Skip to main content

Grand Committee

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2013

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 24 July 2013.

My Lords, when there is a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2014) Order 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2014) Order 2013

Relevant document: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, we are considering today the draft of an order to move the date of the local government elections in England in 2014 from Thursday 1 May to the same date on which elections will be held across the United Kingdom for the European Parliament. The elections to the European Parliament in 2014 will be held between 22 and 25 May. In the UK we are planning to hold these elections on Thursday 22 May, and an order under Section 4 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 will be made in due course.

If Parliament approves the draft order before us today, the 2014 election date for 160-odd principal councils in England would be moved—that is, all the London boroughs and metropolitan councils and more than 90 shire and unitary district councils. The order would also move the elections in around 250 parish councils across England. In addition, as a result of this order moving the ordinary day of election, the elections for directly elected mayors to be held in 2014, in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford—I feel a bit like a train announcer here—will also be moved and held at the same time as the European parliamentary elections.

This is an important change. All electors in the UK will be eligible to vote in the European elections, and 73 Members of the European Parliament will be returned. More than 23 million people will be voting in the local elections scheduled for 2014. That is just over 40% of the electorate. Approximately 4,000 seats on principal councils will be contested. The order has no effect outside England; in 2014 there are no local elections for councils in Scotland or, indeed, Wales.

Following agreement among member states, the date of the 2014 European parliamentary election is being moved from 5 to 8 June to the period of 22 to 25 May. This is to avoid a clash with the Pentecost holiday, which could impact on electors’ availability to vote across member states. This will therefore mean that the UK European Parliament election will be held on Thursday 22 May 2014.

It is appreciated that the arguments about combining local and European elections are finely balanced, but on this occasion we have decided that it is right to bring forward this order so that the two elections can be combined. The Government are clear that, with the European parliamentary elections on 22 May, just three weeks from the date on which the local elections would have been held, the case for moving the date of the local elections and combining them with the European ones is strong. Were the period between the elections longer, the decision might be less clear-cut. I stress that this does not necessarily create a precedent for any future set of elections.

Our aim in all of this must be that we consider the voters’ interests above all other considerations. If the local election date were not moved, there would be two elections within three weeks. In such circumstances the balance of argument, in terms of minimising inconvenience and confusion for voters and of ensuring that the polls are soundly and efficiently administered, lies in favour of moving the date of the local elections and combining the polls.

I want to talk through one or two arguments about things that would occur if we did not hold these elections together. For example, the start of the European election period will overlap with the end of the local election period. This could be confusing for voters —for example, a few days before voting in the council’s elections, voters might receive a new poll card with different details for the European election, and postal votes for the European parliamentary election would be arriving with voters during the week of polling day at the local elections. Anyone who has been involved in elections at any level knows the challenges when you knock on the door and find that people have received different cards for different elections.

Another argument to be put forward is one of resources. As we look at how we can make savings across the piece, it is important that we look at what savings can be realised here. There would be increased costs for others such as political parties and the Electoral Commission in providing entirely separate voter awareness campaigns if we were not to combine the two elections; for example, in contacting voters and in canvassing. The Electoral Commission estimates that holding the 2014 elections together would save £0.95m from its public awareness campaigns budget alone.

There may be difficulty in finding polling stations, as well as in hiring polling stations and staff. Many schools host polling stations. Would we be looking to close schools for two days? All these factors I mention briefly because they strengthen the argument for holding the two elections together.

It is of course true that the procedures become more complex the more electoral events are held on the same day and the more polls are combined, but, on balance, this is preferred to the difficulties and duplication of effort and resource involved in running separate elections within a few weeks of each other.

In addition, experience of combined elections is now high among returning officers and we are confident that the elections will be run successfully together. European parliamentary elections and local elections have been combined in the past without undue problems arising, and I see no reason for that to be different this time. As I have just pointed out, our own electoral staff are more much competent and can converse effectively with those who seek guidance on different ballot papers in terms of what they need to do—though not so much in terms of where to put their cross.

We are not of course proposing to move the local elections in 2014 without consulting those who are most affected and who have specialist knowledge of elections and electoral matters. On 26 March, the Government published a consultation document inviting views on whether we should, subject to parliamentary approval, move the date of the English local elections from Thursday 1 May 2014 to the same day as the European parliamentary election. That consultation closed on 13 May, by which time we had received 155 responses. This included representations from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association and some 64 councils.

While the consultation shows that there are mixed views on moving the date, some two-thirds of the 155 responses, including that from the Electoral Commission, favoured the change of date. The Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies the order summarises consultees’ views and sets out the Government’s response to the consultation and provides the rationale for the change.

Concerns were raised about the increased complexities in the administration of elections and the risk of voter confusion. For that reason, the view was expressed by some that the local elections should not be moved. There were also concerns that such a move would weaken the democratic mandate of local government, as the public focus would inevitably be drawn towards national issues with the importance of local issues being overlooked. It was felt that a proper debate on the separate issues of Europe and local public services would be prevented.

We do not take these concerns lightly, but, after careful consideration based on the responses that we received from, among others, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and local authorities, which are responsible for administering elections, the Government are confident that local authorities and the suppliers they work with will have the capacity to manage local and European elections held on the same date in May 2014.

I am also sure that sufficient public awareness work will take place to reduce risk of voter confusion both at the ballot box and when distinguishing between the different issues on which they are being asked to vote. We should not underestimate the intelligence of the electorate to grasp the issues and to be discerning at the polls. Indeed, it could be argued that holding two polls at the same time is likely to increase, rather than decrease, interest in both sets of issues. In its response, the Electoral Commission agreed that the balance of argument lay with the date of the local elections being moved. This view was equally shared by the Association of Electoral Administrators. The Local Government Association and many councils also supported the move to elections on the same day.

This order also addresses consequential issues. It contains the necessary provisions that will enable elections to parish councils to take place alongside the principal council and European elections on 22 May. It extends the term of office for sitting councillors and mayors, although for no more than three weeks, which is an issue that I raised with officials. It provides that a by-election will not be held where a casual vacancy arises in the office of councillor within six months of the European parliamentary election held in 2014. It also provides for annual meetings of joint authorities and parish councils to take place at a date later than currently required by statute, given the later date of the local elections, in particular for the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority.

In conclusion, the balance of argument is such as put forward in the order, which is both sensible and pragmatic. There are good reasons to hold both elections on the same day. I commend this order to the Committee.

My Lords, Liberal Democrats in this House have no objection to this order and are quite happy to support its passage. However, it raises one or two issues about the principle of joining elections together, which I will come to shortly.

I ought to declare an interest—not because I think I have one, because I do not think I have—but I remember when we spent a lot of time in this Room 10 years ago debating elections, which turned out to be joint elections, where there were all-postal vote pilots in some of the northern regions of this country. I took part in those debates, which were well in advance of the elections. There was a formal complaint afterwards from the Labour Party, which wrote to the authorities in this House asking that I should be dealt with in an appropriate manner—perhaps taken to the Tower, I do not know—because I had not declared an interest, because at those elections I turned out to be not only an election agent but a candidate, and indeed got elected to the local council.

The Labour Party has enough problems on its hands at the moment and I do not want to create more, and more time and expense for it in writing letters of complaint, so I will be clear—although I do not think it is an interest—that it is quite likely that I shall be an agent in the local elections next May for at least some candidates, although my seat is not coming up. So that saves the Labour Party all that time and effort and it can worry about its membership rules, trade unions and the rest of it instead.

The consultation on these proposals was quite interesting. The explanation of it in the Explanatory Memorandum is interesting. It seems that about a third of the people who responded in fact suggested that the elections should be kept separate. They put forward what I think are perfectly respectable reasons, such as that,

“combining the elections would weaken the democratic mandate of local government, since the focus of the elections will inevitably not be on local issues, and would dilute localism”.

Now there is a thought. I do not think that is true, actually. Certainly, in the part of the world I live in, where there are combined European and local elections, the local elections tend to have a higher profile than the European elections. One of the arguments for combining them is that people who vote in the local elections might not usually vote in the European elections and that will put the European turnout up—and vice versa.

It is not set out in the Explanatory Memorandum but the word on the grapevine is that many of the organisations and persons who objected to combining the elections were actually local Conservative associations, which are worried about precisely that. They are concerned that in the European elections lots of people who normally do not bother to vote in the council elections will go out and vote for UKIP because they read the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, or whatever other reasons they may have, and this will cause problems for the Conservatives in the local elections. That is a problem for the Conservative Party; it is not one about which we are too bothered. However, it is interesting that there is this confusion.

There are two problems with combining elections, although this year the arguments in favour are very good. One is that the national campaign and the discussion of the issues in the media will be biased very strongly towards one of the elections, which might mean that local elections are not genuine local elections, as they ought to be. The second problem is that voters will be confused, will not know what they are doing and will not be able to make sense of the different ballot papers and voting systems. That is nonsense, and an insult to the intelligence of electors. The combination of different electoral systems in Scotland has substantially put that argument to bed. It is not true, although I remember canvassing in the first European elections of this nature 10 years ago. When people saw me coming, they would wave these big ballot papers at me and say, “Can you explain all these things? Who are these parties?”. We had mini-seminars in the street in that sunny June. However, by and large, people cope.

The real problem will come not with the European elections but the year after, in 2015, when yet again local elections will be combined with the general election. That is the great problem with combining elections. Inevitably, the general election takes over and people campaigning in local elections find it much more difficult to counter what people think of as the real election. Of course, that is now set out in a statute that states that local elections are on the first Thursday in May, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act states that general elections are on the first Thursday in May. I hope that, sooner or later, general elections will move to where they used to be, in September or October, and the two will be separate. However, that is not something we can do anything about today, and I am very happy to support the order.

My Lords, I have been an election agent for some 40 years. This is not something that we have not done in the past, and it is something that we should manage quite well in future. I have managed five elections at the same time, in different areas of a constituency, so I know the complications. However, any good election agent should be able to manage this. The only difficulty I have ever encountered is in the division and declaration of expenses. Will there be advice for election agents on the way to divide up expenses?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order. As he will know, the Labour Party responded to the consultation and supported the combination of elections. In 2004 and 2009, we similarly required the local elections to be combined with elections to the European Parliament. Therefore, it would be odd if we did anything other than support the order, particularly given the Minister’s point about the short period between the planned dates.

The supportive comments as set down in the Explanatory Notes are ones that we broadly endorse. We note that the order has the support of the Electoral Commission, the LGA, SOLACE, the Electoral Reform Society and the Association of Electoral Administrators. We are in good company. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, explained, the Lib Dems have no objections either. I was delighted that the noble Lord took the opportunity to avoid any confusion over his possible role as an election agent. I am sure that that will save the Labour Party a great deal of time. I was interested to hear the noble Lord’s comments on UKIP. We will have to see. My noble friend Lady Golding made the point that we have done it in the past and it would be odd if we could not support the order today, which we do. My noble friend has raised an important point around the declaration of expenses.

The point has been made that returning officers and local authorities are now experienced in having more than one election on the same day. The research for the commission shows that the public, too, can cope with multiple elections even where there is more than one voting system in play. We note that the commission plans to encompass the combination of polls in its public awareness campaign, and we of course support this and believe that it is very important. I do not think that I will attempt to trouble the Minister further. We support this order.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also noted his great concern for both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. However, we rise to the challenge, and if it is UKIP or anyone else, if I may get political for a moment, I say, “Bring it on; we will see you during the election”.

I have a couple of brief points in response to some of the comments. It is also important for the record, when comparing statistics on voter turnout, to note that in 2006—which I remember well, as someone who was then elected to a local authority—we were very concerned about the low voter turnout. We then saw a voter turnout of 37%. This contrasts with 2010, when there was a double-header and it was held with the general election, with a voter turnout of 62.6%. At a time when we need to encourage more people to exercise their right to vote, it is useful to see that when we have combined elections it has resulted in a higher voter turnout.

A small point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, about electoral agents. Of course, I bow to her great expertise and experience across the field with the elections she has managed. Of course, there will be specific advice from the Electoral Commission on all relevant matters.

I once again thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate.

Motion agreed.

Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes (Automatic Enrolment) (Amendment) Regulations 2013

Relevant document: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this draft instrument which was laid before the House on 1 July. I am satisfied that it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Automatic enrolment introduces the biggest change to private pension saving that this country has seen for 100 years. It will result in up to 11 million people starting to save, or saving more, for their retirement, with a contribution from their employer. In fact, data published last week by the Pensions Regulator show that since last July more than 1 million people have been automatically enrolled. Automatic enrolment is transforming our savings culture by encouraging and supporting people to take personal responsibility and save for their future, helping to ensure that they have a more comfortable lifestyle in retirement. It is of vital importance, therefore, that we ensure that people have confidence in the pensions that they are automatically enrolled into and are protected from excessive or inappropriate charges.

The draft regulations before us will introduce a new condition that a scheme providing money purchase benefits must meet to be an automatic enrolment scheme. The condition specifies that the scheme cannot allow an employer to make an agreement with a third party under which that third party is paid from the members’ pension pots. This will effectively ban consultancy charges from schemes used to comply with automatic enrolment. In doing this, we do not want to prevent the normal day-to-day running of pension schemes. Trustees and managers of occupational pension schemes and pension providers have therefore been excluded from the definition of third party. This will mean that they can continue to pay for important services for the efficient running of schemes.

We recognise that a small number of schemes which include consultancy charges were put in place before the Minister for Pensions announced the Government’s intention to legislate on 10 May. Therefore, these regulations will not affect pension schemes where there was a legally enforceable agreement in place between an employer and a third party before 10 May 2013. We intend to consult in the autumn on widening the ban on consultancy charges so that it covers all qualifying schemes. Clause 35 of the Pensions Bill currently before Parliament—it is in the other place at the moment—will enable us to do this. Our direction of travel is clear: consultancy charges do not have a place in qualifying schemes.

The concept of consultancy charges was introduced as part of the Retail Distribution Review carried out by the then Financial Services Authority. The review banned the practice of providers paying commission to advisers for recommending their products. Consultancy charging enables employers to pass on the costs of advice provided to an employer to the members who join the pension scheme. While some of the services to employers can improve the outcome for some members, the primary aim in many situations is to support employer compliance with their automatic enrolment duty. Fundamentally, therefore, there is a misalignment between the interests of the employer and the member. The employer chooses the service and the price is agreed between the employer and the adviser, but the fee is paid by the individual member. That fee is paid regardless of whether they receive any particular benefit other than being automatically enrolled into a workplace pension scheme. There is no one in this arrangement who has the incentive to and is capable of driving down costs and ensuring value for money. The member’s only choice is to accept that they have to pay the consultancy charge to the adviser out of their pension or to opt out of pension saving and forgo the employer contribution. That is why we are bringing forward these regulations today.

Between November 2012 and May of this year, the DWP conducted a thorough review of the emerging interaction between consultancy charging and automatic enrolment. This involved the full range of organisations with an interest in the issue, including pension providers, advice firms, employer representatives, consumer groups and pensions experts. The review found that consultancy charges were likely to be used to pay employer compliance with the automatic enrolment obligation.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I had just finished explaining why we were bringing forward the regulations and had started to explain the review that the department undertook between November last year and May this year.

The review found that consultancy charges were likely to be used to pay for employer compliance with the automatic enrolment obligation. This has been likened to expecting workers to pay for the steps that their employer takes to ensure compliance with health and safety law.

Over the course of the review, a broad consensus emerged that there was a significant risk of consumer detriment with consultancy charges; that is, individuals paying for a service from which they receive no individual benefit. With this risk came a wider risk to the reputation of pensions more generally at a critical stage in the rollout of automatic enrolment.

