House of Lords
Thursday, 16 January 2014.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
My Lords, the Government cannot identify a full transcript of the Stephen Ward trial within their records. Full transcripts are not automatically created unless ordered by the judge or requested by the parties involved in the trial. The National Archives and the Crown Prosecution Service hold partial records of witness evidence given in the trial but a full transcript of proceedings may never have been created. The partial records contain sensitive information about people who are still alive. Disclosing such records would invite renewed and potentially unfair speculation about their activities. Accordingly, these records will not be released at this time.
My Lords, that is a very disappointing Answer and seems to me part of the cover up that has gone on since 1964. Does the Minister agree that the conviction of Stephen Ward is probably one of the most significant miscarriages of justice in modern British history and, while the establishment got its scalp, justice was not done? Can we at least have released the papers that are available because it is very likely that they would exonerate Stephen Ward and put right this enormous miscarriage of justice.
My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, on 2 December 2013 the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC submitted a review of this case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is, of course, an independent public body set up in March 1997 by the Criminal Appeal Act. Its purpose is to review wrongful convictions. It is currently reviewing the case and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
My Lords, the trial was fully reported in lascivious detail by the Times at the time in July and August 1963 with full-page and verbatim accounts of the cross-examination and the summing up. Accordingly, I see no reason why such papers as relate to the trial should not be released. Geoffrey Robertson said that Lord Parker, the then Lord Chief Justice—not the trial judge—had suppressed a transcript of the trial. Is that right? If so, under what power did he do so?
My Lords, I was not around in 1964 to read the Times but I shall certainly look it up in the archives. Turning to the specific question, the issue remains that full transcripts are not automatically created and certainly, as I said in my earlier Answer, that is the case here. Six files are held by the National Archives relating to the Stephen Ward trial; five of these are open to the public, so there is partial availability. One file is closed. The closed file does not contain a full transcript of the hearing. However, it contains partial records of some elements of the hearing, including evidence given by individuals from the box. These records contain sensitive information about living individuals and also unsubstantiated allegations and it would be inappropriate to release those records at this time.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that we have original copies of the Times here, going back to the 18th century? I looked them up for the founding of Sydney University, and they are all available. Perhaps the Minister can suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, looks at those copies of the Times to which my noble friend has just referred?
My Lords, is not the real problem in this case the policy of concealment that is repeatedly conducted by successive British Governments and key civil servants? Is not an American sociologist right in saying that the reason for this country being so badly governed is the curse of secrecy?
My Lords, the Americans are our friends and we listen attentively to their advice. However, I believe that we make the best decisions here in the light of our own justice system. As I have already said, the information which is being withheld is being so withheld to protect those who are still living. It is entirely appropriate that we protect their sensitivities.
My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying about files in the public archives, but for the life of me I do not understand why, if evidence was given at the trial, that evidence should not be made public. It was made public in the sense that, at one stage, it was given in public and people could hear it in public. What on earth is the justification now for not producing it?
While the noble Lord makes the point that this evidence has been heard in an open court, it does not necessarily follow that all relevant transcripts are released. As I have already indicated, and will now repeat, there are certain sensitivities around what was revealed. Indeed, as the noble Lord will know, many people who gave witness testaments at the following Denning inquiry did so on the assurance that their records would be protected.
I do not think that the Minister has really answered my noble friend Lord Richard’s question. We are talking about evidence that was given in public, and the Government—the archives—now hold material relating to that, possibly transcripts of it. For some reason, a decision has been taken that, because of sensitivity, these cannot now be rereleased to the public. What are the criteria for deciding why something which is already in the public domain should be suppressed in the future?
My Lords, the Government have considered the published guidance. Indeed, the Information Commissioner’s Office has also given guidance that the disclosure of any personal data still will breach the data protection principles, even after that has been disclosed in an open court. Having considered this guidance and the relevant information, the Government have decided—I have made that quite clear—not to release the partial records of witness evidence at this time.
My Lords, the Government support the work of the credit union sector and are investing up to £38 million in participating credit unions, to expand their service while reducing their delivery costs, by April 2015. The Government will not require departments to offer a facility for payroll deductions for their Civil Service workforce where these do not already exist. It will be for each department to consider the costs and benefits of offering such a facility.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House and the other place have given the Government a good example by setting up this facility a few weeks ago. Would the Minister meet with representatives of the credit union movement and me to explore how this could be rolled out across government? Also, what words does he have to encourage the private sector to offer such services to its staff as well?
