and disease control policies. This was undertaken by the Food and Environment Research Agency, the Welsh Government, the NBU, representatives from beekeeping associations and an independent scientist. The review considered how best to manage pests and diseases in the future to ensure that effective policies and support are in place; that priorities for future collective action by government and beekeepers are clear; and that we are making the best use of public funding. I should like to take this opportunity to announce to your Lordships that today we are launching a consultation seeking views on the proposals which emerged from this review. These proposals build on current policies and, importantly, set the future direction for pest and disease control.

The second priority of the Healthy Bees Plan was to improve beekeeper training, about which several noble Lords have asked. We have co-funded initiatives with beekeeping associations, of which an example is 400 new beekeeper trainers and a suite of new training materials and courses. These jointly funded programmes will continue during the next phase of the plan to 2015. One of these programmes is the development of an apprenticeship scheme to be launched shortly to encourage young people to become bee farmers and we are working with the Bee Farmers’ Association to take this initiative forward.

The third priority of the plan was to increase the number of beekeepers registered on the NBU’s BeeBase database. BeeBase is an important tool in the control of bee diseases and pests, and the chances of successful control are significantly improved if the location and contact details of beekeepers and their apiaries are known. I am pleased to report that the number registered has increased from around 18,000 when the plan was launched to nearly 29,000 now, which is a tremendous achievement.

We are also working to improve the availability of medicines for the treatment of bee diseases and have developed an action plan involving manufacturers, beekeepers and bee inspectors. Details of bee medicines which veterinarians can import from other member states are available on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s website.

Turning to the ongoing issue of the effect of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned, as did several other noble Lords, perhaps I may stress to your Lordships that I take very seriously any threat to bees and other pollinators. We have kept evidence on neonicotinoids under close and open-minded scrutiny and will restrict the use of these products if the evidence shows the need.

Government scientists and the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides advise that, while the potential for toxic effects has been shown, the evidence currently available does not indicate harmful exposure in the field. Nevertheless, my noble friend Lady Thomas referred to the fact that we are working rapidly to fill crucial knowledge gaps. We have research under way which is nearly finished to look at field effects of neonicotinoids on bumble bees. We are studying historic data on bee health and neonicotinoid usage. We are analysing the implications of possible restrictions for the environment and for agriculture. These work streams will deliver very soon. We will consider the results and the action required as a matter of urgency.

I turn now to research funding, about which several noble Lords have asked. We have joined some of the UK’s major research funders to tackle the decline in insect pollinators. Understanding the causes of this decline will help us to identify the best possible action to support and sustain these species for the future. This is important given the role of pollinators in local food production and in our overall food security. The initiative’s total spend is up to £10 million over five years. Nine projects were announced in June 2010 that will look at different aspects of the decline of insect pollinators and bring together researchers from many disciplines, including ecology, molecular biology, mathematics and computing. Some will focus on specific species and/or diseases; others will look broadly at factors affecting the health and survival of pollinating insects more generally. Two of these projects focus specifically on honeybees and six will benefit both honeybees and bumblebees. We look forward to seeing the results of these studies over the next two years.

My noble friends Lord Moynihan and Lord Hodgson asked about progress on developing a bee strain resistant to Varroa. Many attempts have been made both in this country and worldwide to breed Varroa-resistant or Varroa-tolerant bees. This includes work carried out at the University of Sussex since 2008. I understand that, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, this has so far been unsuccessful. This is in part due to the genetics of honeybees. Other novel molecular approaches are currently being developed for the control of Varroa. The recent sequencing of the genomes of Apis mellifera and Varroa destructor could aid the identification of tolerant strains in the future by targeting relevant genes and traits more effectively.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan, among others, stressed the importance of education. A key priority of the Healthy Bees Plan is to deliver an enhanced training and education programme for beekeepers, driving up husbandry standards and the management of pests and diseases. Defra has so far co-funded education and training initiatives with beekeeping associations and I referred to that a little earlier.

My noble friend Lady Thomas asked whether neonicotinoids were used by local authorities on verges and, indeed, in private gardens. Agriculture and horticulture is by far the largest market; although they are also authorised for use in other situations including, for instance, use on high-quality turf on golf courses. They are unlikely to be used by councils on roadside verges where herbicides are more likely to be used. They are authorised for amateur use in private gardens but these products are authorised at much lower doses than are allowed in professional applications and are used on a much smaller area. Furthermore, they are only authorised if they can be used without harmful effects on human health or unacceptable risks to the environment. No product is authorised for home or garden use if its correct use requires training or protective equipment.

My noble friend Lady Byford asked about the results of the IPI—the Insect Pollinators Initiative. I can tell her that all projects within it are progressing well and we look forward to seeing the results in 2014. She also asked whether research has been carried out into the nature and variety of diseases affecting plants and trees and whether there is any evidence that diseased plants or trees are for some reason more attractive to insects. In fact, a considerable amount of work has been carried out by Defra, Fera, Forest Research, universities and research institutes into the nature and variety of diseases affecting plants and trees. That may be, perhaps, a subject for further debate. However, specifically in respect of whether diseased plants or trees are more attractive to insects, it is true that certain studies have indicated that this can sometimes be the case. For example, a recent paper shows that a plant pathogen can make the host more attractive to insect vectors and there is, of course, a risk that they further spread the pathogen.

A paper published in 2005 suggested that the pathogen causing Dutch Elm disease makes host trees attractive to insect vectors. However, a recent Dutch paper showed that white clover mosaic virus infection can decrease the attractiveness of white clover plants for female fungus gnats. I hope that my noble friend is aware of the expert task force set up by Defra’s chief scientist specifically to see what can be done to enable us to be on the front foot in anticipating plant diseases from abroad that pose a potential risk to us. The interim report of that expert task force is very welcome.