The review also found that consultancy charges can have a disproportionately negative impact on people who move jobs regularly, because they might repeatedly have to pay higher “initial” scheme set-up charges. In April, the Work and Pensions Select Committee raised concerns about consultancy charges and the ultimate impact on individuals’ income in retirement. The committee recommended that the Government ban consultancy charges in automatic enrolment schemes without delay.

A number of options were considered during the review, including restricting the use of consultancy charges through setting a cap, imposing decency limits and providing statutory guidelines. Our conclusion was that none of these options would protect consumers sufficiently or quickly enough. Even a low consultancy charge will have a detrimental effect on a member if they do not receive any tangible benefit from the advice that they are paying for. Our approach is the simplest rule to understand and enforce, and sends a clear message that we are protecting consumers.

While employers are free to get advice if they want it, the Government do not believe that the cost of seeking such advice should be passed on to the members of the pension scheme. Let us not forget that the Government have established NEST, a low-cost and simple scheme designed for automatic enrolment compliance, and joining that scheme requires no consultancy advice.

Banning consultancy charges in automatic enrolment schemes, which is essentially the effect of the draft regulations, will increase competition in the advice market. Advisers will compete on a more transparent fee basis and deliver value for money for employers. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, the decision to prohibit consultancy charging for any scheme used for auto-enrolment and charges which arise from an amount paid to a third party under an agreement between a third party and an employer is very welcome, and I am pleased that the Government have taken this decision. The decision recognises the vulnerability of pension savers where they have not chosen the pension product but are automatically enrolled in the employer’s choice of scheme and where who has responsibility for protecting the best interests of the saver in contract-based pension provision is at best uncertain.

It is also welcome that the Government have called for evidence on standards of governance and quality in defined-contribution pension schemes. I hope that this decision on consultancy charging is the first of many by the Government which put the interests of the pension saver centre stage.

It is also important to reflect that consultancy charging was initially allowed by the FCA—previously the FSA—and its subsequent abolition, because it is quite clearly not in the saver’s interest, is compelling confirmation of the need for the two pensions regulators, the Pensions Regulator and the FCA, to co-ordinate very clearly on what is the appropriate framework of protection for pension savers in an auto-enrolment world where one has a mix of both trustee and contract-based pension provision and where, increasingly, the future looks as though it is contract based.

It is important to reiterate a point to which the Minister referred: Parliament having secured broad popular support for automatic enrolment—which is certainly manifest in the preliminary evidence of people not opting out from being auto-enrolled into a pension scheme—cannot afford to fail those millions of people who are allowing themselves to be auto-enrolled by not having a framework of protection that ensures that the interests of the saver are centre stage in any regulatory framework. Public confidence on this issue, once lost, will not be easily regained. This is a framework for auto-enrolment. I suspect that we have one chance at securing a rebuild of private pension saving in this country and we cannot afford to get too much of it wrong. I therefore welcome regulations but encourage the Government to be even bolder in forthcoming challenges.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for introducing these regulations, let me make it clear that they have our strong support, as the Committee will have gathered from my noble friend Lady Drake.

At the start of her presentation, the Minister made reference to the progress that has been made with auto-enrolment. That is indeed heartening. I think the figure was more than 1 million people already enrolled—I was not quite sure whether that was gross or net of opt-outs. I understand from my noble friend that, thankfully, the level of opt-outs has been quite small.

It was a particular delight to hear from my noble friend Lady Drake in this short debate because she was there at the heart of the creation of auto-enrolment as one of the three members of the Turner commission. We always endeavour to follow her wise words.

We particularly endorse the analysis which points up the misalignment, which the Minister referred to, between the interests of the primary consumer—the employer—and the end customer—that is, the member. As my honourable friend the shadow Pensions Minister Gregg McClymont has made clear, the workplace pensions market is not made up of fully informed consumers. The inertia that this phenomenon fostered is, in part, to be addressed by auto-enrolment. A lack of informed consumers is not sufficiently balanced by good governance arrangements, particularly for contract-based DC schemes.

We see the issue of the complexity of charging as inextricably tied up with the wider issues of governance, especially for defined contribution schemes. My honourable friend has gone further and challenged whether the Financial Conduct Authority’s regulation offers sufficient safeguards for the workplace pensions market, and has proposed an extension of trust-based governance, a widening of fiduciary obligations and bigger schemes to improve the bargaining power of members. He argues that full disclosure of costs and charges is not a sufficient improvement to the current situation but it is a necessary one. We welcome the call for evidence around some of these matters.

As we have heard, in April 2013 the Work and Pensions Committee covered a number of these issues and made the point, with which we agree, that auto-enrolment will mean that many more people in the UK will be saving for their retirement. But given that most will be auto-enrolled into DC schemes, hence bearing most pension-saving risks themselves, the issue of good governance is of heightened importance. The committee says:

“Decisions made by contract-based scheme providers, and the employers who enrol their employees into them, may not always be made in the best interests of the scheme member. Trust-based schemes generally offer members greater protection, as scheme trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the interests of scheme members”.

The committee also pointed out that:

“A confusing array of costs and charges is applied to pension pots by pension providers … and these costs and charges can have a serious negative impact on an individual’s retirement income”.

My noble friend’s comments about the need to maintain and build on the broad popular support for pensions saving that auto-enrolment has thus far engendered are very important.

Like the Minister, the Work and Pensions Committee was particularly concerned about members bearing consultancy charges. As the committee sets out:

“The provision of pensions advice to employers is currently an unregulated activity”,

and it would seem that the Government have no plans to change this, so tackling consultancy charges, which end up being paid by scheme members, has to be seen in this context. We consider that the Government are right to ban these arrangements rather than seek to ameliorate them by capping or strictures from the regulator. As the Minister has explained, such charges can have a particularly pernicious impact on the low-paid and transitory job holders, as the Explanatory Note makes clear.

I have a few brief questions. In fact, I think the Minister has pre-empted two of them. I am not sure whether that is foresight or I am getting predictable. Have the Government considered the risk of trading down in circumstances where employer contributions would be above the statutory threshold but could be reduced to the statutory threshold, with the savings covering the consultancy charges that would otherwise be on-charged to scheme members? I was going to ask what assessment has been made of the ramifications of the cut-off point where an employer has entered into an agreement before 10 May 2013. Those agreements presumably will run for some time in the future. Can the Minister say something about the nature of these contracts and whether they tend to be short or long term? If they can be terminated by notice, there does not seem to be an obligation on an employer to do that under these arrangements. However, the Minister in her opening remarks said that there seem to be just a few of them, so it does not seem to be a particularly big issue.

The Minister has covered my final question, which was to get an update on auto-enrolment. That is encouraging news. We are thoroughly supportive of the impact of these regulations.

My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for their support for these regulations. I am grateful to them for that.

In response to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, in particular, I will say a little more about the market study into workplace pensions that the Office of Fair Trading launched in January. The aim of the study is to examine whether DC pensions are set up to deliver the best value for money for savers and to take a forward look at the impact of auto-enrolment. On 11 July, the OFT published an update on its progress. This included several areas it wishes to explore further, including the current level of governance over the performance of some schemes, which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, raised; schemes with two-tier charging structures in which deferred members pay higher charges; and schemes that do not have a realistic prospect of reaching sufficient scale to generate value for their members. The OFT is also concerned about the way that charges are currently presented and about charges in older schemes that may not represent value for money.

The Government intend to publish a consultation in the autumn, following the publication of the OFT’s report and recommendations. Our consultation will cover a number of issues including a charge cap, active member discounts and extending the prohibition on consultancy charges to all qualifying schemes. These regulations are a first step in a wider move towards addressing the whole area of consultancy charges and their potential effect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, stressed the importance of the FCA and TPR working together. The regulators have already set out how they will co-ordinate and exchange information. The FCA and TPR will jointly publish a document which sets out how regulation of work-based pensions operates in the autumn. This will better articulate the existing regulatory framework. The FCA is updating its pensions strategy and this will inform its business plan, to be published in the spring of 2014.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I had just completed my response to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about the importance of the FCA and TPR working together.

Perhaps I may turn now to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the importance of good governance in automatic enrolment, with which of course I agree. There are various provisions to ensure this. In occupational schemes, the trustee already has a fiduciary duty to act impartially and in the best interests of scheme beneficiaries. There are also some requirements in place for people running personal pension schemes. In particular, the Financial Conduct Authority’s Treating Customers Fairly programme says that customers’ interests should be at the heart of how firms do business. The FCA’s “client’s best interests rule” states that,

“a firm must act honestly, fairly and professionally in accordance with the best interests of its client”.

However, there may not be a body within a personal pension scheme with an identified ongoing responsibility for considering whether the scheme is being run in the members’ interests.

As I mentioned earlier in response to the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, on prioritising savings, DWP’s call for evidence seeks views on the minimum standard that all schemes must be overseen by a governance body with a duty to act in the members’ interests. We are interested in how this could work in practice, including the decision-making powers that such a body would have, how it would fit into existing government arrangements and the resources that it would need to act effectively in members’ interests.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked whether the Government will legislate for greater transparency on charges. We have published guidance on default funds for automatic enrolment schemes, which sets out that a breakdown of charges should be provided, illustrating their effect on outcomes. We welcome the steps taken by the industry to improve transparency and disclosure of charges, and we have powers to legislate for greater disclosure to members, employers or the regulator if necessary. Prior to any further action, consideration should be given to balancing the burden of any further requirements on the industry against their effectiveness in protecting consumers. There are a number of areas which may cause concern in this market, including complexity and charging, financial capability among consumers, and principal-agent issues.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about schemes already in place before 10 May and those that are not captured by these regulations. It is not possible to know with certainty how many were in place then, but as I said earlier, we understand that it is a limited number. Pension providers were reluctant to make new agreements for business when they knew that we were reviewing in this area. We will consult on extending the ban to qualifying schemes in our consultation on charges this autumn.

The noble Lord also asked for further information on the updated numbers of those who are now members of the automatic enrolment scheme. The figure of 1 million that I cited is the gross figure for all those automatically enrolled before any opt-outs. The opt-out seems to be running at a low rate, which is good news.

We have considered these regulations carefully this afternoon. As I have said, I am grateful for the support from noble Lords today. The regulations will provide important protection to millions of new pension savers as automatic enrolment continues to roll out.

Motion agreed.

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacterial Infections

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the risks posed by antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; and what plans they have to reduce such risks.

My Lords, first, I thank noble Lords who are taking part in this debate and say how much I look forward to their insights, which I know will come from very different perspectives. I suspect that there will be an enormous amount of agreement. I know that the Government are taking this matter extremely seriously and that, in the words used in my Question, they recognise the risks and are developing plans to reduce such risks. I hope that this debate will enable them to be even more bold and creative in their approach.

I will talk for a moment about that shared understanding, which I will put in very simple layman’s terms. No doubt others will expand on it. The first point is that antibiotics have been a great benefit to humanity in tackling everything from TB and pneumonias to sexually transmitted diseases and bacterial infections of all kinds—not just in this country of course but world wide, including in some of the poorest countries of the world. I happen to chair Sightsavers, which uses an enormous amount of antibiotics in dealing with trachoma in the poorest countries of the world.

Antibiotics are the basis of much modern practice. We assume now that we can tackle infections. Infamously, it was the American Surgeon General who said in 1968 that,

“the war against diseases has been won”.

Those words no doubt came back to haunt him. The problem is that the bacteria are fighting back, in large part due to misuse—people failing to complete courses of treatment and therefore to wipe out the infection. The bacteria did not know that the war was over; evolving and becoming drug resistant, the stronger ones survived. The result, as we know, is that globally we have multidrug-resistant TB, and infections that cannot be treated in countries as disparate and different as India and Israel. This has been known for a long time, and the problems coming forward have been known for a long time. It was the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s 7th report in 1998 that first drew attention to this. In the same year, the World Health Assembly raised it as a serious issue.

There has been considerable research over many years. I am indebted to one of the world’s experts, Professor Otto Cars of Uppsala University in Sweden, for setting out the evidence for me. It is compelling. Imagine a world without effective antibiotics. Our English Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, said that if we do not take action, we may all be back in an almost 19th-century environment where infections kill us as a result of routine operations. We will not be able to do a lot of our cancer treatments or organ transplants.

It is not just the burden of disease that is at issue here but the economic impact. It has long been known to be significant, but new work coming forward from Professor Richard Smith of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Professor Joanna Coast of the University of Birmingham, suggests that, when wider impacts are taken into account, the costs are even higher than anticipated. These economic arguments are extremely important in raising the issue up the world priority list. It is significant that the World Economic Forum sees antibiotic resistance as a major threat. There are other important issues around animals that I will not mention in this short debate. My noble friend Lord Trees will say something about them.

I congratulate the Chief Medical Officer on drawing this issue to the attention of the country and of the world in her 2011 annual report. I also congratulate the Government on supporting her to raise the matter at the World Health Assembly at the G8 summit and, I hope, at the UN in September. Her report sets out the issue in detail and notes that there are some drugs that are the last line of resistance, to which we should give special attention now. She and the experts who wrote Chapter 5 of her report drew attention to a number of solutions.

The first is new drugs, but at the moment there are few antibiotics manufacturers and few new antibiotics in the pipeline. Thanks to AstraZeneca, I understand more about the business model and the problems in dealing with drugs of last resort. The simple issue is that they are kept on the shelf; they are in reserve. It is important that we have them, but they do not get used very much and they do not lead to sales. Therefore, the economic model does not work. Even with the more common antibiotics that we use more regularly, we only use them for a short period as therapeutic drugs, not as long-term drugs that will produce a long-term income and therefore provide a return on the massive investment required for development.

AstraZeneca and many others argue that there is a need for very substantial changes to regulation to allow for shorter and easier development times, and even for antibiotics to be treated as a different category of drugs. They also point to the need for investment to secure development. This also makes the argument that vaccines are important in heading off disease. I well understand that not every new drug or vaccine is a significant advance, but there is enormous scope here for Government, and the public and private sectors, to work together to develop a new way of developing these drugs. My noble friend Lady Mar will say a bit more about vaccines in a moment.

Another aspect of the issue is the development and use of new diagnostics. If we can get people into treatment faster, we will be quicker to control the bacteria. At the moment it can be days before technicians know what strain they are dealing with.

The third and perhaps biggest point is about better stewardship and conserving what we have. This is even more difficult, but it is the basis for everything else. The CMO’s report describes good practice that will achieve this. There are 10 top tips for effective antibiotic prescribing that should be followed in this country. Imagine for a moment the situation in every country in the world; every clinic or village in China or India needs a battery of actions. There is a need for education professionals in those areas to have the equivalent of our 10 top tips, as well as for greater public awareness and education. That is no easy task. We should remember that many of us in our country do not take drugs in the way that we should. Also, in those countries we must tackle counterfeit medicines and restrict over-the-counter sales. We should also see changes to harmonise regulation. This is phenomenally difficult, but it is not enough to put our own house in order; we will be affected by what happens elsewhere in the world.

We need all these approaches combined: new drugs, new diagnostics, better practices and stewardship, action across the whole healthcare system and, indeed, across the whole world. Here I come to the point that I really want to talk to the Government about: this needs remarkable political effort. It is about reframing the issue and building political support, and I will be interested to hear what the Government have in mind.

I will make two points. First, this is an enormous threat. Indeed, you can galvanise people around the threat: it is real and it will impact in terms of illness and economy. However, it is also an opportunity. I am indebted to my friend and colleague Dr Ilona Kickbusch, and to Professor Cars, for pointing out that we should treat antibiotics as a global public good and that there is an alternative way of seeing this problem. It is about a vision of a world in which the peoples of the world really do in practice have a right to health and healthcare, something most nations have signed up to—many, like ours, since the UN declaration of 1948. In that world, nations develop, share and look after those things, such as antibiotics, which are a benefit to us all.

