Wednesday, 27 February 2013.
My Lords, if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations (Amendment) Order 2013
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations (Amendment) Order 2013 will amend the legislation governing the existing renewable transport fuel obligation scheme. The small group of amendments is significant in our efforts to tackle climate change, and complete our transposition of the EU Fuel Quality Directive.
Article 7a of the FQD requires suppliers to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of the fuel they supply by 6% by the end of 2020, against a 2010 baseline. This order would extend the RTFO to cover suppliers of liquid fossil fuel for additional end uses required by the FQD. These end uses are: non-road mobile machinery, including inland waterway vessels that do not normally operate at sea; agricultural and forestry tractors; and recreational craft that do not normally operate at sea.
Suppliers of fuel for end uses covered by the RTFO need to demonstrate that, for a certain proportion of the fossil fuel they supply, greenhouse gas savings are delivered through the supply of sustainable renewable fuels. In addition, the amending order would make express provision for an unpaid civil penalty issued under the RTFO to be recoverable as a civil debt, together with interest at a specified rate. This would enhance the effective enforcement of the RTFO.
It may be useful if I provide a brief overview of the regulatory framework so that the proposed changes can better be understood. We have recently introduced the Motor Fuel (Road Vehicle and Mobile Machinery) Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting Regulations 2012, to which these amendments closely relate. The GHG regulations require suppliers to report on the greenhouse gas intensity of the fossil fuels that they supply. The Government must obtain this information to meet our obligations under the FQD but are not able to require it under the RTFO scheme.
Both the RTFO and GHG schemes are administered by the same team at the Department for Transport. The reporting requirements of each align as closely as possible to minimise potential burdens on suppliers. The RTFO obligation is met by redeeming renewable transport fuel certificates. The order would enable suppliers of renewable fuel for additional end uses covered by the FQD to be awarded certificates. These could be sold to obligated suppliers.
As the legislation stands, the obligation would be 5% for 2013-14 and thereafter. The order would adjust this figure to 4.74% from 2013-14 to ensure that the proposed expansion of the RTFO scheme does not at this point result in an increase in the absolute volume of biofuel supplied in the UK. This is necessary because of concerns about the sustainability of some biofuels when emissions from indirect land use change are taken into account. The Commission proposed a directive in October to address ILUC. Until such time as ILUC is resolved, we are not in a position to increase the obligation level on suppliers under the RTFO. We will, however, keep this under review.
In 2011 the Government consulted on the expansion of the RTFO provided by this draft order. Further to that consultation, time was provided for suppliers and end users of gas oil to prepare. The RTFO administrator has also provided advice to suppliers and has consulted on amended RTFO guidance relating to the proposed changes. I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, this is a very interesting order and quite complicated for some people to understand. I have a few questions for the Minister.
The first question refers to this issue of non-road mobile machinery. The Minister will be aware that a lot of work and debate took place on this issue, which has been around for some time. The Commission, after much persuasion, produced a directive which was published in October or November 2011 and allowed non-road mobile machinery to continue not to comply with stage III B or the equivalent for a period of three years. That would allow the railway industry—I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group—to purchase locomotives which did not comply with the new directive. There is a good reason for that: nobody had designed a locomotive that would comply, so it was either no locomotives or ones which did not comply. The industry persuaded the Commission of this and since then, surprisingly maybe, one or two designs have popped up. However, there is still a demand for this. It is now one year and three months since the directive was agreed in Brussels but it has not yet been converted into British law. So, technically, although anybody who buys a locomotive—I think that it also applies to tractors and other things off-road—is compliant with EU legislation, they can be taken to court and fined in this country because the Government have not got round to producing these regulations.
Perhaps the Minister can therefore answer two questions. First, when are we going to see these regulations? I hope the answer will not be “soon”, because in many Governments’ terms “soon” probably means a year’s time, and by that time they will have run out of space.
Secondly, what effect will the new regulation converting the directive into UK law have on this order? It seems to me—I may have got it wrong; I stand to be corrected—that we are implementing what is not a very sensible scheme from the Commission to add biofuel to existing fuel, especially when there is a shortage of crop area and crops around the world, which puts up the cost of fuel. Turning some of those crops into bio seems a bit perverse to me. Certainly the Renewable Energy Association believes that this will be a seriously perverse incentive to investment in renewable fuels and renewable generating capacity. It is talking about the market size being reduced to 30% or 40%, jeopardising investment of £1 billion and putting 3,500 jobs at risk. One can dispute those figures, but what consultation has taken place with the Renewable Energy Association? It is a very respectable organisation.
On Monday I attended a sort of round table with the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, our new Treasury Minister, who was extremely good. It was a Chatham House event so I am not going to say who said what. It was to do with investment and infrastructure, and investment in other things that the Government are so keen on at the moment. We were told, and there was general agreement, that there was not much trouble with finding the funds for investment. The two problems were: first, planning—which is going on in the Chamber at the moment; and secondly, some kind of comfort for the investors that the Government are not going to change their mind and change the ground rules or the buy-in price or whatever during the time when investors are trying to get a return on their capital.
I hope that the Government are going to follow-up this particular regulation with a new debate with the Commission as to what is right and what is wrong for biofuels and whether they should be there at all. Current thinking across many parts of the world has probably overtaken the original idea behind this.
The question that I wish to address to the Minister is slightly different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Making renewable fuels is a very complex and difficult thing, and we know that there is a lot of tension between the use of land for agriculture for producing food, and turning that crop into fuel. The noble Earl will recall that we have had discussions before on the question of recycling used cooking oil. This used to enjoy a margin of 20 pence over the ordinary cost of fossil fuels. The Government, in their wisdom, decided to put an end to this and “generously”—in inverted commas—decided that when this cooking oil is converted into fuel, it should enjoy a premium of two renewable fuel certificates.
I would like to know, since this has been in place, how much we are actually paying in the way of money for transport renewable certificates compared with the 20p which was a very definite sum and caused investors to really work hard at this particular subject. I am of the opinion that two renewable fuel certificates do not equal 20 pence, and I would like to know whether they have ever reached that. The important point is that as well as producing renewable fuels, the producers of renewable energy from cooking oil are doing a very important job in removing it from landfill, or stopping it from being tipped into rivers or drains or whatever they do with it. Unless it is worth while for people to collect and refine it, it will end up not being used and being dumped in some form or another on the landscape.
My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who uses red diesel for heating oil, for tractors and also, at times, for generating electricity. In the amendment of Article 3(6) it talks about fuels that do not include a whole lot of additives to improve the fuel in terms of lubricity and various other things. If the renewable fuel is added, I wonder if that actually takes the place of some of these additives, and whether it will lower the freezing point. One of the problems with red diesel is that when it gets down below zero degrees centigrade to about minus eight or 10 degrees, it starts to wax up. I wonder whether the renewable fuel additive will actually help to prevent the freezing or the waxing.
My Lords, I am pleased to be here to talk to this order. I have to say, though, that it is rather a miserly order. I happen to be a great supporter of renewable energy of all forms, and we as the UK have got challenging, legally binding targets to significantly increase the amount of renewable energy we use in our energy systems. These are energy targets, not just electricity targets, which means that the 15% we have to reach applies to transport, heat and electricity. Currently we have one policy that supports renewable fuels in transport and that is the RTFO.
Currently the RTFO is asking for 5% of the fuel supply to be made up of renewable sources and the Government have frozen that level. We know that we are going to need more than 5% in order to hit our targets, yet we have a policy that is frozen in time, with no longevity or future certainty, stuck at 5%. Now we have an order in front of us that is reducing this market further—not increasing it, not providing growth for that industry, not supporting new jobs, not providing UK farmers with new opportunities for selling products—no, freezing it and reducing it.
What is going on? It is almost as if those legal obligations did not exist. Yet they do, so what are we going to do? We will have to scurry at the end to try to build an industry which is there at the moment but is at severe risk of being undermined, of jobs being lost and investors fleeing, because of this continual undermining through these miserly orders that reduce the size of the market for this industry. I am very disappointed to see this coming forward.
It has been said before that you have to think of this in terms of volumes of litres of fuel sold, not just in percentages. Overall, fuel sales in this country are going down, so the percentage is also going down. So when the Government say, “We have to reduce this to 4.7% so that there are not more biofuels being sold”, that is nonsense. Actually that 5% is less and less every time the total fuel sold in this country goes down. Can the Government please explain their logic? They are talking about reducing the size of this market, and I find it particularly objectionable that they would use so-called green credentials to do this.
Apparently, the Government are very concerned about the sustainability of these sources. Yes, that is a very valid concern, which we share. But the UK has the best standards for biofuels of any country; they are world class, yet we are providing only 12% of this market. Why is that? Because there is no certainty, there is no confidence and there is no backing from the Government. This is yet another nail in the coffin of this industry. It is truly regrettable.
The renewable heat incentive also prevents the use of liquid biofuels for the gaining of credits in that market. Are the Government seriously saying that they support this industry? Absolutely not, they are doing everything they can to shrink it and to prevent it from growing. Presumably this is because they are protecting vested interests, because I do not believe that the arguments put forward on sustainability criteria really hold water.
We have had other commentators here. My noble friend Lord Berkeley has raised issues, as has the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has talked about the need to recycle cooking oil. I hope the Minister will come back with answers and, above all, I hope he will explain to us why the Government see fit to keep capping this industry, reducing its market share, and how they expect to generate investment, growth and jobs in the country if they carry on in this way.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about non-road mobile machinery, particularly the railway industry and locomotives, and the emissions regulations. I would like to point out that this order deals with the carbon intensity of the fuel. His point is not actually directly relevant, although I had a very interesting discussion with the officials at the Department for Transport who are directly responsible for this issue. It is quite close but not exactly on the subject. I will write in detail to the noble Lord about where we are on the emissions regulations for railway locomotives.
My Lords, I should imagine that technically they are inextricably linked, but the order deals with the RTFO and carbon intensity. The noble Lord is more worried about the emissions regulations on oxides of nitrogen and particulate emissions from railway locomotives. I have to say that some railway locomotives can best be described as filthy.
The noble Lord also questioned whether the ILUC proposals will harm renewable energy investment, and the noble Baroness touched on the same point. We are keeping levels of biofuels the same due to the ongoing ILUC concerns. We are actively negotiating this issue in Europe, and when the ILUC problem is resolved, we will be able—
I have heard this response before. Perhaps I can talk it through in simple terms. If the total volume of fuel sales is declining, the percentage in volume terms will also decline. Does the Minister accept that the market share in terms of the number of litres of renewable fuel that can be sold declines as fuel sales decline?
My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness is passionate about this issue and I hope that she will allow me to get on to that very point.
When the ILUC problem is resolved, we will be able to increase the total amount of biofuel we create and process. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, we are not reducing the total requirement for biofuel. I accept her point about the percentage of the market, which is going down slightly at the moment due to the economic conditions. Clearly, the total amount of biofuel produced will also go down; I accept the point. However, I do not expect the noble Baroness would be happy if, when the market starts to go up, we were to cap the amount of biofuel. If the market goes up, she would like to see more biofuel being produced—and the market will start to recover at some point.
That is a fairly rash statement, is it not? The latest figures I have seen show that road traffic movements have gone down over the past four years whereas railway passenger numbers have shot up. Is this a change in government policy? Do they expect road traffic volumes to rise again? Is this all down to economic circumstances? If that is the case, why have rail passenger numbers gone up? Of course, rail passengers are not so directly affected by this. Obviously the Minister can say, “If road traffic goes up”, but it may not.
Noble Lords opposite know perfectly well that a range of factors affect the demand for transport. Demand for the fuels which propel that transport will fall during a recession, but when we get back to a period of growth, demand for all forms of transport will rise, as will the demand for fuel. That is inevitable. This is not a change in government policy.
Except that we have increasingly tight standards on vehicle efficiency, which is another contributing factor to the fall in overall fuel sales. Our fleet is becoming more efficient as vehicles become cleaner. The Minister says that volumes have to be kept steady because the Government are worried about the environmental impact, but what I am saying is that we want greater volume. The Minister’s logic suggests that the volume should be kept steady, but it is not remaining steady, it is declining, and as a result the environmental impacts are declining.
I accept the point about the improving fuel efficiency of all transport equipment, and that is desirable. I also accept that we want to increase the amount of biofuel in order to reduce CO2 emissions. We have the same objectives. However, we also have to be careful not to do something that looks really good but gets us in a position where we are using very large amounts of biofuel while indirectly creating land use change in other parts of the world. I will come back to that in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, raised the point about used cooking oils, which now get two RTFCs. As he said, that does not equate to the 20 pence duty differential. The department recognises the importance of biodiesel made from UCO. We have committed to review the RTFO this year, but we cannot do so until we have had a full year of data on what is going on in the market. Because of the way that the market works, RTFCs can be issued quite late in the cycle. We must get the correct data.
At Question Time the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, raised with me a point regarding the dual obligation. A problem can arise whereby we might take a large import of ethanol and that adversely affects the used cooking oil market. I undertook to raise this issue with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and I have done so. However, we cannot expect any changes until we have properly analysed the year’s trading.
Perhaps the noble Earl can stop there. It is generally small businesses that deal with used cooking oil, and cutting their income for a year can put a number of them out of business. This is not a game that is played in lofty heights; it is a cash-in-hand business. If it is not worth collecting the cooking oil, it will not get collected. There is some sense of urgency in communicating to the industry the Government’s real intention to make sure that such businesses do not lose out through these changes. When they were made—the withdrawal of the 20 pence differential and its replacement with renewable certificates—it was trumpeted that the industry would be better off or protected, but what has actually happened? I would like an answer, please.
