House of Lords
Thursday, 31 January 2013.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.
The following Acts were given Royal Assent:
Trusts (Capital and Income) Act,
Statute Law (Repeals) Act,
Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act,
Disabled Persons’ Parking Badges Act,
European Union (Croatian Accession and Irish Protocol) Act,
Electoral Registration and Administration Act.
Crime: Wildlife Crime
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in tackling wildlife crime.
My Lords, the Government are committed to the fight against wildlife crime. We have made real progress in recent years, including providing funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit and introducing civil sanction powers for Natural England to deal with certain illegal activities. Internationally, among other things, we have helped fund Interpol projects, building enforcement capacity to conserve tigers, elephants and rhinos in the countries where they live in the wild.
I thank my noble friend for his Answer. I am sure he is therefore aware of the comments of the CITES Secretary-General, John Scanlon, about the huge increase in poaching of wildlife, especially in Africa, which he feels is going to help fund the insurgencies there. Domestically, in Britain, does my noble friend agree that poaching birds’ eggs, for example, is stealing our children’s inheritance as much as stealing the Crown jewels? What guidance will he give to the new police commissioners to make sure that they realise the seriousness of wildlife crime?
My Lords, first, I am aware that John Scanlon recognises the increasing involvement of organised crime in illegal wildlife trade. He has welcomed the UN Security Council’s call for an investigation into the alleged involvement of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the poaching of African elephants and the smuggling of ivory. Police and crime commissioners will hold their chief constables to account for the totality of their policing, which includes the chief constable working in collaboration with other police forces and agencies to address national issues that impact on their communities. As I have said, we believe that there is often a link between organised wildlife crime and other organised crimes, such as drugs and arms trafficking. We therefore expect the police to take wildlife crime seriously where it is a priority for their communities; co-operation with the NWCU will be key to this.
My Lords, while I commend the Government for their efforts in tackling wildlife crime in this country, is the Minister satisfied with the seriousness with which magistrates’ courts in certain parts of the country take this? Does he appreciate that there is a great deal of public anguish when people who are caught and proved guilty of killing golden eagles or hen harriers get off virtually scot free?
The noble Lord makes a good point. Enforcement is important. The magistrates have taken account of that and issued a document a while ago that specifically addresses that.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of a small charity which funds the training of wildlife wardens in east Africa. Is not my noble friend right to say that this is now an international issue? It has an impact on corruption, particularly in east Africa, and perhaps in Kenya especially. It has an impact on insurgency. The right way for us to deal with it internationally is to begin to raise the human capacity of those organisations in Africa which are taking the front line in fighting what is an increasing tide of wildlife crime. Will my noble friend recommend to DfID that it consider specific programmes targeted at raising the human capacity of, for instance, wardens in east Africa?
First, I pay tribute to the work that my noble friend does. The Government support a wide range of action to tackle illegal wildlife trade, including working with other countries, contributing financially to Interpol-led projects which build enforcement capacity in countries where the animals in question live in the wild to conserve tigers, elephants and rhino, funding a post in the CITES secretariat to help to combat wildlife crime and chairing the CITES rhino working group, tasked with investigating the dramatic rise in rhino poaching.
My Lords, does the Minister think that opting out of the crime and justice measures of the European Union will assist in the fight against international wildlife crime?
My Lords, for the reasons that I have given, I am confident that the measures in place and the resources that we devote to the matter very well address the specific problem of wildlife crime.
My Lords, I suggest to my noble friend that another way to tackle the matter could be to encourage the use of tourism so that wild animals are an asset, not a liability. That would encourage the local people to care about them.
My noble friend makes an extremely important point. In the past, I have been on safari in those wonderful countries seeing those wonderful animals. The more that tourism is encouraged in those countries, the more that money is brought into those countries, the more people will recognise the value of the wildlife. That will contribute to clamping down on crime.
My Lords, in so far as it is an international wish to prevent the extinction of lions, elephants, et cetera, is it not logical to say that in conjunction with African Governments, who have population pressures—which is why in the localities people are not so keen to do much about this problem—the police forces in those countries need a lot more resource? Would it not be logical to say that there should be international help with that resourcing for the local police forces?
In fairness to many of those countries, their Governments recognise the problem. Some countries are making major efforts. As I said, we are doing quite a lot but we all must do better.
My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to the report of the Environmental Audit Committee which, like the Government, traces the work of the National Wildlife Crime Unit. The problem is that the unit has to stagger from year to year with just one year’s funding allocated each time. If it is to have proper certainty in its investigations, if it is to recruit and retain the best qualified staff and get best value for money, it needs longer-term funding to ensure that it can undertake its work as effectively as possible. Will the Minister consider that?
My Lords, the provision of funding for the year to come is an important step forward, and removes uncertainty in the short term. I ask the noble Baroness to share with me my delight that the NWCU will continue its excellent work. We will discuss future steps with the unit’s co-funders in the coming months.
Will my noble friend confirm that the Government endorse the view of the charity commissioners that expenditure by charities on pursuing one of their aims through the courts should be proportionate to the demands of their other aims?
My Lords, broadly speaking, yes.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have conducted any comparison of the level of railway fares in the United Kingdom compared with those in countries elsewhere in Europe.
My Lords, the most recent major study that included comparisons of the level of railway fares in Europe was published by Passenger Focus. It showed that, although the overall picture is mixed, Great Britain compares favourably with other European countries in respect of many ticket types, particularly on longer-distance tickets purchased in advance. The study compared some other factors, such as frequency of commuter services into major cities, in which Great Britain also compared favourably.
Does the Minister agree that, although the fares are supposed to go up by RPI plus one, there are countless incidents of fares rising by much more than that—for example 9% from Sevenoaks to London. Will he ensure, and also ask his right honourable friend to ensure, that, when a cap is placed on fares, it is a cap that people can understand? The majority of people do not understand the way in which the fares baskets are compiled, which allows such breaches of common sense and of what is commonly understood.
My Lords, I agree that it must be difficult for ordinary passengers to understand how ticket pricing works. The increase in regulated fares is implemented by train operators as an average across a basket of fares. This flexibility allows some fares to be increased by up to 5%—although only 2% on Southern—more than the average, while other fares must increase by much less or even be held flat to comply with the regulated average.
Does the Minister agree that this largely synthetic row about rail fare increases takes place every year around new year, when there is not much bad news elsewhere? The British media love bad news, and it provides them with an annual story. Notwithstanding that, does the Minister agree with the figures that show that fares for travelling by train have increased in real terms by about 20% over the past decade, while the cost of motoring has reduced by 5% over that period? Are there not some inconsistencies here in government policy?
My Lords, first, the relative prices of motoring and travelling by rail vary up and down. The comparison does vary. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State asked exactly the same question as the noble Lord about the timing of rail fare increases—and he was not amused.
My Lords, will mortgages and savings accounts be available for those who wish to travel by HS2?
My Lords, I know how much my noble friend supports HS2. The business case for HS2 is not predicated on premium fares.
My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister takes a patronising attitude to what the public understand. The public understand fare increases quite clearly. The National Audit Office warned that if excessive fare increases occurred they would merely be reflected in higher profits for the train operating companies. The Prime Minister said that fares should not go up by more than 1% above inflation—in other words, 4.2%. How does the Minister justify fare increases of 9%?
My Lords, a fare increase of 9% can arise where you have the RPI plus one, plus the flexibility that is necessary in order that train operating companies can adjust their fares to suit changing conditions. For instance, let us suppose there was a new shopping centre in an adjacent town. It might be desirable to adjust the pricing structure to reflect that. If there were no flexibility, train operators would not be able to adjust their price structure but would have to stick with an old system.
My Lords, does the Minister realise that the main obstacle for many young people searching for employment is the cost of transport, especially since the discounted fares come in after 9.30 am and they might have to get to an interview by 9 am? Will the Minister take this up with the train operators, to see whether there might be more acceptable means of providing cheaper transport for young people?
My noble friend makes an important point. The Government recognise that, for those starting their employment career, being able to travel economically to work is important. My noble friend will be aware that a fares review is currently under way, looking at all aspects of the fares structure.
My Lords, fares payable on the day of travel are invariably far more expensive than advance travel tickets. On what basis are the European comparisons that the Minister referred to being made: the former or the latter?
The noble Lord asks a good question. Just walking up to Euston and buying a ticket is very expensive, and we do not compare well with our continental partners. However, when we look at advanced purchases, we compare quite well. One day, I wanted to go to the NEC to visit the motor show and I could not afford the walk-on fare; it was too expensive for me.
My Lords, on another item of major annoyance to rail users, will the Government encourage the installation of more quiet coaches on all long routes, to follow the excellent example of Virgin Trains, which bans mobile phones in the quiet coaches?
My Lords, this is largely a matter for the train operating companies. The difficulty for them is enforcing the quiet carriage rules. I like a quiet carriage, but some people do not adhere to the rules.
My Lords, the Minister is right to draw attention to the availability of advanced tickets, which represent decent value for money in the great majority of cases. Does he share my irritation when one discovers that it is cheaper to buy tickets for a journey by buying two or three tickets rather than a through ticket?
My Lords, I was not aware of that particular anomaly, but I hope that the fares review will look at that.
Waste Management: Refuse Collections
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the £250 million fund set up to help local councils in England maintain or restore weekly bin collections.
My Lords, the impact of the £250 million Weekly Collection Support Scheme is that it will ensure a weekly collection of residual waste for around 6 million households while recycling 400,000 tonnes of waste and saving more than 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. All successful bids will deliver environmental benefits and successful local areas have been truly delighted with this financial injection into one of their most important services.
I am grateful for my noble friend the Minister’s reply to my Question. On the Weekly Collection Support Scheme—the “Pickles fund”, as it is known—is there any evidence that having fortnightly bin collections leads to a fall-off in recycling? Further, the Minister will be aware that Liverpool City Council was awarded a grant but has since withdrawn its application. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government amended any of Liverpool’s grant conditions between: first, the council applying for the fund; secondly, the Government awarding the money; and, thirdly, the council deciding not to accept the grant?
My Lords, the short answer to my noble friend’s first question is no. I can amplify that a bit by saying that many of the successful bidders for the Weekly Collection Support Scheme are demonstrating that you do not need a fortnightly residual waste collection to generate high recycling rates. As I said, the scheme is set to generate 400,000 tonnes of recycling.
On Liverpool, I absolutely assure the House that the Government did not change any of the grant conditions between Liverpool City Council applying for funding, the Government awarding the money and Liverpool deciding to withdraw its bid. That was Liverpool’s option; it was not up to the Government.
How does the Minister assess the relative merits of the £250 million fund to help weekly bin collections against the £480 million cut in council tax benefit support which, as the Resolution Foundation publication today shows, means that three-quarters of councils will be forced to demand increases of up to £600 per year in council tax payments from 3.2 million of the poorest households in our country? Does the Minister recall the poll tax?
My Lords, the £250 million found by the Department for Communities and Local Government was found from within its own budget. We are dealing with a very important area—that is, to ensure that people who already pay for their bin collections have the opportunity of having weekly collections. The analogy which the noble Lord is trying to draw and the trap he is trying to drag me into are not relevant to this particular discussion.
But if the department can find £250 million from what the Minister describes as its own resources so easily, would it not be an act of generosity and kindness to transfer £650,000 of it to the department of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, so that he will not have to get so upset at Question Time when he is questioned about cutting legal aid services?
My Lords, I am inclined to stick to my Question, which is about weekly collections of bins. I reiterate that householders value a weekly collection very much. It had gone out of favour with the previous Government and we see it as being of genuine benefit to local people.
My Lords, is it not time that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government spent more of his time fighting for the interests of local people and local authorities within Whitehall, rather than his apparently weekly attempts to micro-manage the local decisions of local authorities on matters such as bin collection and the level of the council tax?
My noble friend knows perfectly well that the Secretary of State has been at the forefront of ensuring that local authorities are able to manage their own affairs. They have devolved funding, are able to manage their own budgets and now have the business rates staying with them. The whole way that local government finance is going is to ensure that local government can answer for itself.
My Lords, the noble Baroness was a very distinguished leader of an important local authority, so she knows the role played by Shelter, the housing charity, in helping local authorities and ordinary people. Is she aware that this week it is being considered that Shelter will have to close 10 centres around the country because of the cuts in government spending, in particular in this regard in the legal aid spend? Does she know that to save those 10 centres would take about one-tenth—or perhaps a good deal less than that—of the £250 million set aside by the Government for this task? Is not that a ridiculous set of priorities?
My Lords, this supplementary question only came back to relevance in the last sentence. I understand the problems of Shelter and know that many organisations are having to make very considerable decisions. The Question today is about this money. We believe that it is a good use of funds for local residents to have a proper weekly rubbish collection service. That is what this money was allocated for.
Children: Childcare Costs
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to assist full-time working parents by granting tax relief on childcare costs.
My Lords, the Government announced in the mid-term review that they would support families with childcare costs. They are considering options and will make an announcement shortly. Earlier this week, they published plans to improve high-quality childcare which represents true value for parents, children and the taxpayer.
The noble Lord will appreciate that improvements in quality do not amount to affordability. We cannot expect, and the Government cannot call on, women to take half the top jobs and half the places in boardrooms without childcare help, because they are squeezed out in mid-career by unaffordability. Childcare for a woman in full-time work is just as worthy of tax relief as secretarial assistance for the businessman, who receives the full allowance on that. The difference in treatment of employees with workplace nurseries and those without is unfair, and it is even worse for the self-employed. Therefore, will the Minister please consider basic-rate tax relief being available for the employed and self-employed alike who wish to work full time?
My Lords, the factors that the noble Baroness has referred to are exactly the kinds of considerations currently being undertaken. Of course, the Government are extremely keen, not just in this area but more generally, to ensure that women can achieve their potential. She will be aware of the steps that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at BIS is taking to ensure that a higher proportion of women is appointed to boardrooms up and down the country.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are many different kinds of families and parents in different economic situations? How will the Government differentiate between the different kinds of families—for example, single-parent families and so on—and decide who needs more relief or less relief?
I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. She will be aware that the Government have already focused funding on childcare and free childcare for the most vulnerable. That is why we will be increasing the number of two year-olds who get 15 hours’ free childcare from about 20,000—the number funded under the previous Labour Government—to about 260,000. This is one of the most tangible ways of focusing childcare support on people at the bottom end. Those getting that additional free childcare support in the first instance will be children on free school meals and looked-after children—that is, those from the poorest families.
My Lords, following the Government’s recent announcement, is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among practitioners about the increasing ratio—to above 3:1—of the very youngest infants to carers? The additional investment in training that the Government have offered to reassure these practitioners is welcome. However, can the Minister go further in reassuring them, given the utmost importance of the highest quality of care for children at this tender age in terms of their future welfare and indeed their future productivity, as well as the deep adverse consequences for them of early poor-quality care in terms of their future outcomes?
Absolutely, my Lords. That is very much the thrust of the proposals that were announced at the beginning of this week. We have looked in particular across the EU, where childcare and nursery care is in some cases thought to be better than in the UK and two things have emerged: first, that we need to have better-qualified people involved and, secondly, that the ratios that the noble Earl spoke about are tighter in the UK than virtually anywhere else. However, the two go together, and that is why in our plans for early years teachers and educators we are putting a lot of emphasis on improving the qualifications of people working in childcare, while having more flexibility in the numbers.
My Lords, would it not be unfair to introduce this tax relief for working parents with children while denying effective tax relief through transferable allowances to those parents who choose to stay at home with young children and who are currently penalised through the tax system for doing so?
My Lords, obviously one of the problems with simply having a tax relief-based scheme is the one that the right reverend Prelate refers to. That is why we are looking at a number of options, some of which are tax based and others of which are not. I hope very much, however, that the Government will be in a position to make an announcement on this very shortly.
My Lords, going back to the question from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, does the Minister agree that one of the real problems in the provision of childcare is the very low rates of pay that are awarded to people who are in fact qualified and have a great deal to offer, but who are in the main only able to earn extremely low wages? If the Government’s plan is to put more burdens on those people by increasing the numbers of children that they can look after, is it likely that that will do anything at all either for the childcare or for the people delivering it?
My Lords, I think the question that we have to look at in terms of the number of children is why it is that those countries that, by common consent, have the best childcare provision in the world have higher ratios of children. The answer is partly that we need to have a combination of things of which better training is one. The pay is very low, but the Government will fund the additional free support which I mentioned earlier at a higher average rate of pay than is currently paid across the sector.
My Lords, not so long ago—and it might still be the case—employees in the House of Commons who had children in nursery care were given tax-free vouchers by the House. Will the Minister and his department look at extending this scheme to the wider population?
Yes, my Lords. Vouchers are one of the possible ways of dealing with this, and they are one of the options being considered.
Will the Minister explain to the House how improving the demands for training of care assistants of young children by requiring them to have a C-grade GCSE in maths and English helps them to make better provision for the children in their care?
My Lords, I think it is recognised by common consent that having better qualified teachers and assistants in this area is beneficial to the pupils and the young children being cared for. If we want, as we do, to improve the quality of the care given, part of it will involve soft skills but another part will involve basic competence.
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential escalation of regional conflict in the Middle East in the light of reported Israeli air strikes near the Lebanese-Syrian border.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.
My Lords, we are aware of the reports of a possible Israeli air strike in the vicinity of the Lebanese-Syrian border on the evening of 29 January. We are looking into these reports, but it would be unhelpful to speculate at this stage on the implications of this reported incident.
My Lords, I wonder if my noble friend will agree with the two following propositions: first, that that pre-emptive strikes breach international law and will undoubtedly heighten tensions in the region; and, secondly, that while the benefit to Israel’s security is likely to be short-lived, the likelihood of pushing the beleaguered regime into even more ruthless actions against its opponents is increased, and risks drawing chemical weapons into the equation. In light of that, will my noble friend tell the House why the United Kingdom Government seek to request a further relaxation of the EU arms embargo tomorrow against this backdrop? Do they believe that putting further arms into the equation will actually help the situation?
As noble Lords will be aware, I try whenever I come to the Dispatch Box to provide as much detail as I can in relation to any Question that is asked. It is important to be as open and frank as possible with your Lordships’ House. Unfortunately, in relation to this matter, we are still looking at these reports. It would be wrong for me to speculate about the implications of what may have taken place and of what has in fact taken place.
However, I note the point that my noble friend makes in relation to the arms embargo. We have taken the position that there should be flexibility in the arms embargo both in relation to the period of time that it operates and to its specifics. That does two things. It sends out a clear message to Assad that we intend to keep the pressure on him to try to resolve this crisis. It also gives us flexibility, as part of the wider EU, to ensure that we can respond appropriately to the situation as it changes on the ground.
My Lords, will the Minister inform the House as to whether, if it turns out that the Syrian regime was transferring arms or military material to any organisation in Lebanon other than the state armed forces, it would have been acting contrary to Security Council resolutions?
I do not want to answer the noble Lord’s supplementary question by speculating. I can say that on two occasions we have had specific questions on the issue of chemical weapons and their transfer. I said on those occasions that we had made clear to Syria what its obligations were in relation to any chemical or biological weapons that it had. We have also made it clear that we have worked with the regional powers in the area to make sure that the borders around Syria are properly protected to ensure that there is no movement or transfer of biological and chemical weapons. Of course, we have made clear our views to the Syrian authorities, who have sent back some reports that they do not intend to use chemical and biological weapons. But we will continue to make our concerns heard.
My Lords, I accept that the position is as yet unclear, but does the Minister agree that if this convoy was taking weapons to be used by Hezbollah against Israel, Israel had not only a right under Security Council resolutions but also a right under the charter of self-defence, knowing the record of Hezbollah against Israel?
The noble Lord is aware that we have in the past raised concerns about any weapons that may be passing to Hezbollah, about where those weapons may be coming from and about comments that have been made by Hezbollah about where they may be receiving weapons from. I hope that the House feels that I am not being evasive, but it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on what has happened, the implications of it, what someone may do in response and the implications that that would have in relation to international law.
While I appreciate that the Minister obviously does not want to speculate until there is a clearer view about this, and while I am the first to be critical of Israel when occasionally it overreacts and overresponds with undue rigour, do the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Anderson, not have a point? The shipping of weapons to Hezbollah, which already has thousands of rockets, is an extremely dangerous and destabilising act in the Middle East. Anything that furthers the position of Hezbollah, which is a state within a state in Lebanon, and makes it more ready to be highly provocative, as it has proved in the past, against Israel, will add to the difficulties in the area. Does she appreciate that we need to watch this very carefully and in a balanced way?
My noble friend, as always, makes an important point and comes at it with great expertise. He will, however, be comforted to know that whatever has happened on that border, we understand at the moment that the blue line between Israel and Lebanon remains calm and that the work of UNIFIL continues in the region in the way that it has done until now. I can, however, say that any transfer of arms to Hezbollah would clearly be a violation of Security Council Resolution 1701.
My Lords, the difficulty in answering the Question without adequate information at this stage is well understood on all sides of the House. But there will be an anxiety both about the prospect of Hezbollah attaining additional weaponry and about the proportionality of what has happened. When will the Minister, in her judgment, be able to come and give a full Statement to the House about the facts so that we can have a proper discussion?