We have already seen how this can be done in tackling other threats such as global pandemics. Although there is always controversy about that, nevertheless great progress has been made in creating a network for surveillance and tackling issues. There is more to do. We have also seen it with the millennium development goals, working towards a vision where no woman dies as a result of pregnancy, although there is much more to do there as well. In other words, I am arguing for setting ourselves the goal of preserving antibiotics for the future as one of science’s great benefits for humanity, and for driving this forward politically and technically, in every way in which we can.

My second point is simply that the UK can play an extraordinarily important leadership role here. It is well respected in health. We have the credibility of having a health system which seeks to look after every person within it. We also have credibility because of the world-leading role that has been played in development; here I compliment both this Government and the previous one. We can be bold and ambitious in taking a lead. No nation is better placed to do so, with our connections in the Commonwealth, across the Atlantic, and in Europe. The key is to bring together a group of like-minded countries, as this and previous Governments have done on other things, starting with those who are already taking this seriously. We should set out a vision and pathway, and take on these issues step by step. The Chief Medical Officer has already started this, but it is important to add political weight and depth to her work. It is not just about health but about economics and foreign policy. It is a step in building a better world, where we have and share the means to offer better health to everyone.

I therefore look forward to hearing the Government’s response to these points, and to knowing how they will turn their undoubted commitment in this area into something even bigger and bolder. Will they seek to take a global lead on this? How will they do so? I also greatly look forward to hearing from other noble Lords.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Crisp for securing this most important debate. I declare an interest as, over the years, my life has been saved by the use of antibiotics, and I personally know how important they are for the correct infection.

Is there a problem of people sharing medication such as antibiotics, or stopping taking them when they feel better, thus causing drug resistance? After I brought up the subject of MRSA in your Lordships’ House in 1996, I was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee’s sub-committee on resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents from 1997 to 1998, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior. We went to Washington, Atlanta and Boston. The amount of research being undertaken in America left a lasting impression. I am pleased that there is a vet speaking in this debate. It is most important that there is good co-operation between human and veterinary medicine.

Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are a worldwide problem, and given the economic situation we are in, there should be the greatest cohesion. In the community there is a dangerous toxic substance produced by some strains of staphylococcus aureus called Panton-Valentine leukocidin which can kill within 24 hours. The infection can be contracted from gorse bushes, in military camps, colleges and playgrounds—that is, places where young people often gather together. It seems to be more prevalent in the USA and therefore we should be learning from that country. It is vital that a quick and correct diagnosis is made, and GPs and hospital doctors must be aware of the symptoms that suggest an illness could be PVL-positive MRSA.

The overuse of antibiotics and thus the increasing resistance of bugs to them have led to fears that soon we may run out of effective treatments. Microbes are mutating faster than scientists can come up with new antibiotics. According to the World Health Organisation, some 440,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis are diagnosed every year, causing at least 150,000 deaths. A mutant strain of gonorrhoea, which has emerged in Asia, could be more devastating than AIDS. Antibiotic-resistant strains of e-coli are on the rise, particularly among the elderly, and there are risks from common infections such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections.

What can be done to give the pharmaceutical industry incentives to develop more antibiotics? The absence of rapid diagnostic tests for tuberculosis is further compounded by a widespread inability to screen for drug-resistant bacteria. An ideal diagnostic test for respiratory tract infections should be rapid, cheap, easy to use, sensitive and specific, and should screen for many micro-organisms and their antibiotic resistance. The diagnostic platform should be transportable and robust; ideally, it should also be able to be run on solar power for use in remote healthcare settings in developing countries. In Australia there is such a portable box, called the “lab without walls”, so progress is being made. To achieve this across the world, physicians, scientists, biotechnology companies, funding agencies and Governments need to work together to drive the development of improved diagnostic tests for both developed and developing countries.

Here in the UK we have seen the emergence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis among homeless people. This should be a wake-up call for us all. I have great admiration for the Find&Treat service, which works with the most vulnerable and excluded people in our society to ensure that they can access diagnostic services and complete tuberculosis treatment. Homelessness is an independent risk factor for multidrug-resistant disease, as is birth in east Asia or eastern Europe or a history of previous tuberculosis treatment. Funding for the Find&Treat service is secure only until March next year, and it still has not been able to replace its only current mobile unit, which is on its last legs. The unit goes around hostels for the homeless and other places in order to test the vulnerable. I stress that the effective control of TB is important to wider public health, and interventions must be made in complex cases. I hope that Public Health England will take this on and work with NHS England.

A dual HIV/MDR TB infection complicates patient management, compromises treatment options and leads to poorer treatment outcomes and greater disease transmission. Basic and clinical research is needed to explore any possible causal relationship between HIV infection and MDR TB specifically.

Extensively drug-resistant TB, which is resistant to at least four of the core anti-TB drugs, and MDR TB both take substantially longer to treat than ordinary TB and require the use of second-line anti-TB drugs, which are more expensive and have more side effects than the first-line drugs. Very worryingly, in some countries extensively drug-resistant TB is on the increase. The modern world is now very accessible. There should be no complacency. All Governments across the world should realise the risk to their populations posed by antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, and should work closely with the World Health Organisation.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Crisp for enabling us to debate this important subject today. I draw the Committee’s attention to my interests in the register, and I am also a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antibiotics.

We have been given warnings of the dire effect of the overuse of antibiotics that results in antibiotic resistance for many years. In 2011 Dr Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organisation, warned:

“The implications go beyond a resurgence of deadly infections to threaten many other life-saving and life-prolonging interventions, like cancer treatments”—

which my noble friend mentioned—

“surgical operations, and organ transplantations”.

As both Dr Chan and the Chief Medical Officer have stated, the R&D for new antimicrobials has practically run dry.

Noble Lords have given graphic examples of the cost of antibiotic resistance. I will try to look ahead and inject a glimmer of hope into the current gloomy scenario, and expand a little on what my noble friend Lord Crisp proposed. If modern medicine is to progress, the infrastructure of academic and industrial antibiotic research discovery and development needs to be rebuilt. We know that the current estimates for one new drug to reach the market range from $100 million to $10 billion, with antibiotics at the lower end of that scale. For 20 new classes to reach the market, the costs are phenomenal.

What can be done? There needs to be an overarching framework within which the very best knowledge is brought together. The key to progress will be the development of well informed guidelines and information to help current and future research activities to focus on well funded innovation. Because the problem is potentially so huge and widespread, there is a need for a global initiative as well as a UK one. For the global initiative, it has been suggested that something along the lines of the post-war Marshall plan, which helped to rebuild Europe, might provide the beginning of a solution. This would have to be paid for at a continental level—for example, by the European Union, the USA and Asian countries.

Antibiotic Discovery UK is a network of leading academic researchers and universities, together with SMEs, that have a common goal of revitalising antibiotic research in the UK. It has recently circulated to the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research a proposal for a cross-research council antibiotic research programme—CRCA for short—modelled on the Farr Institute and the MRC’s AIDS-directed programme of 1987, with the aim of conducting fundamental and developmental research into antibiotics for the prevention and treatment of bacterial infections. The programme plans to include work on basic bacteriology, antibiotic resistance, epidemiology, chemistry, drug design and drug evaluation. The CRCA would add to existing investment by research councils and charitable bodies. It believes that its programme would further enhance the UK’s international reputation and that it would provide a significant stimulus to the UK economy, and in particular to the pharmaceutical sector.

Members of Antibiotic Discovery UK point out that the UK is home to a wide range of outstanding scientists with innovative medical, biological and physical science skills. The CRCA programme would link at least eight universities across the UK and would foster strong links with industry as well as international co-operation. They acknowledge that this is an ambitious proposal but I believe that, if we are to crack this problem, a programme such as this is vital.

A multi-pronged approach such as that proposed by Antibiotic Discovery UK would include antibiotic discovery and development by discovering new molecules, mining past leads and exploiting natural products. It would improve researchers’ understanding of pharmacokinetics so that new combinations of drugs could be developed such as those currently used to treat TB and HIV. This would enhance antibiotic stewardship and research into antibiotic resistance through surveillance, diagnostics, epidemiology and mechanisms of resistance.

There is a clear need better to engage and fund academics alongside industrial partnerships to help to deal with this threat, but no one academic group or single institutional centre has the capacity or the capability to make significant inroads. There is great strength in numbers. Best practice and knowledge can be shared between academics and industry within the network, and innovation can flourish. There is a need for multi-institutional centres of excellence to tackle well validated targets such as cell wall biosynthesis, protein biosynthesis and DNA replication, as they offer multiple targets to hit. We now know that therapy should avoid hitting single targets, which will only result in the further speedy emergence of resistance.

On the subject of novel treatments for antibiotic-resistant conditions, I was interested to read that Professor Tony Maxwell of the John Innes Centre, together with a European consortium of researchers, is researching a compound derived from the South African toothbrush tree which inactivates a drug target for tuberculosis in a previously unseen way. Miracles come from all sorts of places.

The situation is not hopeless, but we need to ensure that researchers are encouraged to work together and that they are adequately funded. This matter is too important to be left to industry alone to deal with.

As I have a few minutes in hand, I will read to noble Lords the e-mail that we have all received today from Sue Davie, the chief executive of the Meningitis Trust. She says:

“I understand you are participating in a Speaker debate on ‘antibiotic resistant bacterial infections’ this afternoon. In light of the announcement today that the JCVI will not be recommending the Meningitis B vaccine, we would be grateful if you could raise the following issues, on behalf of Meningitis Trust/Meningitis UK … We welcome the Chief Medical Officer’s focus on antibiotic resistant bacterial infections and the efforts the government is making on this issue ... It is accepted that one of the best ways of limiting the rise of antimicrobial resistance is to properly use the interventions we do have available to combat infectious diseases—an excellent example of these are vaccines ... Can Earl Howe comment on the interim position statement of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (the independent body which advises the Government on vaccination) which has said that a vaccine which could prevent meningitis B disease will not be made available in the UK? … Meningitis is a disease with a very rapid onset, its symptoms are vague and unspecific. When a case is suspected the medical personnel need to flood the systems of these babies and children with antibiotics ... Kind Regards, Sue Davie”.

There is nothing worse than seeing a baby who lost their limbs because they had meningitis B and were not reached in time with antibiotics. Can the Minister give me a response on that?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Crisp for initiating this important debate and draw attention to my various veterinary interests that are listed in the register. As some noble Lords have observed, this topic was the subject of a report in 1998 by the Science and Technology Select Committee of this House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior. It was an important issue then and it is now even more important. A number of reasons have been eloquently articulated. I will point to three recent issues that have drawn attention to its importance.

The first is the Chief Medical Officer’s report, published earlier this year, in which she chose infectious disease and drug resistance as the principal theme. Secondly, she suggested that the subject should be put on the National Risk Register for the UK. Thirdly, in June the UK hosted the G8 summit, and there was a separate meeting of science Ministers—the first such meeting at a G8—at which the Ministers singled out resistance to antimicrobial antibiotics as one of humanity’s most pressing concerns.

Today I will highlight two aspects of the subject. There are many more, including the drug pipeline, which was talked about by several noble Lords. I will focus on the role that the veterinary profession is playing in addressing the issue, which it takes very seriously; and on the global dimension of the threat.

The resistance of bacteria to antibiotics—I will refer to this as antimicrobial resistance—involves a complex interplay of interactions between different bacteria, hosts and antibiotics. Some bacteria exclusively infect animals. Resistance has developed in some strains, which is likely to be associated with the use of antibiotics in animals, and where the consequences will be confined to animals. Equally, some bacteria are unique to humans. A few of them have developed resistance, which, again, is likely to have its causes and consequences principally with humans.

Of course, some bacteria—so-called zoonotic bacteria —infect both humans and animals. The causes of their resistance, and the consequences of it, can affect both animals and humans. Those bacteria can move not only from animals to humans but from humans to animals. The picture is further complicated by the fact there are, as has been well described, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in wildlife and in the environment. There is a flux and flow of resistant bacteria and the genes that confer resistance within the biosphere.

As the Chief Medical Officer acknowledged in her report, and as was stated in a response by Department of Health Minister Dr Poulter to a Question from Glyn Davies in the other place on 27 February 2013, it is the use of antimicrobials in human rather than veterinary medicine that is the main driving force for antimicrobial-resistant human infections. Notwithstanding that, there are many organisations, in my profession particularly, that are working very hard to ensure the responsible and prudent use of antibiotics in animals.

Antibiotics have not been allowed as growth promoters in animals anywhere in Europe since 2006. In the UK, antibiotics are available only on prescription from a veterinary surgeon. The British Veterinary Association and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe have worked very hard to promote the responsible use of antibiotics and have produced publicity and information, as has the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance. My own college, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the governing body, has it embedded in its own professional code of conduct that:

“Veterinary surgeons who prescribe … medicines must do so responsibly”.

The consequence is that a vet could be struck off for irresponsible use.

We must continue to do all that we can to manage the prudent use of antibiotics in humans and animals in Britain and Europe. The forthcoming national cross-governmental strategy for antimicrobial resistance, which involves not only the Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer but Defra and the Chief Veterinary Officer, is an excellent initiative which will define a coherent plan to address this problem.

However, this brings me to my second major point. The reality is that this is a global problem of massive scale, particularly in China and elsewhere in Asia. We must recognise that, whatever we do about the domestic use of antibiotics, the greatest threats will arise from overseas. This is a consequence of a number of factors. One is the gross use and, one might say, misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans. For example, in 2007, China produced 210,000 tonnes of antibiotics, of which about 100,000 tonnes were used in animals. Adjusting pro rata for the human population, that is 20 times the amount of antibiotics for animals than we used on animals in the UK at that time.

Many antibiotics are available over the counter in India, Asia and elsewhere, not exclusively on prescription. This leads to their misuse, the underdosing or curtailment of dosing regimes, both of which are factors in inducing antimicrobial resistance—as, of course, is the close contact of humans and animals in many of these settings in developing countries. All these factors contribute to high rates of antimicrobial resistance. Again, in China, in a survey of hospital infections in 2009, more than 60% of staphylococcus aureus infections were methicillin resistant—that is, MRSA—compared with less than 2% in UK hospitals.

This alarming genesis of antimicrobial resistance is coupled with the massive and rapid movement of people throughout the world. Just like pathogens themselves, such as the SARS virus and avian influenza, can move, antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can evolve in distant lands and arrive here in the UK within days if not hours. This is the downside to globalisation. When globalisation comes in the door, biosecurity goes out of the window.

We need to harness the economic gains from globalisation. We all think that it is a good thing, which brings economic gains. However, I suggest to the Government that perhaps we need to consider ways in which some of those economic gains of globalisation might be devoted to research in this area, to improving surveillance, to researching and developing rapid and effective detection and diagnostic technologies, and to helping us work with our colleagues overseas to mitigate the global threat of antimicrobial resistance. The good news is that the global nature of this problem is now being recognised. Now we need imaginative measures to counter that threat.

My Lords, this has been a remarkable and important debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, for laying out the issues so clearly, and for the many valuable contributions made by other noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, spoke very persuasively about the global impact of infectious diseases, especially in the third world, a point re-emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. However, I am going to narrow my focus to the problems in the UK. There is little doubt that infectious diseases that we once thought had been conquered never really went away. They are rearing their collective head once again. With about 5,000 deaths a year from gram-negative sepsis in the UK alone, we cannot afford to be complacent. No sooner have we managed to get a grip on one set of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, MRSA and Clostridium difficile, than another set has appeared, but the fact is that we managed to have an impact on MRSA through a concerted and focused effort. That suggests at least that we can do something if we put our minds to it.