I should point out that the duty differential was extremely expensive. I go back to my point that we must wait until the end of the trading period to see how the market is working. The other point is that, because of world and EU trade rules, as the noble Lord knows perfectly well, we cannot put in place regulations designed to protect our own used cooking oil industry.
However, you could take into account the fact that those people are giving a service to the community by collecting this wretched stuff, instead of it going to waste. It would not be stretching credulity too far to say that there should be a supplement to whatever is paid because they are carrying out a job that would otherwise fall to the Government. You have got to collect the stuff. Collecting it through the sewers, rivers or landfill is expensive.
My Lords, as the noble Lord knows perfectly well, if someone poured used cooking oil into a river they would be committing a serious criminal offence.
I can answer the point from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, who talked about the freezing point—the wax point—of gas oil. There are, as he will know, technical regulations regarding where gas oil or diesel oil will freeze, but I have not briefed myself on that. In Bosnia, however, in the winter of 1993-94, I experienced gas oil freezing and it was not very funny. If I have anything more to add on that or if there is a problem I will write to my noble friend. I suspect that there is no specific freezing problem. However, I have to be honest and say that there are issues with biodiesel regarding how long you can store it. Advice is being issued to the people responsible—especially those with large generating plant or construction equipment—so that they know the limitations and that they will have to adapt their procedures slightly. It is a well understood problem.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. He is quite right: there is a problem with biofuels. I believe that people in the boating industry are expressing serious concern about it because people do not always use their boats very often, this stuff sits in the tank for a very long time, goes all funny and does not come out when they are trying to avoid hitting the rocks. That is probably a different version of the story told by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, but there are some serious problems with this issue which I do not think have yet been resolved.
My Lords, I have spent a lot of time discussing this very issue with my officials. I will be honest: it will be necessary to make sure that the fuel is circulated in the tanks. If fuel has been in your tanks for several years, you will experience problems. However, I would expect boating magazines to write up what needs to be done. Technical advice will be available. I have to be honest and admit that this is an issue, but it is manageable.
The noble Baroness seems to be reluctant to accept my ILUC point. If we just want to look pretty and massively increase the amount of biodiesel that is produced just to look good—that is, increase the obligation level—and get our percentages right so that the graph goes straight to the desired end-state, we could change the rules on tallow and say, “Okay, all grades of tallow are waste and therefore will get double certification”. That would look great, but the only snag is that the better grades of tallow are also used for making soap. Therefore, there would be less high-grade tallow available for making soap, the people making soap would have to find something else with which to make it, and they would go for palm oil. An increased demand for palm oil would result in indirect land use change impacts. We would look wonderful—
With all due respect, if there is a problem with the environmental impact of soap manufacturing, surely you should address that through regulations which directly affect soap manufacture. You cannot second-guess everything that will happen in a globally traded market in commodities.
My Lords, the noble Baroness has her views but the European Union takes this issue very seriously. We are trying to work out what the correct course of action is to avoid indirect land use changes. It is simply no good us increasing the demand for biofuels without having any regard to indirect land use changes in other parts of the world. I am surprised that the noble Baroness appears to be willing to ignore what is going on in the rest of the world just so that we can have good figures.
I am not ignoring what goes on in the rest of the world. Clearly, criteria around the sustainability of biofuels are of the utmost importance. What I am concerned about is that the industry needs to reach its targets for 2020, which are legally binding, and the Government seem to have such disregard for that that they are not listening to its complaints. The Government do not seem to understand that the industry has had an increase in its market share up to April 2013, which is mere weeks away, but from that point on there is no future trajectory, no sign of when there will be a future trajectory, no clarity from the Government and no words of support, just order upon order that whittles away at the market. Of course the industry lacks confidence, and of course its investors are seriously concerned. What are the Government doing to address this? Are they consulting the industry? What can the Government do to reassure it?
My Lords, we remain very concerned that studies and impact assessments have demonstrated that some biofuels actually produce greater carbon emissions than fossil fuels when indirect land use change is factored in. The UK must in law comply with the EU renewable energy directive—RED—which contains a target for the UK to source 15% of its overall energy, and 10% of energy used in transport, from renewable sources by 2020. However, we are not prepared to move so fast that we create indirect land use change problems in the mean time. I am sorry that I have not been able to satisfy the noble Baroness. I am very disappointed; I will have to try harder in future.
Health and Social Care Act 2012 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2013
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, we had many debates in the House and in this Committee on the Health and Social Care Act, and the noble Lord will remember the lengthy debates on the Bill itself. In this Session debates have taken place on secondary legislation that puts in place key elements of the new system. Most recently, we debated the NHS Bodies and Local Authorities (Partnership Arrangements, Care Trusts, Public Health and Local Healthwatch) Regulations on 5 February and the draft Local Authorities (Public Health Functions and Entry to Premises by Local Healthwatch Representatives) Regulations on 7 February.
This draft order, however, is very different from those sets of regulations. It is short, and it raises no new issues of substance. Since it seeks to amend primary legislation, it is right and proper that it is subject to affirmative resolution. But it is made under a narrow power to,
“make provision in consequence of the Act”.
I cannot claim that the amendments it makes are of significant interest. They are minor adjustments, needed as a direct consequence of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. They help to keep the statute book up to date and coherent, but they involve no new policies. Consistently with this, neither the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments nor the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has seen a need to draw special attention to the draft order. That confirms that the amendments in the order are indeed consequential on the Act.
Because the order is brief and amends only a few pieces of legislation, it may be helpful if I explain the reason for the amendments to each Act in turn. I will start with the simplest. Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 refers to an NHS body within the meaning of Section 28(6) of the National Health Service Act 2006. Following the amendments to the 2006 Act made by the Health and Social Care Act, this is now Section 275(1). The draft order amends the cross-reference in the Education Act accordingly.
The order amends two other Acts by removing references to primary care trusts. These bodies are being abolished by the Health and Social Care Act 2012 on 1 April 2013, so it makes no sense to keep references to them on the statute book.
The first of the Acts in question is the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. Schedule 2 to this Act identifies the vehicles that are exempt from vehicle excise duty. Currently a vehicle is exempt when it is being used or kept on the road by, among others, a primary care trust or by,
“a health service body, as defined in section 60(7) of the NHS and Community Care Act 1990”.
The definition of “health service body” in Section 60(7) currently includes strategic health authority.
Schedule 5 to the Health and Social Care Act already removes the reference to “strategic health authority” from the definition of “health service body” in Section 60(7) of the NHS and Community Care Act 1990. Consistently with that, the draft order now removes the reference to primary care trust from the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act.
The second Act is the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Section 130 of this Act identifies circumstances in which local authorities may use or disclose information about certain benefit claimants, including when the claimant is in hospital accommodation provided by an NHS trust, a foundation trust or a primary care trust. Again, the draft order removes the reference to “a primary care trust” without replacement. The Health and Social Care Act creates no new provider bodies, so it is not necessary to replace this reference to a primary care trust.
I turn next to the Audit Commission Act 1998. The amendments to this Act look more complex because they amend a number of provisions, but their purpose is very simple. The Audit Commission Act is best known for setting out the audit framework for local authorities, which also applies, with some differences, to health service bodies. As matters currently stand, however, the Health and Social Care Act provides for clinical commissioning groups’ accounts to be audited by the Audit Commission in accordance with the Audit Commission Act, but the Audit Commission Act itself does not apply to clinical commissioning groups. These are the new bodies that are being established under the Health and Social Care Act to commission the majority of secondary healthcare. The draft order therefore amends the Audit Commission Act to ensure that its requirements for health service bodies apply to clinical commissioning groups. The amendments also recognise the role of the NHS Commissioning Board in relation to clinical commissioning groups. For example, if an auditor of a clinical commissioning group thinks that there has been unlawful expenditure, the auditor must notify the Commissioning Board in addition to the Secretary of State.
My Lords, if the Committee will allow me, I think it is probably helpful if I complete my remarks. Our normal procedure is that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as opposition spokesman, will speak first, followed by other noble Lords. I will answer all questions at the end, if that is acceptable.
I turn now to the amendments to the Local Government Act 2000 and to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which I shall refer to as the 2000 Act and the 2007 Act. In both cases, the draft order removes references to primary care trusts and replaces them with references to the NHS Commissioning Board and to the relevant clinical commissioning group. The context here is one of commissioning services rather than providing them, so it is appropriate to make this substitution. To explain this in more detail, Section 104 of the 2007 Act sets out persons who are “partner authorities” of certain local authorities. The list currently includes primary care trusts. The definition of “partner authority” is relevant for a number of provisions in both the 2000 Act and the 2007 Act. For example, Section 9FF of the 2000 Act applies, with some exceptions, where an overview and scrutiny committee or its sub-committee makes a report or recommendation to the local authority or its executive on certain functions of a “relevant partner authority” that are exercised in relation to the committee’s area or residents of that area. In such a case, Section 9FF(2) enables the committee to require the relevant partner authority,
“to have regard to the report or recommendation in question in exercising its functions”,
and Section 9FF(4) requires the relevant partner authority to comply.
However, there is an exclusion, and this brings me to the amendment to Section 9FF(6). The exclusion applies where the relevant partner authority is a “health service body” and the report or recommendation is made by an overview and scrutiny committee or sub-committee of a non-unitary district council. There is also an exclusion where the report or recommendation is additionally made to a health service body under regulations under Section 244 of the National Health Service Act; those regulations, of course, concern review and scrutiny of the health service by local authorities. The definition of “health service body” in Section 9FF(6) currently includes a primary care trust. It makes sense to replace this with references to the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups because of the functions that those bodies are taking on from primary care trusts.
Finally, the draft order repeals the provisions of the National Health Service (Consequential Provisions) Act 2006, which inserted the provisions in the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act and the Education Act that are amended by the order.
In conclusion, I hope I have demonstrated that the draft order contains no more than is consequential on the Act. It makes some minor but necessary changes to keep the statute book up to date, in particular to ensure that clinical commissioning groups are subject to the requirements of the Audit Commission Act. I commend the draft order to the Committee.
My Lords, I am sure that the Grand Committee will be grateful to the noble Earl for his very comprehensive description of this very important order. I refer the Committee to my health interests, contained in the register.
It is a curiosity of Department of Health orders that we are having this debate on an affirmative resolution on a quite unexceptional order, and yet around us great debate is going on about the competition statutory instrument—which the noble Earl will know a little bit about, I suspect—which is a negative order. The noble Earl has explained that this is essentially making changes to primary legislation and that is why it has to be considered in this way. However, having made reference to the order on public procurement, SI/2013/257, is the noble Earl in a position to update the Committee on whether or not he intends to revoke the order?
I was interested in Article 4, which refers to the Audit Commission Act. My understanding is that either the Audit Commission has already been abolished or it is shortly to be abolished. I am not going to open up that debate today but it has been put to me that one of the benefits of the Audit Commission is that the fees it sets help keep audit fees down generally. My question to the noble Earl is: if clinical commissioning groups now have to use the big auditing firms, is there not some concern that fees will rise over time because there is not the discipline of the Audit Commission being able to provide an audit service itself? Given that the management costs available to clinical commissioning groups are quite limited, that would be a concern. Other than that, of course I am happy to support this order.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his patient and detailed explanation of what the order entails. I had intended an early intervention so that he might be able to give the answer to my query during the debate. Does this order, which refers to social care, presage a better deal for those this with Alzheimer’s disease? In the context of my question, is the noble Earl able to give the briefest definition of social care?
I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments and questions. I turn first to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, around the Audit Commission and its role. The noble Lord is right: the Government’s intention is to bring forward legislation, as soon as parliamentary time allows, to replace the Audit Commission. The legislation will abolish the Audit Commission and establish a new framework for the audit of local public bodies in England. The Commons committee that undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the Draft Local Audit Bill published its report on 17 January. The Government are considering the report very carefully and we will publish a response in due course. I think that that is all I can say in the context of the noble Lord’s question about fees, but if I have any further points to add I will, of course, write to him.
The noble Lord also asked me about the procurement regulations, and I congratulate him on taking the opportunity to do so. We remain absolutely committed to the undertakings given during the passage of the 2012 Act, and we are clear that the regulations we have laid adhere to both the letter and the spirit of those undertakings. However, we understand the concerns that have been raised by noble Lords and stakeholders, and we are making a public commitment to engage intensively with Members of Parliament and Peers to understand their concerns. We will look again at the regulations to see how we can explain them better, clarify our position and address the concerns that have been raised.
The noble Lord asked me about the definition of social care in the context of this order. I am perhaps not the best person for making up definitions on my feet. However, in terms of care of the elderly, social care is that activity which is characterised by the service provided by local authorities and their contractors to look after elderly people, both in residential accommodation and in their own homes by way of domiciliary care. The noble Lord mentioned patients with Alzheimer’s disease. I would perhaps sound a slight caveat because people with Alzheimer’s disease can, of course, be looked after in a variety of settings, including a healthcare setting. However, there are very many individuals who are looked after in their own homes and in residential care as well. Social care tends to be characterised as care that does not involve a specific health input, but rather the care of an individual for their day-to-day living needs.
The noble Earl has been very courteous and helpful. Since I held, many years ago, a position like his in three Administrations, I know that to ask a question early enough enables the Minister to have the answer prepared by officials. I thus rise again to my feet simply to say that my original intervention was well intended because I knew that, notwithstanding the elegance and brilliance of the noble Earl’s ministerial reputation, it would have been more helpful if I had spoken earlier than I did.