As the noble Lord is aware, I am here most days, so I am available most days to answer any Questions that may arise. The Minister with responsibility for this particular region is my right honourable friend Alistair Burt. I will be obtaining updates on this tonight and in my weekend Box and, if further information comes to light, of course I shall update the House.
My Lords, I agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said and I also understand the reluctance of the noble Baroness to speculate. However, one thing about which we need not speculate is that the Russians have made a very forthright statement about these reported air strikes. Can the Minister tell us what bilateral exchanges we are having with the Russians about this very worrying situation, which could grow more serious on a daily basis?
I do not have any information about the specific bilateral discussions we are having in relation to this particular incident. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that we are having constant discussions with the Russians in relation to the situation in Syria. These matters are now arising because we are failing to deal with the crisis in the region. We must deal with the issue of Syria. We keep taking this back to the United Nations. The Prime Minister has made his views very clear and I have repeated them on many occasions at this Dispatch Box. We are trying to seek agreement at the United Nations to move matters forward. In the mean time, Russia is one party with whom we seek to move further forward.
My Lords, may I revert to the question of the arms embargo on Syria? Is the Minister aware that it was reported on the news this morning that the Foreign Secretary, in consultation with the French, would be arguing for the lifting of that arms embargo? Does the noble Baroness not agree that that would be a very serious escalation in our involvement in what is frequently described as a Sunni/Shia war, and that we ought to be very careful before getting involved with a group of very nasty people indeed in Syria who are aiming—as apparently we are—to remove the legitimate and secular Government of Syria?
Where I disagree with the noble Lord is that I would not describe the current regime in Syria as one that is legitimate and represents the views of the Syrian people. I can assure him that no decision has been taken by the Government to change the nature of our assistance to the national coalition. We understand absolutely the concerns he has raised in relation to further arms. Our purpose in putting forward the amendment to the arms embargo is to create the space for and increase the chances of a political settlement. It is not to exacerbate the militarisation of the conflict which is already happening.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
That Standing Order 40(5) (Arrangement of the order paper) be suspended from Thursday 7 February until the end of the session.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask a couple of questions about this Motion, because it refers to starting next Thursday, 7 February. As noble Lords may be aware, I have tabled a Motion, which appears at the top of the Order Paper for debate that day, that,
“this House resolves that no introductions of new Peers shall take place until the recommendations in paragraphs 36, 47, 57, 63, and 67 of the First Report of the Leader’s Group on Members Leaving the House, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral (HL Paper 83, session 2010–12), have been implemented”.
We have just passed the second anniversary of the publication of this unanimous, all-party report. Nothing has been done about it and there is an increasing concern about overcrowding in this Chamber, which is why I have tabled my Motion. Can the Leader assure me that if we pass the Motion before us, my debate will not be gazumped and we shall have the chance to discuss it next Thursday morning?
Secondly, is the noble Lord aware that the Bill that passed through this House which would give effect to that report is in the Commons and has been taken up by our colleague, the Conservative MP Eleanor Laing? Last Friday she tried to get a formal Second Reading of that Bill so that it could come back here, but it was objected to by the Government Whips in the normal way. She is going to try again tomorrow, and of course, if the Government Whips do not object and she gets a formal reading, the Bill next Thursday would be unnecessary.
My Lords, further to the point made by my noble friend, I understand that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has suggested that this House should find economies of at least 2% in its budget. That seems to be inconsistent with proposals to add to the burdens on the House by appointing more Peers. This is not the moment to debate the issue, but would it not be appropriate for the Procedure Committee of this House to look at how the rate at which introductions are made is consistent with the resources available to us and the demands being placed on us by the Treasury to reduce the burden on the taxpayer, with which I very much agree?
My Lords, first, I should say to my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood that I am well aware of the concerns he has expressed for a long time on this issue. Indeed, I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss them with him soon after I took over this post. If the House will allow me, I should say for the record that I am slightly disappointed that, in bringing forward his Motion, my noble friend did not discuss it with my noble friend the Chief Whip in the way that convention suggests. It is important that we observe the conventions because that is how this House operates. I feel that I should bring that to the attention of the House.
On the matters raised by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, we will be discussing those next week and I am sure that we will have a good opportunity to hear a range of views from all sides of the House. On the Government’s position generally on this important issue, that has not changed since the last time it was discussed in this House in terms of both future legislation and the position regarding the appointment of new Peers. As it has always been, it is for the Prime Minister to make recommendations to Her Majesty the Queen. That is how it has always been done in this House by both parties and how it was done with great vigour by Mr Blair. It is the situation that exists now.
My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us where the Prime Minister and the Government stand on their commitment to ensure that membership of your Lordships’ House more accurately reflects the votes cast in the previous general election? Does the noble Lord agree that that would give my party, the UK Independence Party, no fewer than 24 Peers, whereas at the moment we have three? Does the Prime Minister stand by this commitment or has he abandoned it?
My Lords, I think we all feel that the value we get from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is worth at least 24 Peers. The position taken by the Government on this is set out clearly and has not changed. The Government’s view is that we should work over time more accurately to reflect the balance of Peers.
My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House, but further to the point made by the Leader of the House, there is a distinction between the prerogative power to appoint Members to this place and the rate at which they can be introduced. I think that my noble friend’s Motion was about having a debate that takes account of the resource constraints upon this House and the proposals that are now in the other place which would enable a sensible accommodation to be reached. However, it would be useful if, before next week, we had something from the Procedure Committee to indicate what the constraints are so that we can have a more informed debate.
I am sure that the Chairman of Committees will have heard that point. More generally on this debate, my noble friend says that he does not want to delay the House. We will be discussing it next week and I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity to consider this and all the other points that noble Lords want to raise then.
My Lords, would we not have a more informed debate if a Government Minister was able to answer a question that I and, I am sure, others have repeatedly put in Written Questions and elsewhere: what precisely in terms of numbers is the coalition commitment to establishing the party strengths in this House on the basis of the last general result? What does that mean in terms of numbers for each of the three parties? Although the Leader of the House dealt with the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, very effectively in parliamentary terms, he did not actually answer the question, which was a valid one. If the Government are committed to their repeatedly stated objective of reflecting the last election results, surely we are entitled to know precisely in numbers, including the total number, what that would occasion. If we do not know the numbers, it is very difficult to have an informed debate.
My Lords, perhaps I could just add that I have tabled a whole series of Questions to the Chairman of Committees on this matter of availability of resources to the House against the number of Peers to be created. Perhaps the Government might take note of the answers that I am receiving, because clearly the figures do not add up.
My Lords, I can see that the noble Lord is looking forward to this debate next week. If I may follow up on the question asked by my noble friend Lord Grocott, at the moment the number of Conservative Peers is anything up to about 39% or 40% of the Peers in this House who carry a political label. Therefore the Conservative Party already has a higher proportion of Peers than of the votes cast at the last election. The noble Lord needs to clarify exactly what the Government are committing themselves to.
Before the Leader of the House answers, perhaps I may reply to him on the question of tabling the Motion. As he knows, I wanted originally to table an amendment to this Motion today, but I thought that would be unfair because the House had no notice of it. There is a better opportunity next week. So I hope that he will acquit me of any discourtesy on that point.
Secondly, as regards the point made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, the recommendation from the committee of which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was a member two years ago was also designed to save money, and it would save money if it were implemented.
My Lords, has my noble friend the Leader of the House noted that it is possible now for Members of this House to retire permanently? Indeed, two Members have done so. That would solve the problem of the large and increasing population of the House and the difficulties that have resulted. Indeed, I wonder whether my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Steel might like to take advantage of that opportunity.
My Lords, does the Minister appreciate the illogicality of the proposition that has been put forward? There are nearly 200 Cross-Bench Peers in this House who are independent minded, as the Minister will know, who may vote one way or the other. It would make more sense for the parties to try to win over, by logical arguments, the votes of the Cross-Bench Peers rather than striving to pack the House with Members already committed to one side or the other.
My Lords, I believe in deferred gratification, and I am prepared to defer some more gratification until next week when we have the debate. In the past nine minutes, we have had a good illustration of the range of views on retirement in this House. I would not want to personalise the very fair general point made by my noble friend Lord Tyler in the way that he did. However, it is true that that scheme is available for any Member of Your Lordships’ House who would like to take a permanent leave of absence. I can refer any noble Lords who might be interested in looking at it to page 22 of the new Companion. In the conversations that I have had about retirement, the views expressed to me in the Corridors and around the place have tended to be affected by the age of the noble Lord to whom I have been speaking—and the age of retirement suggested is normally a couple of years above the age of the particular noble Lord to whom I am speaking.
The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, about membership representation on particular Benches was a slight case of pots and kettles, if I may say so. I think that he conveniently forgot the important contribution made in this House by Cross-Benchers when he looked at his percentages. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, rightly reminds us of the extremely important contribution that the Cross-Benchers make at all times.
On the specific point of numbers, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, knows probably better than I—since he is a great expert on all these matters—the form of words that the coalition Government set out. No precise figure has been set but the general intention is clear.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
That Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with to allow the HGV Road User Levy Bill to be taken through all its remaining stages on Thursday 7 February.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
That the debate on the motion in the name of Baroness Noakes set down for today shall be limited to three hours and that in the name of Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market to two hours.
I wonder if I can put a couple of questions to the Leader of the House about these time limits that he is proposing to have today. I know it is early days in his tenure of his present post, but does he not recognise that the business managers are imposing limits today which are severely testing the sense of humour of Back-Benchers to a point of destruction? Does he not also recognise that he is moving these time limits pretty close to the time limits imposed in the European Parliament—not an example normally thought good for emulating by this House? Finally, does he not recognise that there could be occasions when the national interest—and I think the two items on the Order Paper today are genuinely of national importance—does not require the House to rise at a fixed time on a Thursday evening?
My Lords, the House has taken the decision over time as to how long it wants to set aside for debates. I take the point about the importance of some of the issues being discussed this afternoon, and the number of speakers who have signed up to discuss Europe is an indication of the great deal of interest that there is in that subject. If there is appetite for a debate of that nature, my noble friend the Chief Whip is always available to discuss that, and one could have a discussion through the usual channels as to whether we could make more time available.
My Lords, I feel it is an important discussion to have now. For example, can the noble Lord say whether the usual channels have discussed and agreed the principle of a limit on the numbers of speakers, which would surely allow those who have prepared for several weeks for debates to have their say in a reasonable way?
My Lords, time is short and I do not want to prolong this debate. However, I, too, am concerned about the time limits today on speeches, on issues which are of concern to all the people of our country. We are a self-regulating House and, although on this occasion it is too late, my noble friend Lord Bassam did make representations to the Chief Whip suggesting that perhaps we could have additional time on another day for the second debate. It is clearly too late now but I hope that in future the Government will exercise more flexibility when it comes to these issues in a self-regulating House.
My Lords, since reference has been made personally to me, on this rare occasion perhaps I may assist the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box. This is a Conservative Party debate day and the House decided as a matter of procedure that the time allocated would be five hours, as an envelope. That time limit may, in exceptional circumstances and in consultation with the Leader of the House, be extended to six hours. That has happened on one occasion in the past two and a half years, and it was of course open to the usual channels to consider it. However, as I explained yesterday to several Peers individually, even if extra time had been allocated to the first debate, that would not have given each Member one extra minute. It would not have made a difference.
Peers have quite rightly raised the question of the importance of these matters. In a brief discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, the opposition Chief Whip, I made it clear that I was not going to invite the chairman of my Back-Bench committee, the Association of Conservative Peers, to surrender the only debate that he has had in this Session. In the past two and half years, he has only had one, in the last Session. He is leading our second debate and I would not ask him to abandon it. It could not be moved to another date as this is the last Conservative debate day until the next Session. That is how precious it is.
I have also indicated that I am very happy to look at the possibility of a debate on another day, in prime time, on an issue such as Europe, where I have had representations that have been most fairly made. On that basis, we should now move on. We have important speeches to be made, and this House has made it clear in the past that speeches can be succinct. I can assure the House that I am looking at a way of ensuring that they can be less succinct perhaps on another occasion. It is time to move on and allow those who wish to speak in the debates to do so.
How is it that one hour does not accommodate one extra minute for 40 people?
My Lords, there are two debates today, half an hour each. Two into one hour goes 30 minutes each, not one hour each.
EU: Prime Minister’s Speech
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe on 23 January.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to invite your Lordships’ House to take note of the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe. This was a bold speech about the future of our relationship with the EU, and was well worth waiting for. It may be too much to expect, but I hope that all noble Lords will today join me in welcoming the prospect of a new settlement in Europe, and in particular, the opportunity for the people of this country to have their say on it.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister set the context for his speech by saying that he spoke as a:
“British Prime Minister with a positive vision for the future of the European Union. A future in which Britain wants, and should want, to play a committed and active part”.
It is well known that my party includes people across the whole spectrum of views on Britain in Europe. However, I believe that the Prime Minister’s plan to negotiate a sustainable basis for the UK to remain in active membership of the EU hits the sweet spot for our party and, I hope, for the whole country.
It is a fact that the financial crisis has exposed the fault lines in the euro, and there have to be changes to allow the eurozone to function. The lesson from history was that monetary union would not survive without deeper union on other fronts, and that is one of the many reasons why the UK will never want to join the euro. The first steps towards banking union have been taken with a single supervisory arrangement, which your Lordships’ House debated last week, but that is just the start of what will be needed to shore up the eurozone.
At the same time, countries outside the eurozone have to protect their own national interests against the development of a large voting bloc, particularly in relation to the single market. We have achieved protections in the context of banking union, at least for now, but the task will get tougher as the eurozone integrates further.
I am sure that those who are designing changes to the eurozone will move heaven and earth to avoid treaty changes; not because they are afraid of the UK, but because they will not want to risk testing popular opinion within the eurozone countries. Therefore, we may not have the opportunity of a treaty through which to negotiate a new way forward. Even if that opportunity does not exist, I believe the Prime Minister is right to pursue the reshaping of how the EU works, not just for us, but for all members.
The Prime Minister put forward five principles as the basis for a new start: the EU should be more competitive; there should be a flexible structure of membership, particularly for those who do not sign up to ever closer union; powers must start to flow back to member states; we need a bigger role for national parliaments; and any new arrangements must be fair for all members, particularly those outside the eurozone. I believe that all but the most ardent of federalists should support these principles. Yesterday, in the other place, the Labour Front Bench supported them and I hope that it will do so again today.
I am sure that some noble Lords today will try to dismiss the Prime Minister's determination to reach a new settlement in Europe as naive or foolish or both. I am sure that some whose careers and livelihoods depend on the EU’s institutions and powers hope that they can swat the UK away like an irritating fly, and carry on as before.
The UK’s concerns are not necessarily those of the majority but they are not held in isolation. Other countries will remain outside the eurozone and will need protection against eurozone bloc voting. Some countries within the eurozone, such as the Netherlands, also question the balance of powers between Brussels and their own democratic institutions. I am sure that many more have concerns about the decline in competitiveness in the EU, even if they do not yet share our view that the answer is less—not more—Europe. Importantly, there are countries, particularly those in the north, that positively want the UK to remain at the table as much as we want to remain there.
Of course, renegotiation will be tough. We cannot take it for granted that we can negotiate our way to a satisfactory relationship with Europe. I am absolutely convinced, however, that the British people must have the final word on whether or not we can remain in the EU, on whatever terms can be achieved. I know that some of your Lordships do not like referenda and believe that it is the role of politicians to make all decisions, but I do not share that view. I believe that the British people have to be consulted on major issues, and the EU and our relationship with it certainly is one of the major issues of our time. I believe that we can trust the British public to reach the correct answer. In recent history the British public have shown their innate common sense when given a referendum.
I hope that those on the Liberal Democrat Benches will not declare against a referendum simply because they might not like the answer. I gently remind them that before the previous election their leader fronted a campaign for what he called a “real referendum on Europe”; namely, an in-out vote.
I am listening very carefully to my noble friend’s impressive speech but, on a point of information, we should be clear that in 2008 at the time of Lisbon, the Liberal Democrats said, and repeated at the general election, that if there was a substantial shift of powers to Europe there should be a referendum. That was the position we took at the election. That is the position that has now been legislated for—just as a point of accuracy.
That is very interesting and we look forward to hearing further from the noble Lord later, but I have seen the videos of Mr Clegg on this subject.
Last week Mr Miliband was quick to say that he was against a referendum but almost immediately his colleagues briefed that he did not want a referendum now—or yet. We can agree on that. The Prime Minister is not promising one now, but in 2017. I will be listening intently to the Benches opposite today in the hope that we will get some clarity on their position. This is not just a debating point. I am not foolish enough to think that a Conservative victory in the next general election is a done deal and hence that my party’s policy will definitely be implemented. The electorate must be left in no doubt about whether and when any Labour Government would give them a say as well.
The scaremongers have been saying that the Prime Minister’s speech has cast a damaging shadow of uncertainty over the UK economy for the next five years. These prophets of doom also predicted, with spectacular inaccuracy, that Britain’s failure to join the euro would be our undoing. In any event, uncertainty was created as soon as the eurozone states faced up to having to work together in a deeper way. We have to protect our national interests so our relationship with the EU inevitably has to change. The Prime Minister is right to be on the front foot on this and to seek a comprehensive way forward.
If the Prime Minister can negotiate a good outcome for the UK, which meets the five principles that he set out, I am sure that the British people will vote to remain in but it is a big “if”. Some of my honourable friends in the other place are engaged in the Fresh Start project and have recently produced the excellent Manifesto for Change. This includes major changes to social and employment rules, in particular being free from the costly working time directive and agency staff rules. It also targets policing and criminal justice laws, agricultural and fisheries policies, the bloated EU budget and further financial services legislation. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will outline what the Government will target. I know that revealing one’s hand is not good strategy in poker but for the sake of the public debate the Government need to be open about what they want to achieve in the national interest.
If the Government achieved most of the Fresh Start agenda, that could create an EU worth staying in but if they achieve significantly less than that, an out vote will seem to many of us like a better choice. Leaving the EU is not my preferred outcome but I am not afraid of the prospect if the deal on offer is substandard. An exit from the EU would not be the end of the world. Three million jobs might well be connected with the 40% or so of the UK’s exports that go to Europe but they are at risk only if, as pointed out by the man who calculated that figure, Professor Iain Begg, we stop trading with the EU. There is no sign that we will, not least because we have a persistent trade deficit with the EU. It is therefore rational for the EU to want to carry on trading with us. It is also not clear that we have to accept the kind of solutions to which Norway and Switzerland have signed up. There are many other countries in the world that trade with the EU without conditions attached.
Some assert that we would lose out on foreign direct investment but there is no evidence for this. International studies show that there is a host of unquantifiable social, political and institutional factors at play when decisions on investment are made. There is a lot more going for the UK than its EU membership and I remind noble Lords that we did not suffer, as was predicted, when we chose to stay out of the euro.
As we have debated several times over the years in your Lordships’ House, there is no definitive study of the economic impact of leaving the EU and successive Governments have refused to commission such a study. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who is in his place, has often sought to press Governments to do just that. Professor Begg’s verdict on the impact of exit is that we,
“would probably find that the economic plus or minus is very small”.
That is good enough for me. Exit would not be easy but the consequences need not terrify us into staying locked in a loveless marriage in the EU.
Let me conclude by wishing the Prime Minister the very best of luck in negotiating a new settlement in Europe but at the end of that road the Government must be honest about the quality of the deal available and the extent to which it meets our national interests. There must be no attempt to portray a sow’s ear as a silk purse. A referendum in 2017 is an exciting prospect, but its result will need to stand the test of time and we must be absolutely clear, which we were not in 1975, about exactly what we will get for our vote.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing the debate. Prime Ministers’ jobs are complex: they must lead; they must set the strategic policy direction for the country and the Government; they must optimise support both domestically and with allies abroad; and they are, of course, also party managers. Paramount among these things, however, are the interests of the nation and the reliable and honourable adherence to alliances. For Labour, the only question is the United Kingdom’s interest. We are facing today’s priorities and relying for the setting of those priorities on the good sense of the British public.
The European referendum statement shows that Mr Cameron has failed this key test of leadership—it is party first, and only party. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made the point that the statement struck a sweet spot for the Conservatives. It is populist, certainly. It has been popular with his party and popular with much of the media, and it addresses, I suppose, Mr Cameron’s UKIP Achilles heel. But it is tactically bizarre, even in the unlikely event of the Conservatives being re-elected at the next general election. Detailed questions about what he would seek and what would be enough for him to agree to stay in have not been answered. None of those issues has been either set out or explored.
What we have instead is five years of what I believe will be crippling uncertainty. I declare an interest because I lead a finance business. Investors, I know, avoid uncertainty like the plague and look to de-risk. The longer the period of uncertainty and the greater the uncertainty about de-risking the less likely it is that they will do anything other than withhold their investment.
Mr Cameron’s priority is not, apparently, the triple-dip recession. It is not the lack of growth. It is not the 1 million unemployed young people. It is not the declining purchasing power of lower and middle-income families. It is simply this issue.