However, we are now faced with a new set of antibiotic-resistant germs that pose a major threat to the population, in particular to highly susceptible subgroups of the population. These are the gram-negative bacteria, particularly E. coli and Klebsiella species, which make up more than a third of all causes of bacteraemia reported to the Health Protection Agency—now the public health laboratories. It is worth noting that septicaemia due to E. coli has a 30% mortality rate. These bacteria are now the biggest threats, but others are creeping up on us. We are seeing more cases of resistant gonorrhoea, a very common disease, and multidrug-resistant TB, which is much less frequent at least in the UK but still very disturbing—a point well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. The reasons for all these rises are complex and multiple. They include the increase in the number of vulnerable patients—the very young and the very old, and those with diseases that lower their resistance, such as cancers and leukaemia—and the powerful immunosuppressive treatments that they need. Bringing them close together in a hospital or a care home increases their risk. We have heard about the overprescribing of broad-spectrum antibiotics that allow the evolution of resistant strains.

Perhaps the major impact of inappropriate or over- prescribing has been felt in Asia, particularly in China and the Indian subcontinent, with their huge populations, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, emphasised. Here, there has been a dramatic rise in antibiotic-resistant strains and they are increasingly being imported as international travel grows. There are now no more frontiers that can stop the spread of germs. So what is to be done?

It is possible to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance. We reduced the incidence of MRSA and C. difficile by a combination of spreading good practice—with handwashing or alcohol hand rubs at the bedside, and nasal swabbing of all admissions to pick up carriers—and better management of intravenous lines and better infection-control measures. They all played a part. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, spoke about the zoonoses. Stopping a few years ago the practice of using antibiotics in animal feeds to promote growth must also have been very valuable. Concerted action can therefore work. We must once more pay attention to the recommendations of the Chief Medical Officer in her admirable report of 2011. Here it was proposed that we should ensure that NHS trusts and their chief executives manage, report and audit infection rates. That was successful before, and we must place even more emphasis on it in the duties placed on NHS England and CCGs. Spreading the message yet again about thoughtful prescribing of antibiotics, both in general practice and in hospitals, has never been more important.

However, we also need some different approaches. We desperately need better and quicker diagnostic tests for bacteria and their resistance. It now takes about 48 hours or more to get a report from the laboratories on what bacteria are responsible for an infection. Meanwhile, one is faced with treating a serious infection blindly or not at all—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. Tests are becoming available, using genetic profiling or next-generation sequencing, that will bring the time for diagnosis down to a very few hours. If we can get there, antibiotic prescribing will become much refined and we will be able to avoid giving ineffective antibiotics. There is also a desperate need for new antibacterials.

It is unfortunately the case, as has been emphasised by a number of noble Lords, that the pharmaceutical company pipelines are pretty low at the moment. The cost of the development of new drugs is prohibitive and too often drug companies are inhibited by overregulation and cost. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, mentioned that and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, underlined the point. It has been suggested that the Government might encourage investment in R&D by industry through such measures as prolonging the period during which the patents for new antibacterial drugs may be retained, or by a more favourable tax regime for companies developing those drugs. Perhaps we should take note, too, of the ideas expressed by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about a multipronged attack; I found those very attractive. It seems to me that we must do more in these two areas: more research into rapid diagnostic techniques and more engagement with and encouragement for industry to develop new antibacterials.

My questions for the Minister are as follows: what efforts are the Government making to ensure that NHS England, the CCGs and hospital trust boards are keeping infection control high on their agenda? In what way are the Government ensuring that the laboratories of Public Health England are given the necessary research funds to develop new rapid diagnostic tests for bacterial resistance? Have the Government paid any attention to the incentives they need to provide for the pharmaceutical industry to invest in a search for new antibacterials? I have not spoken about the area of vaccines, although clearly it is very important. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, drew to our attention the issue of the meningitis B vaccine, and I hope that the noble Earl will be able to respond to that.

This has been a valuable debate on an important subject and I look forward very much to the noble Earl’s response.

My Lords, I shall begin by saying how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, for securing this important debate, and indeed to all speakers for their thoughtful contributions. The Government recognise that few public health issues are of greater importance than antimicrobial resistance. The scale of the threat was set out this March in Volume 2 of the Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer on Infection and the Rise of Antimicrobial Resistance. Her call to action highlights the key issues that we need to tackle. These include, for example, good infection prevention and control measures to help prevent infections rather than a reliance on antibiotics, plus good techniques for diagnosing and deploying the right treatment. Equally important is ensuring that patients and animal keepers fully understand the importance of the treatment regimens prescribed, coupled with stronger surveillance measures to identify quickly new threats or changing patterns in resistance, and working to develop a sustainable supply of new antimicrobials.

Noble Lords will know that antimicrobial resistance refers to the ability of certain bacteria to survive after exposure to an antimicrobial that normally would be expected to kill them or inhibit their growth. Antimicrobial resistance affects us all, but some groups in society are particularly susceptible to infections and will feel the impact of antimicrobial resistance more than others. These groups include children, older people, and those with weakened immune systems such as cancer patients undergoing treatment, transplant patients and HIV/AIDS patients. An increase in difficult-to-treat infections will affect everyone as most of us will belong to vulnerable groups at some stage in our lives. Moreover, we know already that mortality is greater with resistant infections.

Antimicrobial resistance has obvious human costs, but it is also costly in terms of healthcare expenditure. It is estimated that antimicrobial resistance costs the European Union approximately €1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and lost productivity each year. This is indicative not only of the scale of the problem but of the fact that antimicrobial resistance requires action at the national and the international level.

At the national level, we will be publishing a comprehensive new cross-government five-year strategy to tackle antimicrobial resistance, which will have three strategic aims. The first is to improve the knowledge and understanding of antimicrobial resistance, through better information, intelligence and supporting data and through developing more effective early warning systems to improve health security. The second key aim is to conserve and steward the effectiveness of existing treatments, through improving infection prevention and control and through development of resources to facilitate the optimal use of antibiotics in both humans and animals. The third aim is to stimulate the development of new antibiotics, diagnostics and novel therapies by promoting innovation and investment in the development of new drugs and by ensuring that new therapeutics reach the market quickly.

A key component of antimicrobial stewardship is infection prevention and control. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure your Lordships that we will maintain a focus on healthcare-associated infections. Existing provisions, such as that requiring all healthcare providers to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice on the prevention and control of infection, will remain in place. The new NHS infrastructure also offers opportunities. For example, antimicrobial resistance has been included in key documents such as the Government’s proposed mandate for the NHS for 2014-15, which is currently subject to public consultation.

The noble Lords, Lord Crisp and Lord Turnberg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, rightly noted the need for improved diagnostics. Public funders of research already invest widely in the development and evaluation of rapid diagnostic tests for infectious agents. In fact, just this month, the NIHR launched a themed call for antimicrobial resistance research and the development of new tests. The research and development of new tests is within the scope of this initiative.

Another example of what the Government are doing is that, from April 2014, the NIHR aims to fund 12 health protection research units for five years. These will be partnerships between universities and Public Health England. A number are expected to cover infectious disease areas and could potentially aim to include research on rapid diagnosis within their research programmes. From 1 September 2013, the Department of Health will provide a total of £4 million over four years to establish four National Institute for Health Research diagnostic evidence co-operatives to catalyse the generation of evidence on the clinical validity, clinical utility, cost-effectiveness and care pathway benefits of in vitro diagnostics. Based in NHS organisations and involving multidisciplinary teams, they will enable collaboration between a range of stakeholders, including providers of NHS pathology services and NHS commissioners. Two of the four DECs have identified diagnostics for infectious diseases as areas of focus.

The Government are well aware that they cannot deliver the action required to tackle antimicrobial resistance on their own. We need a societal shift, where antimicrobial resistance is seen as a priority that everyone can help address. To this end, we will continue to use the annual European Antibiotic Awareness Day to provide online educational materials that the NHS can use for local initiatives. In previous campaigns we reminded people that colds, and most coughs and sore throats, get better without antibiotics. That is because they are caused by viruses and not bacteria, and antibiotics only work on bacteria.

Although the scientific consensus is that use of antimicrobials in human medicine is the main driving force for antimicrobial-resistant human infections, use in the veterinary sector contributes to overall resistance rates. I listened with care and interest to the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on this aspect. We recognise that antibiotics, used responsibly, remain a vital part of the veterinary surgeon’s toolbox, without which animals suffering from a bacterial infection could not be treated effectively. As the noble Lord, Lord Trees, emphasised, the use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine is controlled by veterinary prescription and is equivalent to the arrangements for humans. In this way we are minimising antibiotics being used routinely and encouraging their responsible use. The Government’s position on the use of antibiotics in farming is very clear; we do not support the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal health. I am pleased to say that Defra will be strengthening its guidance to ensure that this point is brought out very clearly. We very much welcome the support of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons on these prescribing issues.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, referred to the vital need for international action. The Government recognise that to achieve many of the objectives of their strategy it is essential that the international community is actively engaged, and I can tell the Committee that the Government have been at the forefront in galvanising action at an international level. For example, this May my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health delivered the keynote address at the World Health Assembly, with antimicrobial resistance as a focus. Last month we ensured that antimicrobial resistance was a focal point of the G8 science meeting on 12 June. Furthermore, we held a special event at Chatham House to engage international experts on ways and means to tackle this complex problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, will be reassured to know that incentivising the development of new drugs was covered at this meeting, and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, that the UK will continue to progress this issue.

A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, referred to the barriers to producing new drugs. The discovery and development of new drugs takes time—up to 10 or even 15 years—and a barrier to developing new antibiotics is, as the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, rightly said, the relatively low private return on investment for antimicrobials relative to making investments in other therapeutic areas. Our work on strengthening international collaboration will be key to new drug development because international agreement to address this issue, as I said, is essential; it is too large an issue to tackle alone. We will build on existing international research collaborations, including public/private partnerships, as well as taking action internationally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to PVL. We agree that the PVL toxin needs to be recognised and treated rapidly. Guidance is available for professionals and is currently being reviewed. However, the available evidence indicates that the prevalence of PVL infections is low in the UK. She also referred to E. coli. E. coli bloodstream infections are increasing year on year. The department’s expert advisory committee asked the HPA—now Public Health England—to undertake enhanced surveillance of E. coli and to have experts advising on prevention strategies. However, many E. coli infections are not associated with healthcare.

Regarding the interim decision by the JCVI on the meningitis B vaccine, I will write to the noble Countess. The JCVI has just published on its website today a call for comments from stakeholders. It will consider those responses before finalising its statement on meningitis B immunisation. The consultation is for six weeks.

The measures contained in our strategy are comprehensive and far-reaching. To ensure that they are brought to fruition, a high-level cross-government steering group will be established to oversee implementation, monitor progress and publish progress reports. The actions that I have outlined set out a broad canvas. We have heard the warnings from the CMO and we are acting on her message. The new UK antimicrobial resistance strategy will set out what needs to be done across a broad front, both nationally and internationally, and, using our combined efforts, we aim to be better placed to confront the spectre of antimicrobial resistance before it is too late.

Education: Part-Time Study

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential of part-time study to enable more people to acquire qualifications.

My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this debate today because it is both timely and urgent. It is timely in the sense that it is the end of the summer term, when thousands of bright young people are making plans to take up what is now the accepted route to university qualifications. It is therefore a good time to challenge the assumption that three years’ full-time study, usually residential, at a university is the only way to go. It is urgent because there is a serious crisis in part-time education, which needs to be addressed. I am pleased that even ahead of the Universities UK review that will be published in the autumn, engagement with the matter should be kept in the public awareness and that the campaign, Part-time Matters, is supported by this debate.

I declare my interest: I am president of Birkbeck and have an honorary degree from the Open University—both institutions with a fine and long-standing record of providing part-time study leading to full degrees for their students and world-class champions of the case for lifelong learning.

First, the facts: enrolment figures for part-time study at both graduate and postgraduate level are falling year on year. The number of part-time undergraduate entrants has fallen by 40% since 2010. Following the annual report of the Office for Fair Access—OFFA—for the 2012-13 academic year, its director, Professor Les Ebdon expressed concern about the fall in part-time study and applications from mature students. The university think tank, million+, called on Ministers to launch a high-profile campaign to promote part-time study. The chair of million+, Professor Michael Gunn, declared that,

“there is a real risk of a downward spiral that will depress social mobility and lead to skills shortages in the long term”.

Who are part-time students? In the main, they are older and more likely to be female and less diverse than full-time students. They are also likely to have other commitments, either in public careers out there in the workforce—some 80% of part-time learners are in employment—or with domestic careers as homemakers: women struggling with the work/life balance and hoping to keep their qualifications up to date. There is also a considerable number of retired people who find delight and fulfilment in late-life learning. There is real potential in growing the numbers in this group. Indeed, it has the blessing of David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, who sees scope for older citizens retraining and adding to their skills or simply engaging in retirement in lifelong learning for its own sake. This is far from the standard profile of the student cohort.

Central to the issue is money. Following fee changes in 2012, part-time undergraduate students have had access to fee loans. However, some part-time fees increased in 2012. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE, reported that between November 2012 and January 2013—scarcely three months —21 colleges reported a drop in demand for part-time courses because of reluctance to take on student loans. These moves in student numbers are steep and sudden.

So how is money impacting on part-time study applications? First, students seem to be unclear about what scope there is for loans or employer-funding and over what time repayments are to be made. Students, even if they know about it, struggle to navigate the Student Loans Company. Each and every hiccough in the system acts as a deterrent to student applications.

Secondly, the withdrawal of funding for ELQs—equivalent or lower qualifications—came into effect in 2008-09, and in January 2009 David Lammy, then Minister of State for Education, asked HEFCE to draw up an early review of the impact of that policy. The first evidence indicates that overall fundable numbers had already reduced. The most commonly cited area affected by the EFQ ruling is lifelong learning. That can hardly be surprising—you cut the funding and numbers fall away.

Thirdly, the economy of the country has a direct impact on part-time studies. At a time of redundancies and a relatively stagnant economy, individuals are anxious about their jobs and future prospects. They are often asked to work longer hours, which makes part-time study difficult. There is also evidence that employer-funding is on the decline, suggesting that this is something that employers—wrongly, in my view—see as an extra to their core budgets rather than a fundamental part of their employee welfare and development.

How much does any of this matter? It is crucial for several reasons. The known and existing benefits of part-time study are already understood: it increases social mobility by allowing people from poorer backgrounds to access study that they would not be able to afford full-time, and it allows adults who have missed out earlier by taking employment straight from school to rethink and reshape their prospects, consider a change of direction and gain a more fulfilling and self-directed future for themselves. According to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, there is evidence that it boosts skill levels and improves employability. The NIACE also tells us that adult learning contributes to better health: evidence exists that taking up courses as an adult increases the chances of giving up smoking and reduces the risk of depression, especially in women. I can thoroughly understand the latter; the risk of social isolation and stress often experienced by young mothers is all too familiar.

If all this sounds a little like mother love and apple pie, a utopian vision in which we all go on learning and feeling and doing better in our lives, I think it brings us to a more wide-reaching discussion about how education as it currently serves this society is formulated and structured, and why it is not answering all our needs. I was brought up short by a grandson who declared to me, “Your generation”—in which I think he also included his parents—“never asked us if we wanted to go to university. It is always assumed that if we pass exams well, we will go on to three years’ residential at a university. No other options are given any serious consideration”. Indeed, they are not. What is more, there is increasing evidence that this current accepted pattern does not always benefit students or learning. Young people can arrive at university already exhausted by the educational template that they have been following. They give evidence of this by a failure to focus, varying attendance and drop-out rates.