Charities (Incorporated Church Building Society) (England and Wales) Order 2013
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this order is made under Section 73 of the Charities Act 2011 to give effect to the provisions of a scheme settled by the Charity Commission for England and Wales. The purpose of the scheme is to amend the existing trusts of the Incorporated Church Building Society, the ICBS, a charity which gives grants for the building and repairing of Anglican churches and chapels, and to simplify its administrative provisions.
The charity is regulated by the Church Building Society Act 1828 and therefore this order is needed to give effect to the changes to that Act contained in the Charity Commission scheme. Because the 1828 Act is a public general Act, the scheme cannot be made without the draft order first being approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament, in accordance with Section 73(4) of the Charities Act 2011.
The ICBS was founded in 1818 and incorporated by Act of Parliament 10 years later. Its purpose was to,
“remedy the deficiencies of places set aside for Public Worship in our towns and cities”.
For the next 100 years, it enjoyed considerable public support and contributed to the building and repair of Anglican churches and chapels. By 1845, the society was assisting with the building of more than 50 churches a year. It was the principal voluntary society for promoting the building and restoration of Anglican churches in the 19th century, the most active period of church building since the Middle Ages, and provided funds via grants and loans.
Over the next century, however, public support waned to the extent that by the early 1980s the society’s activities had shrunk considerably. The then trustees were concerned that the administrative costs of maintaining it as an independent charity, though modest, were absorbing an unjustifiable proportion of its income, which by then was derived largely from investments. To improve efficiency, another charity with similar objects, the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, now succeeded by the National Churches Trust, agreed to administer the society’s affairs for a small fee.
The ICBS was registered with the Charity Commission in 1962. A commission scheme is now needed to enable the National Churches Trust to take full trusteeship of the ICBS. However, due to the statutory basis of the ICBS, a parliamentary order is required to give effect to the scheme, which repeals all but the preamble and four sections of the 1828 Act, and provides for the administration of the charity.
The National Churches Trust is the only independent UK-wide charity supporting and promoting Christian places of worship. It does this through the provision of grants for repairs and modernisation, and through the provision of support, advice and information. The general committee of the ICBS has aligned the use of the remaining funds of the society with the general aims and objectives of the NCT, subject to ICBS funds being used to support those buildings with which the society is associated, namely Church of England buildings constructed from 1818 onwards. To this end, in recent years, and in anticipation of the implementation of the scheme, the remaining ICBS funds are being used to provide repair grants to churches that fall within this criterion.
The proposed scheme, which is being made at the request of the charity’s current trustees, sets out the powers of the new corporate trustee. The 1828 Act specifies that the trustees of the charity are the management committee. This governing body is more than 80 strong and includes the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, 44 diocesan bishops of the two provinces of Canterbury and York and 36 elected lay members of the charity. Members of the charity are,
“anybody who makes a donation of 10 guineas or an annual donation of one guinea”.
The trustee body is too large and it is difficult to know who is currently a member of the charity. The scheme replaces the existing trustees with the NCT, which will be the sole corporate trustee of the charity. The existing trustees are in agreement.
The charity’s objectives set out in the scheme are similar but not identical to the original objectives. In the 1828 Act the purposes are defined as,
“enlarging, building, rebuilding and repairing Churches and Chapels in England and Wales”,
whereas the proposed new objectives refer to churches and chapels of the Church of England. This narrowing reflects the charity’s close links with the Church of England and the fact that its support has traditionally been provided only to Anglican churches.
I declare what is almost an interest here. I am very conscious that Sir Titus Salt, who built Saltaire, not only built two churches in Saltaire for a village with a population of only just over 1,500 people but gave a very considerable amount of money for the erection and repair not only of Congregational and Methodist churches but also of Anglican churches all over the north of England. As I walk around Yorkshire, I am not entirely sure that the “repair” of a number of medieval churches during this period was something of which I entirely approve, but no doubt at the time it was regarded as entirely necessary.
The 1828 Act does not set out the charity’s powers explicitly in the way that modern charity governing documents do, so the scheme also provides the charity with standard powers, most of which are found in the model governing documents on the commission’s website. A significant motivation behind the trustees applying for this scheme was to modernise the governance and governing document of the charity. The scheme provides the charity trustees with the powers that they need to operate effectively and efficiently in the modern world.
I am confident that the new scheme will be beneficial to the charity. It will ensure that administrative costs are kept to a minimum and that a greater proportion of the charity’s funds can be used to fulfil its purposes. I therefore commend this instrument to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing a very welcome statutory instrument. As he indicated, the National Churches Trust, the only national, independent charity supporting religious buildings, does a great deal of valuable work. As he outlined, for two centuries it and its predecessor have been key players in the construction and maintenance of a great number of churches and chapels. Its work has provided places for worship, as well as supporting church buildings of historical and architectural value. In recent years, the charity has given Christian places of worship an average of £1.5 million a year in grants, allowing them to conduct vital repairs and modernisation, including increasing access, which clearly we welcome.
The work of the charity goes beyond religion and benefits the whole community. Every year, millions of people use church buildings for a range of activities, including classes for art, music and health—and even Labour Party meetings. The churches are also spaces for people to seek help. More than half of all Alcoholics Anonymous meetings take place in churches, as do 40% of Women’s Institute meetings. I am sure that the Minister, wearing one of his other hats, knows that one polling station in six at the most recent general election was in a church building. I fear that, for some of us, it is the only time we cross the threshold of a church. With pubs, social clubs and libraries closing, churches are often the last remaining community buildings. Therefore it is clear that the Incorporated Church Building Society provides a great deal for people of all faiths and of none.
As the Minister explained, as time rolled on, its constitution sometimes got in the way of its good work. As he suggested, by the 1980s its activities had shrunk and the trustees discovered, as had those of many other charities, that a greater administrative burden and awkward membership arrangements took up a lot of time as they tried to maintain it as an independent charity. The cost of administration became disproportionately high. We hope that the new scheme will address that. The statutory instrument, drawn up at the request of the current trustees, will allow the charity to update its structure. Importantly, as the Minister said, it will make the trustees the sole members, as opposed to the current arrangements which include anyone who donates a guinea. However, I realise that some people will not have his and my age and I thought I should explain that that is £1.05p. Or they could make a single donation of 10 guineas, which I worked out was £10.50p. The change would modernise the trust’s governance arrangements, simplify the administrative requirements and help to free up the charity to concentrate on its core business. I take this opportunity to congratulate the National Churches Trust on its work. We wish it well and are grateful that this SI has been introduced.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his commanding introductory remarks and my noble friend for her youthful remarks. I have read the helpful policy background in the Explanatory Memorandum which the department has composed, and for which I am grateful. Paragraph 7 of the Explanatory Memorandum, headed, “Policy background”, states:
“The purpose of the Charity is to provide for the better collection and application of voluntary contributions for the purpose of enlarging, building and repairing Church of England churches and chapels situated in England and Wales”.
It has occurred to me that those churches and chapels in Wales are not Church of England, they are Church in Wales. So the question I have for the Minister is: has the department come forward with this order not knowing that there is an error in the Explanatory Memorandum? Is it therefore proceeding in error on that basis?
It was nice to hear the Minister refer to churches in Saltaire. St Ethelwold’s of the Church in Wales is a splendid church in north-east Wales in the town of Shotton. Would this order enable the tower of St Ethelwold’s to be completed or allow for that possibility?
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their welcome of the order. I particularly welcome the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on the translation of churches into spaces for the local community. I have experienced shock on one or two occasions when going back to churches in which I had worshipped, or in whose choirs I had sung as a boy, to discover that all the pews had been removed, including one very old-fashioned church which we went to when my father was the local bank manager. The bank manager’s pew was the second one from the front on the right-hand side, and one had to sit in the bank manager’s pew. Thankfully, that has now all gone. The pews have all been removed and it is an open space for all sorts of purposes. As we know, that has happened all over the country. I think that that is part of the transformation of the Church of England in making sure that it does continue to hold together local communities for people of all backgrounds and all faiths.
On the question of churches in Wales, there is a separate Welsh Religious Buildings Trust, which was founded in 1996 to care for redundant historic places of worship of all faiths in Wales. To avoid duplicating the work of the Friends of Friendless Churches, those of the Church in Wales are excluded from this. The trust currently cares for six buildings and is in discussion with regard to a seventh, but I am very conscious, as I know the noble Lord will be, that there are a great many churches and chapels in Wales which are open to the desirability of assistance. There are other comparable charities. I happen to know the Historic Chapels Trust very well because I have good friends in Yorkshire who are actively engaged in that. There is a Scottish Redundant Churches Trust, a Scotland’s Churches Trust and an Ulster Historic Churches Trust, so this is dealing with England partly because the devolved Administrations have parallel and comparable bodies.
Having answered those questions, I welcome the general acceptance that this is a desirable and useful adjustment of an early 19th century charity. We have to modernise charities from time to time and it is entirely within the principle of the public interest of charities that this amendment should be made. I hope that we all welcome the extent to which churches, which are often at the historic centre of communities, are being restored, opened and transformed to provide places where members of the communities can get together. I commend the order.
Elections: Voting Age
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet seem to have accepted the case for extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds. They have not just promised to accept the change but have acted to make it a reality. Before noble Lords express incredulity, let me add an important caveat. They have indeed done so, but only, of course, for our fellow citizens in Scotland, and only for the specific 2014 vote on whether Scotland should become independent. It is a matter of record—I refer noble Lords to the statement made by the Secretary of State for Scotland on 15 January—that the Government have accepted that this could happen under the Edinburgh agreement. The Secretary of State said that,
“what happens in Scotland affects the whole United Kingdom”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/1/13; col. 748.].
It was in that context that on 24 January, MPs voted by 119 to 46 for a Motion to rationalise the extension of the franchise in this respect throughout the United Kingdom. The support was cross-party, just as it is for my own Voting Age (Comprehensive Reduction) Bill, which has received support from all parts of your Lordships’ House. In my view, cross-party support is absolutely critical for an issue of this sort. Some politicians advocate changes in the electorate, such as those who advocate the extension to overseas voting, because they hope that it is going to be to their political advantage. But in this case the sole advantage is to the electorate as a whole and its reconnection with the political process as a whole. I am therefore delighted that my noble friend Lord Lucas is hoping to be able to participate in this debate shortly, along with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey. All three intend to participate because they have given their support to my Bill. However, I pay special tribute to my noble friend Lord Lucas because I have shamelessly plagiarised his Bill of 10 years ago.
It would be patently inequitable, irrational and absurd to limit this reform of the franchise to one part of the country for one occasion only. As things stand, the same cohort of the Scottish population that will be added to the register for the referendum will then be refused a vote in the general election a few months later. That makes no sense. What if a Westminster, Holyrood or local government by-election poll takes place in Scotland on the same day as the referendum? Are 16 and 17 year-olds to be issued with only one ballot paper for the referendum, but excluded from choosing their representative? Would 16 and 17 year-olds be refused a vote in any subsequent referendum, such as on our continuing membership of the European Union? Quite apart from the issues of principle, let us imagine the complex bureaucratic nightmare of such markedly different registers for different purposes if these inequities are allowed to continue.
It is being trailed that the Scottish change was agreed only reluctantly because the First Minister demanded it in exchange for meeting the UK Government’s insistence on one simple, approved question in the referendum and a supervisory role for the Electoral Commission. It has even been suggested that Mr Salmond made it a condition of accepting these other requirements because he anticipated that they would be refused. Some cynics take pleasure in noting that not only did the Westminster Ministers and all parties call his bluff, but all the signs are that younger people are just as doubtful about the merits of breaking up the UK as everyone else.
Whatever may have been the cause of this acceptance of a temporary change to the Scottish electorate, surely no one can deny that it would be irresponsible and damaging if it led to what the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House has always warned us against—namely an,
“ad hoc and piecemeal approach to constitutional reform”.
In its report, The agreement on a referendum on independence for Scotland, our committee also insists that the relevant authorities must act,
“in accordance with their constitutional responsibilities of fairness and equal treatment”.
If that applies north of the border, surely it must also apply everywhere else in the United Kingdom. The case for equality in the franchise must make itself for the whole of our country.
However, to those Members of both Houses who regularly attend sixth-forms—in the case of Members of the other House, in their constituencies; or for Members of this House, on behalf of the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme—the substantive case for extending the franchise must be just as clear. Students of this age cohort are far better informed about the major issues of our day than I was at that age. Fifty years ago, most people inherited their opinions and political allegiances from their parents. This was all too apparent when I first canvassed in the 1960s.
It is of course also true that 18 year-olds at present are, on average, unlikely to have the opportunity to vote in a general election until they are well over 20. Even if the franchise is extended, 16 and 17 year-olds may not have that opportunity until they are 18 or more. However, getting on the electoral register with full entitlement to vote would be a natural end product of the citizenship course in schools. It would become part of the normal process towards complete legal maturity, and addressing it in school would deal with some of the fears about under-registration that have been expressed in this House.
When the Government bring forward regulations for individual electoral registration, they could easily stipulate that all 14 and 15 year-olds in school should be registered in year 10 at school, in readiness for entitlement to vote, once they turn 16. The Government would, in turn, have to bring forward the time at which national insurance numbers are issued, or establish an alternative identifier for this group. That is not that difficult.