The move has been generously described, and I understand why, as sleepwalking out of the EU. However, a sleepwalker is not engaged in a voluntary activity: he does not make a calculation about setting off on his sleepwalk. Mr Cameron is a very sophisticated politician and he knows the nature of his gamble. The only logical explanation for this gamble is either that he has decided that, in all probability, we should leave the EU, or that he is reckless with regard to it happening. However, it is ruinous to British business and will be fatal for the interests of our country.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for this opportunity to reflect on Mr Cameron’s speech last week. The Prime Minister was on that occasion speaking as leader of the Conservative Party, and, on that basis, it was indeed one of the best speeches on the EU delivered by a Conservative leader. It enabled the country to hear from him where he stood on the EU, where he expects to lead his party, and, if the voters give him the opportunity, where he expects to take this country should he get a mandate in 2015.
That is all well and good, one might say, except for the consequences. Broadly, there are three. The first is that by “coming out” so clearly, he has created considerable uncertainty for business, investment and jobs in terms of investment decisions and planning. Only today the London School of Economics has published a report on UK economic growth which points to the UK political process as being the greatest barrier to a virtuous circle of investment. It describes the PM’s decision to seek an in-out referendum as “misguided” because it creates the,
“very uncertainty that will damage investment and productivity right now”.
It points out that we need a more stable environment for investment. This is not improved by adding to policy risk which deters investors worried that the rules might change before their payback begins. This will not only affect the services and manufacturing sectors but adversely impact on financial services too, particularly at a time when the uncertainty of regulation around banking union is still so unclear.
The second consequence is that we have a firm commitment accompanied by a date. The Prime Minister might have done better both by his party and the country to have left things more open. Nailing the date of 2017 to a mast is perhaps unwise when he is not clear as to what exactly is to be renegotiated, with whom and in what manner. We are delighted that he has prioritised multilateral negotiations, working with other, like-minded countries to bring about the kind of changes that we all want in order to make the EU more competitive and fleeter of foot in meeting global challenges. Reform of the EU is not simply a UK priority but is shared across most of the Union. It may have been wiser to accept that the process needed time—conceivably more time than he has allowed himself.
Finally, while we greatly welcome the Prime Minister’s robust rejection of the Norway and Switzerland model, he risks creating greater confusion by not spelling out exactly what we would negotiate for. This Government have gone further than any other in ensuring that significant powers cannot be transferred to the EU by putting in place the European Union Act 2011. This is surely the right way forward, both for the UK and the European Union.
In concluding, I want to answer clearly the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on the Liberal Democrat position. We proposed an “in or out” referendum in the previous Parliament against a backdrop of relative stability in both the eurozone and the European Union. It was right for the time. The situation has changed dramatically since then. A new architecture for the eurozone, and consequently for the European Union, is unknown, hence our view that this is not the right time to be putting up these lines.
My Lords, I declare an interest, which is in the register. I want to say one word first about the exercise on the balance of competencies currently being worked on by practically all government departments. Evidence and opinions have been called for in a wide consultation, with a deadline of 28 February for sectors including foreign policy, the internal market and animal health and welfare. This seems to me to be a valuable initiative and highly relevant to the negotiations foreseen in the Prime Minister’s speech, for which it will provide raw material. It is also highly relevant to the question of whether the principle of subsidiarity is being respected, which will no doubt feature in any future settlement or negotiation. Is subsidiarity being respected? We may doubt it.
In his speech the Prime Minister called for “fundamental, far-reaching change”, and the next Conservative manifesto will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative Government, if elected, to negotiate a new settlement with a view to an “in or out” referendum. The Prime Minister states that power must be able to flow back to member states. He wants an EU that is competitive, flexible and fair—don’t we all? Of course, we cannot set out our priorities in detail now because we have to probe the opinions of other member states. In particular, we need to assess whether our priorities are more likely to be achieved by opt-outs or by decisions of the member states as a whole—that some issues could now be left to them. I think that there may some possibilities by the second route. Although a referendum of the British people provides the essential reassurance it is also legitimate to question how the end game will turn out. There could be much dispute on whether the result was good enough, which will make it difficult for the British people to take a clear-cut position on the referendum.
Finally, it is extremely important that we have a better and fairer presentation of European issues to the public, which is not always the case now. I can think of many cases in the media almost every day. Where do we go from here? Forwards, I hope, but I commend an opinion poll in last week’s Sunday Express which showed that 63% of the public considered that the EU issue was a distraction from the real concerns about the economy as a whole and a great majority thought that the United Kingdom would be in the European Union in 10 years’ time. That sounds like the voice of the British people.
My Lords, in March 1990 the European churches gathered in Geneva to celebrate the tearing down of the iron curtain. More than that, however, it celebrated the solidarity of the Christian churches never recognising the fracturing of Europe into two post 1945. That stance was vindicated. Later that year, I walked through the Brandenburg Gate with my German friend, Klaus Kremkau. It was the first time that he had walked through it since he was a young soldier cadet in 1945. Now he was crossing the threshold with an Englishman.
Early in his speech, the Prime Minister notes:
“today the main … purpose … is … not to win peace, but to secure prosperity”.
No one can doubt that, but peace, as we have seen to our horror in the past few years, can never be taken for granted, even in apparently stable states, so the European Union still exists to secure and sustain a lasting peace, without which there can be no prosperity.
The Prime Minister also notes that the British are not somehow un-European. Even in the seventh century, Saint Wilfrid, Saint Benedict Biscop and others proved that as itinerant travellers and missionaries across Europe. Perhaps that is part of what we are called to be now in a more political sense. In other words, Europe needs change. Its institutions are beyond middle age—almost elderly—but good missionary work always starts from within.
The Prime Minister spoke of three challenges and, as we have heard, five principles. I wonder what might be called the foundation of those principles. Here is a starter for two. Catholic social teaching developed the concept of subsidiarity, which became something of a motto of the European movement. Decisions should be made at the most local level possible. Somehow, the spirit behind that has been lost. Subsidiarity can underpin fairness locally, flexibility and even an appropriate passing of power back to member states—three of the Prime Minister’s principles.
Secondly, there is the democratic deficit. There is a feeling that Europe is ruled by the unelected, by bureaucrats. Such a characterisation has been fuelled by Eurosceptics and ruthlessly pursued by the less responsible media. Again, Christian culture has encouraged proper sharing in decision-making. Benedict’s rule argues for consensus, even at the most local level.
What should be our hope for Europe? Economic prosperity, yes, but not at the expense of the rest of the world. Social development, yes, and the Prime Minister hints at that throughout his speech. In the Christian tradition, human flourishing and fulfilment are the ultimate vision. We need economic and social progress, but there is one step more.
Let me return to the less responsible press. Twenty years ago, the Sun printed one of its celebrated headlines—please forgive my language in this Chamber, but I repeat it verbatim—“Up Yours Delors”. It was Jacques Delors who called for a vision founded on a soul for Europe. That remains essential. The greatest risk is colluding with a referendum process that puts us outside the tent. Reform is essential, but we shall achieve it only if we remain inside, working for Europe’s soul.
My Lords, those, both here and overseas, who think that the Prime Minister’s speech was all about getting some exclusive deal for the United Kingdom from the rest of the European Union are starting from entirely the wrong point. The first line of the Prime Minister’s speech was that this speech was,
“about the future of Europe”.
What he is concerned about, and what we should in all parties and sections be concerned about, is giving new direction to a European Union which is today lost in the thickets of the debate about the eurozone—which will continue for a long time, it has not been cured—overcentralisation and general unpopularity. That creates uncertainty which will continue and must be addressed.
To give new direction to that unsatisfactory situation throughout Europe, we need two things. We need colossal intellectual effort, similar to, or perhaps even greater than, that which went into the original Monnetiste ideas in the post-war situation; and we need new friends and allies all around Europe to mobilise the new thinking.
I believe that the friends are there. I think that the European budget experience last autumn showed that many people are determined to have a new approach in Europe. They are to be found in almost every quarter, not just in the smaller ex-satellite countries of eastern and central Europe but in France, Germany, Italy and other great countries.
On the intellectual side, huge new effort will be required. If I may say so, it must be more than diplomatic effort. I very much admire the team inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—indeed, some of them are my good friends—but the task now is one for which we will have to draw on the best brains in business, engineering, science, management and, I would hope, all the political parties to bring new direction to the eurozone and new relationships of its members to the central institutions. The task is to show how a modernised European Union can work and how treaties can be amended to allow that. The challenge now is to draw up the architecture for a more flexible, dynamic, democratic European Union which connects to the people. It is a challenge to which all those who are concerned about our position in Europe and the stability of Europe should now turn their efforts.
My Lords, the Prime Minister said in his speech:
“There are always voices saying ‘don’t ask the difficult questions’”.
I do not want to be one of them, so here are my difficult questions for the Prime Minister. First, if he can get a new settlement for Britain, he will campaign for a yes vote in a referendum,
“with all my heart and soul”.
What will he do if only minor concessions, or no concessions at all, are made?
Secondly, many EU leaders recognise that a new Europe built around the eurozone as it becomes more integrated should consider returning some powers to nations and regions. They have also made it perfectly clear that any such changes must apply to all member states; there will be no cherry picking. Is not cherry picking—in other words, a special deal for the UK— exactly what the PM seeks to achieve? Thirdly, some parts of the speech seemed to suggest that the PM might seek to derail the treaty change needed to stabilise the eurozone if he does not get his way on a special deal for the UK. Can we be assured that that absolutely will not be the case?
Fourthly, does the Prime Minister not see that his vision of the EU—
“whose essential foundation is the single market”—
is not shared by any other member of the Union? I refer to what the right reverend Prelate said. Other member states see the European Union as a far more rich entity than that. Is it not obvious that the bulk of the EU is moving in an entirely different direction from that specified by the Prime Minister? Fifthly, and finally, will an in-out referendum still be held by the date specified even if the longer term prospects for the EU are still not clear—which could very well be the case? I hope that the Minister will respond to all those questions in the absence of the Prime Minister.
My Lords, at the end of my noble friend’s speech on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I heard some laughter from our noble friends on the Conservative Benches. If I recall correctly, she said that this was not the moment, and she was right. Do not listen to her, do not listen to me, listen to the Prime Minister only months ago, when a Motion for a referendum was tabled in the House of Commons and the Conservative party, led by the Prime Minister, voted against it for the reason that it was not right at the moment, that it was a distraction, and that it would distract us from tackling the recession.
The question is not why the Liberal Democrats have changed their mind, because we have held a consistent view throughout; it is why the Prime Minister has changed his mind in a matter of months. That reveals the lie to this whole affair. When a Prime Minister makes a speech, it necessarily contains some politics, but it also has as a primary purpose to contain what is in the best interests of this country. His speech was about politics and nothing else. It was directed not to the nation but to the Conservative Party. It aimed to put a sticking plaster over the gaping and bloody wound that now runs deep into the heart of the Conservative soul between those who see this country’s future in Europe and those who do not. It was also aimed at a second political purpose, which was to cut UKIP off at the pass.
By the way, I agree with my noble friend that it was a good speech. Measured by those purposes, it was a good speech. It was effective and well put together. It had an effect in the short term, but there will be a price to pay in the long term. That is for the simple reason that even were the Prime Minister to return with his arms full of the bounty about to be dished out to him by his European colleagues—I very much doubt that that will be the case—they still would not like it. This is because there is now a virulent Little Englander movement running throughout the Conservative Party. They do not want to renegotiate Europe; they want out altogether. It does not matter what the Prime Minister brings back; they will reject it.
However, he will not bring back much because of this fact. My noble friend Lord Howell is right. The European Union is always about negotiation. There is constant negotiation. It goes on all the time and we should be involved in that. But the difference between Britain and the rest is that we are negotiating wanting to get out while the rest of them are negotiating wanting to get further in. That is the fundamental difference. So the Prime Minister will return with too little to satisfy the Conservative Party. He will have held up our attachment to and concentration on the issue of jobs and getting ourselves out of this recession. He will have damaged investment into this country. He has given huge stimulus to the Scottish National Party, arguing the case for the break-up of the United Kingdom, and he will have set Britain on a path, intentionally or not, when he returns with too little and has to recommend “no” in a referendum which takes this country out of Europe. That would be devastatingly damaging.
Forgive me; in a three-minute speech I do not have time to take interventions. The fact is that the interests of this country have never lain outside Europe. Go back to Pitt, go back to Canning, go back to Churchill, go back to Macmillan—all of them have understood that our engagement in Europe was vital to the future of our country. The Conservative Party—the party of Little Englanders—is taking us away from that. This is folly.
How do I describe a speech that not only fails to solve the problems of the Conservative Party but deepens the problems of our recession, gives encouragement to those who would wish to see the break up of the United Kingdom and also removes our country from Europe? This is the House of Lords so I will say simply that it was deeply inadvisable.
My Lords, the Prime Minister was spot on when he summarised in his excellent speech that the key priorities of the European Union are peace and prosperity. We have had nearly 70 years of peace and we have had free movement of people and Europe is our biggest trading partner. So we should never take any of this for granted and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for initiating this debate.
However, the European project has had, right from the beginning, this utopian idea of a fully integrated United States of Europe. The euro, which we thankfully did not join, was a step too far that has demonstrated that the dream of a federal Europe cannot be realised. One size cannot fit all, and the only way that Europe can function in the future on a long-term basis is if there is full fiscal union and full monetary integration. These things can only happen if there is a surrender of sovereignty by eurozone members, so it can then be a true federal state like the United States of America or India. Although there may be a lull at the moment, the eurozone crisis has not gone away. This could be the lull before the storm. If the euro disintegrates, let us talk about referendums then.
We have lost a sense of balance and perspective in Europe. The European political system is frankly useless. We have MEPs who are completely disconnected. Most people in this country—and, I suspect, many noble Lords in this House—cannot name their MEPs. Many would not even be able to name one. The MEPs themselves have no connection with the so-called regions that they represent. It is nothing like the connection that MPs have with their constituencies. There is a disconnect. The Prime Minister’s speech did not touch on this.
There is also this ludicrous wholesale movement of the European Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg. This sort of inefficiency irks us in this country, let alone things like the ridiculous working time directive. We are an open country and anything that curbs our sense of independence and openness makes our citizens want to run a mile.
There are restrictions in being part of Europe—not just financial ones. Look at the red tape, the regulations and the delays. The EU-India free trade agreement still has not happened after five years. If we had been able to negotiate a free trade agreement directly with India, it would have happened a long time ago.
We have already opted out of lots in Europe. We are not part of Schengen or the euro. But do we want to be a Norway or a Switzerland? We want to be at the top table and still remain a gateway to Europe and an integral part of the European Union. We need to renegotiate, as the Prime Minister has said, and then, if we do it on sensible terms, as the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, said, people will want to stay in Europe. We do not have to have the binary way of thinking: in or out.
To conclude, the European Union is fundamentally about peace and prosperity. Let us not lose sight of that and let us never take it for granted.
My Lords, there seems to be an irony at the heart of the Prime Minister’s speech on the issue of sovereignty. He asserts that it is,
“national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”.
At the same time, he does not appear to trust our own national Parliament at Westminster to judge what kind of relationship we should have with the Union. The decisions of this Parliament to approve each of the treaties that govern our membership, from the European Communities Act of 1972, which I helped steer through the House of Commons, to the Lisbon treaty in 2009, are perceived as illegitimate.
The Prime Minister says that,
“democratic consent for the EU is now wafer-thin”,
in Britain, and that the people have had “little choice” over the endorsement of successive treaties. Is it really of no consequence that, at each stage, a majority of parliamentarians supported our membership on the basis of treaties negotiated by democratically elected Governments? Is it irrelevant today that a clear majority of MPs elected to the House of Commons wish Britain to stay in the Union and do not support his proposed renegotiation of our membership?
I would like to think that I am wrong in suspecting that the Prime Minister’s sudden conversion to the merits of a referendum is less about occupying the moral high ground of democratic consent than a search for a means to overcome the problems of internal party management. At the risk of appearing discourteous, I and some of my colleagues who are old enough to remember the complicated Wilson European era between 1967 and 1975, will recognise a distinct pattern of Wilsonian behaviour which I fear may be beginning to infect our Prime Minister in this context.
There is another irony on this particular subject. If it is,
“national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”,
one wonders why the Prime Minister did not give his Bloomberg speech in the House of Commons rather than in a high-tech conference room in the City. One wonders whether it is because, as he said in his speech, it is national parliaments,
“which instil proper respect—even fear—into national leaders”.
In justifying his promise of a referendum in the next Parliament if the Conservative Party gains an absolute majority at the next general election, the Prime Minister said:
“A vote today between the status quo and leaving would be an entirely false choice”.
I disagree. Although I am no enthusiast for referenda and do not advocate one, it seems to me that at any time the choice between the status quo and a clearly defined alternative in the here and now—in this case whether to stay in or to leave the European Union as it actually exists and operates—is a straightforward proposition. I do not, however, believe that a referendum is the best way to address that question. As the Prime Minister said in his speech, our own national Parliament, not a widely consulted referendum, is the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the European Union. It was so in 1972 and is so today, and to introduce, in this particular context, the concept of a referendum does not serve the purpose of the Prime Minister, the Government or anybody else.
My Lords, the Prime Minister’s speech went down well with my very conservative mother, who celebrated her 100th birthday on the morning that he delivered it. I myself found quite a lot to commend in the analysis of what is wrong with the functioning of the European Union, but I wish that he had heeded Rab Butler’s dictum that politics is the art of the possible. The road he has taken for achieving the improvements he seeks is a road that leads to where he says he does not want to go—to Britain’s exit from the European Union.
When President Hollande told his cabinet that he wished Britain to stay at the heart of Europe, his Ministers hardly needed reminding that that could not be at any price. France is not alone in taking that view. David Cameron should take seriously what Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, spelled out in bold language in his Blenheim speech last September.
The Prime Minister reminds us in his speech that history has often proved heretics right. But one proposition, which he admits is heretical, is a heresy too far for most if not all of his European partners. He attacks the commitment of member states enshrined in the European treaty to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. He respects the right of others to hold to that commitment but he says that that is not the objective for Britain, and that it may not be the objective of others, either.
However, attacking the founding principle of the Union is not the recommended way of seeking the indulgence of fellow member states, which is what he now needs. Why should they feel bound to meet the demands of a fellow member who rejects the club’s primary objective? Therein lays the dilemma he has created for himself. The price he must demand from his European partners in order to satisfy his Eurosceptic Back-Benchers and constituents is a price that the European partners will almost certainly not be prepared to pay.
However, he now has the bit between his teeth. He gallops around the Union with all the zeal—though happily not the belligerence—of Charlemagne seeking to bring a Carolingian renaissance to Europe. But David Cameron is no Charlemagne. Rather, he is the man of La Mancha, dreaming his impossible dreams and fighting his invincible foes; dreaming of treaties popping open at his command like champagne corks at a wedding reception; ready to fight the invincible foes drawn up on his Back Benches, waiting to fall on him when he fails to deliver what they believe he promised when they cheered him to the rafters last week. And then will he hear the ghostly voice of Andrew Bonar Law proclaiming: “I must follow them. I am their leader”?
As to the referendum, I happen to believe that the people will vote to stay in the European Union. We are a people, for better or for worse, much wedded to the status quo, as previous referendums demonstrated. If the case is well made that the advantages of staying far outweigh any perceived advantages of leaving, that, I believe, can and probably will be the result. But, in the mean time, the damage done to our relationships with our European partners will take long to repair, and confidence in us as members of the Union will not quickly be regained. That will be a task, I hope, that a future Labour Government will take up with enthusiasm and determination.
I wish the Prime Minister would not now be leading us down this long, dark, uncertain alley. Lord Birkenhead once said of Stanley Baldwin, “I think he’s mad”. He added:
“He simply takes one jump in the dark, looks around, and then takes another”.
If the Prime Minister has forgotten Rab Butler, he should at least seek to avoid being branded another Baldwin.
My Lords, it is an honour and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, in his witty and perceptive remarks. He and others have been right to suggest that the British people, in their hearts, know what the European Union has contributed to the continent of Europe: the end of the civil wars that have lasted for centuries. There is no need to win peace, but there is every need to sustain and support it, and to enable Europe not only to maintain internal peace but to adopt a peace-making role in the wider global community to which we belong.
The Prime Minister’s speech seemed to me to be clear in neither its goals nor its recommended process for changing the Union. The tone suggested that he was not looking for reform but for revolution. That is not the way in which democratic countries operate. We have seen considerable changes in the way in which Europe governs itself since it was formed. We have seen enlargement. We have seen the enthusiasm of other countries to become part of it. We in Britain have fostered that enthusiasm. As to the objectives and process, however, the Prime Minister had very little clue. He talked in general, unimpeachable terms about greater democracy, suggesting perhaps that national Parliaments should have a greater role. I question how 28 national Parliaments could decide for themselves, without some more representative body, how to deal with the working time directive, for example. Many of these national Parliaments believe that the working time directive is an extremely important part of the advance of social development in the Union. It is not all about achieving prosperity at the cost of the life standards of those who work. That seems to be the clear implication of those who are trying to suggest that the working time directive is nonsense.