There is strong evidence that part-time students are strongly motivated, have a strong sense of intention in their study and a commitment to its helping improve their outlook, their careers and their sense of fulfilment. That is why, in launching this debate today, I hope to start and continue a debate about how to shift the focus of education better to match the needs of those who would be students.

We need government help to do this, and I believe that, with the argument strongly made, we will get a good hearing. At a recent reception for the Part-time Matters campaign, David Willetts spoke encouragingly of his wish to stop the decline of part-time study. But the message has to go further than a reception in the Cholmondeley Room. Schools, heads, teachers, careers advisers and parents should all be aware of part-time study as an option. Trade unions and professional groups, as well as informal organisations like the WI, should be familiar with the existence of part-time study and be aware of what it can offer and how it can be afforded. In this way, we can check the decline and move to boost educational opportunities for those who might otherwise lose out.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and to thank her for raising this extremely important issue. I agree with her thoroughly that it is one that we need to give as much publicity to as we can.

I, too, should declare an interest in that I am an honorary fellow of Birkbeck. I was awarded that honorary fellowship for my work during the early part of this century on raising the profile of part-time learning and arguing for parity between part-time and full-time study. The grants and loans were all being accorded to full-time students because, as the noble Baroness said, the assumption was that the only time that matters is that between the ages of 18 and 21. I felt it was extremely important that part-time students, not only at the university level but also those in further education, should be given some consideration.

While in many senses I was unhappy about the introduction of full-cost fees when the regulations went through in 2010, one of the good things I kept pointing to was the fact that at long last we had parity. In terms of loans, part-time students now have access to the same loan schemes as full-time students. That was an important victory. It was therefore a matter of considerable shock and disappointment on my part that the major effect of introducing full-cost fees is that it has hit the part-timers of this world rather than the full-timers. We have seen a remarkably small decrease in full-time applications, but a considerable one in part-time applications.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, indicated, part-time education is in many ways a hidden sector in this country. If you tell people that there are actually 824,000 part-time students compared with 1,167,000 full-timers—half as many, and one-third in numerical terms—most of them just do not believe it. In full-time equivalence terms, they account for 250,000 students. The drop of 40% in applications is equivalent to Basingstoke dropping off the map, so it really is significant and important.

The sector is an interesting one. It is disproportionately female, at 63% as against 37% male. It is less diverse, with 18% from the black and ethnic minorities compared with 22% in the university sector as a whole. The subjects studied are also disproportionately focused in certain areas: the professions allied to medicine and education. Of course, the Open University dominates the sector. I believe that the total number of full-time equivalents at the OU is 90,000 to 100,000, and again the total number is around 250,000. The university’s mixed introductory courses are extremely popular. Large numbers of the people involved in part-time education are taking undergraduate course modules but not necessarily following through with entire courses. That is important and something that we need to pick up.

Part-time education is liked by employers, who recognise that it improves skills and knowledge and raises productivity and efficiency. However, despite acknowledging this, employers will not, on the whole, pay fees for part-time education. Where they do, it is on the whole for customised courses that specifically fit their own needs or on behalf of the higher-level employees in their unit who they send off on expensive MBA courses and that sort of thing.

Why is part-time education so important for this country? The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned a number of the socialising effects—such as the sense of fulfilment and the benefits for older people—all of which are very important and must not be neglected. However, we also need to be aware of two things. First, as a country, we have a very poor skill profile. We have quite a number at the graduate level but are disproportionately poor at the intermediate level—what is known as level 3 and level 4—and at technician levels. As a country, our skill profile remains rather poor compared to other countries. Secondly, in my generation, you went into a job when you were 21, post-university, and to some extent you trained in that job, carried through with it and ended up with a nice inflation-linked pension and so forth. That is no longer true, and most people will have to change jobs throughout their lives.

If we are going to upskill and reskill this current generation, it is vital that we have the means of doing so. Part-time education—being able to earn and learn at the same time, and upskill and reskill—is vital to upgrading the skill profile of this country. What can we do about it? One thing, certainly, is more publicity. We need to make people aware that part-time education is there and can be pursued. Secondly, picking up on what I was saying earlier about most people doing small chunks of things, we need more flexible courses that students can opt in and out of—more modular courses and mixing and matching distance learning, albeit backed up by the strong mentoring that the Open University has stressed. If we are going to do that, we need a proper credit transfer system. We really need to work on that and get something much more efficient.

I make a plea for more co-operation between higher education and further education. I am appalled at the current situation where these two sectors, which used to co-operate with each other, have been split apart. Many of the universities that used to accredit graduate courses in further education colleges have pulled out from accrediting them, which makes for a very difficult situation. We certainly need to look at these ELQ rules and ease up on them.

I put in a plea for two incentives of some sort. One is for employers. There is a tax credit for R&D, where small companies that spend on R&D can claim an extra tax credit, which means that they can not only claim it as an expense against tax but claim it twice over. We should look at a similar scheme for education and training. If you spend money in America on fees for part-time education, you can claim it against tax. Why should we not be able to claim the money that we spend on training ourselves against tax? I would like to see that happen.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this debate. My comments will focus on universities as that is the sector I am familiar with. Universities could surely develop more flexibility in two respects. First, there should be a “credit” system that allows students to gain intermediate qualifications as well as to intermit and to transfer more readily between institutions. Secondly, universities should seize the opportunities offered by the internet to extend their reach.

As we know, university enrolment has hugely expanded since the student days of most of us. However, this entirely welcome expansion has not been accompanied by sufficient growth in the variety of the offerings of universities. Nearly all of them still focus on degrees that take three or four years. They are incentivised to aspire to rise in a single league table—which, incidentally, under-weights things that really matter but are hard to measure, such as how rigorous the courses are and how hard the students work. The norm is, of course, for young people to enter university more or less straight from school for full-time study. A downside of higher enrolment levels is that career opportunities for non-graduates are worse than they were in the past.

We should recognise that degree-level competence need not be achieved by continuous study in a traditional residential university. Moreover, there is nothing magic about the specific level of achievement of a degree. Credits, even if not sufficient for graduation, should be formalised. It is surely better that universities should take risks on admission, give students a chance, and let some leave after two years with a credit. Some will continue after a gap, perhaps at another institution. Others may pursue part-time distance learning. Even those who go no further should not be typecast as wastage. An American will say, “I had two years of college”, and will regard the experience as positive.

Higher education is a driver of social mobility. However, as Alan Milburn and others have shown, mobility is stagnating. Young people who have been unlucky in their schooling will not have at the age of 18 a fair chance of access to a selective university even if they have great potential. Worse still, generally they have no second chance. The optimum solution to the problem is to enhance teaching at all schools across the full geographical and social spectrum, but that will take a long time. In the shorter term, we can widen opportunities by learning something from the United States.

In California, for instance, a substantial fraction of those who attend the elite state university of Berkeley come not directly from high school but as transfer students from a lower-tier college. Our most selective universities should likewise earmark a proportion of their places for students who do not come directly from school, but have gained credits by studying at another institution, part time or online. The Open University’s OpenPlus programme, which offers two years of part-time study, is very valuable. It allows students to get up to speed so that they can be admitted into the second year of several other universities.

The importance of mature students, part-time courses and distance learning in the UK’s overall system is surely going to grow. That makes last year’s drastic decline in enrolments, revealed by HEFCE, especially worrying. It is perhaps an unintended consequence of the fee structure, of perceptions of that system among potential students, and of their lack of confidence in taking on debt even if loans are available.

Despite the overall fall, the OU has to some extent bucked the trend with a major campaign to explain the new loan scheme to potential students. We should highlight and acclaim the special role of that great institution. The OU model of distance learning supplemented by a network of local tutors and mentors has vastly more potential in the era of the internet and smartphones than when it was founded. We all have free access to the wonderful material on the OpenLearn website, much of it prepared jointly with the BBC. The OU can surely take a lead in the development of so-called MOOCs: massive open online courses. The razzmatazz around these courses comes from some very successful initiatives by Stanford and other US universities. There are now two major organisations in the US, edX and Coursera, which disseminate courses developed by leading universities.

It is excellent news that the Open University has set up a similar system called FutureLearn. UK universities should eagerly seize the opportunity to widen their impact and support the OU by contributing material to FutureLearn rather than getting locked into one of the US platforms. This is an arena where the UK has huge worldwide potential. The Open University should have a competitive edge globally, especially as some of its private-sector US counterparts have recently suffered reputational damage. Distance learning will have a transformative effect to the extent that it will threaten the future of many traditional mass universities of the kind that exist in Italy and India, which offer little more than lectures to large classes with minimal feedback.

Finally, I will mention another benign spin-off from the internet: the democratisation of research as well as of learning. We are immersed in a cyberspace that is ever more information-rich and sophisticated. Many archives are now available on the web, which is a huge boon to scholars around the world who are not close to a major library. To take a specific example, amateur scholars are reading and transcribing ships’ logbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries, which contain fascinating social history as well as important data on the history of climate change. The involvement of amateurs has been traditional in sciences such as botany, but the scope for citizen-scientists is now far wider. In my subject of astronomy, there are sometimes so much data that the professionals cannot scrutinise them all fully. It is now possible for eagle-eyed amateurs to access these datasets and themselves discover new planets. Thanks to the internet, advances can be disseminated rapidly, even throughout the developing world. Indeed, more projects can now be done co-operatively and globally, rather like improving open-source software.

There are huge opportunities, but to exploit them for maximum benefit our system needs a more diverse ecology and a blurring of the lines between higher and further education, between full time and part time—which is most relevant to this debate—and between residential and online. We need a more effective transferable credit system to facilitate transfers between institutions and to allow continuing professional development. By so doing, we can exploit the benefits of the internet, offer a more realistic second chance to young people who have been unlucky in their early education, and promote lifelong learning for us all.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Bakewell on securing this debate and agree wholeheartedly with her that it is indeed timely.

Those who recall or took part in the debates following the passage of the Higher Education Act 2004 will know that this House has played a major role in drawing public attention to the importance of part-time higher education. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, stands out in particular for her contribution to securing some recognition that higher education policy has long been formulated with full-time, 18 year-old entrants in mind.

During those many debates, as in this one, noble Lords agreed that the economic evidence was unequivocal. The economy and the labour market are changing with increasing rapidity. To keep up, most people will have to adapt to many jobs, and several careers, during their working lives. This can only be more marked as the age of retirement goes up.

My noble friend Lord Leitch, in his 2006 Review of Skills, pointed out that 70% of the 2020 workforce had already completed compulsory education. He argued that to meet the changing needs of employers more than 40% of adults should be qualified to level 4 and above—in other words, equivalent to a degree-level qualification. The figure is up from 29% in 2005. By common agreement, that can be achieved only by increasing the level of skills of those already in work as well as of young learners.

The facts have not changed. What has changed is that, instead of a steady increase in part-time study, we have seen a marked decline. It is not a new phenomenon; it has been happening for a decade. However, as other noble Lords have said, we appear to have reached something of a crisis point. Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, the number of new entrants to part-time undergraduate study in England declined by 40%. At a recent breakfast discussion hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, we agreed that if this had happened to full-time participation, we would have seen a national outcry. Instead, there has been relatively muted comment in the media and even in Parliament. Why is this?

One answer is that it is far harder to talk about part-time students as a group. Their backgrounds and motivations are varied. They include large numbers of people from low-participation backgrounds, and with low skill levels, but a large proportion are already educated to degree level. The most substantial proportion of part-time study is directly linked to current employment, particularly in the public sector. On the other hand, some are studying for reasons of personal development and a love of learning.

There are a few really striking facts, which Claire Callender and others have done much to explain. Part-time students are more likely to be older and more likely to be female compared to their full-time counterparts. Some 63% of part-time students are female, compared with 56% of full-timers; and 80% are over 25. Two-thirds have family responsibilities and two in five have children, while 92% of full-time students do not. With the exception of Birkbeck, they are concentrated in the less research-intensive universities.

I wonder whether the lack of interest in part-time trends is associated with assumptions and prejudices which are familiar in so many other areas of policy. Are older female students invisible in higher education policy in the same way as older women appear to be invisible in so many other parts of public life? That would certainly be an illuminating area for study.

The varied characteristics of part-time students make it difficult to identify universal explanations for the decline in enrolment, but two factors appear to be particularly important. The first is that for many people considering starting—or returning to—higher education in middle life, their response to the shift in government funding to higher fees is very different from that of young learners. If you have children or dependent parents—or both—a mortgage or rising rent costs and are facing rising living costs, it may be particularly hard to face any additional expenditure. This may be especially true if you have to pay more for childcare and travel to make study possible. You may be weighing this up against the need to make a contribution to a pension for long-term security. It is clear that the introduction of fee loans, though welcome, has not helped as much as we might have expected.

The second factor is the connection between part-time study and public sector jobs. As the public sector shrinks, the proportion of people who are supported by their employers may also be falling. There are questions about whether private companies are willing to invest as much in training or whether they are maintaining their investment but focusing it on a smaller number of people. Certainly, anecdotal evidence suggests that employers may be less willing to subsidise career-enhancing study. The shift from public to private sector employment may be narrowing opportunities.

We need to know much more about what is happening in particular sectors of the economy, such as healthcare and education, where there is a particularly high concentration of part-time students, and where—if anywhere—employees are going for training if not to universities. I commend the Government for commissioning the Universities UK study, but I echo my noble friend in suggesting that it is likely to be the beginning and not the end of the conversation about how best to support and incentivise part-time higher education.

The Government face a choice. Public funding is scarce. Policy options are consequently limited. But I return to my original point. The evidence of economic need has not changed. I would argue that the Government can either pay now to encourage and support more people to study part time or they can pay later in the higher social and economic costs of supporting people who cannot get jobs in a labour market that has changed. There are short-term considerations but there are also long-term imperatives. It cannot be right to see part-time undergraduate—and, for that matter, post-graduate—higher education shrink and do nothing about it.

I have two immediate questions for the Minister. Will the Government consider incentives for employers to make contributions towards part-time higher education for their employees? Will they encourage HEFCE to provide incentives to institutions to maintain or develop part-time provision? Of course universities have to adapt, and I hope that the UUK report will help them think about how to do that, but policy will need to adapt as well.

My Lords, with the permission of the Grand Committee, I will speak sitting down. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for instigating this important debate.

As others have said, one myth that I often find still needs to be exploded is the public view of a typical university student as being 18 and leaving home to go away and study for three years on a full-time course. As an aide-memoire for the Committee, the seven speakers in this debate all attended Russell Group universities and six went to Oxbridge—very much the tradition for our era. I suspect that none of us studied part time. I was a mature student at Cambridge. The offer for part-time students was very limited and did not fit in with my job at the BBC so I had no choice. I would have loved to study part time.

We need to celebrate a higher education system that has grown and developed over recent years, recognising the needs of prospective students and creating flexible courses that fit in with work and caring duties, whether for children or other family members. Birkbeck College and the Open University in particular have outstanding records in their provision for part-time students in very different ways—something to which other speakers have already alluded.

First, despite some of the comments from other speakers, I want to congratulate the Government on making part-time students eligible for tuition fee loans. That is something that we have advocated from these Benches for a very long time, and I am sure that in the longer term there will be a real benefit to the part-time students who choose to take out the loans rather than having to find commercial loans instead, which I suspect put many off studying in the past. However, the 40% drop that others have talked about is serious. For whatever reason, individuals have not applied, and we need to advertise that that support is available. Will the Government confirm that they will be co-ordinating such a campaign, rather than leaving it to the few institutions that rely heavily on part-time students?