This simple but significant change would also help young people to appreciate that national elections are not the only occasions for democratic influence on the conditions in which they live. As my honourable friend Stephen Williams observed when he introduced a successful Motion in the other place on 24 January, this age group has shown a dramatically increased awareness of political issues and institutions in recent years. The audit undertaken by the Hansard Society has shown an increase from 17% to 31%, in a relatively short number of years, in that age group’s general knowledge of the working of Parliament, bringing them into line with the older electorate. It should be a logical further step in the success of citizenship education to bring them into the franchise.
I know that some Conservatives resist the idea that a 16 or 17 year-old is mature enough to cast a vote in a local or national election. However, as I noted in the January debate, the Minister responsible, Chloe Smith, was not able to deny that a 15 year-old can be a voting member of the Conservative Party, and therefore vote for the election of its leader. What I am asking the Minister to do this afternoon is accept that there is now a strong case for a proper examination of this issue.
As a member of the informal cross-party group of parliamentarians who advise the Electoral Commission, I am very conscious that the commission, rather than party politicians, should be responsible for advising Parliament on extensions to the franchise. However, it is now nearly 10 years since the commission studied the issue. Its report promised a,
“further formal review of the minimum voting age within five to seven years of this report”.
That was nine years ago, in 2004. In July 2007, the then Prime Minister promised yet more examination of the case, including an analysis of,
“whether reducing the voting age would increase participation in the political process”.
Although the resulting Youth Citizenship Commission found strong support for votes for 16 and 17 year-olds, it also identified “a real evidence gap” on the issue. That was nearly four years ago.
There are two areas in which further evidence could be sought immediately. The first is the claimed tendency that those who start voting young, continue to do so throughout their lives. Secondly, we need to take account of the practical experience of secondary schools in Northern Ireland where completion of citizenship naturally leads to inclusion on the individual electoral registration process.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a firm commitment, after all these previous promises, that the Government do not consider the upcoming franchise extension in the Scottish referendum as an ad hoc, piecemeal, self-contained irrelevance, and that the Electoral Commission will now be invited to fulfil its promise to undertake further comprehensive investigation as a matter of urgency.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Tyler on raising this issue. It is one that we have variously discussed before, as he mentioned, although I am not sure that there has been that much said recently, here or in the other place, that has added much to our knowledge on the subject. On my noble friend’s point about a single election for which the election age was specifically lowered, I note that there is a precedent; it has happened before, in 1918.
Debate on the issue appears to stem from a false premise. Voting is a consequence of political interest, not a cause of it. Lowering the voting age is not likely to have a positive impact on turnout any more than it did when it was lowered to 18 in 1969. It did not promote participation in democracy, but rather served to demonstrate what we already knew: young people are among the groups least likely to vote. That is borne out by the data for recent general elections. One does not change that by further lowering the voting age.
Focusing on the voting age may be seen as a form of displacement activity, recommending change to process rather than addressing the real causes of distrust in the political system. The claim made in another place by one MP in an EDM that,
“lowering the voting age could play a huge role in helping young people feel more connected with political processes”,
is to misunderstand the root of the problem and is arguably a dangerous misunderstanding.
Our time today would be better spent getting to grips with the really important question of why young people are not willing to engage with the political process. As the Youth Citizenship Commission observed,
“while enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds is a valid issue for consideration, it is not the key component of any strategy for better engagement of young people”.
It is variously pointed out that more young people will vote for participants in television programmes such as “X Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent” than vote for parties in a general election. However, that observation rather misses the key point, which is that nowadays political activity has to contend with a plethora of competing interests in a way that it did not have to 40 or 50 years ago. Political parties used to hold a more prominent role in social activity than they do today. Young people are now able to indulge their passions, which can be instant and transient, through social media. Political parties are not able to respond effectively. They cannot offer instant gratification. Neither, I fear, can elections. We need to be addressing this mismatch. There is no easy answer, which is all the more reason for addressing the problem. What we are discussing this afternoon does not get to grips with the real issue.
As to the voting age, what are the arguments for change? Those who favour lowering the voting age advance the argument that at 16 you can join the Army, marry and pay taxes. You cannot simply join the Army at 16. You can apply to join the Army, which is not the same thing at all. Having applied, you have to be selected. What this recognises is that only certain people in this category have the requisite ability. Even if you are selected, you are not sent to the front line. You can marry but only with parental consent. Very few 16 year-olds pay income tax.
As the previous Government’s Children and Young People’s Unit said in its Young People and Politics: A Report on the YVote/YNot? Project in 2002:
“As far as lowering the voting age is concerned, it is clearly necessary to decide at what minimum age most people are sufficiently politically aware, mature, and independent to make up their minds and choose between the various candidates standing for election. On balance, Government takes the view that there is more likely to be a higher percentage of people aged 18 who are able to do this than at 16”.
We live in a society where the road to becoming an adult is staggered. We grant rights to young people at different ages on their journey to adulthood. There has to be some age at which we grant the right to vote. No magical property attaches to it being at 18, but neither does it to being at 16. Most nations opt for 18. A number do not, and just because most nations follow one practice, it does not mean that we have to follow. However, given the lack of a compelling case for change, and with no clear public support for it, I am not persuaded by the case that my noble friend proposes. It would be more fruitful to address the much more difficult issues that confront us.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on securing this debate. It is timely and important and, as so often when we discuss constitutional issues, I agree with a very large amount of what he said. He is right that the issue has been debated for some time without any conclusion being reached. There are passionate feelings on both sides but we seem unable to come to any conclusion. He is certainly also right that the United Kingdom should not be dragged backwards into making an ad hoc constitutional decision by the manoeuvring of the SNP.
However, I am more agnostic than he is about the issue of lowering the voting age. It is not an issue where sides are chosen on the grounds of political ideology. It is also an unusual issue in that positions are not driven, as is so much public policy, by differing priorities. Rather, the position taken on this issue seems to be as much the result of some gut instinct as anything else. For every argument advanced by one side there is an equally compelling argument on the other.
If the argument for lowering the voting age is that young people should be considered adults at 16 rather than 18, there are counterarguments that young people mature at different rates. Whereas some are clearly adults at 16, others are clearly not, and there is no sensible way of evaluating this. If the argument is that the law should be consistent in a way that it is not currently and that there should be one age at which young people are deemed to have become adults, with all the rights and responsibilities that follow, there is no particular reason why it should not be equalised at 16 rather than at 17, when young people are deemed mature enough to take possession of the lethal weapon that is a motor car—or at 18, which will soon be the age up to which young people will be deemed unarguably in need of full-time education.
If the argument is that possession of the vote will engage young people more in civil society and democracy, there is no evidence—as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out—that it has had that effect on those aged 18 and over. If the argument is the principled one of no taxation without representation, it will soon be the case, when the school leaving age becomes 18, that the already very small number of 16 and 17 year-olds who pay tax will dwindle even further.
In the face of the directly conflicting arguments that have clearly bedevilled the resolution of this issue for many years, it might be tempting to fall back on the essentially conservative argument that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, put forward: namely, that the case for change is insufficiently compelling to merit the upheaval that always accompanies any kind of profound constitutional change. However, I have an alternative suggestion.
Whenever constitutional change is discussed—we have heard it already, and I am sure we will hear it again from the distinguished speakers who will follow me—politicians lament the decline of trust in politicians, the increasing disengagement from formal political, democratic processes, and how disadvantaged groups and younger people are increasingly unlikely to vote at elections. One way of helping to tackle these problems is to develop ways in which the public can be more directly involved in the formulation of public policy. New methods of engaging the public in this way through deliberative democracy are potentially important both in engaging the public in politics between elections and in improving public policy.
Such methods would bring together perhaps 500 to 1,000 people to deliberate on policy, exposing them to a range of opinions and policy options and allowing them to debate them over a period of time, typically a day or two, before coming to conclusions. Such exercises would enable the public to bring relevant knowledge, experience and wisdom to bear on policy formation that may not always be available to cloistered Ministers and officials. Engaging the public in this way could help legitimise and entrench policy that might otherwise be unnecessarily contentious.
When politicians cannot come to any sort of settled agreement on an issue such as the one we are discussing today—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this—constitutional change should always take place as far as possible on the basis of broad agreement across Parliament. That is not always possible, but it should always be at least the starting point. When the change so directly affects our constitutional arrangements and, therefore, everyone in the country, such deliberative democratic arrangements could play an important role in crystallising the issues and helping Parliament to come to a conclusion, thereby providing an important part of that proper consideration that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has so rightly called for. Those involved in such an exercise would be selected randomly but filtered to ensure that they are demographically broadly representative. In this case, they might legitimately include a significant weighting of 16 and 17 year-olds. Whatever decision this group arrived at, in keeping with our precious system of representative democracy, it would still be for Parliament to reach the final decision, but it could now do so informed by the wisdom of the people that it serves.
The Liberal Democrats used to be in favour of such methods of enriching democratic participation before they became preoccupied with other things such as government. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, can perhaps persuade his colleagues in government to rediscover that enthusiasm.
My Lords, I support votes at 16, and I commend the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for leading on this issue so robustly. It was Aristotle who said:
“We are what we repeatedly do”.
This is of course why education is so important in forming social habits as well as acquiring information and skills.
In this country we are ambivalent about educating teenagers in democracy and democratic duties, even as we complain incessantly that teenagers are too irresponsible and disengaged. The issue of the voting age typifies this ambivalent and contradictory stance. We deplore the fact that only 44% of 18 to 29 year-olds voted in the previous general election, yet many draw the conclusion that to lower the voting age would pile apathy on apathy. I draw the opposite lesson. Too few young people vote, in part because democracy and education in democracy are not, as Aristotle would put it, repeatedly done at school and college as teenagers are maturing.
Democracy and civic responsibility need to be taught and learnt in schools. We cannot carry on, as with sex education a generation ago, expecting them to be learnt spontaneously or informally, where parents are not engaged, and then complain when this does not happen. This is why the previous Government introduced citizenship as a subject in the school curriculum. It is why I strongly support school councils, in primary schools as well as secondary schools; it is why, in my own party, I am constantly urging university students to stand in local elections and to become councillors; and it is why I now believe that the time has come to lower the voting age to 16, in national and local elections.
I take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton: this is not because that is the only step needed to promote civic responsibility among teenagers. He and my noble friend Lord Wills have identified a number of other possible steps, many of which I support. However, I do not understand the argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, against votes at 16 that because it is only one among several steps needed, and not a panacea, it should therefore not be taken at all. That is a very conservative argument against progress of any kind.
It is important not to see these things in isolation. Education and democracy need to go together literally. Most 16 to 18 year-olds are in school or college, and that is where the polling stations should be as well. Every school with a sixth form and every further education and sixth-form college should have a polling station, and young people should be registered to vote there—instead of there being the perversity that some schools are actually closed on polling day so that the adults can vote undisturbed. If we did this, voting would become a semi-obligatory rite of passage, like taking GCSEs and A-levels; citizenship education in schools would have a stronger and more urgent focus; candidates and parties, in local as well as national elections, would regard school and college students as a key constituency; and mock elections would lead to real elections within the education system itself, in the same way that mock exams lead to real exams, and work experience leads, it is hoped, to real work. All this can and should be done.
I have one final point. We are told—and were told again by the noble Lord, Lord Norton—that Britain should not innovate in this way because it might make us look odd internationally. When Britain helped lead Europe in introducing and sustaining democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries, we often looked odd. But we were odd and right, and others followed. I am sure that it would be the same, in time, with votes at 16.
My Lords, I, too, am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has given us the opportunity to discuss the lowering of the voting age to 16. One of the main benefits of such a discussion is having the opportunity to think about how our attitudes to young people have changed and developed over the years here in the UK.
Encouraging young people to become actively involved in local community politics through exercising a right to vote could help reinvigorate local government, as well as contribute to boosting the number of people who vote in police and crime commissioner elections, and so on. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that giving younger people the right to vote should not be seen as a universal panacea for increasing engagement with parliamentary and local government democracy, but there seems to be little evidence to suggest that lowering the voting age will be detrimental to voter turnout. In Austria, Nicaragua, Guernsey and the Isle of Man—where 16 year-olds are allowed to vote—there are consistently higher levels of voter turnout than we currently have here, and we need to understand why.
I have heard some extraordinary comments about 16 year-olds and their apparent lack of sense, political naivety, lack of intellectual capacity, inability to tell when they are being taken for a ride, attachment to superficiality and celebrity, et cetera. I only wish I could say that none of those observations applies to people of my own and other age groups. In my experience of visiting schools and speaking with groups visiting Parliament, young people know and feel very strongly about key global issues relating to the environment and poverty, through connections with schools overseas, the internet, and so on. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has said, this information was simply not available when many of us were younger.
Back in 2006, in response to a recommendation by the Power report, one MP argued against the lowering of the voting age to 16, saying:
“Clearly, a line must be drawn to indicate when a young person becomes an adult, and the present age of 18 is widely accepted across society as signifying a major turning point in the personal development and maturity of individuals”.
Of course, that is not actually true because there is so little consistency about when we deem a young person to be an adult. In any case, those kinds of distinctions are very much socially constructed and change over the years. When I was a teenager, the line was drawn at 21, and I am sure that at that time it seemed equally obvious that that was the magical age at which maturity suddenly dawned. But I would argue that even in the seven years since the inquiry headed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, reported its findings on participation, we have seen sufficient changes in society to warrant a fresh look at this issue.