As to process, the gradualism which we have seen has delivered substantial changes for the better. We now have qualified majority voting in the Council. We now have co-decision-making with the European Parliament. It makes no sense to ridicule that shaping of the expressions of interest of the British people and all the other peoples of the European Union. The European Parliament is the democratic foundation. We need to go further and make sure that other institutions are elected in a not dissimilar way.
My Lords, the Prime Minister has given notice that we want to invoke Article 48 of the treaty, and change the treaty which everybody sees as their treaty. Therefore, other Governments will now be trying to work out precisely what we might want.
On the five principles set out in the speech and listed by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, nothing that the Prime Minister said on competitiveness cannot be done inside the Council and inside the present treaty. The Monti report sets out what should be done and we do not need to change the treaty to do it.
On democratic accountability, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, gets it right. I would add that I personally would find it offensive if any EU treaty should purport to lay down how a Government should be held accountable by their national Parliament.
On the fairness agenda, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, got it right. The aim is to try to ensure that, when the dwindling band of euro-outs do not constitute a blocking minority, they can still block in Council. I would have thought that the Prime Minister would have learned in the middle of the night in the European Council in December 2011 that it is not possible to do that. To get all member states to agree, and to entrench in the treaty, that the UK should have a blocking veto seems completely impossible.
On the fourth principle, that we should abandon the one-size-fits-all approach, the fact is that it was abandoned 21 years ago at Maastricht. EMU, Schengen, fiscal union, banking union—flexibility exists, and there is no attempt to force everybody into the same, rigid pattern.
The last of the Prime Minister’s principles was flow-back—the return of powers. That is in the treaty already, in Article 48. But what exactly do we want to flow back? The only example given was the working time directive, which is nothing to do with the treaty. That is Council business. If we want to change it, we must raise it in the Council.
So how are Governments in other capitals interpreting all this? I guess that they think that it is more to do with party management, and they understand that. But we are asking them to change their treaty, and I very much fear that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, will be proved wrong; I wish that he was going to be proved right, but I think that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is correct that the audit exercise here in Whitehall is crucially important. That is going to be the foundation of the Government’s negotiating position, and I very much fear that it will be a demand for a series of opt-outs: a bout of cherry-picking from the treaty.
That would be unprecedented. There has never been a retrospective opt-out. Opt-outs are invoked when most want to go forward and somebody does not want to go forward. An opt-out has never been invoked because somebody wants to go backward. If that is the position in which we find ourselves after 2015—arguing that we want everybody else to carry on if they want to, but we want to take bits back—then we may be in the awkward “blackmailing” scenario to which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred.
I am afraid that other Governments will not agree, that it will not work, and that they will tend to say, “Make your minds up: in or out. No unravelling. Stop wasting our time. We have got work to do. Solve your domestic problem or invoke Article 50 and get out”.
My Lords, I believe that the Prime Minister’s speech was brave and far reaching. He made it clear that his view and his preference was that Britain should remain a full, active member of the EU. I agree, but I emphasise the term “preference” rather than the words “predetermined” or “inevitable”. As the Financial Times said, a whole confluence of trends has made a referendum inevitable: the increasing scepticism of the British people, the changing nature of the EU and the fact that we have not had a referendum since 1975. Some people call this a gamble. But democracy is sometimes a gamble: you do not know the outcome when you call an election. One of the worst features of the EU has been that it only welcomes referendums that produce the right result. My noble friend Lord Ashdown asked why, if the Prime Minister rejects a referendum in this Parliament, we should have one in the next? There is a slight problem, however. We are in a coalition with him and they are not likely to allow a referendum in this Parliament.
The Prime Minister’s proposals are designed to improve and strengthen Europe’s competitiveness, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe said. There is a challenge; it requires improvement. That is why what he said is right. It is in Europe’s interest as well as ours that these changes should be made. The single market is valuable, but it should not require everything to be harmonised in the search for, as the Prime Minister put it,
“some unattainable and infinitely level playing field”.
The Prime Minister rightly wants to prevent the integration of the eurozone fragmenting the single market and discriminating against non-eurozone countries. That is an entirely reasonable and right affirmation of our natural interest.
The Prime Minister said in his speech that the single market,
“is the principal reason for our membership of the EU.”
That is one of the problems; that is what Europeans dislike. As Jacques Delors said the other day,
“The British are solely concerned about their economic interests … If the British cannot accept the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis”.
He went on to suggest a free trade area.
We do want the single market, but not at any price. We could have access to it with the free trade areas suggested by Delors. Of course, we would not be setting the rules, any more than Germany would be setting the rules of the single market in Britain—and Britain is now Germany’s most important trading partner. Outside the EU, Britain is not going to become an insignificant nobody. The US and the EU will still want us as an ally.
Forty-one years ago I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons, supporting our membership of the European Economic Community. I quoted Lord Rosebery about the 1707 Act of Union, when he said he wondered what affection might grow out of that union. I wondered what affection might grow out of our entry into the EEC. But I was completely wrong. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, this is not just a loveless marriage but, one might add, a quarrelsome one. If there is no agreement on what the future of the marriage means, then it would be better eventually to separate and, as Delors said, remain friends and move on.
My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. For much of the first 10 pages of his 13-page, portentous speech, I would agree with the Prime Minister. It should follow from his early arguments in favour of our interests in Europe that the prize of future economic prosperity for Britain is bigger than any one Government’s transient polling problems with a rival minority party, or the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to face down the militant Europhobes in his own party, as my noble friend Lord Kinnock put it this week.
It should follow, but it does not. On page 11 of the speech the die is cast and the Rubicon is crossed. If the Conservatives win the next election—and we on this side will do all in our power to make that an impossible “if”—then there will be an in-out referendum that will put, I believe, our whole economic future at grievous risk. Why? Why would the Government want to have a lengthy period of uncertainty hanging over the thousands of British businesses and their workforces whose job it is to sell into the European Union? Why would they ratchet up that uncertainty, at a time of double-dip, nudging triple-dip, recession?
Those businesses depend on Britain being a leading, influential member of the EU, pushing for day-to-day reform and growth, not a semi-detached, bags packed, ready to go, peripheral member. Why would the Prime Minister pay so much attention to those Eurosceptic friends who tell him that Britain would do just as well outside the EU, especially if we concentrate on trade with the emerging BRIC countries instead? Yes, the BRIC countries are strengthening, but the World Bank’s latest figures on GDP per capita must give us some much-needed perspective. GDP per capita for the UK is $39,000. For China, it is $5,000; for India, it is below $2,000. In order to grow out of this recession the UK needs to find the scale of export market that the BRIC countries at present cannot provide and which the European Union can. The BRIC countries together do not have the buying power of France and Germany alone.
Why would the Prime Minister risk the special relationship with the United States, as he second-guesses the proposed scale of treaty change that may never come about? I know that diplomatic language was used last week when the White House pleaded with the Government not to come out of Europe, but translated, President Obama is saying, “Are you all nuts? Has drink been taken?”. Why would the Prime Minister take such a gamble with our national interest? His speech should have stopped at page 10.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Noakes for having obtained this extraordinarily topical debate. There are three things in the speech on which I agree with the Prime Minister. First, Britain should continue to be a member of the European Union. Secondly, there are a number of areas in which the European Union’s institutions and policies are in need of reform. Thirdly, the relationship between this country and the eurozone will have to be watched with great care as the eurozone develops. A good deal to protect this country and therefore the City of London from the impact of the banking union was achieved at last December’s European Council, but there will be a need for continued vigilance.
Where I am confused by the speech is that the Prime Minister combines two different approaches to achieving his objectives. At one level he is suggesting that there should be a multilateral approach whereby, as he says, the changes would be,
“for the entire EU, not just for Britain”.
At others he is saying that there would be a unilateral negotiation to establish a new relationship for Britain. This approach has to be seen in the light of the Prime Minister’s discussion of his principle of flexibility. At first sight the concept of flexibility seems desirable, as suggesting that the European Union should not be set in concrete but should be allowed to develop as conditions develop. However, if we examine the speech more closely, it suggests that greater flexibility means greater freedom for member states to,
“pick and choose on the basis of what your nation needs”.
I believe that there is an opportunity to make progress in reform if we follow the multilateral route. My own experience meeting chairmen of European Union committees of other national parliaments suggests that there is interest in a collective approach. There are obvious targets, but other targets for reform may well result from the progress in the next two years of the “balance of competences” exercise which, as we know, is being paralleled in the Netherlands. That may reveal areas where there is no clear European value added—the converse of subsidiarity—and areas in which policies should be modified or responsibility returned to member states. The article by Guido Westerwelle in yesterday's Times seems to suggest that this approach would be welcomed in Germany, while the alternative of unilateral “cherry-picking” would be rejected.
There is not time to discuss the case for a referendum, which does not seem to be made unless there were to be a treaty change which transferred significant powers to Brussels. I was opposed at the time to the 1975 referendum but I have to say that, when it came, I much enjoyed it and I made a number of friends during the campaign. Perhaps the remarkable movement in voting opinion suggested that the process of education which a referendum provides is of great importance.
The speech was that of a party leader, not a Prime Minister. What interests me, and, I suspect, interests the country, is what the Prime Minister is going to say when the European Council meets in the summer and, we are told, President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel will be proposing changes in the eurozone. Those changes are essential due to the economic situation—you have only to see the results in America. This economic global situation is still very serious and we need to encourage that process of reform in order to keep the eurozone viable. That is essential in the British interest.
I hope that the coalition will be able to put forward a sensible negotiating position. I suggest that it should be the following. There is no need for an intergovernmental conference but there will be a need for treaty change to reform the eurozone. We in Britain will be helpful in that process. Within the European Council we will contribute to unanimity where there is to be an increase in integration for the eurozone countries. Such treaty amendment would come under the significant clause in the very sensible legislation passed in this Parliament in 2011 allowing for a referendum where there is a transfer of sovereignty which affects this country. However, these transfers of sovereignty will not affect this country and therefore there does not have to be a referendum. That is a practical new idea and a negotiating stance which should be put forward this summer.
At the same time, we must argue—and it is perfectly rational to do so—that you cannot have much greater integration of the eurozone countries without there being a profound impact on the single market and indeed on other aspects of the European Union. That is not a selfish or a foolish view; it is a serious view, and it ought to be represented by some of the diplomats in this House a little more frequently. The fact is that in that debate we will put forward issues. It has been rightly said that it has already been addressed in part, but not sufficiently, in the banking union. If the eurozone countries were to vote en bloc in the single market, as they wanted to do in the banking union, that would have a profound effect. It would mean that all the voting—all the weighting—would be unanimous, even if there were disagreement within the eurozone. That is a profound change.
I believe that the way to deal with this is not with British exceptionalism; it is to accept that the single market needs to be restructured at the same time as there is reform of the eurozone. The best and simplest way of doing that would be to take one single initial step—to ensure that Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are part of the EEA treaty, which has already separated out the single market from all the other aspects of the treaties, are invited in as full members. That would be a logical development. It would be a recognition of the fact that there are other European countries with interests and involvements in the single market, and it would ensure that Britain was not necessarily always alone because it was outside the eurozone. That is not an exceptionalist position. I believe that it could be argued for and it would be a sensible renegotiation—one which should not wait until after a general election which the Conservative Party may or may not win, but one which should happen now, in the present. That position should be put forward. There are other aspects of the single market that similarly should be addressed.
I remind noble Lords that the time limit for each speaker in this debate is three minutes.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Noakes rightly emphasised the central importance of the Prime Minister’s five principles, but I hope that they are more than just words and aspirations. I believe that they should form the bottom line of our negotiations in the months ahead. We must start and finish with them, not drawing down or clawing back towards them but building up within them.
However, we should be under no illusion from past experience that when the referendum eventually arrives there may still be no progress in negotiation, and that without a positive alternative the choice might still, in the Prime Minister’s words, be false. We must therefore, at the same time, urgently explore alternatives.
We live today in a network world. Tomorrow’s relationships will not be between blocs but between peoples and interests and common values offering new trading opportunities and new markets. In this regard, a refreshed, refunded and re-empowered Commonwealth, bound together not by wealth or military might but by shared values in democracy, the rule of law and human rights, embracing significant economic players such as India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Singapore, could have enormous potential. We would be going with the flow of our island history and the choice at a referendum would at least then be a real one.
I wish the renegotiations well but, if the principles are not achieved, I will have no qualms in campaigning and voting no. Of course we could survive and prosper outside the EU; to argue otherwise is to stray into the wilder realms of EU propaganda. But that is not the real question. Whether it is in our national interest is what matters—and that is not just about wealth.
Europe is changing and so are we. The flood of the tide is with us. We must take it.
My Lords, it is pretty clear that European Union social and employment laws are being lined up in the Prime Minister’s gun sight. He has made no secret of his wish to push the single market much more into a free trade zone, probably on NAFTA lines. If that line is pursued, trade unions in Europe and many Governments, of whatever political persuasion, will take the contrary view and will be determined to preserve a single market that has some employment and social standards within it.
Mrs Thatcher recognised the need for some social standards when she agreed that health and safety would be included in the Single Market Act—from which, by the way, comes the much derided working time directive. I wish that people would look at this in a bit more detail. Britain has an opt-out from the 48-hour rule. Fourteen other countries have opt-outs from specific parts of that directive. The one bit that really matters is the entitlement to four weeks’ paid holiday, from which 6 million British workers benefit. Is the Prime Minister perhaps proposing to take that back? I do not think that he will. You could go on into Social Chapter territory on equality and equal pay. Should the single market not have equal pay provisions for the new countries, and so on? Should it not have a voice in European works councils and through the information and consultation arrangements? Are we saying that, if we can do what we want, others can too, so undercutting our interests?
The Government can take away the rights of British workers that come from British law. They have done so recently. Three million British workers have been removed from the scope of unfair dismissal legislation. However, these European-based rights are a bulwark for workers in this single market. I warn noble Lords: if the Government are successful in an adventure of this kind, the response will be protectionism, just as it is in NAFTA, with American unions influencing the Democratic Party—the major obstacle to an EU/US free trade agreement. So be careful what you wish for. In the mean time, Europe’s unions are already on notice that they will have to fight with their Governments against any renationalisation of employment and social policy.
My Lords, I want to address a question to my noble friends in the Conservative Party, and it goes to the root of the whole approach to Europe.
The Conservative Party has traditionally been the party of law and order. It always seemed to me that the Conservative Party was at its best when its approach was pragmatic and not ideological. However, I find it very hard to reconcile that view with the attitude of the Prime Minister and the party to the block opt-out from the justice and home affairs jurisdiction of the European Union.
I hope that my Conservative friends will look at the evidence, because a lot of the evidence given to the Hannay committee has already been published. What emerges from it is that the evidence overwhelmingly rejects the idea of the opt-out. As far as policing is concerned, this is sheer common sense. More and more crime—ordinary crime and terrorism threats—is cross-border, and the answer to that is not national police reactions but cross-border policing. That is very much common sense. Think what we would lose.
The European arrest warrant has resulted in an enormous amount of time-saving and improvement in getting our criminals back from abroad, and criminals in this country back to their own countries. It has had its flaws, but most of them have been cured, as the Scott Baker report showed. We can improve it with further amendments if we are part of it.
Dominic Raab, MP, has said that a bilateral arrangement would be just as good as cross-border policing. Do my noble friends in the Conservative Party really believe that? As regards the European arrest warrant, will we have 26 separate extradition treaties with our colleagues? The whole idea is absurd. What would we lose? We would lose our position in Europol and all the successes that cross-border co-operation has so far achieved.
I therefore hope that they will look at the evidence and will approach the matter pragmatically. It seems to me that the evidence is—and it makes common sense—that the mass opt-out and bilateral approach will be a severe handicap in our fight against crime and terrorism. Is the Conservative Party truly ready to prejudice these aims of fighting against crime and terrorism for the sake of an ideological, visceral dislike of Brussels?
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Noakes for introducing this debate.
The Prime Minister sought to bring together the divergent views which existed within the Conservative Party, but it remains to be seen how successful that will prove to be over the coming months and years. I welcome the Prime Minister’s continued commitment to continued membership of the European Union, his acknowledgement of its achievements and his view that its original objectives of peace and reconciliation should not be taken for granted. Although he believes that the overriding purpose of the Union is now not to win peace but to secure prosperity, the two still go together, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield made clear this morning. The prospect of EU membership remains a powerful motivation in those parts of the continent where the ideals of peace and democracy have only recently been or are still to be achieved. For them and for others the European Union is more than just a trade deal.
The Prime Minister recognises that some of the changes he wants can be achieved by amendments to existing European legislation, but he also states clearly that he wants treaty change, and I believe that this may be more difficult. We seem to believe that we have a great opportunity to achieve treaty change for our benefit because the eurozone member states want to make changes for the economic governance of the eurozone. Having lectured them on the need to “get a grip”, as I believe the phrase was, and sort themselves out so that uncertainty no longer affects the United Kingdom, I wonder how welcome the prospect of wholesale treaty change and a review will be.
Will the Minister say whether account has been taken of the procedures by which we are bound under the treaties with regard to treaty change, which require conventions and intergovernmental conferences unless it is not significant? I presume that the Prime Minister thinks that he is going for something significant. The timing is important, because until the process is complete how will the British people know what they are voting for or against?
We will not get our own way in negotiations by giving the impression that our partners need us more or as much as we need them. The tone we apply to our partners also has to change. The Government would do well to remind themselves of what the Polish Foreign Minister said, which was already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, that,
“don’t expect us to help you wreck or paralyse the EU”.
Perhaps more controversially, the Conservative Party needs a rapprochement with our natural allies in the EPP. If we can govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, surely we can have a sensible relationship in the EU with the EPP.
I fear that the demands of those who want a trade deal with no strings—all benefits and no burdens—will increase no matter what the Prime Minister announces, whatever and whenever he wishes to negotiate. History has proved them insatiable; UKIP policy is not the policy of the Conservative Party and my noble friend knows from her previous incarnation that people should not stand for election as Conservatives using the Tory party as an umbrella for otherwise unelectable UKIP views.
If the UK is to stay in the EU, as the Prime Minister wishes, he has to start the fight now, otherwise we will find ourselves out of the European Union as a result of an uncontrolled drift in that direction.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for introducing this debate today. I will address one very specific point about the Prime Minister’s speech that raises a serious constitutional issue around the Civil Service.
In the passage dealing with a possible in-out referendum, the Prime Minister said,
“Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year”.
The difficult point is the commitment that the legislation is drafted before the next election. That is difficult because it is clear that the policy is not government policy or coalition policy. It is specifically Conservative Party policy. Noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches have made that very clear today.
That raises the question of who will draft the legislation before the next election. If it were to be done by lawyers independent of the Government, there would be no problem. However, of course, all legislation in this country is drafted by the parliamentary draftsmen, and it would be an entirely improper use of these civil servants for the Conservative Party to instruct them to undertake this work—which is certainly not coalition Government work—before the next election.
If the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party plan to use the Civil Service for this purpose, they must think again, otherwise why should not the other party of Government, the Liberal Democrats, ask for completely different legislation to be drafted before the next election? Why should not my own party, the Labour Party, also ask for draft legislation to be prepared? After all, according to current polls we are more likely to win the next election.
This is a coalition Government, as we are reminded over and over again. They are not a Conservative Government, and they have to instruct the Civil Service as the Government of the day, not as a political party. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable and right for the Prime Minister to say that he would expect the legislation to be drafted, but if he wants it done by the civil servants, that has to be done after an election that his party has won. The Prime Minister must recognise that he is Prime Minister because he is in a coalition, not because his party won a majority at the 2010 election.
My Lords, I very much thank my noble friend Lady Noakes for raising this debate on a most important subject. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, for raising a most disturbing constitutional point, to which I hope the Minister will be able to give us at least a preliminary response today.
I was very glad that the Prime Minister emphasised his apparent desire to remain a member of the Union. He said that repeatedly. Of course, he did not bring himself to say “full-hearted member”, which was in the original Conservative manifesto that we remember from many years ago. Apart from some limpid support from a few Czech politicians, the UK stands chillingly alone yet again in this chauvinistic posture.
Despite the eurozone crisis last year, most new member states are anxious to join in the euro, which they see remains a strong international currency, unlike sterling. That is one very important point that we have to acknowledge as we now see the eurozone economy and markets recovering. Instead of getting on with strengthening the Union to create a greater and greater collective sovereignty for all the members, which of course remain individual sovereign countries as well, a small number of witless—I am sorry to use that word—Tory MPs, scared of the euro and of UKIP in equal measure, have forced a foolish PM to abandon his own exhortation five years ago for his party to stop banging on about Europe all the time.
Struggling, therefore, to contain the atavistic forces that he has now unleashed, Mr Cameron will henceforth lead a country teetering on the brink of resolving its incoherent European policies in favour of either long-term half-membership or perhaps complete separation. The others are by now getting so fed up with the antics coming from Britain from one of the parties in the coalition that the bad member of the club is now disliked more and more. They may one day even invoke the Lisbon treaty machinery to ask us to leave. We have not reached that point yet and they are happy to go into discussions about so-called reform.
I am very glad to see, in contrast, that the Deputy Prime Minister is not going along with all this nonsense about an in-out referendum, to be promulgated many years before any real negotiations begin. The public must by now be thoroughly bemused by the twists and turns of the superficial referendumitis arguments by all politicians of all parties, with the dubious exception of Mr Nigel Farage and his colleagues.