My noble friend Lady Thomas and the noble Lord, Lord Rea, spoke about restrictions on neonics in other countries. There were several incidents in May 2008 in which these pesticides killed bees in Germany. As a result, the circumstances in which they can be used have been restricted in Germany although the products have not been banned. According to the German authorities, the incidents resulted from the inadvertent exposure of bees to one of the neonic products applied as a seed treatment to maize seed. We have assessed the risk of the German situation being replicated here as negligible for a variety of reasons. Three other EU member states, France, Slovenia and Italy, have introduced some restrictions although all have neonic products authorised. Slovenia took action following incidents similar to those in Germany. Italy has restricted the use of these pesticides in the wake of the German incident as a precautionary measure and in France Imidacloprid has been suspended for seed treatments on sunflowers since 1999, and on maize since 2004. The basis for the recent French action is not entirely clear. They cited a review by the French agency ANSES. However, ANSES did not in fact call for a ban and its review does not appear to support one. The UK is therefore in step with most other EU countries and, most importantly, we are acting in accordance with the evidence.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, asked whether we agree with the use of the precautionary principle. We fully accept that the precautionary principle is applicable in considering the appropriate response to the potential effects of pesticides. The principle guides decision-making when a serious potential risk has been identified and where, following the best possible risk assessment, there remains scientific uncertainty. It does not dictate the appropriate decision.

My noble friend Lord Patten asked about bee inspectors. I assure him that they exist. I have met them, or many of them, on a course on my visit to Fera in Yorkshire. There are about 60 National Bee Unit inspectors. They are an extremely important component of the bee health programme and they are gearing up for another busy year. I can tell my noble friend that, far from reducing, their numbers have increased since the 2009 launch of the Healthy Bees Plan. He asked whether the inspectors have a uniform. It is grey and has the Fera logo on it.

My noble friend also asked about the quality of science obtained by Her Majesty’s Government and our European partners for any decisions on pesticides. The Government have made clear their determination to act on the evidence. We have therefore commissioned a number of research projects to fill gaps in what is known. These include, among a number of other projects, a study of real exposure of bumblebees in the field to oilseed rape treated with neonics and a study of the significance of pesticide residues in disease levels in healthy honeybees. This work is being taken forward as rapidly as possible and is nearly ready for consideration by the independent experts of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. In Europe, the focus is on using the new science to update the standard process for assessing the risks of pesticides to bees, and UK experts are actively involved. My noble friend referred to the need to improve pesticide management and hygiene. I absolutely agree with that. That is a key aspect of the consultation we are launching today.

My noble friend Lord Jones of Cheltenham asked what assessment the Government have made of the effect of the loss of habitat on bee populations. In 2011, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment concluded that since 1980 wild bee diversity has declined in most landscapes. It identified land use change and habitat loss as key drivers of the decline in wild bees as well as other pollinating insects alongside disease and the use of some pesticides. We have lost 97% of our flower-rich grasslands since the 1930s. This is why the focus of our conservation effort for pollinators is the protection and management of habitats through protected site policy, agri-environment schemes and new initiatives such as nature improvement areas.

He asked whether the Government would consider protecting meadows in any future planning legislation, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised questions in that area as well. Protection for meadows is in place. Flower-rich grasslands, including lowland and upland meadows, are already recognised in the list of habitats of principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity in England, published by the Secretary of State, under Section 41 of the NERC Act 2006. The National Planning Policy Framework, published in 2012 requires planning authorities to promote the preservation, restoration and recreation of priority habitats, ecological networks and the protection and recovery of priority species populations. The Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2006 protect uncultivated or semi-natural areas, such as hay meadows from being damaged by agricultural work, such as planning, draining and use of fertilisers and herbicides where the uncultivated land or semi-natural areas directly affected are two hectares or more in area. I could go on, but I am conscious of the time. Perhaps I might suggest that a detailed debate on the Bill, to which my noble friend referred, could be conducted when it comes before your Lordships’ House.

My noble friend Lord Jones asked whether the Government agree with Buglife. While important, honeybees are only a small part of the insects which pollinate crops. Of course, we agree. Recently published research from Reading University suggested that managed honeybees were responsible for about a third of pollination in the UK, noting that this was after a decline in managed bee populations. The national ecosystem assessment suggested that wild pollinators contribute a significant proportion of that total. My noble friend also asked what the Government were doing to conserve wild bees and other pollinators. Perhaps I will write to him on that because I have covered it a little already and can expand on it. He asked whether the Government will invite responses from Buglife and other organisations to the consultation. The Government would welcome responses from any individual or organisation with an interest in protecting our bees.

My noble friend Lord Hodgson asked who is in charge. Well, my Lords, I am. I am the Minister responsible for bees. To be slightly less glib, Defra has the co-ordination role and collaborates closely with the Welsh and Scottish Governments who also fund Fera in part. I will write to noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, invited me to do so. I think that I have rather good answers to some of his questions but I have simply run out of time. There are continuing challenges for bee health that need to be addressed and there are no signs that these are likely to diminish. Although the number of colony losses noted by the National Bee Unit inspection during the beekeeping season has fallen from 12.5% in 2008 to 5% in 2012, the poor summer weather could see this trend reversed, so the challenge continues. I assure noble Lords that the Government are committed to continue to play their part in working with beekeepers to sustain the health of honeybees. Our successes in recent years provide a clear platform for determining the priority actions necessary to achieve that important goal.