There is a general recognition, I think, that many of our children and young people mature physically and psychologically earlier than previous generations. Some even have the responsibilities associated with older people, such as acting as carers for family members. Since the 1980s, more and more young people have expected to go on to further and higher education and as a consequence have had to develop skills of intellectual analysis, which again were not necessarily available to some of us when we were younger. A-levels are offered across the country in government, politics and public administration, and there are courses on citizenship, rights and responsibilities, mock elections, and so on.
As has already been mentioned, the so-called new media such as Twitter, YouTube, the internet and apps offer opportunities to learn about the world in a much wider way than ever before. Young people born into the digital age are most adept at exploiting these resources.
Anyone who doubts that 16 and 17 year-olds are capable of unpicking and analysing political discourse should go to some of the schools that colleagues and I have visited as part of the Peers in Schools programme. When I went to Haringey Sixth Form Centre in Tottenham, when we were in deadlock here debating the reform of the House of Lords, I was well grilled by a group of 16 and 17 year-olds on every aspect of the Bill in a very knowledgeable way and in great detail. They were far more knowledgeable than some of my friends outside the House.
Then there is the Youth Parliament, formed in 1998. Members are aged between 11 and 18 and more than 500,000 young people vote in the elections each year. I will give the last word to somebody who was a representative in the Youth Parliament and who now interns for me, Adam Jogee. About six years ago, when he was 16, he wrote the following:
“As an elected representative of the young people of Haringey, I have first hand experience of their passion, energy and commitment: the energy they use to serve our community, the passion with which they view the world and its future and the commitment which they use to contribute to our society. If we look back over the decades, there are countless cases and examples of people rising up and fighting for their basic human right—the right to vote!”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for securing and introducing the debate. I must have thought about this question for nearly 40 years as a political philosopher. Although it is a subject on which it is difficult to take a definite position, because one can see arguments on both sides, I am increasingly convinced that the case for a reduction in age from 18 to 16 is very weak and the case against it is fairly strong.
The case for it seems to rest on three arguments, which I will call the arguments of consistency, fairness and democracy. The first argument runs something like this: reducing the age to 16 will bring it in line with other areas of life; for example, children can leave school at 16, get married at 16, can and have to pay tax at 16, join the Armed Forces at 16 and consent to sexual relations at 16. If that is the common age, why can it not be true of voting as well?
The second, right-based, argument is that 16 year-olds these days have the maturity to form political judgment and it is only right that they should be able to vote in the same way as 18, 19 or 20 year-olds. The third argument is that it will increase their interest in politics and strengthen the foundations of participatory democracy.
I am afraid that I am not persuaded by any of these three arguments. The first, that it will bring it in line with other areas of life, is a half-truth. There are several areas of life in which 16 year-olds today cannot do things; for example, they cannot buy alcohol, they cannot serve on a jury and they cannot place a bet. If they can join the Armed Forces at 16, it is only with the consent of their parents, not on their own. Therefore, to say that it will bring them in line is not true.
It is also important to bear in mind that, although they pay taxes—the argument being that there should be no taxation without representation—if a five year-old or seven year-old goes to a shop to buy a bar of chocolate, he ends up paying VAT or whatever indirect taxes he is subjected to. It would be wrong to say that a nine year-old should be able to vote simply because he pays tax; the argument would be absurd.
On the second argument, that one can acquire the capacity for political judgment on what is the right thing to do at 16, there is no evidence for this. What kind of research is this alluding to? I have not seen any here, in the United States, or in any of our European partners. People having access to more information on the internet simply means that they have more information—but information is not knowledge, let alone judgment. In politics, as a voter one is concerned with a practical activity that entails a practical judgment about the range of possibilities that are open to one, and how one should exercise one’s vote. Practical judgment does not come simply by looking at Google and the internet. I would say the same of citizenship classes. One can marshal all kinds of information about various political ideologies; all the things that we have taught in universities for years. Does the kind of information that one can communicate to students in itself give someone the competence to make a political judgment on the issue of whether they should be voting Labour or Liberal Democrat, or whether or not they should be supporting the war in Iraq?
On the third argument, that this will increase their interest in politics: fair enough. However, as my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, that seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. You cannot dangle a vote in front of somebody, saying, “We will give you the vote now in the hope that you will take an interest in politics”. One would hope that a vote is a reward, not an incentive. We are reducing a supremely sacred political activity—the vote, the exercise of highest sovereignty a community has—to dangling a kind of carrot and asking, “Look, if we give it to you, will you vote?”. It is striking that 18 year-olds have had votes for a long time. In the previous general election, only 39.6% of them voted, compared to the rest of the population at somewhere in the region of 70%.
Therefore, I would suggest that the arguments for are not persuasive; at least I have not found them persuasive so far, but other arguments could be produced, in which case I would like to hear them. The arguments against 16 year-olds being allowed to vote seem fairly strong. First, as I say, voting is an exercise of power. It is a participation in sovereignty. If you are going to exercise power, you must have a capacity for judgment of a practical kind. Unless you have had some experience of life, some independent existence and have broken out of the sheltered environment of the family and seen the world on your own and made choices, how will you be able to know what kind of judgment you should make?
My other simple fear is that, given low turnout among young people and the fact that low turnout can be habit-forming, if a 16 year-old gets into the habit of not voting, he or she might continue that habit until the end of their lives. There is a danger that if we give 16 year-olds the vote in the hope that they will participate more enthusiastically in the voting process, the opposite will occur.
My Lords, with some trepidation I shall speak in the gap. If I had been the First Minister negotiating the Edinburgh agreement, I would definitely have traded a second question for votes for 16 and 17 year-olds—not that I disapprove of them, but the second question will be much more useful for the whole of the United Kingdom. I was going to say that people under 16 pay VAT, but the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has already done that for me. In visits to schools under the Peers in Schools programme, I always ask pupils, “Do you think you’re a taxpayer?”. They always say no and I trump them by asking, “Well, you all pay VAT, don’t you?”. That is a trivial point.
I wish to comment on three Scottish matters. Sixteen and 17 year-olds already vote in health board elections in Scotland. They can also vote—not that there are very many of them—in the Crofting Commission elections. As regards marriage, a lot of truth has been spoken in the past about people hightailing it up to Gretna Green because the Marriage (Scotland) Act allows them to marry at 16 without parental consent, whereas in England and Wales you certainly have to be over 18 to marry without parental consent.
My final point is merely anecdotal. I visited various schools in the autumn and spoke with pupils in the fourth, fifth and sixth years. I asked them how old they would be in the autumn of 2014, making them think it out. They discovered, perhaps for the first time, that they will have the chance to take part in the referendum. When you say, “How do you think you will vote?”, unfortunately, a massive number, because they have not thought about the fact that they will be able to vote, are nowhere near thinking about what their vote might be. However, I certainly support the idea that we should consider lowering the voting age.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on securing this debate. It is an issue that we are happy to support. It is true that in our most recent manifesto our support was limited to granting a free vote on the issue, but I am glad to report that we have now moved on. In part this was because we found that the roof did not fall in when our Scottish friends gave the referendum vote to those aged 16 and over—and, as we have heard, to crofters. I hope in part that the amendment I moved to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the AV referendum, pushed the issue up the agenda. I suspect in part it was also because we have a younger leader than we had at the time of our last manifesto. However, I think that it was mostly because it is the right thing to do.
The Electoral Reform Society has long argued for this. Unsurprisingly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, the UK Youth Parliament supports votes at 16, as did the 2006 Power inquiry. As was said, we allow people at 16 to do other things that are consistent with being an adult such as consenting to medical treatment and entering work or a civil partnership—and indeed, joining the Army and paying taxes, so we do have taxation without representation. Perhaps more importantly, these people cannot vote for the Government that decides which wars to fight. More than 4,500 16 and 17 year-olds were serving in the Armed Forces in April 2007. Of the first 100 soldiers killed in Iraq, six were too young to vote. Do we not owe to their memory the right to vote at 16?
Historically, it always takes time to understand that younger people are more capable of doing things than we thought. In 1918 we gave women the vote—but only from the age of 30. It took until 1969 to bring that figure down to the current age of 18. Even in the 1960s when we discussed the issue, two-thirds of people thought that the voting age should be 21 and not 18. Exactly the same arguments were used in 1968 against lowering the age from 21. Today, of course, the reduction to 18 is completely accepted—but that was 40 years ago.
The Power inquiry received evidence that 16 to 18 year-olds—and, perhaps more interestingly, their teachers—were in favour of the change to 16. Those aged between 16 and 24 are increasingly political. In 2011, 63% had some interest in politics. That figure was up from 56% in 2002. It may be low, but the trend is in the right direction. Only 12% said that they had no interest. Therefore, while I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that this is not a way to promote political engagement, that is not the reason for it. The reason is a democratic one. People of 16 have this right. If we are not careful, politics will lag behind other areas. The Companies Act 2006 allowed 16 year-olds to become company directors, often with bigger decisions to make than voting. Anyone can join the Labour Party at 16 and vote for our leader.
Turning to the Government, I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on having this proposal in their manifesto. When we discussed my amendment to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that would have allowed 16 year-olds to vote on AV, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said only that the Bill was not the right place to do it; now we have the right place.
For the senior partners in the coalition, unfortunately Chloe Smith in the other place said that there had to be compelling evidence before any amendment to the electoral franchise would be made. I do not know whether she wants demonstrations in the street or, as we near the centenary in June of Emily Davison’s death, some act of martyrdom. The Government have to give a better reason for saying no than simply that there is no evidence in favour of it. I hope that we will hear from the Minister a more reasoned argument than the one given by Ms Smith.
We have seen youth unemployment rise yet again—up by 11,000 in the most recent quarter. I am beginning to think that if young people had the vote, the Government would take the issue of youth unemployment much more seriously. Perhaps that is the best of all reasons for giving young people the vote.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for bringing this debate to the Lords. He started his speech by referring to a debate in the Commons on 24 January, which I read with some interest, and I have to say that I found the most novel argument to be one that in a sense complements the argument just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which is that of the increasing imbalance in the electorate between the over-65s and young people. That imbalance will grow, and all political parties know that we are pulled in the direction of those who vote and thus are pulled towards putting resources into the over-65s and not into young people. The argument was made in one of the Commons speeches that this might be one way of beginning to redress the balance and to encourage political parties and Governments to think more actively about the needs and interests of young people. It is an argument that I think we all need to take into account.
Let me stress that the Government have no plans to lower the voting age in this Parliament and that, as has already been mentioned, there is no consensus within the coalition Government. That in turn reflects the different views held across society at large and the divergent positions on this topic both within and across the various political parties. After all, we have discovered over the course of the past two and a half years just how difficult political and constitutional change is and how on any proposals for political and constitutional change there are always at least 15 different and contradictory arguments for why nothing should be done, while fewer arguments are made in support of the case for change. Nevertheless, we welcome the ongoing discussions and debate on this issue and we would encourage the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others to maintain their approach.
On the question of the age of majority, which was raised by a number of noble Lords, I simply repeat the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that there is no standard age of majority within the United Kingdom. The process of moving from childhood to majority takes place over several years, and the question of where that should be standardised would itself open up a very difficult process. However, the question of how to re-engage young people in our democracy, in citizenship and in local society is important and we all need to address it. When taking the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill through the House of Lords, I was struck by how severe a problem this is becoming. Younger people do not feel engaged in politics and they are not committed to political parties. In one way or another, we all have to address that problem. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said that providing the vote at the age of 16 is not the answer, but it may be one of the ways of contributing to an answer. It would certainly mean that schools and parties would pay much more attention to citizenship education, which is important, and we would have to think about how else we could hook young people into their local communities and into wider engagement as a whole.
We all recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out, that young people are already the least likely to vote. That is the problem, of course, and the question is how to tackle it. We know that a number of things have contributed to it: the increasing remoteness of national politics; the decline in local government and local politics; the decline in respect for our political institutions—above all for Westminster—and the decline of participation at all levels in intermediate bodies from churches and chapels to trade unions and social organisations. The question is: where do we go from here and how can we ensure that engagement in democracy at all levels from the local to the national does not continue to decline in the long term? We cannot let this question go.
Perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, suggests, deliberative democracy on the Granada 500 model—I think that was what it was called—is something that we should be experimenting with again in terms of bridging the gap between the governors and the governed. However, I suspect that television companies would be less willing to invest in such activities today as they were 20 or 25 years ago, partly because they would be less convinced that it would command the sort of audience that those very interesting experiments did in the 1980s.
We have a real problem here; we do not yet have a consensus on how we should move forward, as the debate has again shown. The research that there has been in a number of different activities is itself inconclusive. The Government do not disagree with the conclusions of the youth commission report that the approach of using independent commissions to review this should not be used again in the near future. However, we all need to focus. All of us who are committed to democratic politics and want to see a high level of political engagement have a huge and rising problem. All the research that went into looking at the shift to individual electoral registration persuaded me that this is a large and secular issue to which we do not have much of an answer. In a week in which the combination of the Eastleigh by-election and the Leveson report has encouraged the press to throw almost everything it has got at politicians of one sort or another—and people cheerfully say, “Well, don’t worry, they will move on to another set next week”—we recognise how deep a problem of democratic disillusionment and disengagement we have.
I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for giving way. Since we have a few minutes in hand, will he specifically address the fact that both the Electoral Commission and the Youth Citizenship Commission have said that there is a real gap in the research in this area, which has been reflected throughout your Lordships’ discussion this afternoon? Will the Government at least give an undertaking today that they will look again at that lacuna, which has been so clearly identified, and invite the Electoral Commission to look specifically at this again?