My right honourable friend has clarified the latest position in asserting that it makes sense to wait before suggesting such a drastic step, since, sadly, we still have the very unappetising EU Act of 2011 on the statute book. After all, even a dubiously worded referendum at some stage in the future would be dealing, presumably, with powers returning to the UK rather than going away, were such a negotiation to be feasible, which is, as Ken Clarke said in the launch yesterday, a big “if”.
Parliament is constantly undermined. Our Conservative colleagues always say that they admire and respect history. Why do they undermine it by always talking about referendums when we made all the major decisions in British history without establishing Parliament’s authority again and again. That is what we need to do in this country.
Finally, why is it that myopic Tory politicians strongly approve of British companies being international, even to the extent sometimes of being slack on paying national taxes, but believe that countries have to be national only? This is a peculiar division and we need more clarification.
My Lords, I suggest that the Prime Minister's speech is a curate's egg—some good some bad. I include among the bad elements, the commitment to a referendum on a fixed timetable many years ahead on what may well turn out to be a false premise; namely, that wholesale treaty reform will be called for by others in a federating sense. That is not likely. They are more likely to go for rather modest changes to meet the requirements of the eurozone, so I regard that as unwise.
In one speech, the Prime Minister created a whole string of known unknowns. He should not have been playing Russian roulette with major national assets such as membership. I entirely see what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—I welcome her initiative in choosing this debate—said was not the end of the world. But nothing done by politicians has ever been the end of the world, yet. That does not mean that they have not done some damn stupid things.
It was wise of the Prime Minister not to choose a long laundry list of things that he wanted changed. Much more careful thought is needed as to how to approach this. I suggest three criteria are needed to be applied to any such changes. The first is: are the changes necessary for Britain's national interest and are they, at the same time, good for the EU as a whole? If the second condition cannot be met, they will not be agreed. The second criterion is: are they negotiable? The third is: do they match the Prime Minister's laudable objective of Britain staying in the European Union and influencing EU policy? The proposals published by the Fresh Start Group, which I would rather characterise as the false start group, would not fulfil any of those criteria.
However, we do need a positive agenda and we need that now. We do not need it in 2015 or 2016. We should be pursuing that now and be prepared to go outside the normal British comfort zone of single market completion, enlargement and freer world trade, although those are excellent things that we should be pursuing. But why are we not thinking more actively and intelligently about defence? The effect of austerity on defence budgets is surely pushing us all closer together.
My final word in the brief time that we have been allotted in this debate is; tactically astute, strategically reckless.
My Lords, as a man who conducts business and addresses conferences overseas, many of the arguments on European integration resonate very strongly with me. The European Union was established as a way of preserving peace and stability between its member states. It was what was needed then, and in the same way we must now react to internal and external changes that are happening in Europe and the world.
This is not about the interests of the United Kingdom versus the interests of other member states; it is about achieving large-scale reform to change the relationship between member states and the rest of the world in everyone’s interests. Europe needs to serve its member states better and help them to get the most out of the benefits that such a union provides.
The Prime Minister was very clear that he wants Europe to be a success and as such wants us to be a part of that success, and I share that sentiment. Europe itself is changing and we must push to make sure that it properly adapts. The completion of the single market was one of the key aims to which the Prime Minister referred, and rightfully so. This provides a strong foundational framework on which member states can build their economies.
We must allow the diversity of the different EU economies to flourish to increase competitiveness and achieve growth. Bureaucratic red-tape policies must be returned to the UK so that we can make our own judgments based on what works best for business here at home. I also agree with strengthening the role of national parliaments within the EU, as they are without a doubt the most democratically accountable and legitimate form of governance to their people.
Laws and regulations have been heaped on to British families and businesses from a foreign land, in a Parliament that they did not elect, and with a one-size-fits-all mentality. That is why I support the decision to hold a referendum in the next Parliament. People can then decide for themselves what will be in the best interests of their own country, and the integrity of the resulting decision cannot be questioned.
I also believe that the vast majority of people in this country would like us to remain in a union that helps us when we need it, allowing us to take good things from it but without inflicting unwanted repressive policies on its member states.
It is the job of the Government to get the best deal for their people, and this is exactly what the Prime Minister wants to do in negotiating a new settlement. It also makes sense to wait until the current turbulent waters have calmed before deciding what the future would hold for us in the union. Allowing member states the autonomy and liberty to do what is best for their people and their economies will enable us to contribute that much more and, I believe, form an even stronger bond of shared values and co-operation. I say this as a Conservative and ultimately as a supporter of the future of the European Union.
My Lords, I have three short minutes, and I will make three brief reflections. The first is that I have an overwhelming sense that this is where I came in. In 1960, I joined the Foreign Office as a desk officer responsible for Europe—political. At that time, after the failure to join the Rome treaty in 1957, the Conservative Government realised the danger of isolation and thrashed around trying to construct alternatives, hence the EFTA cul-de-sac, trying to build a relationship with a new Europe—for example by constructing an enhanced role for the Western European Union. In time, the Government and the people acknowledged that other alternatives were pipe dreams and that our future lay with our European partners.
The second is that Mrs Thatcher never threatened to leave the Community, however hard she fought her corner. Now, her political children, egged on by a nationalist press, seek to take events a stage further. They see little or no good in the current European Union and seek vainly for false alternatives. What is certain is that, outside the European Union, we would be a lesser attraction for foreign investment. We would have less clout in trade negotiations, and the best deals are possible when we work with our partners inside the Union.
Finally, I come to the Prime Minister’s speech on behalf of the Conservative part of the coalition. I have some sympathy for him as he has the impossible task of reconciling our partners and his party. He fails to recognise that international relations are essentially human relations. Some critics may well say that the Conservatives in opposition were too busy with their outside interests to build valuable personal relations with their natural partners: hence the Prime Minister’s absurd decision to leave the EPP, the family of the centre right, which led only to a mutual misunderstanding.
The EU is a club, and we are unlikely to persuade sympathetic club members if we threaten to leave. Suddenly and belatedly, the Conservative Party is beginning to appreciate the need for friends, particularly Germany, where 74% of the population supports the UK remaining within the EU. Thus, for the first time, the Foreign Secretary will participate in the Königswinter conference in May. However, let us look at the German Chancellor’s response at Davos to the Prime Minister’s speech. Yes, as government spin doctors tell us, she emphasised her support for free trade and open, competitive markets, but they ignore her warning on the referendum and the insistence that the Prime Minister will need to compromise. His dilemma is that, in so far as he compromises to win over our EU partners, he will lose his party. So we are back with unrealistic alternatives: hence my sense that this is where we came in.
My Lords, it is a privilege to listen to so many excellent speeches. I am neither a constitutional expert, nor a political expert on Europe, but I know a little about criminal justice and I want to use this occasion to draw some comparisons and to make some observations about the Government’s indication that they might wish to opt out of the European justice and home affairs provisions. A committee of your Lordships’ House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, is examining this. Here is a flavour of some of the answers they are receiving to that question.
On 16 January, one member of the committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, asked:
“would be complex, complicated, risky and it is right that it would be a gamble?”.
Professor Peers of the University of Essex said yes. Would that all answers by witnesses were that succinct.
Of course, the opt-out on criminal justice is not the subject of this debate. I just want to use it as a way of looking at what would happen if you extended away from dealing with an important but minor part of the third pillar of some part of the European conventions to attempt to renegotiate our entire relationship with Europe. I draw your Lordships’ attention to an excellent article by Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform, entitled: Britain’s 2014 Justice Opt-out: Why it Bodes Ill for Cameron’s EU Strategy. He lists five reasons, but I am only going to talk about two. The first is Scotland. Policing and criminal justice are devolved powers, so it seems ill-advised for the Westminster Government to announce that they want to give up something that the Scots clearly want to keep in the same year as the referendum on independence.
The second is more important. It is what Brady describes as, “make your case clearly” or they will not understand. He describes the sense of bewilderment, turning to anger, contempt and disengagement by our European partners at the sight of the British trying to withdraw their support from something they invented in the first place. You cannot be a little bit pregnant. You cannot be a little bit divorced, but lots of people try. Many of us have seen friends have trial separations. They attempt to end in reunion, but they normally wreak havoc on relationships, partnerships and the prospects of future generations.
My Lords, in recent times we have witnessed the transformation of the European Union—previously warring countries co-operating, growing in economic strength and developing their negotiating power. We are living in a competitive world of power blocs. The European Union has also developed social policies that have been a worldwide example.
Of course, the Union should not be static, but our position should not be poisoned by threats and ultimatums. If federalism leads to a new treaty, then the British people, like all others within the EU, should be able to express their opinion in a referendum. Shouting from the sidelines is no substitute for being constructive and sometimes critical.
It is my experience within the EU that all controversial proposals are tackled in depth. Of course the Commission and others can make mistakes. They are human. Her Majesty’s Government are not exactly a shining example to the country. The Commission does its best, as do all the other institutions.
What this Tory-led Government really want is the adulteration, even the elimination, of the European Union’s social policies. It would be absurd for the UK to absent itself from specific areas of policy. Estrangement from our partners would be utterly mistaken, and that would be the inevitable outcome of what the Government are proposing. The pathetic aim of trying to pacify the Eurosceptics, who are so prominent in the Tory Party today, is bound to fail, and it will deserve to.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for her welcome initiative. She may remember that many months ago we had a conversation about Europe, and I told her that I was one of the only members of my local Labour Party to take the day off work during the 1975 referendum to urge people to vote no. The noble Baroness informed me that she, too, had taken the day off work to campaign for a yes vote. We have both developed different points of view from all those years ago—I because of the Social Chapter possibilities, which gave workers rights and women opportunities during an era, the 1980s and 1990s, that was pretty bleak for both. The noble Baroness’s view was affected by the very same issues, which I think she sees as red tape. I have a great deal of respect for her views, even though we may not agree. I simply want to illustrate that, as Europe develops, we are all entitled to change our minds and openly debate issues on their merits.
For 10 years, during the 1990s, I was one of the representatives of the TUC on the European TUC executive. I was privileged to move in the ETUC executive acceptance of the framework agreement on part-time workers, so I plead guilty but proud of my part in ensuring that workers, particularly women workers, should be treated equally. The irony was that we were working hard at the European level on these Social Chapter issues. They were negotiated and agreed with the social partners, which included the CBI, and I watched these directives being implemented, except in the UK. That Alice in Wonderland position was put right when the Labour Government were elected. While I think that the Prime Minister’s clever speech contained something for all views, except for those of us who support workers’ rights, a referendum is too far off to get worked up about. However, I agree that we should trust the British people, if and when the time comes.
Finally, I may be alone in this view but at present we have expert debates in this House arising from the European sub-committees, which are too rich for my diet, or we have one-dimensional exchanges in Question Time: “We should all leave Europe”, “Oh no we shouldn’t”. Those of us who are interested in the wider framework issues are looking for opportunities to discuss them in an intelligent, challenging forum where not everything is black and white and where there are no easy answers.
My Lords, noble Lords have gone back a long time, but I am going to go back even further. Some 63 years ago I was fortunate enough to be in Strasbourg when the Council of Europe met. Of course, the two world wars were on everyone’s mind. Winston Churchill made what I think would now be called the keynote speech and the Conservative Party delegation was led by Harold Macmillan. Since then, whenever I use the word “Europe” I include in it the United Kingdom; I do so again today. We have been on a very long journey since, but the idea of giving up and leaving does not yet occur to me.
However, where is Europe now? It is riven by uncertainty. It has two financial crises that differ from each other. The reasons for the crises are not yet fully understood, and as for putting to bed the question of the responsibility for them, we are still a long way from that. The crisis in the United Kingdom is the first one and the eurozone crisis is the second. The outcome of both is entirely uncertain as we debate this matter today. All we can do is analyse what we know. What we must agree on is that there have been flaws in the direction of travel, otherwise we would not be where we are. Can we just wait and see whether, having lived beyond our means, things will in some way correct themselves and we will be able to continue on the same path? That does not seem credible. Things have changed very radically over the past 63 years. There is a global market now of which Europe forms 7% of the population, and things are happening elsewhere.
We need to think through the following proposition: is this convoy of 27 nations likely to go in the right direction without reform? I think not. Strategy, not just tactics, should be on the table and we need to get on with the debate.
My Lords, in all my political experience I do not think I have come across a more absurd notion than a referendum that will only take place some four, five or six years after it is announced. But, of course, this is not a serious political idea. It is, as we know, a short-term and cynical party-political ploy designed simply to push the European issue beyond the horizon of the next election and to keep the Eurosceptics off the Prime Minister’s back until then. If there are costs in terms of investment and jobs and other costs to our national interest, then to hell with the national interest. That is what we are actually confronted with.
If we need further evidence of the superficiality of this exercise, it is in the fact that the Prime Minister hardly mentioned what the objectives of this negotiation or renegotiation are going to be. In all that elaborate speech only one sentence deals with them by mentioning three things: the environment, social affairs and crime. We have only to look at those three in order to realise that either we are faced with what is essentially a hypocritical exercise that is not intended to be taken seriously or else something that would be disastrous if pursued. Are we going to pull out of the European environmental policy? Are we going to get rid of the commitment to reduce emissions by 20% from their 1990 levels by 2020? Are we going to try to do it unilaterally? Does the Prime Minister mean the non-climate change aspects of environmental obligations such as water pollution? Are British factories going to be allowed to release any kinds of effluent into our rivers? If we believe in having environmental controls, is it not in our interests to make sure that our competitors on the continent of Europe bear the same level of costs? It is quite clear that this has not been thought through at all. It is an entirely cynical, short-term exercise.
The same applies to social policy. I would love to see the Prime Minister fight the next election on the basis that he is going to get rid of the working time directive or the parental leave directive. Is that to be taken seriously? And what about crime, which comes under justice and home affairs? We are told that the Government are already intending to opt out of the justice and home affairs chapter. In that case, what is the point of renegotiating something that we are going to opt out of? None of this makes sense.
There are many aspects of this which worry me. Obviously I am anxious about the costs of the uncertainty and even more anxious about the costs attached to our leaving the European Union, if that is the ultimate aim of this exercise; it could easily lead to that bad accident. However, my worst anxiety is that our continental partners will say—they may be far too diplomatic and astute to do so, but it is what more and more of them will think—“For heaven’s sake, the British are hopeless. They cannot make up their minds. They have been humming and hawing and coming and going for 30 years. They always oppose everything and they are very difficult. For God’s sake, if they want to leave, let them leave. Let’s conduct this negotiation in such a way that they end up having to go”.
When that happens, what is the prospect for this country? The prospect is the one that we have been trying to avoid for 500 years. It is why we fought Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Nicholas I and the Kaiser. We will find ourselves with a superpower on the European continent with whose policies we have in practice to align ourselves although we will have no influence whatever on their formulation. That is the position we shall be in, and under the shadow of that superpower we shall live for the rest of time—regretting the appalling decisions that we came to in a fit of absence of mind.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s speech simply because at long last it has set my party on an unstoppable path to serious treaty changes and a referendum. However, I have two reservations. The first is that I believe that the changes needed are so profound that they are unlikely to be agreed by the other countries, and the second is timing. These things are not going to happen until 2017. Anyone who has run any kind of organisation knows that when it starts to go seriously wrong, as Europe is doing now, its decline has a habit of accelerating. I do not believe that time is on our side and I am anxious that we will be overtaken by events.
A wise man once said, “All great issues are essentially very simple. We make them complicated when we do not want to face them”. I believe that that is true of Europe. The issue of Europe is essentially very simple. It is about who governs this country. That sounds simplistic, but it is true. It was the question in 1975, it is the question in 2013, and it is the question that the British people understand. It will be the question in 2017—and I have no doubt, when it is put to the British people, what their answer will be.
My Lords, I do not terribly want to get involved in a debate about what will happen when the referendum is held. Rather, I will make two points. The first is that within the next 12 months, I suspect that the Labour Party will commit itself to an “in or out” referendum, whether the noble Lord, Lord Davies, likes it or not. It is completely unsustainable for any party to stand at the next election saying that it is not going to hold a referendum when a major party like the Conservatives is doing so. I suspect that the Liberal Democrats will follow suit as well.
Not for the first time, I find that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. He knows, as most noble Lords in this Chamber know, that the construct of the EU has been a series of treaties which need unanimous support, and that if you want to revise those treaties, it has to be done with unanimity. I therefore suggest that the chances of Britain renegotiating a position that entails treaty change is virtually non-existent, and by the same token, it will not be possible for Germany, Holland, Sweden and Finland to renegotiate to make the EU more competitive. If something needs treaty change, it will not happen; that is the reality of the position that we are in.
I have absolutely no idea who will win the election of 2015, but we will have either a Labour or a Conservative Prime Minister. Then what will happen? If Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, he will go off to Europe and come back with a minimal number of concessions. He will not be able to pull off the same trick as Harold Wilson: namely, minimal renegotiation and a vote for us to stay in the EU. He would have to win major concessions—which I do not think he will get—and, of course, at that stage he will be faced by a Conservative Opposition, led, I suspect, by a different leader, who will campaign vigorously against any move to keep us in the EU. Alternatively, if David Cameron wins, he will have to go off to Europe and come back with very serious concessions. I suspect that the best that he will be able to achieve will be some hybrid solution for the United Kingdom that will leave us more out of the EU than in. Either way, I do not see that we will do anything other than come out.
That brings us to my noble friend’s Liberal Democrats, who already have the somewhat suspect reputation of being the people whom Conservative and Labour candidates least want to face in an election. They have now added to that the reputation of being unreliable and untrustworthy when it comes to the coalition agreement that was set up at the beginning of this Parliament. So I do not think that an awful lot of people will want to go into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats ever again. If the opinion polls are right, they will probably get only 10 seats at the next election, so the question may not even come up.
My Lords, if a speech can be a 180-degree turnaround from a previous speech, this is it. The context of the Prime Minister’s speech is, of course, the Conservatives’ frustration, because they have missed the boat. The eurozone is recovering and the pound is falling against the euro. Therefore we no longer hear the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, proclaiming that the euro is dead. The problem now for the Conservative Party is the dictum, “If you can’t beat them, you’d better join them”, so the frustration grows apace.
The Prime Minister’s speech is intended to set up a scenario where he demands the repatriation of things such as employment rights, as my noble friend Lord Monks pointed out—as if, incidentally, that would make workers more inclined to vote to stay in the EU. However, as we heard—from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, I believe—there is no such thing as a retrospective opt-out. The Labour Party—correctly—will have nothing to do with this scenario, including the referendum hypothesis. Apart from anything else, you do not expect the Labour Party to get heavily involved in highly imaginary negotiations conducted by an equally highly imaginary Conservative Government in 2016 or 2017, which, as everyone knows, are intended only to keep the Conservative Party together.
A Labour Government responsible for a hypothetical referendum presupposes equally a Labour Government, which I believe will be elected in 2015. Until nearer that time, what crystal ball are we supposed to look into and to say that one thing or another needs renegotiation followed by a referendum? I am sure that we in the Labour Party are not going to invent such a scenario on the back of an envelope just to meet the wishes of those who read the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. The fact is that this is a crisis for the Conservative Party; it is no crisis at all for the Labour Party.
My non-political friends to whom I talked last weekend, for example, are aghast at the political cynicism of the referendum announcement in particular. They do not think that this whole business has anything to do with the national interest. I therefore think that it will not necessarily be of any benefit to the Conservative Party.
My Lords, this might be termed the “boiling an egg” debate, because that is probably one of the very few things that you can usefully accomplish in the amount of time that each of us has been given to speak today.
I find myself very much aligned with my noble friend Lady Donaghy, who said that she campaigned for a no vote in 1975 for reasons of working people’s rights but has now come round to face somewhat the other way—as, indeed, have I. I would be very concerned should we, as a country, depart from the European Union. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Owen, summed it up best when he described the Prime Minister’s speech last week as the words of a party leader and not a Prime Minister—that is exactly it. I really think that the European Union and our place within it are too important to be used as a way of dealing with a little local difficulty within the Conservative Party.
On the question of a referendum, I will ask: why now? I do not see why at all, but why now? Nothing of any great importance has occurred within the past few months. You could say, “I believe that referendums are appropriate for parliamentary democracy”. Referendums do have their place—certainly they were appropriate in 1975, for the Scottish Parliament, for the Welsh Assembly and, indeed, for the voting system. But what has happened to make this a pressing issue? Furthermore, what is likely to happen of a constitutional nature? I think it is key to a referendum that it should involve something of a constitutional nature. What has happened in the past few months or will happen in the next five years to make a referendum necessary? You could say it could have happened after Maastricht or Lisbon, but I do not see why we should be positing it as a notion now, because there is no constitutional issue per se to discuss. The basic question would be: do we stay in the EU?
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, opened the debate by talking of uncertainty. I think that she talked rather disparagingly of scaremongers. I ask the noble Baroness whether the following are scaremongers: Sir Andrew Cahn of Nomura, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, the CBI, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Browne, a close confidant of the Prime Minister. These are people of some substance, as indeed is Sir Nigel Sheinwald, who has made some pretty pithy statements in the past few days. So there is a bit more to it than perhaps meets the eye. The response might be, “What about the 50 business leaders who wrote to the Times?”. When you read their statement, it is clear that they did so very strongly from a position of wanting to remain within the European Union. That is different from the wishes of many people advocating a referendum who want us to withdraw.