Having said that, I specifically commend the campaigns run by Birkbeck College and the Open University, which are eye-catching and encouraging. One such was the OU advertorial in Metro newspaper about 10 days ago, with a quiz, a number of encouraging personal stories from past and present students and information on how to apply. I saw two people sitting next to me on my commuter train doing the quiz. It really engaged them.

The Open University has also led the way with FutureLearn. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, went into that in some detail so I will not repeat it, but it is a groundbreaking proposal that is now supported by 21 HEIs in this country. It will provide free access for short courses via MOOCs—obviously the phrase of the afternoon—a web-based multi-university experience designed for a global audience. Non-university partners in FutureLearn are also important, including the British Council, the British Library and the British Museum, but the key is the OU’s expertise in distance learning, which has been critical to getting this off the ground. These courses, and the way in which students interact with each other as well as with staff across the various institutions, is the learning environment of the 21st century.

I would like to see an HE and FE sector that works to bring flexibility—real flexibility—to study for qualifications. Someone who works full-time, has had experience of a couple of short courses on the MOOC scheme and has acquired a taste for learning may want to retain that flexibility when they study for a more formal qualification such as a degree or even a shorter course with a number of modules. That is why I am glad that we are at last beginning to see credit accumulation and transfer taking off. Students can study a number of modules, bank them and, at a later date, transfer to another university to complete the next group of modules, and so on. The key to CATs is universities recognising each other’s quality assurance, and I am sorry to say that while a few HEIs are very good at this, the number is too low, and this is certainly not discussed enough.

In the late 1990s I helped to fund a project through my development agency to look at CATs in the east of England. We had a fascinating research proposal with some wonderful recommendations, which then just gathered dust because none of the institutions was prepared to take another on trust. What are the Government doing to encourage more HEIs to work together to develop CATs, so that part-time students really can study at the best time and place for them over a longer period than the usual three to five years for an undergraduate course? There are already mechanisms in place for storing a student’s record in a “personal learning cloud”, so that if they either transfer to a different university or take a break, all the information is kept in one place. The Scottish qualification system does this well, and England and Wales should take a leaf out of its book.

I welcome the Government’s increase in the Access to Learning Fund to £50 million, and I hope that universities will further top it up to give part-time students bursaries or some other chance of finding support that was denied them in the past. Not all part-time students work, and many are making large personal sacrifices to study. More worryingly, the part-time premium grant to HEIs has been halved. This is a key factor in the downward spiral of the number of part-time students, even though the grant is a very internal university-oriented one. It should be remedied as soon as funds allow.

Finally, employers ought to have a key role working with universities to devise the courses, especially as they are equal beneficiaries with the learners. Local enterprise partnerships are important stakeholders in securing more flexible skills provision and in promoting workforce development. I hope that HEFCE is preparing to strengthen the guidelines for widening participation budgets, and making HEIs demonstrate how they are working with their LEPs to promote lifelong learning and flexible higher education that is relevant to their area.

The UK needs more graduates if it is to compete economically. Over 80% of the new jobs created by 2020 will be in occupations with high concentrations of graduates. We have heard already from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills about the need for high-level qualifications. Perhaps another perspective might be that other nations are increasing their skill levels more rapidly than we are. We have sort of been coasting just above the relegation zone of the Premier League, forgetting that other people will come up and overtake us. That, of course, is important to the economy; we need to be able to challenge globally.

Part-time higher education provides an essential opportunity for students to fit study around work and family commitments. This is particularly vital for mature learners and others who need to retain an income from work while studying. Part-time higher education therefore has a special role to play in ensuring that the UK’s future workforce is equipped with the skills required for our economy to remain competitive.

Charles Darwin said:

“To change is difficult. Not to change is fatal”.

The life experiences of those who have studied part-time, often against considerable odds, are a testament to their journey of change, and to the fulfilment of their lives through their new qualifications.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Bakewell on securing this timely debate, and on her eloquent and important speech, delivered, as you would expect from a broadcasting professional, in a very clear way and exactly to 10 minutes; I know that she was worrying about it, but she did very well. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions, which, again, were of a very high standard. We have too few chances to debate higher education policy, and have to take every opportunity. This, again, has shown how important we think this topic is.

I declare an interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was right to research our backgrounds; that shows something. However, I also claim in mitigation that I did a part-time course for six years. I struggled; it was very difficult. I finally succeeded, but I know something of which I am about to speak.

We do not get much in the way of public statements or chances to debate higher education policy. The last time we had anything major was the White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, in June 2011. It says about part-time students:

“For the first time, students starting part-time undergraduate courses in 2012/13, many of whom are from non-traditional backgrounds, will be entitled to an up-front loan to meet their tuition costs … This is a major step in terms of opening up access to higher education, and remedies a long-standing injustice in support for adult learners. Up to around 175,000 part-time students will benefit”.

As we have heard, that has not happened. It is clear that the Government hoped that the changes would open up access and stem the decline in part-time higher education study, but it appears to have had the opposite effect. It is clear from what we have heard today and the evidence that has been presented that the Government are failing to deal with the serious decline in part-time study The trends are worrying. Were they to continue, they could have a genuinely damaging impact on our overall skills base, which has been referred to. Towns and regions across the UK that depend on people with higher-level qualifications will not have them to fill available jobs.

We have heard in the debate about the benefits of part-time study, and the way in which it transforms and provides significant benefits for those studying part-time rather than full-time. It helps employers, society and of course the individual. It is interesting that levels of employment stability are high for part-time students, with 81% working throughout their study. Employers value part-time study as a good model to develop work-readiness in graduates and to provide existing employees with skills and knowledge. Graduates have said in surveys that part-time study has helped them develop as a person and improve their self-confidence, so there are personal benefits as well. There is no question that, if we are to provide the skills that we have heard we need in this country, part-time has a role to play and is important in itself.

We have also heard about the characteristics unique to part-time undergraduate students, but more generally in the part-time population. Many, some 80%, are over the age of 25 compared with full-time students. Nearly two-thirds are female, as we have heard, compared with 56% of full-timers. However, most have to struggle to fit family and work commitments around their studies. Entry requirements and the qualifications the students pursue are also different. Some 81% of part-time students, being employed, have to juggle many responsibilities and obviously encounter problems.

We often hear about the difficulties at Birkbeck and the Open University. The assumption made is that the bulk of the part-time student population studies there, but the facts show that 51% of all part-time undergraduates study at 10 universities, and 77% study at 40 of the UK’s 165 universities, so it is a widely spread mode of study.

The impact of the 2012-13 funding reforms has been explained. There was a 40% fall in the number of part-time students; Basingstoke fell off the map. That is a striking metaphor. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for drawing it to our attention. I must try to remember it when we come to discuss these issues. The fall was largely because of changes in the fee structure and in the relative unwillingness of part-time students to take out loans.

We should look at this in more detail. Two-thirds of part-timers do not qualify for loans, so the higher fees have to be paid from their own pockets. High fees generally make part-time study a risky investment. University tuition fees have a negative impact on participation, and we know from general research that fee increases tend to cause a general decline in participation, particularly among students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Because many of the students are already in work, financial returns for part-time study tend to be lower than for younger, full-time students, and that has to be taken into account. Given that many people in part-time study have other responsibilities and costs, including mortgages, it is inevitable that an income-contingent fee loan will be a problem.

What should we do about this? It is clear from the debate that if we do nothing, it is very likely that both the demand for and the supply of part-time study will continue to decline. Part-time provision could possibly disappear in some higher education institutions, which will threaten the genuinely held belief in the value of lifelong learning. That is to be regretted. My noble friend Lady Warwick made the very important point that the need to acquire skills, and the benefit from doing so, have not changed, yet the numbers are plunging. Basingstoke is rapidly disappearing. We must do something.

Some of the solutions that have come up today would be helpful. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said, there is a need for a rethink on credit accumulation, and a need to build on that as a way of getting FE colleges and universities to collaborate. That must be a way forward in future. It is clear from the evidence generated by the Open University that providing a lot more information and advice at every level, with greater collaboration across education and skills sectors, will have an impact on those who might be considering part-time education. We should learn from that. The Government should take on these responsibilities.

We need more understanding of why the 40% drop has happened. It is fairly clear that it is to do with the financial system and the costs that would be borne by individuals, but we must understand better the change in the employment situation; whether people are coming from employment in the public sector or private sector; whether that would have an impact on whether they were released to do so; and whether their fees are paid. As a number of noble Lords said, we need a wider debate about higher education more generally—whether it should be full-time or part-time, residential or online, concentrated or lifelong. These are all important issues. They have not been discussed enough and they should be brought forward.

The wider issue that we started with, which was raised by my noble friend Lady Bakewell, is how we convince people across the country that part-time education is something of value, and that if we do not act soon, it will be lost.

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for the opportunity to consider this important subject. The UK has a strong tradition of part-time education, encompassing both degree-level study and vocational qualifications. Institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck, of which the noble Baroness is president and about which she spoke so eloquently, are an integral part of our education landscape. They continue to lead the field in the provision of part-time study. Of course, qualifications provide a public recognition of achievement at the end of that study.

In higher education the Government have made significant progress in creating a flexible, dynamic system that offers students maximum choice in where, when and how they study. Our reforms have delivered a sustainable funding model as well as a renewed focus on teaching excellence and student choice. We have introduced more financial support for students and graduates and we have made a strong commitment to social mobility. UCAS data show that entry rates for disadvantaged 18 year-olds reached a new high for England in 2012.

However, we recognise that the fall in part-time entrants is a cause for concern and I share with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, my noble friend’s dramatic analogy that we are losing a Basingstoke in this—and I am sure that none of us would wish to lose Basingstoke. We are working with the sector to explore the reasons for the decline but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, pointed out, it is very difficult to talk of a “group” of part-time students because of their very wide diversity.

Higher education is an excellent long-term investment and one of the best routes to a rewarding career. The desire to study at university remains strong. For 2013 the application rate for 18 year-olds from England is at 35.5%, the second highest on record. I have also heard the comments, from around this Room and elsewhere, that young people are often not offered valid alternatives to full-time higher education, and more needs to be done in careers information advice and guidance to point out that there are alternatives to three years of full-time university. We recently had a week concentrating on apprentices. I have been out to visit some, and it was quite interesting to hear how many of them were saying that their parents and schools objected when they said, “What we want to do is an apprenticeship”. We need alternatives to those three years at university. It seems essential to me that we beef up all those opportunities when young people are leaving school particularly.

Research clearly illustrates that, even in these difficult economic conditions, the average net lifetime earnings benefit for those with a degree compared to those with just A-levels is comfortably over £100,000. We recognise that part-time adult education is an important route to higher-level learning and skills. It enables flexible study and plays a significant role in raising and updating the skills and qualifications of people already in employment. My noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned the need for upskilling and reskilling. That is one of the real aspects of the needs of our workforce in these days, and of course part-time study can play a very significant part in that. Research carried out in 2012 demonstrated the positive effects of part-time higher education for individuals, employers and the wider economy. It found that part-time study boosts economic, cultural and social development, and indeed can transform people’s lives.

The Government are working hard to create a more level playing field for part-time students. I was grateful for the acknowledgement by my noble friends Lady Brinton and Lady Sharp of the attempts to level the playing field by way of funding. As a key plank of our higher education reforms, new part-time students became eligible for non-means-tested tuition fee loans for the first time in 2012, responding to long-standing sector demand. This has significantly increased the number of students eligible for government support, but what we have to ask is why that is not reflected in the number of students actually taking it up. The provisions on the repayments start date for part-time students were made more generous, following representations from this House, but I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that more clarity over the funding available is imperative.

Unlike for full-time students, the Government have placed no limit on the number of part-time students whom institutions may recruit, so institutions can expand their provision if there is demand from prospective students. Undergraduate part-time entrant numbers have been declining since their peak in 2008-09, the year when the previous Government introduced the equivalent and lower qualifications policy. As the Committee knows, that means that students qualifying for a qualification equivalent to or lower than the one that they already hold are not eligible for student support, and their institution does not receive HEFCE funding in respect of them. Both my noble friend Lady Sharp and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, flagged up the problems of the ELQ in relation to enabling funding for students who would wish to take part-time funding. We hope that this will be part of the Universities UK review, which we await in October, because it has become a real issue. However, with all these options, we have to consider the priorities and what is affordable within spending limits.

The Government and the sector are working together to explore what more we can do to support part-time study. We need to understand the evidence on the part-time market. HEFCE is monitoring changes in demand and supply. As I have mentioned, Universities UK is undertaking a review which it will publish in October. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, commented that we do not debate higher education often enough in the Chamber; I am quite sure that that review will give us an opportunity once again to raise this very important subject. We hope that it will encourage the adoption of best practice and offer recommendations to support part-time study.

We are also increasing our efforts to communicate the benefits of higher education and the financial support available to part-time students. Both my noble friend Lady Brinton and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned the importance of communication. Our communications activity for 2013 has elements focused specifically on part-time applicants. This includes our student finance tour, which will be visiting further education colleges up and down the country, and digital advertising on key websites visited by prospective applicants, which have already been mentioned.

The Student Loans Company is open for applications for part-time student finance nearly four months earlier than last year. Its partnership with The Student Room provides dedicated information on finance for part-time students. For the first time, the UCAS website carries messages highlighting financial support for part-time study and features a new search tool which lists the Open University’s part-time courses. The next phase of this tool will allow all other members to display their part-time courses on, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, pointed out, many universities offer part-time provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees, and my noble friend Lady Brinton focused on the exciting development of the MOOCs, the massive open online courses. Many UK universities are now developing free online courses that are attracting thousands of new learners. In collaboration with a number of partner universities, the Open University is developing the UK’s first online MOOC platform, FutureLearn, to be launched later this year. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rees, that a UK version of this would be an exciting development and mean that we would not always be dependent on what the US is providing—although it is very often a leader in such fields. Opportunities such as these help to facilitate mobility, increase our knowledge economy and support lifelong learning, which, as we know, brings benefit to the country and enriches lives.

My noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned the changes in employment over the years and the fact that people do not now go into one secure job. The chances are that they will change job any number of times and therefore need to upskill and reskill to keep abreast. We were hearing today from employers who find it almost impossible to recruit the number of skilled local employees that they need in spite of the job opportunities being there. Something is definitely not going right in the transition between schools and work.

My noble friend mentioned credit transfers, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and my noble friend Lady Brinton, and transfer between universities, as happens from time to time with some universities in the US and other parts of the world. I remember years ago working on national vocational qualifications for transfer of units there between awarding bodies. It seemed to be relatively straightforward, but I have to say that it was anything but. I also remember, 20-odd years ago, working with universities on possibility for credit transfers. Universities cherish their autonomy. It became increasingly obvious that this would be a very bitty operation and that it was unlikely that we would secure the motivation among all universities to co-operate in that way.

My noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned a possible tax system for employers. We understand that the UUK review will explore ways to incentivise employers to support part-time study—the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned this, too—and the Government will carefully consider those recommendations.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees, also mentioned universities setting aside places for second-chance students. We come back to the same problem—universities are in control of their own admissions policies and it is for them to consider applications from all non-traditional applicants. Of course, many universities already consider those with non-traditional qualifications, but that is very far from universal.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick and Lady Bakewell, mentioned the fact that very often part-time study is an attractive option for women. The Government are committed to making higher education accessible for all. There has been tremendous, rapid achievement for women but I note the rather negative connotation that the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, put upon it. As for higher education supporting access, by 2014 universities are expecting to spend £684.5 million on access, including financial support, outreach and student success. Obviously, the contribution of employers and partnerships between HEIs and local enterprise partnerships will be critical if we are to get the results that we wish.