I hesitate to make a commitment as broad as that, but I will certainly feed it back and we will look at the question of whether there is a substantial lacuna. One of the issues that we all face here is that we know what the situation is now, and we know that the evidence of demand from young people for votes at 16 is weak. The question that I take particularly from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is whether we are happy about that, and whether we ought to be getting out there to persuade young people that they should be interested in having the vote and they should want to be re-engaged in politics. That is a much larger set of issues.
The previous Government, to their great credit, did their best to get at the question of citizenship. A number of distinguished political scientists contributed to that with modest success. We all recognise that schools have all sorts of other priorities, and that PSHE has not been one of the grandest or most glorious aspects of the secondary curriculum. There is a large issue out there, and we need much more public debate on it. This is part of a much larger issue about popular disillusionment with democratic politics as such, which has to concern us all. None of us would wish to suggest that lowering the voting age would begin to solve that; it would be only a small part of a strategy which I suggest all of us interested in democratic politics, from whichever point of view, should recognise is a shared problem to which we all need to find some shared answers.
Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords contributing to this debate, on the 10th anniversary of the eruption of the Government of Sudan’s ruthless assaults on the people of Darfur, resulting in the indictment by the ICC of President al-Bashir and two of his colleagues. The 10 years of conflict have left at least 300,000 dead and 1.7 million are forced to live in camps for displaced people in Darfur, and over 250,000 in Chad.
There has been a recent resurgence of fighting in North Darfur, forcing tens of thousands more people to flee their homes. United States State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland claims that more people have been displaced in Darfur in the past month than in all of 2012, and the United States recently called on Sudan to halt aerial bombardment of Darfur and for UN sanctions experts to be allowed to carry out wider investigations in the country. I ask the Minister if the UK has made similar representations to the Government of Sudan.
Other noble Lords will speak more on Darfur. I will focus on comparable problems in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, having recently visited both states, where I and my colleagues from HART witnessed President al-Bashir’s genocidal policies. I believe the word “genocidal” is justified.
There has been continuous fighting in Blue Nile state since 1 September 2011. Ground offensives between the Sudan Armed Forces, SAF, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, SPLM-N, continue with relentless aerial bombardment of civilians by SAF with Antonovs, MIGs, and helicopter gunships, which have destroyed towns and villages, targeting civilians. We visited Yabus, where the market had been burnt to cinders by incendiary bombs. As a local person said:
“I was in the market when we heard the Antonov above, which began dropping bombs directly on the market. Forty-seven people died, mostly women and children. Twenty-seven were wounded”.
Many are unable to live in their villages because of constant bombardment. They are hiding in the forests and on banks of rivers. They cannot grow crops or reap harvests and are suffering from lack of food and shelter.
In one village we visited, 450 people had already died of starvation. We had been able to send in food aid which had reached survivors who had fled from the village, terrorised by aerial bombardment, shortly before we arrived. We heard their voices and found them hiding in the bush, with some of their children injured by bombs. They were poignantly grateful for the aid we had provided as they could stay in Blue Nile and not have to join the thousands already forced by lack of food to flee into South Sudan. This encounter also demonstrates successful delivery of “indirect aid” to Blue Nile.
I therefore again ask the Minister if Her Majesty’s Government will consider the provision of life-saving food and medical aid to civilians trying to survive in their own lands, who prefer to risk death from aerial bombardment rather than retreat across the border as refugees? Eighty thousand have already fled to Jamam camp, 60,000 to Doro, and approximately 100 to 200 new refugees cross the border into South Sudan every day.
President al-Bashir’s racist motivation for his intended ethnic cleansing of Blue Nile was reflected in his notorious statement at Kirmuk when he said he did not want to see a black plastic sheet in Blue Nile state—that is, he did not want to see a single African person.
In southern Kordofan, fighting began between SAF and SPLM-N on 5 June 2011. There has been persistent aerial bombardment by the Government of Sudan’s Antonovs, jets and helicopter gunships, with over 1,000 bombs again directly targeting markets, schools and people tending their crops. We saw the Antonovs flying over and visited some of the thousands of people now hiding in caves, despite lethal snakes, without access to food, water or healthcare. We saw the girls’ high school in Kauda which received a direct hit, now standing empty, despite the desperate need for girls’ education.
We were told that 302mm Chinese rockets packed with ball bearings, with a 100 kilometre range, have been identified and used. They terrorise civilians—they cannot be heard approaching, so there is no time to take cover. Over 350,000 people have been displaced since June 2011. Approximately 60,000 have fled to the main refugee camp in Yida in South Sudan, and the number is growing rapidly.
The Government of Sudan have not yet permitted any humanitarian access to non-SAF controlled areas. It has been over a year since the tripartite—UN, African Union and League of Arab States—proposal to support negotiations over humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas. The SPLM-N agreed to the proposal on 18 February 2012, but Khartoum has not yet responded. Estimates suggest that between 60% and 70% of those displaced inside the Nuba Mountains have already run out of food, and malnutrition is widespread. Aid is urgently needed because access to affected areas will be virtually impossible during the rainy season, which will also bring many diseases.
Will Her Majesty’s Government support the recommendations in a letter, to be released tomorrow, signed by many UK and Australian parliamentarians and members of the US Congress, to highlight the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Darfur, and linking the Darfur atrocities with those now being perpetrated in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile? The letter urges the UN Security Council to: demand an end to aerial bombardment and other attacks against civilians in Sudan; urgently address the humanitarian situation in southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur; ensure a comprehensive approach to ending Sudan’s conflicts, focusing on the long-standing need for peaceful and inclusive democratic transformation; and take a leadership role in ensuring that those responsible for grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law are held accountable.
Will Her Majesty’s Government also support proposals that are endorsed by the peoples of Blue Nile and southern Kordofan for: an international independent committee of inquiry to be sent by the UN Security Council to investigate and report on human rights violations and abuses, and crimes against humanity, with a referral to the International Criminal Court if appropriate; targeted sanctions to prevent Khartoum from continuing to perpetrate violations of international humanitarian law with impunity, including denial of diplomatic status and visas for senior members of the NCP and freezing of financial assets held abroad; the international community to pressure Khartoum to allow urgent humanitarian assistance to all conflict-affected areas, monitored by international institutions and applied under recognised international humanitarian principles—deadlines for Khartoum’s agreement should be specified, with clear consequences if these are not met; and, in the absence of negotiated humanitarian access, the international community to explore all alternative options for delivery of assistance as a matter of urgency?
On a personal matter, I briefly mention reports issued by the Khartoum Government, and a letter to me from their ambassador, complaining about my visit to Sudan without official permission. A representative of a well respected organisation responded more aptly, perhaps, than I can:
“In the face of undeniable evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the government of Sudan’s chief objection is not that civilians are being killed indiscriminately. Nor is the chief objection that the reports from the ground are not accurate, detailed, and credible. The chief objection is that witnesses such as yourself, Nick Kristof, John Prendergast, and George Clooney failed to obtain visas before documenting and raising the alarm on the mounting evidence of mass atrocities. As if those committing war crimes would welcome witnesses who filled out visa applications first. The act of turning a blind eye to Sudan’s blood-soaked fields to focus instead on missing paperwork, as if that were the real moral outrage, is a demonstration of the banality of evil”.
Finally, I record some testimonies from local people, as their voices need to be heard and they speak more eloquently than I can ever do. They say:
“I am from the Deloka tribe in the Nuba Mountains, near to Kadugli. I have seen SAF capture and beat women and adults. There were daily attacks on my village by Antonovs, bombing people at the waterhole whenever they saw them. I witnessed a child bombed so that only his leg was left. When our village was burnt to the ground by the SAF we decided to come to Yida”.
“I am from Umm Dorain County, about 35km east of Kadugli. War reached our village in July, and until September we were bombed by Antonovs. In July, SAF came to our village and destroyed everything. They started shooting and everyone ran. I witnessed my uncle and another man being slaughtered with a knife. My younger brother was also killed. We returned to our village the next day to bury them”.
“We walked to Yida with 6 families, everyone travelling together. On the first day Antonov bombardment killed an entire family except for one child. On the next day an Antonov bomb killed the mother and father of another family. One daughter is injured and is in Yida, another girl had to have her leg amputated and later died”.
“I have come here with my children. I had to leave my Mother behind and she has been shot by SAF. The SAF ask the villagers, ‘Where are your leaders and where are the guns stored?’. If you cannot answer, they will shoot you. Our village has now been burnt down”.
“There is no one left in our village and no one can reach the bore hole. Some people have been to the village bore hole recently, but they were shot by SAF. My stepbrother had been hiding in the mountain caves with his mother. A bomb was dropped on her by an Antonov and she lost her arm. Then my stepbrother went to the bore hole at night to get water. SAF went and killed him. We are having the funeral in the camp this afternoon”.
As I finish, I must sadly emphasise the dismay expressed by the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile over what they see as the ineffectiveness of the response of the international community, particularly the United Kingdom, to the genocidal policies of the Khartoum Government. As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Darfur, let us remember that after the genocide in Rwanda it was famously stated, “Never again”—but “again” is happening now in Sudan. Until Her Majesty’s Government take effective action, they will be seen as condoning another genocide. I hope the Minister will reassure us that this will not be the case, and in so doing, bring much needed hope to the people now suffering so desperately in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on once again articulating the gross violations of human rights that are taking place in Sudan, and on the intrepid way in which she brings us first-hand accounts of the suffering of the people in these regions. It really is beyond the call of duty and she does a great service to this House—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I was in the middle of saying how wonderful the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is. I do not want to repeat everything I have said, but would add that I particularly admire the way in which she defies nasty regimes like that of al-Bashir and ignores the warnings that she must fill in paperwork before she visits the horror-stricken areas of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. We are indebted to her for bringing her first-hand accounts to your Lordships’ debates. I am also grateful to her for being a co-signatory of the letter she has mentioned—I am also a signatory—addressed to our own Secretary of State and the US Secretary of State. It is signed by Members of this Parliament and Members of the US Congress and calls on them both to move the UN Security Council to take robust action in order to halt these genocidal conflicts.
I will concentrate specifically on the aerial attacks which figure in that letter and which have so far not been dealt with satisfactorily by the UN Security Council. The Security Council last passed a resolution on Sudan a couple of weeks ago. It commended the efforts of UNAMID, the joint AU/UN mediation, the African Union high-level implementation panel and leaders in the region, and it reiterated its full support for all those authorities. But why is the panel of experts, which is mentioned in 13 out of the 18 operative paragraphs of the resolution, omitted from that list? Why has its report, which is crucial to any understanding of the reasons these conflicts are continuing indefinitely, not been published? Perhaps my noble friend can throw some light on that when she replies. Surely the world is entitled to know which members of the Security Council are objecting to publication, what in the panel’s report they do not like, and their reasons for the objections. The Security Council says that it will further study the panel’s recommendations and consider appropriate next steps, but that process will also presumably be shrouded in secrecy.
Under paragraph 6 of Security Council Resolution 1591 of March 2005, which was reaffirmed in the latest resolution, the council demanded an immediate cessation of offensive military flights over the Darfur region and asked the AU ceasefire commission to share information on this matter with the panel of experts. However, the panel was not charged with investigating the aerial attacks in Darfur, nor has it specifically been asked now to report on the bombing of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The current resolution demands in the preamble, but not in the operative paragraphs that are governed by chapter 7, that aerial bombardments should cease. Will my noble friend explain whether this means that there is no binding force on the Government of Sudan? What other explanation is there for that separation from the chapter 7 provisions?
According to Radio Dabanga on 6 February, bombing by the Sudanese Air Force Antonovs has recently intensified, destroying the villages of Kiro and Sharafa, and killing civilians in the Dalma area. Al Arabiya News reported that four civilians were killed and 37 wounded when the air force attacked Derib al Reih village in South Darfur last Thursday. The Antonovs are also busy in Blue Nile. Already, more than 200,000 refugees have fled to South Sudan, and the people who remain are demoralised into inactivity, leading to food shortage and malnutrition. The Nuba Reports website said that in South Kordofan an Antonov bombed Ngortang village on February 17, killing five civilians.
These attacks and many others are designed to spread terror and force black Africans across the frontier to join the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are destitute in the northern states of South Sudan. This is a crime against humanity that deserves a proportionate response to replace the ineffectual and repetitive expressions of concern by the UN Secretary-General, the AU and others. The expert panel’s mandate should be extended to require its report to the Security Council every 90 days to include details of every attack by the Sudanese Air Force or ground forces on civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. If the Security Council does not agree to that proposal, as seems only too probable, a coalition of the willing should provide the funding to a suitable NGO to research and publish such a report.
Again, assuming that the Security Council is unwilling to act, this coalition of the willing should seek to dissuade Ukraine from selling or leasing ostensibly civilian Antonovs to Sudan, thereby escaping the military embargo, but which are likely to be converted for military use. This same coalition might commission the NGO to carry out a survey of the origins of spares for the Antonovs and their engines. Will my noble friend confirm that those suppliers would be violating the embargo?
One suggestion made by Dr Eric Reeves of Smith College in Massachusetts is that Khartoum should be warned that every time the bombers kill civilians a drone will be sent to destroy one of the aircraft at El Obeid airbase. There is an emerging international norm of responsibility to protect, which states that when a state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and, even more so, when the state is committing crimes against humanity against its own citizens, the international community should intervene with force after peaceful measures, including sanctions, have been tried and failed. That norm assumes that the Security Council would invoke the R2P under chapter 7, as in the case of Libya.