I think that there will be a referendum, as various noble Lords have said. It is pretty much inconceivable that any of the main political parties will not suggest that at the 2015 general election. Therefore, I think that those of us who are in favour need to start making the positive case for remaining in the EU. We should not just deal with negatives but talk the case up.
I conclude by referring back to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who said that she regarded the prospect of a referendum in 2017 as an exciting one. Well, placing her head in the mouth of a lion might be exciting, but it is not something that I would recommend.
My Lords, I thought the Prime Minister’s speech was exceptionally well crafted. He articulated why history and geography helped define the UK’s very singular attitude to the EU. He identified where and why many are unenthusiastic about some EU regulation. However, he also captured very well the benefits of the EU—the economic advantage and influence that arise from being part of the world’s biggest single market and political bloc. The EU has a bigger aggregated GDP than the US, and we are twice as big as China.
Most of us share the vision of the UK as part of a flexible network of independent European nation states, combining voluntarily, issue by issue, on matters of mutual interest. That is where, of course, we are now. We are out of the euro—thank goodness—and out Schengen, but in the single market, in NATO, unlike six other EU countries, and in the fight alongside France in Libya and Mali.
All organisations benefit from time to time from a reappraisal. However, the Prime Minister’s speech creates a problem of perception. Pace the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, my work routinely takes me into contact with the world’s leading investors, with trillions of funds to place. They are already nervous of the eurozone and understand the UK’s dependence on it. They are careful decision-makers and I have no doubt that they will be further unsettled by the prospect of a referendum. The PM’s announcement was well argued, and the party-political need for it was understandable, but it was not cost free.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and to some extent, for reasons I should explain, the Prime Minister for getting us to this debate. The Prime Minister has presented us and our European partners with a false prospectus: a referendum in four or five years’ time, on terms as yet unclear, and in economic and political circumstances that are unknowable. In so far as his negotiating position prior to that referendum is discernible from his speech, it is self-contradictory. His main point is that he wants to strengthen the single market, but he is looking to opt out of key pillars of that single market. You cannot have a true single market without common labour standards—the Social Chapter. You cannot have a true single market without some degree of commonality on financial regulations, which he resists to the benefit of and on behalf of the City of London. You cannot have a true single market without common environmental standards. That agenda is not one that can be negotiated without European partners. He might have a bit more luck on the justice side, but even there, although there may be some prospective, minor, further derogations, there will be no retrospective opt-outs, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said.
The PM has created unnecessary irritation among our European partners and damaging uncertainty for global investors. However, he may politically have done us all a great favour, in that he has at last provoked the pro-European elements in all parties to come out of their shell and start arguing the pro-European case. I have long been a pro-European, since before 1975, when it was deeply unpopular in the Labour Party, particularly in the left wing of the party, of which I was otherwise a member. I have often been dismayed at the lack of effective engagement by British Governments with Europe—my own as well as this one. I have often also been dismayed at the occasional arrogance and ineptitude of European institutions in relating to the real concerns of the people. However, it remains the case for Britain that our prosperity, our influence in the world and our prospects of reaching global agreements on climate change, trade, and peace and development depend utterly on the UK being a leading, constructive and authoritative partner within Europe. I ask those who object to the whole concept of ever closer union what they think are the consequences of the opposite dynamic. They need look no further than the borders of the EU, at the former Yugoslavia.
Like my noble friend Lord Grenfell, whose speech I greatly admired, I am not afraid of a referendum. However, whether we have one or not, in what timescale and on whatever terms, the Prime Minister has now triggered a revival among those of us who wish to argue the pro-European case. We will do so with equal passion and, one hopes, more logic than I suspect the next speaker, who will make the opposite case. To that extent, I thank the Prime Minister.
My Lords, in this heavily Europhiliac debate, I thought I would concentrate on just one of the basic misconceptions to which noble and Europhile Lords, and indeed the Prime Minister, still cling: that the single market is a good thing and that we might lose inward investment, free trade and jobs if we left the EU and its customs union. The single market is a bad thing: it is what imposes the thousands of regulations which weigh down all EU economies in their trade with the markets of the future. Together with the euro, it is the economic iceberg which will eventually sink the whole project of European integration, at great social cost.
As for us, in the mean time, our free trade with clients and suppliers in the EU will inevitably continue when we leave it. Articles 3, 8 and 50 of Lisbon oblige Brussels to negotiate a free trade agreement with a departing country. The EU already has FTAs with 67 countries and dozens more are in the pipeline. As its largest client, and with our substantial trade deficit, we will hold the whip hand in agreeing our own free trade agreement, which will be unique to us.
Your Lordships may have missed the Government’s Written Answer on 14 December to my noble friend Lord Stoddart, who had asked whether the burdens of single market regulation applied to countries signing FTAs with Brussels. According to the Answer:
“It is not the case that as a result of these trade negotiations the countries concerned will have to adopt all the legislation and regulations that apply to EU member states. The aim of these negotiations is to eliminate, as far as possible, duties applied to trade in goods and to address non-tariff barriers that affect trade in goods in services—ie rules, regulations and practices that affect market access. Non-tariff barriers can be overcome through a variety of methods. These include the adoption of international rules”—
the World Trade Organisation—
“mutual recognition of approaches to testing, standards, et cetera, and commitments to end discriminatory practices”.—[Official Report, 14/12/12; col. WA 263.]
What more do we want?
Why should inward investment be affected when the reasons for investing here will not have changed? It is interesting that our Invest in the UK agency gives 13 good reasons for investing here—and not one of them is our membership of the European Union. Therefore, I hope we will hear no more scaremongering from the same old quisling voices of big business and elsewhere, which told us that if we did not join the euro, the City of London was finished. It became number one in the world, so why should we listen to them now? Some hope, my Lords, but I trust that the British people will ignore the Brussels propaganda when the time comes.
My Lords, the three-minute rule has produced many excellent speeches in this debate, including many strong ones from my side of the House. Obviously, in keeping my own remarks brief, I cannot refer to them all but will just refer to two on our side. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for his humour and, secondly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, for the originality of her speech. She made a major point of constitutional significance about the Civil Service role in drafting legislation. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will answer that point in her reply. I also greatly enjoyed many of the speeches from the Liberal Democrat Benches and from the diplomats on the Cross Benches. There were excellent speeches from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on the Conservative side.
There are certain principles that we all accept in this debate. Everyone in this House, except for those who want to get out, believes that Europe needs fundamental reform. We would go along with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said about the need for a more dynamic and flexible European Union than we have today. We would support, in general terms, the unobjectionable principles that the Prime Minister set out in his speech. We all recognise that there is a particular problem where we have to seek safeguards—because of the closer integration of the euro area, those of us outside it must have safeguards against discrimination as a result of the euro area acting as a voting bloc.
Having said that those are principles on which we all agree, there is a fundamental disagreement about the Prime Minister’s strategy of renegotiation and referendum. People ask what Labour’s position is on a referendum. One might seriously ask how it is that the Prime Minister thinks that, at this delicate stage in our economic recovery—and that is putting it mildly when GDP is falling—and in an era when business, since the financial crisis, has become extremely risk-averse, a commitment to a referendum five years hence will help our economic recovery. Is it not the case that this is bound to add one way or another to the considerable pall of investment uncertainty which hangs over our economy? If the Prime Minister now believes, in January 2013, that a referendum is in the national interest, why, in October 2011, did he impose a three-line whip on his Members to vote against a referendum? Why, in his press conference after the June 2012 summit, when asked about a referendum did he dismiss it with a sweep of the hand and say what the British people want is a Government who stand up and fight for them in Europe? It was only the uproar in the Conservative Party—let me remind the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—the day after that forced the Prime Minister to write his famous article in the Telegraph saying:
“For me the two words ‘Europe’ and ‘referendum’ can go together”.
Our position is clear. We have always argued, as we did during the passage of the EU Act 2011, that if there is a major transfer of powers or a big treaty there should be a referendum. At the moment we do not know whether there is going to be a treaty and we do not know anything about its contents or timing. The Prime Minister’s policy represents a unilateral demand to come up with something by 2017 that he can sell to the British people or we will be off.
There are many contradictions in this renegotiation policy. One is whether those who favour it regard a treaty change as essential to its success. Listening to the Benches opposite, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I have found all this very confusing. On the one hand, the argument is made that we have to secure fundamental change if we are going to be able to recommend the yes vote to the British people, yet on the other, it is said that the treaty change may not be essential. In my view, it is impossible to achieve fundamental change in the way the EU works without treaty change. Of course we may be able to negotiate changes in policies or protocols that protect our position in various areas, but we will not get fundamental change without treaty change. I would like this question to be clarified in the Minister’s reply.
There is a lot of reference to the proposals of the Fresh Start Group as the kind of sensible mainstream view of what needs to change. My noble friend Lord Monks has already dealt with the social and employment aspects of that. This is not acceptable to our partners. On financial services, it cannot make sense to argue for the reintroduction of some form of unanimity on this aspect of the single market when in the other part of our mouths we are arguing that our partners should agree to major extensions of the single market in other areas. That is a completely contradictory stance, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, ought to recognise that.
It was interesting that we had 40 speeches in this debate, with eight from Conservatives broadly in favour of the Prime Minister’s speech, but the question of where they will end up after the renegotiation is unclear. If David Cameron remains Prime Minister after 2015, he is going to face a harsh political choice: win a referendum yes and split the Conservative Party, or bow the knee to his party’s last ditchers, and, even more dangerous, fanciful renegotiators such as the Fresh Start Group, and secure his place in history as the Prime Minister who led Britain out of the European Union. He will have overwhelming support on this side of the House if he puts the country before his party. There were passages in his well-phrased speech last week where I just about managed to convince myself that that was what he might do. However, it would historically require a breach with a whole tradition of Conservative statecraft that the national interest is best served by keeping the Conservatives in power and winning elections.
So much is at stake here for all of us. Who really fancies Britain’s chances, in decades to come, as an offshore island? There is the real risk that five years away that is what we are going to end up as—maybe as a successful tax haven for hot money, various kinds of tax dodger and fleeing oligarchs, but there is no future for Britain shouting across the Channel, “Continent cut off”, at the 400 million steadily integrating single market. That is not going to bring real investors and real jobs in real companies to Britain. We need to be there.
We will end up being politically ignored by Washington and powerless to defend our values and interests against all the multiple challenges that we face, never mind the new ones that pop up in the desert in north Africa. Do we really want what is happening in the world today, which is the rise of the East, to mean that we opt out of the West? Let us hope that the Prime Minister means what he hinted at, that he will campaign to stay in Europe, with his “heart and soul”. Let us hope that those words were not a public oration sop to pro-European opinion, particularly business opinion, which rightly fears that he has set his European policy on a trajectory that he certainly never wanted, in the hope of a positive outcome that he has not the faintest idea how he is going to achieve. There were many fine words in the Prime Minister’s speech, but it was very bad day for Britain.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for calling this debate to take note of the Prime Minister’s recent speech on Europe. I will try to address some of the individual questions from noble Lords but am sure you will agree that, with more than 40 speakers, I may not be able adequately to address all the issues raised and all the questions asked. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, suggested a possible further debate with more time, and that may well be an option that your Lordships’ House can consider. The interventions today have been widespread in both view and substance and, like the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, I am struggling to highlight which of them really stuck in my mind. However, the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Hamilton, were amusing and engaging and brought interesting perspectives.
I will start by briefly recalling the context in which we are having this debate. Europe is facing a time of crisis. The Prime Minister highlighted in his speech the three main challenges facing all of us in Europe: the changes within the eurozone and the crisis that it brings; the lack of competitiveness in the face of a transformed global economy; and the democratic gap between Europe and its people. Faced with these challenges the European Union cannot stay still. For the eurozone to succeed, we accept that the countries that are part of it need to change. How they co-operate and the rules by which they work need to change. As Europe changes, our relationship with Europe will, and should, change. As the Prime Minister has said, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. We must face up to these challenges and ensure that the relationship that we have with the reformed EU at the end of this process is one that better protects our national interests and the integrity of the single market.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is right in some of what he set out as criteria for negotiations. We are not only seeking an improvement in Britain’s position; we are looking for an improvement in the way that the EU works that will benefit all of its members. We want to see a more competitive and flexible EU, to show that power can flow in both directions and national parliaments to have a bigger role. The Government have been clear that we believe that active membership of the EU is in our national interest. The Prime Minister has said that when there is a referendum, he will campaign “heart and soul” for a vote to remain in a reformed EU.
There are many reasons why we are convinced that the best place for the United Kingdom is inside the EU. On the economic side, the EU supports UK jobs, prosperity and growth through increased trade, within the single market and through free trade agreements with non-EU states. The EU represents a market of 500 million people, with a combined GDP of around £11 trillion. It is the largest single market in the world, with a larger economy than those of the US and Russia combined. If Britain was not a member of the single market, UK firms would face export tariffs, reducing their competitiveness in Europe. The size of the EU and its global importance as an export market give Britain much greater influence with international trading partners than would be the case if we acted alone.
The single market also helps the UK to attract inward investment from both inside and outside Europe. The UK is the top destination in Europe for inward investment, attracting one-fifth of all foreign direct investment projects in Europe in 2011, for example. The single market encourages competition and innovation across the EU, bringing tangible benefits to people, as prices for consumers are driven down and productivity levels increase. However, this does not mean that we think the single market is complete. Indeed, further single market reform has even more to offer the UK through simplifying regulation, liberalising services, and developing a single digital market and a single market for energy.
Away from the economy, our membership of the EU can help to advance our national interests, influence and values internationally as part of a 27-strong—soon to be 28-strong—collective voice. I am not just talking about collective negotiation of free trade agreements with third countries, although these bring large economic benefits to member states, including the UK, and are a useful way of encouraging market opening in those third countries; I am thinking about the intelligent use of sanctions, which in the case of Burma have been attributed as one of the most effective levers in encouraging the regime to implement democratic change, and which the EU has implemented in response to the situations in Iran and in Syria, for example. I am also thinking about the common security and defence policy missions, which are a fast-moving response to security issues of real interest to the UK, such as piracy. Successes include training the Bosnian police force and increasing stability in Georgia.
The UK has long been a champion of further enlargement of the EU, which is key to achieving the UK’s economic and security interests in central Europe and the European neighbourhood. In 2011 the UK exported £16.6 billion in goods and services to the newest member states, approximately twice our exports to India.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield spoke about the contribution of the EU to peace in Europe. The PM recognises the role that the EU plays within NATO in bringing peace and the rule of law to European countries. We hope to continue this through our support for the enlargement process.
There are also less quantifiable benefits, which we now take almost for granted. Membership of the EU provides freedom for British people to live, work, study and retire in Europe: 1.5 million UK citizens live in other EU countries, and UK citizens are able to work anywhere in the EU without requiring a work permit. Around 260,000 UK citizens are employed in other EU member states. There are 435,000 UK citizens claiming a pension and living abroad in an EU member state. Our membership of the EU also helps our students. Between 2011 and 2012, more than 13,500 UK students took part in the Erasmus scheme, studying for part of their degree in another European country.
I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for the balance of competences review. The PM has set out the principles of how he wants to change the EU and the UK’s relationship with it, not the specifics. The balance of competences review will give us an informed and objective analysis of where the EU helps and where it hampers. We expect this work to conclude during 2014.
My noble friend Lady Falkner asked what a fresh settlement would look like. All political parties will look at the evidence provided by the balance of competences review and use that to generate ideas for future policies. She is aware that this is being done over a period of four semesters, on specific subjects.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, spoke about EU measures on social policies, especially in relation to gender equality. I can assure her that there is no suggestion whatever of undermining gender equality and we have clear national legislation to support the current position.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, asked some very specific questions. What will the PM do if he does not get his concessions? We are not going into this negotiation looking to fail. We are confident that there are some very clear principles in the wider European Union. We have support among member states which also feel that we can have a better Europe. The answer to everything is not simply more Europe. He asked whether we were simply cherry picking, as did the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. The answer is no. The UK wants reform of the EU for the benefit of all member states. What we will be putting forward will show that. There were a number of other questions and the noble Lord may have to write to me to get the answers to them.
My noble friend Lady Noakes mentioned the Fresh Start report. The Foreign Secretary has written a foreword to this document, as my noble friend is aware. He welcomed its contribution to Conservative Party policy thinking, saying:
“Many of the proposals are already Government policy, some could well become future Government or Conservative Party policy and some may require further thought”.
This report is a valuable contribution to the debate and includes some ideas that are already government policy.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, spoke of the benefits of EU social policy. The Prime Minister has said nothing about seeking to undermine the European social model. I think all parties agree that we need to look at how the working time directive impacts on our ability to run our health service, and we need to ensure that we remain competitive. As Chancellor Merkel has said,
“If Europe today accounts for just over 7 per cent of the world’s population, produces around 25 per cent of global GDP and has to finance 50 per cent of global social spending”,
surely something has to change.
My noble friend Lord Howell spoke about the need to build alliances. He is quite right. The UK does have alliances. The PM noted in his speech:
“So let us use this moment, as the Dutch Prime Minister has recently suggested, to examine thoroughly what the EU as a whole should do and should stop doing”.
The noble Lord, Lord Blair, spoke about opting out of the criminal justice system and whether this would make things more complex. We have committed to a vote in both Houses before a decision on whether or not to exercise the JHA opt-out. The UK national interest will be at the heart of any future policy and we are committed to a constructive working relationship with other member states on this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, asked very specific questions about legislating on a referendum and whether that will be drafted by civil servants. Civil servants will not be working on this. It would not be HMG policy. Any work on drafting legislation before the election will be done by the Conservative Party.
We have had a wide-ranging discussion today and I was hoping that, unlike the other place, this is not a place where politics is always to the fore. Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was quite passionate in his critique of the Conservative Party. He said that Labour’s position on this was clear. I have to come back at him and say that Labour’s position on this is at best unclear and at worst dithery and confused. He will of course be aware of his leader’s comments at Prime Minister’s Questions on 23 January, where the right honourable Ed Miliband said:
“My position is no, we do not want an in/out referendum”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/13; col. 305.]
Of course, only days earlier he had said:
“Committing now to an in/out referendum has big costs for Britain”.
Labour is clearly still formulating its policy. Worse than the present position, the noble Lord should also reflect on what his party did in government. Let us not forget that Labour waved through above-inflation hikes to the previous EU budget; gave away £7 billion of our rebate but failed to reform the common agricultural policy; signed up to the eurozone bailout; gave away our opt-out on the Social Chapter; and refused us a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. This is not the kind of place where these discussions should happen. We are not like the other place but the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, clearly wants this to be part of the discussions.
With the ongoing euro crisis the European Union is changing. These changes are raising a series of fundamental questions about the future of the EU and Britain’s place in it. The questions will not go away and we should be playing a leading role in shaping that debate. Britain should want to remain in the EU. We need to be in the single market, not just selling goods to Europe but with a say in the rules as well. Public disillusionment with the EU is at an all-time high and people feel that it is heading in a direction for which they did not sign up. We must address these matters, as the result is that democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin. This must worry the party opposite as much as it worries us.
We want to negotiate a new settlement in Europe focused on competitiveness, fairness and respect for national democracies, and which allows powers to flow back to member states. We want fresh consent for this settlement. The Conservative manifesto in 2015 will commit us to negotiating a new settlement in the next Parliament. If we win the election we will hold an in-out referendum to stay in the EU on new terms or to come out if those terms cannot be negotiated. We will complete this negotiation and hold the referendum within the first half of the next Parliament.
It is clear that there will be challenges ahead on the road to a reformed European Union and a new settlement for the United Kingdom. But as the Prime Minister said, we believe strongly that Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union, and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it. We will strive to achieve the right outcome for Britain and the right outcome for the rest of the European Union.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this good debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that three minutes did not diminish the quality of the contributions. That is the only thing on which I think that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.
A regular criticism made of the Prime Minister was that this was simply a party political move. As my noble friend the Minister has pointed out, however, there is widespread disillusionment in the country with the EU, and in polls there is regularly a majority of the country which does not wish to stay in the EU and wishes to have major renegotiation. That is what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is responding to, and it is unworthy of other people here to suggest that is solely for party political reasons.
My noble friend Lord Howell made the point that the Prime Minister wants to negotiate changes that benefit all of Europe and not just the UK. Of course it is the national interest that will determine how we vote when we get a referendum. While we want to benefit the rest of Europe we will judge the result against our interests and that is important. As my noble friend the Minister has pointed out, we are still unclear about the Labour Party’s position on a referendum, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and others that the Labour Party will probably have to come to the table and offer a referendum to the people. Given the popular view of the voters, that will be irresistible and is just a matter of time. To him and all other doubters on this subject I say, “Bring it on”.
Visas: Student Visa Policy
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the impact of student visa policy on admissions to universities in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I thank the many distinguished noble Lords who have put their names down to speak in this debate. There are several, such as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who for good reasons are unable to be here but would like to have participated. That is a sign of the concern that there still is on this matter. The time pressure put on us means that I will have to be succinct on the issues and there is much that I will have to leave out.