Our world-class colleges and universities have responded well to the Government’s reforms. There is a new focus on the student experience, greater social mobility and greater flexibility in ways of studying and in funding. According to the World Bank, the funding system is exemplary, and the OECD says that ours is the only sustainable system in Europe. But we have much more to do. We will be working with the sector to monitor the changing demand for part-time study and to promote the opportunities available.

I sincerely thank the noble Baroness for introducing this productive debate. We have much more to discuss but this has certainly started us on the path to ensuring that this remains a high-profile topic. I thank all noble Lords who have made such valuable and incisive contributions.

West Papua

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the human rights situation in West Papua.

My Lords, violations of basic human rights in West Papua are not only continuing but becoming more frequent. In 2012-13 there were numerous incidents of West Papuans being shot, arrested and tortured simply for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Leaders of the West Papua National Committee—the KNPB—are particularly targeted. To give just one example, at a peaceful demonstration on 1 May this year, three Papuans were shot—killings which were rightly condemned by both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and Amnesty International. A list of 30 such incidents involving arrests for peaceful protests in just two weeks in April and May this year was sent to the OHCHR in Geneva by TAPOL on behalf of eight international organisations concerned with West Papua.

It will therefore be no surprise to learn that in 2012 alone there were some 200 political arrests and that there are at least 40 political prisoners in jail. Raising a West Papuan flag, for example, can lead to a charge carrying a life sentence. At the same time, sweeping operations by the Indonesian military in the highlands of West Papua continued throughout 2012-13, displacing thousands of villagers, with homes being burned and subsistence crops destroyed, as reported by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Despite the fact that foreign reporters and NGOs are severely restricted in their attempts to enter and report on what is going on —an issue that other noble Lords will raise—these facts are becoming ever more widely known in the world outside.

I know that our Government are aware of and concerned about these human rights abuses, as they have made clear in their Answers to several Parliamentary Questions. However, is it not also a matter of concern that an Indonesian counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88, trained by the UK, is believed to be operating in Papua, targeting leaders of the independence unit? We know that the training for this detachment includes issues of human rights, but we do not know whether that has had any effect at all on its operations. In view of the fact that human rights abuses are increasing, will the Minister ask the Foreign Office to undertake, as a matter of urgency, an impact assessment of the training that this detachment is receiving to see whether in fact it is making any difference at all?

Juan Mendez, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, wrote in 2008 that West Papua was among those countries whose populations were “at risk of extinction”—a very serious charge. With the huge influx of Indonesians from Jakarta, the West Papuans are in danger of becoming a minority in their own country.

What are the Indonesian Government and the Indonesian elite in West Papua doing about this very serious situation? The policy in recent years has been to divide the country into two provinces, West Papua and Papua, give a degree of local autonomy to each one, deliver economic benefits and hope that this will lead to an end to the increasing unrest. The International Crisis Group, in its thorough and balanced 30-page report of last August, provided as part of the Library’s helpful briefing for this debate, evaluated that policy in these words:

“To date the law has failed to produce either improvement in the lives of most Papuans or better relations with the central government”.

Because even the Indonesian Government can see the failure, a special organisation, the Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua, called UP4B, has been set up through presidential decrees to achieve what its name suggests. The polite language of the International Crisis Group’s report, in the chapter entitled “UP4B: Good Intentions, Diminished Hopes”, cannot disguise the fact that this policy continues to fail very badly. There is failure at the economic level—very little of the huge wealth being generated in this oil and mineral-rich country is being channelled to the people whose land it is—and there is a fundamental failure at a political level to engage in a political process with representative leaders of the indigenous people. Does the Minister agree that there is no serious chance of progress in West Papua unless the Government in Jakarta set up a serious process of engagement with West Papuan leaders, and will they urge them to do so?

I know that Indonesia is an important ally in the worldwide fight against terrorism and has made big strides in recent years towards genuine democracy in some parts of its legitimate territory. Our own country, like Australia, has important business links with it. West Papua has vast oil and mineral wealth; BP alone has a £7.5 billion stake in it. We can all understand the pressures of realpolitik coming from both Governments, to whom we need to relate, and international capitalism, whose money is needed for development.

However, the truth cannot be hidden forever. The 1962 New York agreement signed between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United Nations guaranteed an “act of self-determination” for the people of West Papua. In 1969 that so-called Act of Free Choice took place. On 13 December 2004, when I was Bishop of Oxford, I asked the Minister at the time, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, about what happened in 1969:

“Is she aware that Suharto’s Indonesia handpicked a little more than 1,000 people, out of a population of 800,000, and forced them to vote 100 per cent for union with Indonesia? Is she further aware that the secretariat of the UN advised the UN Assembly to accept the result of that vote as fair, even though it had agreed to be a guarantor of the fairness of the election? Does she agree that the present unrest in West Papua and the violence by the Indonesian Government are in part responses to the failure at that time?”.

On behalf of the Government, the Minister replied:

“I agree with the right reverend Prelate’s summing up of the position … He is right to say that there were 1,000 handpicked representatives and that they were largely coerced into declaring for inclusion in Indonesia”.

Sometimes, a chink of truth comes through. In her reply, the noble Baroness went on to say that the largely coercive vote was 35 years ago and that since then,

“the 2002 special autonomy legislation has been passed … It grants, for example, 70 per cent of oil and gas royalties originating in Papua—as well as 80 per cent of forestry, fishery and mining royalties—to the people of Papua”.

She concluded by saying that,

“these measures ought to be given a chance to imbed in order for us to see whether the greater autonomy thereby granted eases the situation”.—[Official Report, 13/12/04; cols. 1084-85.]

The first question that arises in my mind is whether that 70% and 80% of the royalties has been going to the West Papuan people. Is there any evidence of this? More fundamentally, the special autonomy measure has now been in place for 13 years. It has had plenty of time to embed and show results. What is revealed is the total failure of the policy itself, because it fails to address the fundamental issue, namely the political aspirations of the indigenous people. Given that the former UN Under-Secretary-General, Chakravarthi Narasimhan, admitted publicly in 2004 that the 1969 so-called Act of Free Choice was in effect a sham, will the Government join with International Parliamentarians for West Papua and International Lawyers for West Papua in asking the UN to conduct an inquiry into what happened in 1969 and then to instigate a referendum on the issue in West Papua itself?

Given the 2010 referendum on self-determination in South Sudan and the upcoming referendums on independence in New Caledonia—Kanaky—Bougainville and Scotland, and bearing in mind what happened in East Timor, would it not be prudent, as well as absolutely right, to press for a true, internationally monitored referendum? This issue is certainly not going to go away, however much the Indonesian Government might wish that it would.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on securing this debate today. This is a subject that I knew nothing about until I came to the House of Lords. I place it on the record that the people of West Papua owe much to the noble and right reverend Lord for the way in which he has raised this subject throughout the past 10 years since I first came across it. It is a subject that is rarely mentioned in the press and the rest of the media or by the Government. It is not only a tragedy but, in the context of many tragedies around this world, one of the worst that I have come across—and living on the island of Ireland, I know what tragedies are.

One of the great problems of the modern world is that the Islamic and Christian worlds are given the impression that they are in conflict. I reject that. As a Christian myself, I accept that Islam and Christianity both believe in God and both accept the reality of Jesus—one as a saviour and the other as a prophet. We have much in common and should not be seen to be in conflict or presented by some people as being in conflict. After all, it was the western world that came to the rescue of Islam in Kosovo, where my son fought; in Bosnia, where my daughter fought; and even in Kuwait, where we relieved the Islamic people of Kuwait when they were invaded. We should take credit for these instances where we came to the rescue of Islam, and should not always allow ourselves to be portrayed as people who are opposed to it.

Of course, Islam is facing a great crisis, mainly between the Sunni and the Shia, and not just in Syria. It is happening right across the Middle East and north Africa, in Pakistan and in Indonesia, where the Shia are encountering problems with the Sunni majority. Indonesia is one of the great countries of the world today. It is the largest Islamic country in the world. It has a growing economy, so the United Kingdom requires a good relationship with that great nation. It is 86% Islamic and 9% Christian, and within it is West Papua which, as was mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has a population of around 800,000 of whom 55% are Christian and 40% are Muslim. It is the Christians in West Papua who are experiencing problems so far as freedoms are concerned. I recommend highly to anyone who reads the Hansard report of this debate that they should look at the House of Lords Library briefing pack because it is excellent. It goes into every detail of the atrocities that are taking place in West Papua. I could not go into that detail in the time available today, but I recommend the document.

The history of West Papua is rather sad because, after the Dutch left, the Indonesians invaded it in 1961. By 1969 the United Nations had shown an interest, saying that there should be, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, an Act of Free Choice. However, I underline what has just been said: there was no free choice. In fact, the Indonesians selected 1,000 chosen people to vote on behalf of the entire West Papuan population. They selected who could vote and more or less told them how to vote. They said that that was how democracy worked, that West Papua had expressed its opinion and that it wanted to be part of the Indonesian nation. Regrettably, there are now almost daily atrocities that are never reported in the media. The silence of the world on the tragedy of West Papua is amazing. There is hardly any government structure in the province, and certainly no one that you can really talk to in order to get the consent of the population. The international bodies and the United Nations itself, with their disregard of what is going on in West Papua, have been shameful in their attitude. They have ignored the tragedy of that part of Indonesia.

Does the Minister agree that the people of West Papua—I stress “the people”—never voted to be part of Indonesia? Does she accept that there are continual killings and a denial of human rights in West Papua today? It is time that we had clear answers to these allegations. When did Her Majesty’s Government last raise the issue of West Papua with Indonesia? I ask that because it is very important. In fairness, I think that the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, did raise it, but I want that confirmed in the debate today.

Of course, it is hard to know what is going on day to day in West Papua if the press are forbidden to visit it in order to see what is happening and report on it openly. Freedom of the press is one of the essentials of democracy, so it is important that the press are given access to West Papua. As we know from the Belfast agreement talks, there can be a security solution or there can be a political solution. In a divided society like West Papua, there is no security solution. The more you apply security pressures, the more the opposition to the established Government will increase. The way forward must be through political dialogue, and I suggest that in their own interests the Indonesians, for whom I have great sympathy and whom I support—I repeat that it is a great country that we need to be friendly with—should develop a dialogue with West Papua. People may ask, “But with who? Who are the leaders in West Papua? How can you negotiate with them or have a dialogue?”. I suggest that the Indonesian Government should start a dialogue with the church leaders under the chairmanship of an independent statesman drawn from outside. That would be a beginning.

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for tirelessly raising this issue in this House and thus doing something to remedy the paucity of the comment that one gets about this pretty worrying situation.

I declare a previous interest: from 2001 to 2009, I visited West Papua—which for the purposes of this debate, as the noble and right reverend Lord said in his introduction, is taken as comprising the two Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua—annually as a member of an independent panel set up by BP to offer the company advice on what can loosely be described as the performance of its corporate social responsibility in connection with the development of a large natural gas field situated under the waters of Bintuni Bay in the Bird’s Head region of West Papua, and a liquefied natural gas plant on the southern shore of the bay.

This panel, headed by former US Senator George Mitchell, visited Papua every year. We had talks with government and parliamentary leaders and NGOs in the capitals of the two provinces, Jayapura and Manokwari. We visited the sites for meetings with BP and its contractors and we held what the Americans would call town hall meetings in each of the 10 or so directly affected villages neighbouring the sites. We then discussed our findings with Indonesian Ministers and international agencies such as the World Bank in Jakarta, and presented the company with our recommendations. While I would not claim to be a genuine expert on West Papua, I have some familiarity with the region and its problems.

It is certainly extremely welcome that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has initiated this debate. That there have been and still are abuses of human rights in West Papua, mainly committed by members of the Indonesian armed forces and police, is really not in doubt. But because of what I regard as the Indonesian Government’s misguided policy of banning visits to the provinces by international journalists and NGOs, too little is known about these abuses, their nature and the background to them. Where secrecy prevails, rumour and allegations flourish, which is why I regard the Indonesian Government’s policy as misguided.

One part of the background that needs to be borne in mind is the massive size of West Papua and the sparsity of its population. They may be the poorest provinces of Indonesia but they are also the least populous. Those areas where the most abuses have taken place—the two provincial capitals, the mountainous regions along the international boundary with Papua New Guinea, and the area around the huge copper and gold mine being operated by Freeport-McMoRan at Timika—are often separated by hundreds of miles of trackless jungle from other, largely peaceful parts of the two provinces.

To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, about faith relationships, another dimension is the peaceful coexistence across most of the provinces of communities of Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. In the villages around Bintuni Bay, it was normal to find Catholic and Protestant churches and a mosque in the same village.

As one of the Muslim imams said to us when the panel talked to him, “Please do nothing to disturb the amity in which our communities have lived for many centuries”. That was sage advice, and the Indonesian Government, often beset elsewhere in the country with acute interfaith tensions, would do well to heed it.

What can be done to avoid the human rights abuses that take place? Part of the solution lies in better training for, and tighter control over, the Indonesian military and police. I look forward to the Minister responding to the point that was made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about the training that we give them, the effect that it has and whether we have any evidence that it is actually producing better performance. Just as important as that is to make a living reality, not just a paper reality, of the regional autonomy that Indonesia has granted to its provinces. Raising the living standards and the access to healthcare and to education of indigenous populations, which are among the poorest in the world, is another.

Above all, the Indonesian Government need to demonstrate respect for the cultural particularities and identity of indigenous Papuans. These are real and based on centuries of history. Any attempt to homogenise the provinces to a kind of Indonesian norm, or to encourage substantial inward migration from other parts of Indonesia, would inevitably raise tensions and lead to the sort of incidents at which human rights abuses have occurred and are still occurring. As the example of East Timor showed, a policy of repression is only too likely to be counterproductive; it is far better to pursue the objective of reconciling Papuans to their continuance as a part of Indonesia by generous policies of regional autonomy and economic development. To be fair, these are the proclaimed policies of the Administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but too often in the past practical application has diverged from these admirable objectives.

What role should Britain play in all this? We should certainly not just snipe from the sidelines when allegations of human rights abuses are brought up, although we should not turn a blind eye to them. We should also do our best, I suggest, through our aid programme, the provision of training and scholarships and the enlargement of responsible inward investment—such as I believe BP has provided in the Tangguh project, which is now undergoing rapid expansion—to create the conditions and the capacity-building that will encourage Papuans to believe that a peaceful and prosperous future is not beyond their reach. I hope that the Minister can say something about the way in which the Government are playing a positive role in West Papua, both now and in the future.

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, reminded us of the betrayal by the UN of the people of West Papua after Indonesia invaded and occupied the territory in 1961; it then connived with the so-called Act of Free Choice, when 1,000 handpicked men were coerced into ratifying the annexation. Today, unfortunately, the UN seems just as helpless in dealing with the gross and persistent violations of human rights inflicted on the occupied people, of which a great many examples were given recently to the Human Rights Committee, including a 53-page report from Amnesty International. Another was a report by TAPOL, which campaigns for democracy and human rights in Indonesia, and I declare an interest as its honorary president, having been connected with it and its distinguished founder, Carmel Budiardjo, for the 40 years of its existence.

This detail describes some of the 200 political arrests in the territory in 2012. A number were shot, some of them fatally, while allegedly resisting arrest. Those who continue to speak about self-determination for the territory, as they have every right to do under Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, risk prosecution under Article 106 of the criminal code, which prescribes life imprisonment for any attempt to separate a part of the state. I hope that the Prime Minister will invite President SBY to visit the UK in September next year so that he can see how we deal with demands for self-determination in this country.