However, the use of drones across international frontiers, without the sanction of the Security Council, is already practised against terrorist targets. The Antonovs are being used to commit acts of terrorism against civilians, and taking them out, one by one, in response would be a counterterrorist activity. Will my noble friend consider that suggestion and will the Government in any case explain how otherwise, in the absence of any significant changes either in the panel of experts’ mandate or the sanctions regime, the Government expect any let-up in the suffering of millions of people in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan over the coming year?
My Lords, I express my thanks again to my noble friend Lady Cox. She is a tireless campaigner on this issue and a voice for the voiceless. I fully support what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said earlier.
It is always difficult in these short debates to know whether to signal impatience with official delay or to express some hope of change to come. There have been so many cliff-hangers in Sudan, when agreement seems just around the corner and then drifts away from sight. Once again, here we are waiting for a final agreement on oil, Abyei, the borders and humanitarian access, most of which were foreseen in the comprehensive peace agreement. Meanwhile, as we have heard, the bombs continue to fall and people in Darfur, Kordofan and elsewhere continue to flee or to live in a state of near desperation that is difficult to convey in our environment.
I have hopes for the New Dawn Charter group which signed a document in Kampala on 5 January. It need not cause President al-Bashir any alarm. It should be seen as a positive move. It is not revolutionary and it would bring a little more sense into Sudan’s chaotic political chessboard. Al-Bashir has to see that the majority of Sudanese would prefer a new way forward that would provide a degree of stability to the economy, even if it does not satisfy the basic human rights that Tunisia and Egypt have identified, if not implemented.
Our Government, having rightly denounced the recent clampdown on civil society in Sudan, will surely encourage this process diplomatically and rigorously if there is to be any sign of a Sudanese spring. But if students, teachers, journalists and members of NGOs are going to be oppressed indefinitely, and limited press freedom further curtailed, something must snap. That may be inside the ruling junta. We have to take into account that the Sudanese temperament may not be suited to any version of the Arab spring. In my experience, the Sudanese are not like north Africans. They are an exceptionally tolerant people who have accepted a low level of freedom and have put up with an unnecessarily autocratic, bullying and often incompetent regime. It is a vast country run by about five people.
It is hardly possible to conceive of a unified state in Sudan. Instead of devolution there has been continuous warring between Khartoum and the regions. The centre’s authority depends entirely on intermittent military aggression. As we have heard, South Kordofan in particular has been the victim of constant aerial bombardment, with the Nuba people suffering untold human rights abuse and near starvation away from the eyes of the world.
In Darfur, the Government have carried on with the bombing of villages and Khartoum has made it a virtual no-go area for NGOs and humanitarian agencies. Another ceasefire was signed in Doha between the Government of Sudan and the JEM on February l0, and Qatar has announced a donors’ conference in April. But, as always, such deals are as elusive as the various parties to them and no one believes that peace is around the corner. The 10-year anniversary, though, must provide a new impetus to the long-standing campaign to persuade the Sudan Government to co-operate with repeated UN and AU resolutions, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.
An urgent priority must be the border settlement, with Abyei still a flashpoint while its boundaries remain uncertain. Concordis International has been doing valuable preparatory work, as some of us heard this week, alongside the AU High Level Implementation Panel and other interested parties. Importantly, this takes account of the regular seasonal migration across the borders. This work on the disputed sections is absolutely essential. Reuters has repeated reports from South Sudan of an incursion earlier this month into Upper Nile by unknown militia and a troop build-up, again, around the Heglig oil field close to Unity State, which recalls the brief SPLA occupation of the oil field last April, which brought the two countries to the brink of war. The implementation of the various elements of the CPA has been lamentably neglected, not just by north and south but by the international community, including ourselves. Seen from the West, Sudan has remained just below the horizon of the Arab spring. To make up for this deficit of awareness, there is no doubt in my mind that the UK must maintain and not downgrade its special relationship with both Sudan and South Sudan.
Several of us in the Sudan all-party group have been impressed by the quality of the FCO’s Sudan unit, which has taken the trouble to keep us informed. However, I have been concerned lately that there could be staff changes in the unit as a result of the recession and administrative savings. I hope that the noble Baroness can reassure us that no such cuts in the unit are forthcoming and that the FCO still gives the highest possible priority to this work. It is really important that simply because the CPA has been superseded, the UK, as a member of the troika backing up the CPA, does not lose its diplomat leadership.
Finally, may I ask the Minister, who I know has particular experience of and interest in Sudan, where Sudan is on the US Government’s world map—assuming they have moved on from the “axis of evil”—although we have not heard anything to the contrary. I notice that Sudan was left out of the Foreign Secretary’s recent RUSI speech on terrorism, which covered whole swathes of north Africa, including Mali. Perhaps she could reassure us that while we need to remain alert on this issue, close intelligence co-operation with an indicted Sudanese president is not a necessary prerequisite to security in the UK or the US.
My Lords, I, too am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for once again bringing the circumstances of this deeply troubled region to our attention. Tragically, since our last debate on this subject in October, the humanitarian situation has continued to be a matter of grave concern. I am afraid that the political deliberations, which the UK Government properly continues to support, appear to be little more than a smokescreen, as the Sudanese Government clearly have absolutely no intention of providing humanitarian access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile states from the north.
In particular, it seems that the vote to create the new state of Southern Sudan has led the Government of Sudan to make southerners accept the consequences of their vote: “You wanted your own country, now go and live in it”. Southerners are being asked to go south. This is, in one sense, entirely understandable—if not entirely defensible—in terms of making people accept responsibility for the choices they have made. However, the human consequences are appalling. The overall drive seems to be to create a single country with a single culture and a single religion. This process is enhanced by the drive to have a single language, Arabic—hence the problem with the marginalization of the Nuba and the continuing attrition in the Nuba mountains.
We in the church continue to hear from aid agencies and our fellow bishops in both Sudanese states of continued bombing, targeting civilian homes, markets, schools, fields and so on. Those stranded, unable or unwilling to flee their homes to the safety of South Sudan, are left to forage for food and water under cover from the bombs. It really is a desperate situation and a tragedy that the international community still appears to be taking little heed of what is looking increasingly like genocide, or at the very least, yet another major ethnic cleansing working itself out. Thousands of people have fled and the humanitarian cost is being paid for by neighbouring states which are absorbing them.
Conditions in the refugee camps remain poor but stable. There are increasing reports of disease outbreaks, and overcrowding is becoming a greater issue in most locations. During the dry season, basic service provision of food, water and healthcare is present and available to the population, but education is lacking. UNHCR will not allow education facilities to be initiated by international NGOs in, for example, Yida for fear that it will encourage refugees to stay.
In our debate in October I raised the concern that, although DflD recognises the role of the church, it is highly unfortunate that UNHCR and other NGOs do not always adopt the same policy. The churches and other religious bodies have a key role to play in both delivery and mediation, but often the UNHCR treats them as special interest groups without a general humanitarian agenda. In the present context of Sudan, the churches are doing an heroic job with limited resources. The young and fast-growing Episcopal Church of Sudan is resilient, but it is suffering from the forced departure of southerners, many of whom have exercised key leadership and responsibility in and through the church and its aid programmes. It is further the case that foreigners with connections to the churches are being told to leave. Others are being visited by the security services and feel intimidated. Each of our dioceses in Sudan is facing the need both to care for displaced and often traumatised people at the same time as losing some of its leading people to the south.
I welcome the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to addressing these concerns, and the priorities set by DfID for the coming year are to be applauded. However, I have four specific questions and it would be helpful if we could have some clear answers to them for the record. The first question is: what pressure are Her Majesty’s Government putting on the Government of Sudan to stop the bombing and the violence in the Nuba mountains? Secondly, what humanitarian provision are Her Majesty’s Government making for displaced people and refugees, especially in a context where southerners in Sudan are being pushed out to the south? Thirdly, although it is hard to work out the specific strategy or consistency in this, are the UK Government aware of and responding to the expulsion of expatriates from Sudan after interrogation and with no reasons being given? Finally, what support are the Government giving to those being victimised by the Sudanese Government, including those whose schools and institutions have been taken over and appropriated by the security services, thus helping to make an already bad situation even worse?
My Lords, I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter and other noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Cox for her indomitable persistence and courage, and her determination to open the eyes of the world to things that we do not always want to see. I also join the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his remarks about the letter being sent to the United Nations Security Council to which I am also a signatory. I hope that when the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, comes to reply, she will say what Her Majesty’s Government’s formal response will be to that important letter, which is being signed by representatives from jurisdictions all around the world.
I first visited South Sudan during the civil war. More than 2 million people died during that conflict. In areas like Torit which I visited, I saw at first hand the terrible carnage that was being inflicted as the result of Antonov bombers simply pounding away at communities day in and day out. As we have heard, it is now 10 years since the violence erupted in Darfur. Since my own visit to Darfur in 2004, and the report which I then published, If This Isn’t Genocide, What Is?, some 2 million people have been displaced. Between 200,000 and 300,000 people have been killed and 90% of the villages have been razed to the ground. Ten years later, the systematic genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing is continuing; those responsible have not been brought to justice; and the violence for which they are responsible has become the order of the day in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. This represents an appalling repetition of history, making these regions dangerous and lawless places. The Khartoum regime must accept the lion’s share of the responsibility for unleashing a torrent of violence on its own people.
In 2013 alone, a further 100,000 Darfuris have been displaced. HIV is rampant, children are malnourished, and even at the height of the violence, when Darfur was in the headlines, aid did not reach two-thirds of the population. The international community claimed that its aid programme was a success because the aim was to help those people who had fled to the camps. But what of the families struggling to survive in the villages in rural areas? More than half the population of Darfur has no water source. Almost a quarter of the population, including children, walk more than six miles to reach water in winter. In the summer “hungry” months, many walk more than 20 miles. Walking for water continues to be dangerous, with frequent reports of attacks.
Perhaps the Minister will comment on the report in the Guardian on 21 February that the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the aid watchdog, had criticised DfID for a water supply project that it said was poorly designed and brought limited benefit to the people whom it was supposed to help. The commission said:
“DfID needs to rethink its approach to engaging in chronic emergencies”.
It criticised it for,
“neglecting the political and institutional challenges involved in improving … water supply”.
It went on to say that DfID should work with partners with a proven track record rather than use interventions that risked,
“diminishing returns and aid dependence”.
I wonder what lessons have been learnt from that experience.
Meanwhile, the killing continues unabated. At the weekend, Reuters reported that recent fighting had caused the deaths of 51 people and wounded 62 more. Simultaneously, it reported that the Sudanese Government had put out a statement claiming that their forces had killed scores of insurgents in the border areas of Kordofan and Blue Nile. Aerial bombardment there was sustained and unremitting, with up to 60 bombs a day—and 400 bombs in Blue Nile in a month.
In Kordofan and Blue Nile, it is once again civilians—mainly women and children—who are caught in the crossfire of the violence. Some have been attacked from the air and the ground and have been denied access to humanitarian assistance for more than 20 months. I raised these crimes against humanity in your Lordships’ House in June and July 2011. The then Minister told me that the Government were “very concerned” about the 11,000 internally displaced people at the time. I drew attention to UN Security Council Resolution 1590, which required,
“protection of vulnerable groups including internally displaced persons”,
“necessary action to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence”.
I asked if the resolution had been put into effect in South Kordofan. It was not worth the paper it was written on.
Through the remainder of 2011 and again in the first months of 2012, as thousands more people were displaced, I questioned Ministers about the failure of the international community and about what Dr Mukesh Kapila said about the second genocide of the 21st century unfolding—Darfur was the first. Dr Kapila is a former British and United Nations official who presumably knew what he was talking about when he said that more than 1 million people were now affected. Given that the ICC has indicted the head of state in Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, and the governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Mohammed Haroun, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, how can we justify full diplomatic relations with mass murderers and fugitives from justice? Have we not considered at least downgrading those relationships? What is being done to help the ICC enforce arrest warrants in those cases? I ask those questions again.
In 2012 I criticised the paralysis of the international community. Two years ago, Ministers stated:
“Reports of such atrocities will … be investigated and, if they prove to be true, those responsible will need to be brought to account”.—[Official Report, 21/6/11; col. WA 294.]
Nine months later, they stated:
“We continue … to seek urgent access to those most affected by the conflict”.—[Official Report, 9/11/11; col. WA 66.]
On 17 May 2012, I asked again how it was that the second genocide of the 21st century was unfolding in South Kordofan. I asked how the Government could continue to do business as usual with a regime that was led by someone who has been indicted for war crimes. I might add, how can Germany—an ally of ours in the European Union—justify recently holding a business conference encouraging people to invest money in Sudan?
The United Nations now estimates that close to 1 million people have been displaced or severely affected by violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. How many more have to be displaced? Independent experts now warn that parts of South Kordofan and Blue Nile face the very real prospect of a man-made famine by April 2013. How many more people have to be malnourished or starve to death? On 25 January the African Union demanded an end to hostilities, the granting of humanitarian access and a commitment to adhere to a clear timeline for direct political talks. Now is not the time for combat or war weariness.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, as all noble Lords are present, we may resume.
My Lords, before the Division, I was about to end. I would like to complete my remarks by simply referring to a note I received recently from the courageous bishop of El Obeid, Bishop Macram Gassis. He wrote:
“The suffering of my flock torments me. The aerial bombardment is incessant. … I plead with the international community to save the Nuba people from extermination”.