There are three basic points with which to start. I strongly support the Government’s overall immigration policy. I entirely agree with the steps take to deal with abuse and bogus applications in parts of the private sector, the education sector and English language schools. Today we are talking solely about universities. I welcome the helpful steps that the Government have taken to alleviate some of the concerns expressed not least by five Select Committees in both Houses, and in particular the decision to disaggregate the student numbers in the migration figures. That was a big step in the right direction but we need to go further.
The achievements of our universities are one of the major UK success stories. Many are recognised world leaders, comparable to the best anywhere, especially in the United States. Overall our university sector has an internationally high reputation and the demand for places from overseas is strong. Non-EU overseas students contribute over 10% of total university fee income. The contribution to that reputation from overseas undergraduates, postgraduates, research fellows and professors working and studying here is great. The benefits that our universities bring to local economies are substantial, not only in their spending on local goods and services but also in their contribution to key economic developments. The huge growth in the science and research parks in Cambridge is just one outstanding example. The universities are a major expert earner, accounting for £8 billion now and with an expected to increase to £17 billion by 2025 on recent trends. They are the fifth biggest positive contributor to the net balance of payments.
The vast majority of overseas students are not permanent immigrants. They are migrants. The universities have excellent systems for tracking what happens to them. Most eventually return to their own countries or elsewhere. A 2010 Home Office study showed that of the individuals who entered as students in 2004, only 3% had settled permanently by 2009. They do not claim benefits. It is a condition of their visa that they have no recourse to public funds. They are net contributors to the economy and not a drain on public funds. They are unlikely to require NHS care because of their age profile. They are totally unlike bogus applicants and many other immigrants.
There are countless examples of them returning to their own or other countries and becoming permanent ambassadors for the UK. They are our best ambassadors when they leave our shores. They find prominent positions in government, foreign services and defence, industry and commerce, education and elsewhere. This is so-called soft power. In short, these are absolutely not the sort of immigrants that the public and the media have in mind when they call for tougher controls on immigration. They are the opposite, real assets to us, and that needs constantly and regularly to be made clear in the context of policy decisions. In so far as there has been public concern about students, this was related to bogus ones, and I hope that that problem has now been dealt with.
Overall figures of new entrants from non-EU countries are only slightly down in 2012, by 0.4%. Most overseas students are postgraduates and their numbers are down by 1.9%. Not much, one might say, but I suspect that this is only the start of a trend. First, in what is a hugely competitive industry, as many in this House know, numbers in most of our major competitor countries—America, Australia, Canada and some EU countries, which are fast developing courses in the English language —are up.
Secondly, some universities have told me that they found that last September the number of postgraduate applicants who had even paid deposits and then declined to come had increased. Thirdly, the perceptions that the UK was imposing tough new restrictions, being less welcome to new applicants and spouses, and even closing for business, have grown considerably since these figures were compiled. This goes particularly for the Indian subcontinent, where numbers are already substantially down and compensated for only by a rise in China.
Unless action is taken, future years will show a considerable decline in entrants. On the Indian subcontinent and, I am told, in some African countries, this perception has been especially evident as a result of the London Metropolitan issue. I do not have time to go into that in detail. Suffice it to say that the hostile publicity in India after that matter focused on the students who either had to or could not find other places—and it was huge. That, combined with individual stories about visa difficulties with the UK Border Agency, has been immensely damaging.
Fourthly—and this is difficult to explain in a few words, certainly to people outside this House—the claims sometimes made by Ministers that there are no limits on non-EU applications are simply not believed. This is due partly to the perceptions that I have already described, partly to difficulties with the UK Border Agency—of which, more in a moment—but perhaps most of all to the following point. In order to meet the Government’s target of reducing net migration to tens of thousands by 2015—and we are still a long way off that—and since students are the largest category of migrant, a further reduction in student numbers seems inevitable. The Migration Advisory Committee’s report states that a reduction in non-EU student numbers of 87,600 in the period 2012 to 2015 would be required to meet that target. The Institute for Public Policy Research has an estimate of 50,000 fewer non-EU students, translating to a loss to the UK of £2 billion to £3 billion per annum. These figures suggesting limits are becoming widely known and are fed by the perception of the way in which the UK Border Agency is applying its controls and rules to potential and already-in-place students from non-EU countries.
So what is to be done? I will be as brief as possible to enable as many speakers as possible to have a little bit more than the two minutes allowed. I have two points to put to my noble friend. First, it is clear that the UK Border Agency is overstretched, overbureaucratic and underresourced. Universities are highly responsible and want to clamp down on any bogus students and those who break the rules. I have talked to various vice-chancellors, seen the Universities UK submission and read the excellent article in the Daily Telegraph of 24 January by Sue Cameron, which accurately sums up the impressions that I have gained. The stories of unnecessary difficulties are legion. The UK Border Agency seems to be making students feel as unwelcome as it can. The amount of time, energy and costs that universities are having to use up is high, and all this is now being used by competitors in other countries to imply that the UK is closed for business.
I have a list of complaints and suggested improvements from Universities UK which I do not have time to repeat. Today, I shall mention just one or two of them. It makes the following points: that the UK Border Agency requirements of tier 4 sponsors have changed 16 times since 2009, making it incredibly difficult for sponsors to keep track of requirements; that changes have been made to visa requirements in the middle of the universities’ admission cycle, which has led to individual institutions having to review by hand thousands of offers already made to prospective students; that the UK Border Agency helpline is often unable to answer questions about changes to the rules; and—this is a particularly important point—that universities frequently tell Universities UK that they have received no feedback from the UK Border Agency following a tier 4 audit visit, either to inform them that they are compliant or to point out shortcomings or potential weaknesses. Many universities are making this point to Universities UK, and I hope that the Government will take it up.
Secondly, and most important of all in the light of all that I have said, I strongly support the recommendations of the five Lords and Commons Select Committees, including the Public Accounts Committee. It must be rare to have five committees from both Houses making the same points time and again. I am not sure that I can recall that ever happening before in my long period. It is important therefore that the Government take heed of what they have all said and remove international students from the net migration target. All five committees have powerfully argued the case. I quote from just one, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, reporting in September 2012. It states:
“Whilst we understand that the UN definition of migration includes overseas students the Government is under no obligation to use that definition for the development of domestic policy”.
That is a fundamental point: it is perfectly reasonable to have the figures under the UN definition, but they should not be used for the development of domestic policy. The committee goes on:
“Removing overseas students from the Government’s migration targets would allow universities to compete on a level playing field with their international competitors”.
That is again an absolutely fundamental point. By changing the system, we would come into line with what happens in America, Australia and Canada, where they are making great appeals to overseas students. The report continues:
“It would also allow the Home Office to concentrate on economic migrants and their value to the United Kingdom”.
That is a point that I made earlier. The report goes on:
“We recommend that, for domestic policy purposes, overseas students should be recorded under a separate classification”—
we are moving, thank goodness, towards that—
“not be counted against the overall limit on net migration. That does not mean that we wish to hide the level of overseas students studying in the UK. The Government could make clear the distinction by publishing, alongside its net migration data, detailed information on the number of overseas students studying in the UK, their country of origin, the number who remain here after they have completed their studies and the number who remain in higher education”.
The committee then makes the following, terribly important point:
“Such an approach would make clear the difference between permanent immigration and study and crucially it would demonstrate clearly that the United Kingdom welcomes overseas students and values the contribution they make to our economy”.
I could not put it better myself. I stress again that such a change would bring our universities into line with the systems in our major competitor countries.
Yesterday, all five chairmen of the committees wrote to the Prime Minister on this point in view of his forthcoming visit to India, where the problem is most acute. I cannot recall an occasion on which the chairmen of five Commons and Lords committees have taken such action. I am sure that, on his visit, the Prime Minister will yet again powerfully and splendidly promote the cause of British exports. This change would be most timely and welcome in relation to one of Britain’s key export sectors.
At the Conservative Party conference in October 2011, the Prime Minister said:
“I want the best and brightest … scientists and students from around the world to get the red carpet treatment”.
I say amen to that. It is precisely what this change would do. My noble friend on the Front Bench has a deservedly high reputation in this House. I am sure that he will listen. I hope that, as a result of this debate, he will feel able to pursue both these points, on the UK Border Agency and on taking the migration statistics out of the target, with the relevant colleagues in government. If he can achieve progress on that front, it will be warmly welcomed by very many in this Chamber.
My Lords, may I point out that, on the mathematics of the speakers list that we have in front of us, we actually have three minutes each?
My Lords, it is a pleasure for me today to follow the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, as it was when he was Secretary of State for Education and I was his Higher Education Minister. Our vision then for higher education, as it remains now, is of a UK universities system that is internationalist and open to ideas, people and collaborations from across the world, with a diversified student body and diversified sources of finance and less dependence on the taxpayer. That remains the vision of Ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, but it is apparently not the vision of the Home Office.
The message that comes from government is confused but is interpreted across the world as being that international students are no longer welcome in Britain. As a result, applications are down, particularly among postgraduate students, which is a great worry, and the share of the market in international students achieved by our universities is stagnant when it could be so strong. The best and the brightest, whom the Prime Minister wishes to encourage, are those who can most easily go elsewhere.
Why does the Home Office have a veto over BIS? The Home Office is pursuing in blinkers an inappropriate political pledge at the cost of damaging universities, our economy, our culture and our influence across the world. This is nothing to do with stemming the flow into this country of poorly skilled migrants, which is indeed a threat to employment and public services. It is nothing to do with dealing with the rackets at bogus colleges. There is a systemic failure in government.
Who are staff at the UK Border Agency to second-guess universities as to whom it is appropriate to admit? I fear that staff at the UK Border Agency are not themselves the brightest and the best. I hope that the Minister has had the opportunity to read the evidence given to us by Million+ on behalf of Modern Universities. It is a story of ever changing regulations, constant threats to universities and an absence of guiding principles and a proper code of conduct. There are reports of staff monitoring universities who are ignorant and sometimes in breach of the law and who behave with a rudeness and an incompetence that are entirely unacceptable. The tone of the Home Office and the UKBA in this area has been deplorable.
The Home Secretary has said that there should be an extra 100,000 out-of-country interviews. How is she to ensure that the agencies that carry out these interviews will be competent and not corrupt? One can only fear that this is part of a plan to reduce drastically the number of visas granted in the run-up to the general election.
It is right therefore, as the noble Lord and five Select Committees have said, that these statistics should be disaggregated while complying with the UN requirements so that university-sponsored students are taken out of the net target for migration. In that—
My Lords, there are only three minutes each. People need to sit down the minute the clock hits three. I am afraid that there is no leeway.
I will simply say then that universities, business, cultural institutions and politicians of all parties are asking the Home Office to listen to what is being said and to change its approach. I very much hope that the Minister will be willing to do so today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for raising this important subject. I declare an interest as a visiting fellow at the University of Sussex and as a former university teacher. I also echo the thoughts expressed by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, about how as a House we undoubtedly condemn the bogus student issue and welcome the fact that the Home Office has moved to disaggregate the statistics.
Nevertheless, according to the 2011 figures, 566,000 people came through immigration into the UK and 351,000 left, so net migration was 215,000. As we have heard, the Home Office has a target of reducing this by the next general election, in 2015, to less than 100,000. In 2011, 174,000 non-EU overseas students enrolled to study at UK higher education institutions. We know from the Home Office research based on the 2004 cohort of students that only about 3% of these students actually remain permanently in the UK in jobs after five years. Therefore, of those 174,000 students fewer than 10,000 will be added to the net immigration figures.
However, the UK Border Agency has a target to cut net immigration to the tens of thousands. If it could cut the number of students by 50,000—from about 175,000 to 125,000—by tightening up on student visas, that would mean only a short-term gain, not a long-term one. If the figure is reduced to 125,000 and only a very few remain, that would mean only 3,000 to 4,000 remaining.
I can only assume that this is a Home Office strategy, because it is making it as difficult as possible for those from non-EU countries to come here as students. Only yesterday, when I was at UCL giving a seminar on a masters course, I heard of a student from Lebanon who had been lined up to come here and join the course. She had filled in all the forms and been through the interview but in the end failed to meet the deadline for applications and was turned down because the Border Agency and the company that it uses failed to tell her whether she had passed the interview. This is a cheap, short-sighted strategy and not worthy of this country.
My Lords, following on from the excellent and constructive introduction by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, I just want to ask some questions. In the face of such compelling evidence of the damage that this policy is doing to our reputation and long-term benefits, why are the Government not willing to remove international students from their target to reduce net migration as recommended by five Select Committees, including EU Sub-Committee F, of which I am a member? If all the changes that the Government felt necessary have been implemented to tackle abuse of the system, why will the Government not change their policy and use the opportunity to join the British Council, of which I am a deputy chairman, Universities UK, UKCISA, of which I am a president, and others in a drive to say that international students are welcome in the UK?
The benefits that will result from this change in policy are glaringly obvious: it would enable universities, the British Council and embassies to speak with one authentic voice in promoting the UK’s welcoming image to overseas students and it would enable UKBA to work collaboratively with universities to ensure visa compliance. It would be a positive outcome for everyone. At present the negative messages are undercutting the excellent and constructive work of organisations such as the British Council and the universities.
The British Council is creating new partnerships and sustaining long-term ones to encourage students and is building trust. The Government should be capitalising on this work and taking advantage of the growing global market for students. Competition is growing from countries such as Australia and Canada. The best and most innovative research comes from international collaboration; nearly half the UK’s research staff and PhD students are non-UK nationals. We should be ensuring that all policy initiatives support the objective of attracting international students, treating them well while they are here and building long-term good will in the national interest.
Furthermore, the process for obtaining a student visa has become far more extended, complex and confusing. The additional imposition from April of face-to-face interviews for students is yet another example. It is an obstacle race from start to end when the students are here. Why can the government agencies not work collaboratively with universities to improve matters? It is time we were told why the Government are continuing to pursue a policy that is so against our long-term interests.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market for securing this crucial debate and for the clarity of his introduction. My recent association with the University of Huddersfield has been illuminating on this issue. I declare an interest both as a former member of the council of that university and as an honorary graduate.
Huddersfield University has been crucial in supporting community cohesion in West Yorkshire, where there are substantial Asian minorities. One of the keystones has been the university’s work with overseas students. It has welcomed significant numbers, notably from Asia. This has been a two-way process, with the university validating degrees in east Asia. That interplay has emphasised those values for which Britain has been famous, including tolerance and good government.
Overall, we have established a remarkable reputation not only for tolerance but also for offering education to overseas students. In earlier times, other rather less welcoming nations might have been less ready to accept people such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to their shores. Any number of political leaders across the world have spent part of their university education here. As the British Medical Association pointed out in its recent briefing, we have also gained enormously from other countries through medics who have trained here and have stayed.
I turn now to a different scenario. In the 1990s, while I was working at Lambeth Palace, we established the St Andrew’s Trust. This has brought students from Russia, Georgia and other countries to study theology and pastoral care. Those students return to their countries to occupy positions of significant influence. That initiative was intentionally dovetailed with the Government’s Chevening scholarships at the same time as the Government were developing the Know How Fund, for the same objective of soft power.
In a wide-ranging briefing, Professor Edward Acton, the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, pointed to a clamour for the rules on student visa applications to be changed. It is common sense for students to be in a different category, as the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, suggested, and treated as temporary migrants, so that both they and we can benefit from their attendance at our universities. Operating now in a market economy, our universities need to attract overseas students to help to balance the books.
Saint Benedict, whom I cited in an earlier debate today, called his monks to welcome all into community. They want to welcome them, he said, as if they were Christ. That seems to me to be a principle to which, of whatever religion or none we may be, we might want to adhere. I strongly urge Her Majesty’s Government to review the policy in the ways suggested by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, and to once again welcome those who ultimately benefit our economy, as our own policies elsewhere suggest.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for tabling the debate. I declare an interest as someone who often works with universities, particularly east Asian student communities, organisations and bodies.
When our country is in desperate need of growth, the question of how we treat visitors to it is of utmost importance. As the son of a Chinese immigrant, I support carefully managed immigration and deplore the previous Government’s mismanagement of it. However, I must say that I am unconvinced that today’s Home Office and UKBA approach to student visas will address the two underlying root causes of uncontrolled net migration from Europe and a lack of imagination.
Let me start with Europe. Because we are part of the EU—I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent pledge to renegotiate our relationship with it—we have the ability neither to police migration from within the EU nor to prevent people from engaging in welfare tourism. That is likely to intensify from 2014 onwards. What can we do about it? It seems that the answer right now is not very much. Instead, we attack non-EU university students, few of whom have been proven to abuse the welcome that we give them, as a means retrospectively to deal with excessive EU immigration.
The consequences of that policy are potentially ruinous: lower growth as fewer students come to stay, invest and create jobs; a decrease in trade, with fewer people able to help us to communicate with the emerging economies of the world; and universities declining and less able to rely on exporting education to balance their books. A policy goal and target that in themselves are well motivated better to manage immigration risk becoming tools for protectionism, economic decline and European hegemony over our sovereign affairs.
However, with more imagination, we could reverse the damage being done while still meeting our objective of having better, more carefully managed net migration. We should start with the basics: exclude students from the immigration statistics, like most other developed countries; have simpler, more affordable visa processes; authorise visas for part-time masters; and let students and other immigrants stay to work after their studies, particularly for trade-related roles.
Let us use our foreign aid to help countries where most of our immigrants come from to create better alternative destinations than ours. Let us encourage some of our young people to emigrate and learn how to do business in emerging markets, reducing the net migration totals in the process. It is time to stop making the international student the bogeyman of our dysfunctional EU-directed immigration policy. Are my noble friend and the head of UKBA willing to meet me and others to discuss more innovative ways to help to manage immigration and to help this country to grow again?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for holding the Government’s hands to the flame on this crucial issue. I declare an interest as a member of the council of UCL.
President Obama made a speech yesterday from which I wish to quote because it shows what we are up against. He talked about the brilliant students studying in the US from all over the world, earning degrees in the fields of the future. who want to turn their big ideas into big business. He wants America to help those students to stay because,
“if you succeed, you’ll create American businesses. And American jobs”.
Other countries appreciate the long-term strategic importance of international education. The risk for us is that we have our priorities wrong—that we are complacent about our leading place in this fiercely competitive field and squander our advantage as a result.
The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, referred to the unprecedented move of five Select Committee chairs today urging the Prime Minister, if he is committed to growth in the market in which the UK excels, to add action to words, remove students from the net migration target and encourage them to choose the UK. In the light of that, will the Minister urge the Prime Minister to reconsider? I echo the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, about government targets. How will the Government meet the target of reducing net migration if not by reducing substantially international student numbers?
I make one final point about figures. Universities’ real fear is that the rate of growth is slowing, but today’s UCAS figures showed an increase in international student applications, so why the anxiety? Those figures give a very partial picture. UCAS figures represent only 20% of the total intake to universities. They exclude postgraduate students and are figures for applications only; many will not translate into enrolment. A far more accurate picture can be gained by looking at figures for actual enrolment. The statistics agency HESA has just published the figures on the number of new entrants to universities in 2011-12. They show a decrease for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Those figures are a warning of what might happen if we do not change course. Does the Minister acknowledge that the latest, more worrying, figures give us a more accurate picture of what is happening to international student numbers?
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for securing this important debate and declare an interest as the chancellor of the University of Exeter, where we have had a rapid rise in the number of international students because we have reached out to the world by creating one of the UK’s most successful world-class universities. We are proud to have 5,000 exceptionally brilliant international students from 140 countries, including China, Hong Kong, India, Vietnam and the USA.
These international students make a massive contribution to increasing diversity and have a positive impact on the life of the university and international understanding in the south-west, where celebrations such as Diwali and the Chinese New Year are now firm dates in the city’s calendar. This is vital in an area that does not enjoy the same level of cultural diversity as London and other inner cities. International friendships forged in the south-west will benefit us all long term.
At a time of financial insecurity we should also acknowledge the positive economic impact that our international students have on jobs and local investment. An independent study that we commissioned from Oxford Economics found that our international students contributed over £88 million a year to Exeter’s GDP and supported 2,880 jobs. In the south-west economy, that rises to over £104 million per year and 3,280 jobs.
This success is at risk if we do not continue to provide a warm welcome to international students. Why are the Government proposing to do the reverse? Universities in other countries will take our market share. This makes no sense because in this competitive international market students can go anywhere to study where they feel welcomed. From my personal experience on graduation days, I know that they love coming here. Higher education is a great British success story and we should not damage its future international competitiveness. I beg the Government to reconsider.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for introducing this debate so carefully and for laying out the issues so accurately. I agree with everything that he said. It is not often that a politician hears that, but today one does. I want to take a different route, however, and I must give an account of my own links with universities. I have links with more than a dozen universities, which I would be happy to spell out on another occasion.