The Indonesians should recall their own experiences with East Timor, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, which achieved independence, and Aceh, which gained a substantial degree of autonomy, after long and bloody struggles. In both cases, the results were achieved through dialogue, as I remember from having been an adviser at the talks between the Indonesians and the Free Aceh Movement between 2000 and 2002. That process, and the agreement subsequently moderated by former President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, could form a model for eliminating the causes of human rights violations in West Papua, rather than Indonesia pursuing futile attempts to eradicate the movement for self-determination by military force and draconian laws.

The results of the present policies are illustrated by a report from Human Rights Watch focusing on violence, impunity and the denial of access to foreign journalists and the UN special procedures. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions requested a visit in 2004 and again in 2008, but has never received a reply. This came up at the Human Rights Council, but in the 208 paragraphs of the Government’s reply to the list of issues raised, there was no reference to the egregious denial of the UN special procedures’ right of access to perform their duties.

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement in May calling on Indonesia to allow visits by journalists and by the UN special procedures. A visit by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, which had been scheduled for January, was postponed indefinitely. The UK was among the states that echoed the demand that they be admitted, and I hope my noble friend can tell your Lordships what further steps can be taken by the UN Human Rights Council, or what else can be done, to deal with the open defiance of the UN’s authority. I recognise that it would be difficult to get agreement on raising the powers of the UN’s human rights mechanism, but does my noble friend agree that if there are no coalitions of the willing ready to impose penalties on recalcitrant states, it is only to be expected that those states will ignore the Human Rights Council, as Indonesia does?

Indonesia’s Government say that there is freedom of the press, that people criticise the Government and that there is no bar even on separatist opinions. On the other hand, Amnesty says that peaceful political activists continue to be arrested and detained. Of the 76 political prisoners recorded by Papuans Behind Bars, no fewer than 42 are charged under Article 106; there are probably more, because in a number of cases the charges are unknown.

The situation in West Papua is almost certainly a lot worse even than we are able to describe, because of the barriers to access, particularly in respect of the UN special procedures. The special representative to the Secretary-General on human rights defenders was there in 2007, which was the last such visit. She found that a climate of fear prevailed,

“especially for defenders engaged with the rights of the Papuan communities to participation in governance, control over natural resources and demilitarization of the province”.

That provides a clue as to why Jakarta is so paranoid. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, West Papua is a land of immense mineral and forestry wealth and the Indonesians do not want outsiders poking their noses into the way that companies such as Freeport, which operates the largest gold and copper mine in the world, are causing permanent environmental damage and riding roughshod over the rights of local people, with the backing of the Government.

The Constitutional Court ruled in May that an Act that allowed the state to claim forest land previously owned under customary law by indigenous people was unlawful. If that has force, there should be equality of arms between the Government-backed multinationals and the indigenous people. I would be grateful if my noble friend would inquire into the effect of this ruling on the dispossession of indigenous people in previous years.

I am sorry that Indonesia is not a country that concerns the FCO, according to its annual report on human rights and democracy; nor is West Papua even mentioned in the section of that report dealing with indigenous rights. I respectfully suggest that human rights abuses in West Papua are serious enough to justify a much higher priority than the Government have accorded them in the past and that the issues raised in this debate demand their urgent attention.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this important debate. Indonesia has been undergoing a process of democratic transition. Certainly, the human rights situation in Indonesia has improved over the past 15 years and there is no doubt that its Government remain committed to further progress, as indicated by their signing up to a range of international conventions.

Like the coalition, the previous Labour Government believed that the complex issues in Papua can best be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the people of Papua and the Government of Indonesia. The previous Government supported the territorial integrity of Indonesia and encouraged its Government, through genuine engagement with Papuan representatives, to make real the 2001 special autonomy legislation.

However, as we have heard in today’s debate, the picture in West Papua is not one of progress but one of increased violence and repression. Indonesia’s treason laws continue to be used to punish free expression. Peaceful demonstrations are banned and attacked by the security services. In the past 12 months there have been numerous incidences of Papuans being shot, poisoned, arrested and tortured for taking part in peaceful demonstrations and other activities associated with independence aspirations.

As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, reminded us, the most recent example was the peaceful demonstrations on 1 May 2013 to mark 50 years of Indonesian control over West Papua. Three Papuans were fatally shot. Following this, a demonstration was planned to commemorate the three people who were killed. The local police banned the demonstration, which took place anyway. The demonstration was repeatedly attacked by police, and four members of the West Papuan National Committee, including its chairman, were arrested and reportedly tortured.

In contrast to these actions, the Indonesian Government, as we have heard, talked of the special autonomy measures established through presidential decree in 2011, which they claimed would accelerate development in Papua and West Papua. Programmes related to the enhancement of food security, poverty eradication, community-based economic development, education, health and basic infrastructures are, they say, their key focus. However, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, asked, where is the evidence?

Almost exactly two years ago, the noble Baroness’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, stated on the Floor of the House:

“If we can get expanded commercial and economic activity, effective inward investment and the expansion of trade, this will pave the way for a more open society and a more effective policing of human rights”.—[Official Report, 19/7/11; col. 1193.]

I ask the Minister whether, two years on, she still holds to that assessment and, if so, what action could the EU and the British Government take to ensure speedy and genuine economic development with proper autonomy for the people of West Papua.

Despite the welcome progress on human rights generally, in the report of the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review 12 months ago, the UK Government noted the increase in violence and called for renewed efforts to address the challenges in Papua and West Papua. Can the Minister give us an assessment of what sort of progress has been made since that report?

In the same report, the US expressed concern about the failures to create and enforce the framework of accountability for abuse by the military and police, and the failure to protect certain religious minorities. As we have already heard in the debate, the Human Rights Committee on 11 July concluded its consideration of the initial report on Indonesia’s implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is one of the most important human rights treaties that Indonesia has ratified.

The committee also highlighted the ongoing violence in Papua and deplored the excessive use of force by the Indonesian security forces. It, too, highlighted the fact that there is no effective mechanism to hold members of the military accountable. As we have heard, some 70 extrajudicial killings had recently taken place in Papua, but no one was prosecuted. Impunity had become a structural problem in Indonesia. Criminal prosecutions and sanctions were appropriate measures to combat police violence and had to be implemented. The committee’s clear view was that such violations were likely to continue until Indonesia takes measures to develop effective complaints procedures.

Indonesian military tribunals are in most cases not open to the public and therefore lack transparency, impartiality and independence. The Indonesian Government have claimed that these tribunals are generally accessible to the public, but that is strongly challenged by human rights groups. NGOs who attended the review expect the committee to make strong recommendations to the Government to review the military court law. Will the Minister, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, reinforce that call?

On freedom of the press, the Indonesian delegation claimed to the committee that the local media in Papua are free to publish any news—despite, as we have heard in the debate, continued evidence of intimidation, threats and violence against local journalists. As the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, reminded us, the international media are barred from entry. In recent years, the international community has had to witness the extrajudicial killing of journalist Ardiansyah Matra’is and the violent attack against Banjir Ambarita. The UN Human Rights Committee review deplored the lack of freedom of expression in Papua. The Indonesian Government delegate, who also happens to be in charge of the Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua, responded by saying that,

“freedom of expression is not absolute”.

The Government see this limitation of freedom of expression as necessary to maintain state sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Indonesia, a point that was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay.

The committee’s experts quite rightly sought clarification regarding the declaration made by Indonesia upon its signature of the convention concerning limitations to the right of self-determination. What was the scope of the reservations? The covenant had to be implemented in all regions, regardless of their autonomy, and the Government were bound to ensure that all its provisions were fully implemented, even in regions where by-laws were in contradiction with some the provisions.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned the Indonesian counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88. Trained by the UK, it is believed to be operating in Papua to crack down on the Papuan independence movement, including the alleged assassination of its leaders. The activities of this unit in West Papua have been extensively covered in the Australian media, such as the October 2012 article by ABC News, as highlighted in the excellent Library briefing. I ask the Minister whether Government have plans for the ongoing funding of Special Detachment 88 training through the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement.

Finally, I repeat the words with which I started my speech: dialogue and discussion with the genuine representatives of the Papuan people is vital if progress is to be made, peace to be restored and economic development to be achieved.

My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for proposing this debate on the human rights situation in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Last year was momentous for relations between Indonesia and the UK. Following the Prime Minister’s visit in April 2012, I travelled to Indonesia in late May and saw for myself the huge progress this multiethnic state has made since its transition from autocracy to democracy. I visited Aceh, now recovering from the twin blows of a long-running conflict and the devastating tsunami. I met students and parliamentarians and we had discussions about extremism and human rights, as well as other issues.

Last year culminated in the state visit to the UK of the Indonesian President, which has set the bilateral relationship on a new footing. Indonesia is a G20 partner and regional powerhouse. It is playing a positive role in regional security dynamics, and the Indonesian President is showing global leadership through efforts including co-chairing the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda with the Prime Minister.

Today our reinvigorated relationship is grounded in strong political, security and prosperity interests. But as Her Majesty the Queen said at the state banquet during the President’s visit,

“the partnership between Britain and Indonesia is also shaped by common values”.

It is a relationship that should be—and, indeed, is—viewed as a partnership through which we can each assume the role of a critical friend. It is in this spirit that we discuss issues of concern, including human rights in Papua.

As noble Lords are aware, the political situation in Papua is hugely complex. While it is portrayed by some as a clear-cut issue, this is simply not the case. Over the past decade or so, the human rights environment in Indonesia has been transformed. It now has a press and civil society that are free and vibrant, and has been on a positive journey in the region, especially on the issue of human rights. However, as the Indonesian Government themselves acknowledge, challenges remain in certain areas, including Papua.

President Yudhoyono has stated on a number of occasions that he supports a welfare rather than security approach to Papua, and we have seen members of the security forces who commit abuses being held to account. This is progress. Political rights are regularly exercised in local and national electoral processes, but we accept that challenges remain. Notwithstanding the significant funds that have been pumped into the region, access to education and healthcare is often poor, particularly for women and girls. Domestic violence rates are disturbingly high and freedom of expression is all too often stifled, as has been mentioned many times today.

As noble Lords have done today, the Government condemn all violations of human rights, no matter who the victim. Violations in Papua have been committed by the security forces as well as by those who claim to be striving for the rights of Papuan people. Verifying the details is often difficult given the remoteness of the region. We have heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about Papuans who have tragically paid with their lives. We also saw the appalling murder of eight Indonesian military personnel in February this year. Non-ethnic Papuans based in the highlands have been attacked and killed, and a German tourist was shot in May 2012.

The restrictions placed upon those voicing their political opinion are also cause for concern. Lengthy jail terms have been handed down for holding peaceful protests, and I pay tribute to the NGOs and their staff who work tirelessly to support these prisoners. Freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression were raised at the universal periodic review. The invitation to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression to visit Indonesia is a positive step, and we firmly hope that this visit takes place soon.

I echo the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, about journalists, NGOs and international organisations—including the International Red Cross, which has extremely limited access to Papua —and we have raised these with the Government of Indonesia at all levels. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us, without opening Papua up, there is a risk of misreporting or incidents being misrepresented. Incidents will remain hard to verify as long as Papua remains closed.

The Government are resolute in demanding that human rights be respected by all in Papua. We make this absolutely clear to the Indonesian Government at the highest levels. In the past 12 months alone, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and President Yudhoyono discussed Papua when they met in November during the state visit—I can confirm that on the record. The human rights situation in Papua also features regularly in our discussions with the Indonesian Foreign Minister and the governor of Papua. British embassy staff visit the region regularly. As my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford informed the House last year, in May 2012, as part of the universal periodic review, we, along with other UN members had an opportunity to comment on human rights progress in Indonesia.

On the human rights report, my noble friend Lord Avebury asked why it was not a country of concern. It was in fact covered under the heading of “Freedom of religion or belief” as one of the areas of concern we had about Indonesia. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, raised the issue of human rights violations generally, and how far these concerns had been raised. I have already explained how these issues have been raised at the presidential level. I can, however, tell him that last September the ambassador visited Papua and met senior military and police officials, emphasising the need to respect human rights and ensure full and transparent investigations into any violent incidents, and only in April of this year, the British ambassador discussed the situation in Papua with the new governor of the province.

Human rights are fundamental and based on universal values. They are not there to be invoked only when economic conditions allow. Even so, a myriad of social, political and economic influences often lie behind human rights abuses, and these must also be addressed. The UK will therefore continue to encourage meaningful progress on governance issues, including the full implementation of the special autonomy law for the provinces of Papua and West Papua. We also support the increased focus on economic and social development to which the Government have committed themselves in order to address the widespread poverty in the region, especially among ethnic Papuans.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the position of previous Governments on the political status of Papua. Of course, ours remains the same: the UK supports the territorial integrity of the Republic of Indonesia and does not support calls for the independence of Papua. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I recognise that the events surrounding the 1969 Act of Free Choice continue to be a focus of controversy for many with an interest in Papua and West Papua. The UK was not party to the process and we have no plans to support a review of the Act. All relevant UK documents relating to this period are now a matter of national record.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and other noble Lords spoke about Special Detachment 88. Our training and engagement with the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation, which includes officers from Densus 88, takes place within a framework of respect for the rule of law and a commitment to upholding human rights obligations in compliance with UK and international standards. All of the training delivered by the UK is rooted firmly in the importance of upholding human rights in counterterrorism investigations. Each training course contains a specific module on these obligations. There have been impact assessments; I think that there was one in 2011. However, for operational reasons we would not release an impact assessment on CT operations overseas.

Specific questions were asked about funding. I confirm that in the financial year 2011-12, the UK’s counterterrorism programme provided in the region of £400,000 of support to the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation to deliver a package of six different classroom-based training programmes. We also deliver a regional course that brings together senior law enforcement officers from around south-east Asia to focus on the co-ordination and management of multi-jurisdictional investigations aimed at disrupting terrorism and transnational crime. Funding for our programme for the JCLEC has been agreed for the year 2013-14, and we will be providing £319,000. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, spoke about revenue flows because of the special autonomy status. Our understanding is that revenue flows have indeed been going to the local elected authorities in Papua.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about military accountability. We have seen steps towards greater accountability in cases of military abuse, but there is still a long way to go. Convictions for those involved in the appalling abuses, some of which then appeared on YouTube, were a step forward. The noble Lord also asked what practical things the UK was involved in. DfID is providing £10 million of funding from 2013 to 2015 which is focused on programmes in Papua. We are also working to deliver sustainable development and we will fund a number of NGOs and civil society groups to develop capacity in the civil society sector.

The United Kingdom has an important and wide-ranging relationship with Indonesia, aspects of which I have outlined this evening. It is a relationship that allows us to raise areas of concern in a constructive, frank and open manner, including human rights violations. However, we do so in a balanced manner, regardless of who is the perpetrator or the victim.

We all agree that the situation in Papua is of concern and that we should continue to speak out against violations, whoever commits them, which contravene human rights and international law. Greater accountability and transparency are needed regarding abuses committed both by the Indonesian security forces and by Papuan armed groups. All those with a stake in Papua’s future need constructively to engage in peaceful dialogue as a way to resolve their grievances. I firmly believe that it is possible for Papua to enjoy the same level of peace, stability and prosperity that is seen elsewhere in Indonesia. That is, after all, in the interests of all Papuan people. However, it will take commitment from all sides. We believe that the Indonesian Government are genuinely committed to addressing these challenges and we hope that others will join us in supporting their efforts.

Committee adjourned at 7.45 pm.