“The barrel of the gun will never bring peace; on the contrary it will simply create more hatred and violence”.
Surely those are sentiments with which we can all agree.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her unswerving determination, and to other speakers, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Indeed, pretty much everybody has once again gone through the events of the past 10 years: the mass murders; the ethnic cleansing of black Africans and the attacks on their culture and language, which is a distinctive part of ethnic cleansing; the direct attacks, including aerial attacks, on civilians; the use of Chinese and Iranian munitions; and the displacements of very large numbers of people. The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Avebury, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and, indeed, all of us may feel—I do not mean this in any frivolous sense—a certain “Groundhog Day” sensation about parts of this debate as we have been going round these issues for a long time.
I sifted out what I thought were the important notes made on visits to Khartoum, Darfur and Juba. The notes related to the first visits that I made in November 2005 and to Juba again later that month. With the exception of one leader of South Sudan, I do not think that I ever saw the same people twice. The turnover, and hence the difficulty in dealing with anybody, was absolutely monumental.
If I may say so, the issue is not just about Sudan: it is not that limited geographically. President Bashir’s impact endangers the entire region’s security right across a swathe of Africa. John Garang tried to stabilise the south and his death was a tragedy. The referendum seemed like a valid mechanism, but we all know that the outcome was always likely to lead to a further breakdown, whatever our aspirations for it, because of the contested oil rights and oil wealth in that area.
One edge of South Darfur was always impacted, in my experience. Blue Nile was always a problem. The Ugandans had never managed to successfully deal with their northern border. The Lord’s Resistance Army and Kony, its leader, routinely went into South Sudan and many other places. I always believed that President Museveni, for all the talk about what he would do, made no real attempt to make sure that security was there either. The people of north Uganda were driven from the land, frequently by people who were moving backwards and forwards out of South Sudan. The issues spread into the west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and into the Central African Republic; it spreads across borders in as much as there are borders.
Darfur, as we have heard today, is experiencing the 10th anniversary of an appalling war, which spreads across the borders, fairly routinely, into Chad. There, the Janjaweed gangs have been assisted by the Khartoum regime and have then gone on to wreak even greater havoc. The aerial terror that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, illustrated so clearly is extremely important. I recall the offer made by Colonel Gaddafi, who said that he could understand the peoples of that region in a way in which he did not expect us to, and was perfectly prepared to intervene. I said that I thought it sounded like an offer to interfere and make things worse. Of course, there was always the prospect of things spreading across the Maghreb, through the northern borders.
The issues are in some cases realistic and need proper attention. It is not always about issues of wickedness, although goodness knows there is enough of that. However, the contestation between agriculturalists and herders for areas that are in any sense arable, as desertification becomes a problem of real economic consequence, is very important. There are many more issues in Darfur: voting rights, security, food and water have all been mentioned today.
I recall a couple of attempts by the African Union force to secure a degree of peace which were fundamentally undermined by President al-Bashir. The Canadians had provided armoured vehicles to protect the Nigerian peace force, who were in soft-sided vehicles. While I was there, six Nigerian soldiers were killed through soft-sided vehicles that were fired upon. Those armoured vehicles took ages to get into Darfur because they were in Dakkar and nobody would let them move forward. It took a special meeting in which Javier Solana, then the High Representative of the EU, took part to get them in. We got more or less no help from Russia, and occasionally just a little hint that there might be a more sympathetic response from some of the Chinese leadership.
These factors are all important, and are a very diverse set of factors to introduce at this stage of your Lordships’ debate. However, there is one constant among all of them: President al-Bashir. The issues for which he must stand trial, and for which there should be no impunity, link all the things that pretty much every noble Lord said in this evening’s debate.
I join others in asking essentially the same questions of the Minister tonight. The critical things are what we can do in these unpromising circumstances; whether it is possible to get the United Nations, through the operation of its committee of inquiry, or the Security Council to do what needs to be done—the letter should be an important stimulus to the Security Council in setting those things out; and whether we believe that we can have a greater impact in those areas.
Briefly, the role of the United Kingdom has sometimes been a little confusing. I do not know whether I should make an apology for it, but it certainly was between the FCO and DfID over a period of time. I found, quite often, that because DfID was in control of so much more of the money than the FCO ever was that DfID officials were the only people to whom anybody wanted to talk. It often meant that more standard forms of diplomatic and state intervention became more difficult. It may be that we need to rethink those things. I do not say this in a way that is at all aggressive. I just think that when we have identified things that really have not worked, it falls to us to think—as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, did when he made some other important suggestions—about how we might improve.
I conclude by saying that it seems absolutely clear that we have failed the people of this war-torn region. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, made this point very eloquently as well. What we have to do is identify how we can help generate the conditions in which there is a Sudan that is peaceful, democratic and prosperous, which respects human rights and the rule of law, and whose people share equally in the nation’s wealth and development, with all Sudanese people being treated equally, regardless of their race or religion, and in which Sudan is an active and benign member of the international community. The regional security issues are far too severe for us to do anything else.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for tabling today’s timely debate, and I thank all noble Lords for their informed contributions. I also commend the continued work of the Associate Parliamentary Group for the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan, of which the noble Baroness is a member, as are other noble Lords who are here today.
I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for bringing his experience of the region to this debate and the tone with which he dealt with the debate. Of course, this is the second time I have had the opportunity to participate in a debate on Sudan and South Sudan, both of which remain high foreign policy priorities for this Government, but other Ministers before me have debated this topic on numerous occasions, in lengthier debates and in Oral Questions.
Our focus this evening has been on the internal conflicts within Sudan but I will also take the opportunity to update noble Lords on the broader context of the relations between the two countries. When I spoke about this subject in October last year, there was reason for cautious optimism about relations between Sudan and South Sudan. We and our international partners welcomed the signing of nine agreements on 27 September, and we made clear that we expected to see their full implementation, as well as resolution of the remaining disputes between the two countries. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has said, there have been many cliff-hangers on this journey, and this appears to be another one. It is deeply frustrating that since the signing of those agreements we have seen a lack of progress in their implementation, despite further negotiations occurring on a number of occasions thereafter.
At the start of the year hopes were raised again that we might see progress when the Presidents of Sudan and South Sudan met on 5 January and were able to recommit to making rapid progress on implementation. However, by the time the Presidents met again at the African Union summit later that month, it appeared that the good faith that had previously been shown had now gone, leaving no obvious way forward beyond the vague promise of further discussions. Like other noble Lords, I find that deeply frustrating and disappointing.
It is now crucial for both countries to take concrete and substantial steps forward on implementation of those agreements, particularly on security arrangements, demilitarisation of the border zones and allowing the export of oil. The UK Government will continue to give their full support to the African Union high-level implementation panel as it seeks to find a lasting solution to these issues.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, our concern about relations between Sudan and South Sudan should not lead us to overlook the serious conflict going on within Sudan’s borders. Ten years after the outbreak of significant violence, we remain deeply concerned by the continuing conflict in Darfur and the resulting humanitarian situation. More than 300,000 people have died as a result of the conflict in the past decade and approximately 2 million have been displaced, the majority of whom are still reliant on humanitarian aid.
Recent clashes in the gold-mining area in North Darfur highlight that the nature of the conflict may have changed but its effects remain as concerning as ever. Since the start of this year, more than 100 villages have been destroyed and 100,000 people displaced. That is already half the total number of people displaced in 2012. We hope to use this anniversary period in the run-up to the donor conference to make progress on the ground and ensure that Darfur remains on the international agenda, including in the UN Security Council. The UK remains committed to seeing the causes of the conflict addressed. We will continue to support Darfur by responding to humanitarian needs, fostering development opportunities and promoting a peaceful political solution.
We support the Doha document for peace in Darfur, which contains welcome provisions to address the needs of ordinary Darfuris and bring justice for the crimes committed. However, implementation of the Doha document has been disappointingly slow and has not focused sufficiently on areas that will make the most difference to the security and basic needs of communities. We are pressing the Government of Sudan to honour their commitments under the agreement, encouraging rebel groups to end their violence and obstruction of the peace process, and also working closely with Qatar, which continues to take an international lead on this issue.
We are deeply concerned by the continuing conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile and the impact that it is having on the communities in those areas. Some of the consequences of the conflict have been graphically described this evening. The refusal to allow independent humanitarian access to civilians in all of these areas, particularly the rebel-held areas, is of deep concern. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has told the Security Council that it believes that more than 1 million people have been displaced or severely affected by the conflict. We are working to ensure that the issue remains at the top of the international agenda, in particular within the African Union and the UN Security Council. The situation deserves the full and credible independent investigation that the Foreign Secretary called for at the start of the conflict, and for those responsible for abuses or international crimes to be held to account. This remains our position.
It is crucial that the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North comply with obligations to ensure humanitarian access and agree a full cessation of hostilities. The African Union has invited the parties to direct talks on 5 March. We are encouraging both sides to attend and to engage in serious talks without preconditions, focusing first on achieving a cessation of hostilities and full humanitarian access. Until that time, the UK teams in Juba and Khartoum will continue to work closely with the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, other donors and NGOs to ensure that assistance reaches all those in need who are accessible, and that we are ready to move rapidly to respond to a broader opening up of access.
I will respond to the specific issues that were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about the provision of life-saving food and medical aid to civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. All donors share the view that negotiated access from within Sudan is the best way of providing humanitarian assistance. Donors co-ordinate closely, and many of them are looking carefully at all options for getting aid to those in need. We currently judge that the risks of cross-border assistance mean that the UK should not pursue this approach at this stage.
The noble Baroness also asked what representations the UK had made on halting aerial bombardments in Darfur. The recent Panel of Experts report highlighted the Government of Sudan’s use of military aircraft in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1591. We condemn such actions and most recently expressed our concerns through the UN Security Council discussion adopting Resolution 2091, which extended the panel’s mandate for a further year.
My noble friend Lord Avebury asked why the Panel of Experts report had not been published. I am pleased to inform him that a decision has been taken to publish the latest report on Darfur from the Panel of Experts. It has not yet appeared on the United Nations website, but my officials will pass on a copy to the noble Lord as soon as it becomes available. He also raised the question of whether the Government should consider the use of drones against Sudanese aircraft in Darfur. We argue consistently for the strict enforcement of UN sanctions in Darfur. It has not been possible to agree measures to toughen the sanctions regime in the United Nations Security Council, and any actions that we take must be consistent with existing UN Security Council resolutions.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked for reassurance that FCO resources for Sudan would not be reduced. I can assure him that Sudan remains a high priority for the FCO. There are many competing priorities, including in Africa, but no decision has been taken to reduce FCO resources devoted to Sudan and South Sudan. The opening of an embassy in Juba has meant an increase in overall staff resources over the past two years.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the question of the views of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and its criticism of the project in Darfur. We believe that this report is outdated. The UK has already transformed our humanitarian response in Sudan to help address the root causes of conflict rather than simply relying on emergency aid. It is disappointing not to see this reflected in the ICAI’s report. Our new programme will help the poorest people become better able to cope with the impact of conflict or man-made disasters, such as being able to access local markets and regular food supplies.
The noble Lord also asked about the potential denial of diplomatic status for senior members of the NCP. As we have set out before, at this stage the UK will maintain a diplomatic relationship with Sudan. We use our diplomatic relations with Sudan to press for the Government to resolve conflicts, address humanitarian and development needs and end human rights abuses. Having a senior ambassador in Khartoum ensures that we have influence and access to the right levels of government, as well as to a full range of political opposition and civil society groups. It is not ideal, but we feel that downgrading our relations would reduce our ability to achieve our objectives—indeed, any objectives—in Sudan.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter asked some quite specific questions: what support are we providing to those being victimised by the Government of Sudan? Our embassy in Sudan monitors the situation closely and makes regular representations to the Sudanese authorities. The specific question was raised about the humanitarian situation in South Sudan. Of course we remain extremely concerned about the refugee situation in both Unity and Upper Nile states caused by the influx of almost 180,000 refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as the wider humanitarian situation in South Sudan. My honourable friend Lynne Featherstone saw the refugee conditions for herself when she visited the camp in October.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked for a response to the letter to the UN Security Council; we look forward to receiving that letter and I can assure him that it will be considered seriously and responded to. I am acutely aware of the time. I think the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter asked about the expulsion of expatriates from Sudan. We are aware of a number of expatriates who have been expelled, in particular those with connections to religious organisations. We have raised these concerns with the Sudan ministry responsible for religious affairs and European Union colleagues are intending to make representations to the Minister of Justice.
In conclusion, we have come tantalisingly close to a settlement of the dispute on many occasions, but it will take a serious renewed effort in good faith from both countries to properly and peacefully settle their remaining differences. The international community will do what it can to bring the parties to the various internal conflicts into peace talks, and to address the humanitarian consequences, but Sudan will not be at peace until it addresses the inequalities and marginalisation that lie behind all of these conflicts.
The AU high-level implementation panel and other countries will have a vital role to play, and we should commend their efforts so far. For our part, we stand ready to add value to the process in whatever way we can, and to work closely with our international partners. It is a priority for us to ensure that agreements are finalised and implemented and for all conflicts to be resolved. We want to have a positive and constructive bilateral relationship with both Sudan and South Sudan through our bilateral aid programme in both countries, and we remain fully committed to delivering humanitarian aid and development projects. We will continue to provide assistance to respond to the humanitarian needs of conflict affected populations, to support security and access to justice, to build basic services and to encourage a more transparent and accountable government in Sudan and South Sudan.
Committee adjourned at 7.09 pm.