I will start with a team list. It is an international team: from Hungary, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner; from Switzerland, Felix Bloch and Otto Frisch; from the Netherlands, George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit; and from Germany, Rudolf Peierls, Gregor Wentzel, Bernard Peters, Hans Bethe, James Franck, Charlotte Riefenstahl and Wolfgang Pauli. They were all members of Robert Oppenheimer’s team in the Manhattan project in Los Alamos. They were recruited to that team by Oppenheimer and they were recruited because they clung to Oppenheimer. They were bright physicists—some won Nobel prizes both before and after Los Alamos—and with them the centre for physics research, at a critical time in the history of the West, moved to the USA.
Oppenheimer met all these scientists in his early studies as a postgraduate in Europe in the late 1920s. All of them were willing to attach themselves to Oppenheimer. By then many of them were already working in the USA. What moved them around is the fact that science and physics are international. They worked together, driven by intellectual curiosity and by enthusiasm for their subject and not limited by national boundaries. They were willing, ready and able to move at a time of critical importance and they all were all key members—I am indebted to Ray Monk’s biography of Robert Oppenheimer for this—of Oppenheimer’s team that got access to this important research before Hitler could capitalise on it.
I ask now: where would we be today? That was a climate of opinion that encouraged this international movement, driven by curiosity and intellectual ability. Is that what the Government have in their current policy? As we are hearing all round in this debate, the answer is no. Interestingly—I include a footnote saying that I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for this quotation—Churchill said:
“We had better German scientists than the Germans”.
That made the difference and it was a critical difference. I put it to noble Lords that the lumbering system that has been set up does not serve us well. We have a lesson to learn from history.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, said it all. I would like to add a couple of minutes-worth from the perspective of my role as chair of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance. I understand the dilemmas of trying to curb immigration, but extending control to students has gone too far. It is undermining a highly profitable British export while diminishing the intellectual and cultural vitality of our nation. Nowhere is this truer than in music and dance, which by their nature are international. They are for all human beings.
Just as talented students from India and China want to come here to study music, we are slamming the door in their faces. To add a music point, one of the great attractions of our music conservatoires was the two-year rule whereby students could work in music two years after they graduated. Some 29% of our masters students took advantage of that route to the great benefit of our culture and their careers. That is now vastly more difficult. First, you have to show that you can earn £21,000 a year, and that is not easy for a student. Secondly, you have to be able to cite an employer. If you are a musician, you usually have a portfolio career as a freelancer and you do not have an employer. This route is therefore barred to them. Many of them, as a result, are not going to come.
Even the exception for exceptional talent is a not a very good one. You have to go back to your country of origin to apply. You then have to have the application endorsed by a competent body such as the UK Arts Council. There is, in any case, a limit of 1,000 on places. When you take that into account, the attractions for music students are being reduced so that we will become a second-class power where, in many ways, we have led the world. The sooner we exempt students from these rules, the better.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor. I thank Universities UK for its invaluable briefing, and I speak in support of three of the issues it has raised.
First, although at 13% we are currently second in the market for overseas students after the USA, there is growing competition for such students. Canada wanted to double the number of overseas students there and not make entry more difficult, as this Government are doing. Secondly, we have already heard about the five parliamentary Select Committees, and their follow-up letter. Let us hope that it works a miracle. Thirdly, we should remember the significant contribution that these students make to their university towns and cities. The University of Exeter has been mentioned. Its report estimated that the GDP generated by its overseas students directly supported no fewer than 2,480 jobs in that city. Contacts with fellow students from overseas can lead to future research or business opportunities for British graduates as well as for themselves in other countries later on.
As a trustee of the internationally renowned Architectural Association School of Architecture, I am reminded of the successes which graduates from that school have achieved. The noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, has his world headquarter offices in London, from which outstanding international buildings are designed and built; or, to take an example of a younger brilliant generation, Chris Lee, originally an overseas AA student from Singapore, has set up a successful collaborative office for his generation of architects in Britain, from which they, too, are designing buildings all around the world.
However, unsurprisingly, the AA school is even less happy than Universities UK with the current Government’s policy for overseas students. Because the AA school is classed as an independent private school, overseas students with a tier 4 visa at the AA are not permitted to work during term time or in vacations, yet overseas students studying for an architectural degree at a UK University can—all this despite the fact that the AA school has achieved full accreditation by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, and has the same tier 4 visas. Like other noble Lords, I can only hope that the Government will now agree to remove genuine overseas students from the category of illegal immigrants.
My Lords, like other Members of this House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I have an interest that has expired so recently that I should mention it: until the end of the previous month, I was Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen.
The general points have been made by all speakers that graduate students coming from overseas are extremely welcome, not just for the fees but because they enhance the whole student experience at the university to which they come. Secondly, assuming, as is the case for most, that they have been well treated, when they leave they are life-long friends and ambassadors for Britain, and points of contact.
Nor is there any doubt that we have severely damaged the reputation we have for welcoming overseas students. To pluck one statistic out of the air, the number of overseas students coming to Scotland from India in the past year has dropped by over a quarter. That is just one of the countries involved.
A number of practical things could perhaps be done. I will raise two and ask whether the Minister will look at them. First, there was until recently in Scotland a very good scheme called Fresh Talent, under which my students could stay on and have their visa extended for two years. I know from experience that some of the people who did this were very valuable to the economy in Scotland and very valuable when they went back to their home countries.
There was a similar scheme in England for a shorter period. That was cancelled a few years ago. Is the Minister prepared to have that looked at again? It was an extremely good scheme. It has been to some extent replaced by another scheme whereby MBA or PhD students can stay on provided that they have what is called “skilled work”. That is a very good idea. I suggest that the numbers are much too small; the total is 1,000 visa places.
There is another issue, which perhaps affects some parts of the country more than others. Skilled work means that one is getting a salary of at least £24,000 a year. That seems excessive, since, in the case of Scotland, the average graduate salary is £21,500 per year. I ask the Minister whether that could be looked at again to get a more realistic salary level.
Above all, as other noble Lords have said, we have created an atmosphere that suggests that students from overseas are unwelcome. Many noble Lords have suggested that figures for immigration should not include students. I totally agree. Above all, surely we must give the impression not that overseas students are unwelcome but that they are very much valued and very welcome in this country.
My Lords, it is a great delight to follow the noble Lord and to support my noble friend Lord MacGregor. I declare an interest as a member of the council of Hull University, as a senior associate and member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and as somebody who lives in Lincoln, where we have two new but vigorous universities.
The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, can be echoed year after year. At this very moment, there are four recent graduates of St Antony’s College, Oxford, in the new Mexican Government. From that postgraduate college in Oxford, young men and women attain positions of influence and authority in their countries year after year. Are we really saying to those who apply, “You are not welcome.”? That is increasingly the impression that they are getting.
The vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln said to me that having the “highly trusted” status conferred on it by the UK Border Agency makes it an adjunct to that agency, yet it then finds itself criticised for unreasonable delay and inexplicable changes in rules and regulations. It is a wholly unsatisfactory situation. We are giving a very bad impression that this country, which over the centuries has welcomed so many and nurtured so many talents, is not as welcoming as it should be. It is in flat contradiction to the policies of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and to the underlying ethos of the foreign policy of the Foreign Secretary. It is, frankly, wrong to have a policy that is unwelcoming, unhelpful and unimaginative and that does none of us any service.
I do not wish to see illicit immigrants benefiting from the rules of this country, but it is far better that the odd rogue should get in and stay in than that we should turn away someone who may win a future Nobel prize or be a Prime Minister of a Commonwealth or other country. That really imbalances what it is all about. I beg the Government to have a policy that is sensitive, imaginative, understanding and that redresses the unfortunate impression that has been given over the past two and a half years.
My Lords, a particularly worrying aspect of the figures that have recently become available is the fall in the numbers of overseas postgraduate students that they record.
A reality of UK universities is that postgraduate courses in all subjects are largely sustained by overseas students. There are very few native British postgraduate students. There is virtually no provision for the support of postgraduate students via grants or bursaries. In order to sustain themselves on their courses, students must vie for posts as teaching assistants. It must be acknowledged that the widespread use of postgraduate students to assist in the teaching of undergraduate courses is having a deleterious effect on the quality of the education. An inevitable consequence of the dearth of native postgraduate students will be evident to anyone who visits a university department. There are declining numbers of native British academics within the departments, and they tend to be the older members who are passing into retirement.
Within many departments, the junior staff, who are predominantly recruited from abroad, are staying for periods of only two or three years before moving on, either to their countries of origin or to other English-speaking nations. Nowadays, many European universities are open to English-speaking academics, whatever their countries of origin may be. In the departments in which I have served, the annual rate of staff turnover has rarely fallen below 20% in recent years, and on occasion a full 30% have left at the end of the year.
What I am asserting is that British universities are in peril. My own perceptions, which have been derived from first-hand experience, contrast markedly with the self-congratulatory tenor of some of the accounts of the university system that I have been listening to. Now, we see a Government who are wilfully kicking away some of the props that support the university system, of which the flow of overseas students is a vital one. To me, at least, the motives of the Government are unfathomable.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chancellor of the University of Essex. I am proud to say that it is the second most international university in the UK after the London School of Economics. Forty per cent of our students come from outside the UK and, in postgraduate studies, 46% come from outside the EU, so we know a bit about the impact of the changes made in recent times. In a country which is so proud of its internationalism, which has given the world its language and which has a university sector that, as many have said, is the jewel in our crown in many ways, it seems extraordinary that we should have done what we have, knowing what happened when the same thing was done in, for example, Canada and Australia. It seems unhappily bizarre.
I should like to add to what many noble Lords have said, correctly, about the hidden benefits of our universities—the invisible aspect, if you like. Everybody has, rightly, mentioned the experience of our foreign guests, but I put it to the House that the embellishment of the experience of our native students is no less important and, in some ways, more important. It widens their horizons, gives them sympathies they would otherwise lack, and creates relationships that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Do not ever let us underestimate the sheer human factor of these bonds, which last a lifetime and spell out positive vibes in a strange and negative world.
I want to touch briefly on bureaucracy. The new regime is bureaucratic to a degree. It is demoralising for the universities; it is obfuscating for students at home and abroad who wish to come here; and it is hugely expensive. At Essex we are spending £100,000 a year just on policing what are called the confirmation of acceptance for studies arrangements—God help us. In this world of fierce competition vis-à-vis university students, let us not score this own goal for a minute longer. As the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, said in opening this debate so well, let us create a level playing field again.
I declare that I am chief executive of London First, whose members include higher education institutions. My brief contribution today will follow the same theme as pursued by many who have already spoken.
I fully endorse the Government’s quest for an immigration policy that supports growth, addresses public concern and clamps down on bogus students. However, our actual policy is based on incomplete data and tends towards populism.
First, we have a net migration target, the paradox of which is that if fewer Brits retire to Spain and more Poles arrive to do our plumbing, we close our doors to international workers and students. Secondly, we base our policy on figures from the Office for National Statistics, which, frankly, has no idea how many students return home after studying in the UK, even though they make up about half our non-EU migrants. All this leaves international students as a random balancing number at the tail end of our immigration policy.
Given that we have four of the best universities in the world and that higher education is our eighth highest export, we are playing a risky game of economic roulette with the £5 billion that those students contribute. That is without adding the valuable diplomatic ties of their alumni—Bill Clinton, Indira Gandhi or Aung San Suu Kyi, to name a few from Oxford.
Encouraging figures regarding more applications from India and China were released by UCAS yesterday, but they are a small sample and should be set against the fuller data for the past two years. Indian and Pakistani students have fallen by about a quarter, and the Financial Times business education league table shows that MBA students have declined by about a fifth. Early research indicates that the policy of reducing post-study work options is a factor. I know of at least one major accountancy firm whose principal non-EU graduate intake is Indian, because it is expanding its offices in India and likes to train its graduates in London beforehand. Are we trying to hobble it? Our closest competitors, Australia and the USA, have no target to reduce international students, have more robust data, and are implementing or considering more flexible post-study work routes.
I understand that the Government wish to ensure the legitimacy and quality of migrants, but we should not create a climate where students feel that they are unwelcome because of the rhetoric around targets or because of unnecessary inflexibility. The fact is that we excel at higher education and make money exporting it. We should shout this from the rooftops and do more, not less.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for instituting this debate. For too long we have been playing hide and seek with Parliamentary Questions, and it was time that we had a proper debate. I declare an interest as a member of the council of the University of Kent and as one of the guilty men—I think they are all men—who signed their committees’ reports.
First, I will say a word about the figures, which are frankly not at all as Ministers and the Government have presented them to the House for many months. The latest figures show a drop in the enrolment of first-year non-EU overseas students in 2012 of 0.4% and that non-EU overseas students for postgraduate taught degrees fell by 2%. When the Government said that the overall numbers of non-EU students were up by 1.5%, as they did, they failed to reveal that that figure resulted from increases of students from multi-year courses admitted before the Government’s immigration policy began to bite, and they concealed the downward trend now under way.
The drop in postgraduates was the first for 10 years, and the only reason that the figures were not even worse was because of the continued growth of Chinese students, which has masked, to some extent, the sharp drop in students from the Indian subcontinent. All this will be a lot clearer, of course, once the Government’s welcome commitment to presenting student immigration statistics separately from general immigration statistics takes effect. However, that will not solve the problem. It will simply make it easier to understand and to assess.
Those figures are bad enough in themselves, but they are a lot worse when you realise that the overall market for overseas students continues to expand rapidly and that Britain has, for many years, been a world leader. We are second in the league table, with 13% of the market in 2010. Our figures should have been going up, not stagnating or declining, if our market share was to be sustained. BIS estimates are that the £8 billion contribution of higher education to our economy will rise to £16.9 billion by 2025. A continuation of the present trends on admissions will inevitably lead to that figure being revised downwards.
No one disputes that Britain’s universities are among the best in the world, so higher education has the actual performance and the prospective capacity to be among the most successful invisible exports that we have. Even if, over time, more overseas undergraduates do their first degrees at home, as could very well be the case, we should be well placed to secure a substantial share of the postgraduate market. That makes the recent drop in that category of admissions even more alarming.
We are told a lot by Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, that we are in a global race for exports. Why, then, are the Government making the higher education sector, with all its capacity for expansion, an entry in the sack race? What needs to be done to remedy this deplorable situation? It is no good the Government thinking that the odd ministerial statement about Britain being open to business and about welcoming the best and the brightest will do the trick, particularly when such statements are usually heavily overlaid, as was the Home Secretary’s recent one, by the imposition of new layers of immigration bureaucracy, which will inevitably further discourage applications. What is needed is nothing less than to remove international students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, from their target to reduce—
Yes. I have been chased around all day by noble Lords on the government Front Bench and I am close to the end.
Otherwise, the fact that students are the largest category of migrants and that 75% of those are university students will act as a chilling factor.
I am sorry. I am coming to the last sentence.
What damage will the Government do by doing what all these committees ask? These students are not taking jobs away: they are bringing jobs to this country. They are financing British jobs. I hope that the Minister, who may be feeling a little lonely today and who is well known for his sympathetic responses, will set about changing this disastrous policy.
My Lords, I am involved in the governance of the University of Newcastle and the University of Lancaster and, after 30 years as a governor, I am now an emeritus governor of the LSE. We live in a highly interdependent global community. To be relevant, each centre of higher education, as a community of scholars, must be a living international community. This is indispensable to the very quality of education that they provide. Present arrangements potentially damage that quality.
Why do we have a one-size-fits-all approach? Why on earth should universities with a strong record of not losing touch with their students and with low dropout rates have to go through the bureaucratic hoops and expense of attendance registers and the rest? It hardly enhances their dignity and attraction as mature communities of self-motivated students. What really is the rationale for treating students as any other immigrant instead of being in a separate category, as happens in many other countries?
An aggravating factor is the regional differences in the operation of UKBA. This adds to the uncertainty. Recruitment from India, especially of postgraduates, is certainly at risk. After China, India is hugely important in this context. The removal of the post-study work experience scheme particularly hits Indian recruitment. There are disturbing differences between what Ministers say about the vital need to win overseas students to the UK and what the too-often insensitive and unimaginative operation of UKBA presents in practice.
It boils down to this: are we determined to appear to the future leaders across the world as a neurotic, bureaucratic, small-minded, defensive little island to the north of Europe, so why go there to study, or as a dynamic, self-confident and welcoming player in the global community, which is an excellent place to be a student?
My Lords, as an erstwhile foreign student in this country, I assure noble Lords that those of us who studied here in the halcyon days when we did not have to be measured by how much money we had took home wonderful memories and remain committed to this country. I guess that the 3% who stay now and those who, like me, returned generally do so for love rather than money. The good will that has been created so painfully over so many years is being completely destroyed by the Kafkaesque quagmire that is being created for the students who want to come here and for those who want to extend their visas by three or six months in order to complete their theses, about whom I particularly want to speak.
I cite the case of a single student, but I know that it represents a large number of others. This student had the necessary £10,000 in her account for the necessary 28 days before and all the rest of it. However, although she transferred the £10,000 from the deposit account into her current account, the day that this was being measured by the Home Office somehow it made a mistake.
The problem is that there is no one person to go to. If there is a mistake in your case, the only way to deal with it is to go to court. So the student had to hire a lawyer and go to court. The first court decided that she should leave. Then she had to appeal to a tribunal, which decided that the first court had erred but it did not give her any money; it did not reimburse her. Nor did it give her any evidence of its decision so that she could legally stay here. So the lawyer had to start again, making phone calls, and it took the student six months to assert her right to be in this country, by which time she was £10,000 the poorer. How she is going to stay here, complete her thesis and live is, for me, a problem. I do not see that students such as this or stories such as this are going to generate good will towards this country or bring back people who, like me, have remained committed for ever to this land.
My Lords, we are one country. I hope that we all want some degree of immigration control and we all should want our universities to flourish and bring us wealth now and influence in the future. It is therefore extraordinary that we have ended up with two bits of our country working so diametrically against each other. Universities need the UKBA to be a partner in their marketing, to help them in the recruitment of students and to work with them. As we all know, we are seeing exactly the opposite. UKBA needs universities to help it in controlling immigration. As my noble friend Lord Phillips said, they are extremely unhelpful to the UKBA in doing so. They grouse and some of them really do not do what they should at all. The result has been a total breakdown in trust and in relationships. It meant that, when London Metropolitan University erred severely, the reaction of UKBA was completely irrational, except that there was no trust and no relationship on which to base a better reaction.
We need a fresh start. I know a lot of people are making an effort towards it, as I am—in a small way—along with the British Council and Imperial College. We had a very good meeting with the UKBA in December but things have now gone silent. I am sure my noble friend on the Front Bench knows what is happening. There is still lingering resentment and anger within the UKBA which is preventing these initiatives going forward. I very much hope that he will allow me a meeting with him and with the Minister to see if we can do something about that. Perhaps in many small ways we can build personal relationships by making small changes and experiments and by taking incentives. For universities like Imperial, that should be a gentle move towards something like a most trusted status. We need some way of removing the requirements of unnecessary immigration controls, just as they have been removed for independent schools. You do not find Imperial students wandering off to work as assistants in burger bars; they have far too much to do on their degrees.
There is a lot that can be done and I very much hope that my noble friend will help us do it.
My Lords, during my childhood in India there was never any doubt that I would study here in Britain. My family has been educated here for three generations and I was brought up to believe that British education, along with that in the United States, is the best in the world. The point that has not yet been made is that foreign students enrich British universities and the experience of domestic students. We are in competition with Canada, Australia and the United States in particular.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for initiating the debate. I agree 100% with everything he said in his very thorough speech and I am not going to repeat it. When the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was Education Minister, I fought very hard in this House about the two-year postgraduate work visa and we managed to get unanimous support for it in this House. The Government listened; they changed their mind and it made a huge difference. I do not think the Government realise that for a foreign student, particularly one from India, in purchasing power parity terms it is really expensive to study in this country. Those two years help them to work and thus pay taxes, and save some money to pay for their education and enrich their bridge-building with this country for generations to come.
Let us look at the way the UKBA behaved towards London Metropolitan University, an issue which has already been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I studied there for a year before I went to Cambridge, and I am an honorary graduate and visiting professor. That action has set alarm bells ringing for potential foreign students around the world. The perception it created has become a reality so far as Indian students are concerned. The UKBA cannot even keep tabs on illegal immigration, but here it is going around shutting universities and kicking out innocent students, giving them 60 days to find another place. There is a presumption of guilt rather than innocence. I thought that we had a sense of fairness in this country and that you are innocent until proven guilty.
I have a few specific questions to ask the Minister about how London Metropolitan University has been treated that I should like him to answer. First, which agencies and government departments were involved in the decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s tier 4 licence? Secondly, when was London Metropolitan University informed about the decision to revoke its tier 4 licence? Thirdly, how many London Metropolitan university students did not have the appropriate leave to remain on 29 August 2012, the day the licence was revoked? If the Government keep on including student numbers in their immigration figures because they have a target to meet, they will have to reduce the number of students. A reduction of 50,000 overseas students will hit the economy by at least £3 billion.
I conclude by saying that the Government must listen to the five committees, to the unanimous voice of this House today, and to the unanimous voice of the higher education sector. The Government have performed many U-turns already, from pasties to the aircraft for our aircraft carriers. Steve Jobs said that:
“Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence”.
John Maynard Keynes said:
“When the facts change, I change my mind”.
The facts have changed. I would say to the Government: listen to us and remove student numbers from the target immigration figures right now, please.