My Lords, I have just read that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and Mr Iain Duncan Smith have joined the London Mutual Credit Union. It is open to all Members and the staff of both Houses to join that union. Part of the problem, as the noble Lord well knows, is that most credit unions are locally based and for other departments—such as the Home Office or DWP, with employees scattered all the way across the country—the cost of joining employees into a very large number of credit unions is rather complicated.
My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister would accept that this Government are very much in favour of nudging. How much nudging is going on to get departments to take up this very big issue? The credit union movement is well worth supporting; it is supported on every side. I do not believe that it is helpful just to say that departments can make up their own minds. I hope that we can have some nudging.
My Lords, there is a lot of nudging going on but, as the noble Lord will know, there are employee-based contributions to credit unions and employer-provided contributions to credit unions. The Government are aware that it is not without cost to run an employer-based set of contributions, particularly, again, if you are trying to roll it out across the entire country, in which there are some 340 locally based credit unions.
My Lords, it seems that there is a need for more diversity in financial services. Would it not be a good example if the House were to send out a message that we are leading the way on this? The common bond is government employees, so that should be easy. In terms of pursuing this enthusiastically, could the Minister ensure that a cost-benefit analysis is undertaken and that it is placed in the Library, so that Members can see it and can have a part in ensuring that we push for a credit union and be an example to the rest of the country?
My Lords, I will take that back and see what we can do about a cost-benefit analysis. I should mention that, apart from the Houses of Parliament, the other department of government that already has an employer-based credit union arrangement in place is the National Offender Management Service. Members will consider whether they think that is a good parallel to our work or not.
My Lords, I am very proud to be associated with the scheme that extends also to members of the National Offender Management Service, as I think all Members of this House will be and should be. My noble friend made an important suggestion, namely that arrangements should be made for him, the Minister and somebody from the credit union to have access to somebody in each department to see how this could be pursued further. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point.
My Lords, following the comments of my noble friend Lord Deben, can we at least expect a bit of joined-up government in terms of nudging different departments? If the difficulty is not one of principle but simply one of practicality, surely if one department can encourage this, others can too.
The Minister will be well aware of the popularity of credit unions in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and particularly the Republic of Ireland, where I think the figure of support is of the order of 50%. Am I right in thinking that the equivalent figure for the United Kingdom is somewhere between 1% and 1.5%?
My Lords, I have 2% in my brief, but that is still a very small figure. Given the reduction in bank services in a number of areas in this country, this is an issue that we should all encourage. Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will remember the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about the Church of England becoming more extensively involved in the credit union movement.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, asked for enthusiasm from the Government in this regard. Perhaps they could start by the Minister saying to his noble friend who represents the Department for Education, “Let’s have a go at getting schools interested in credit unions”, as the St Albans credit union has done. That body has had great success in getting youngsters into the habit of saving.
Schools: Independent Schools
My Lords, we have made no assessment of public support for the open access scheme. We want all pupils, regardless of the type of school they attend or their background, to receive a high-quality education. We are delighted that the independent sector is so willing to engage with the state sector, as it does on a number of fronts such as independent state school partnerships and bursaryships, but we want to spend taxpayers’ money in the state school sector. With that money, through our education reforms, we are transforming the state school system to ensure that every pupil has the opportunity they deserve.
I thank my noble friend and, in doing so, declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association and of the Council for Independent Education. Does my noble friend not agree that wider access to independent schools could make a powerful contribution to the greater social mobility that we all want? Has he noted that within the independent sector itself, where more than a third of families now pay reduced fees, among heads and teachers there is considerable enthusiasm for more open access, which need involve no increase in public spending? In 1940, Churchill said that the advantages of the public schools should be extended on a far broader basis. Is it not time that we got on with it?
My Lords, I know that my noble friend is passionate about social mobility through education and I look forward to the Independent State Schools Partnerships conference next Monday, at which we are both speaking—a conference designed to promote partnerships between independent and state schools. As he said, the independent sector has a long history of increasing social mobility through bursaryships, scholarships and collaboration. In 2013, it provided more than £300 million worth of assistance, benefiting 40,000 children, and we absolutely applaud this. However, our priority is to invest our resources in making sure that all state schools provide an excellent education for their pupils, which in the end will be the greatest means of achieving much higher levels of social mobility, which I know all noble Lords wish to see. Our reforms are particularly focused on poorer children through, for instance, our pupil premium and Ofsted’s focus on the progress that pupil premium pupils make.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw that private schools should be doing much more to collaborate with, and support, the state school sector, rather than, as he described it, being guilty of just giving the “crumbs off their tables”?
My Lords, I am pleased to hear the Minister agree that we are all anxious to improve the social mobility of pupils. Indeed, the open access scheme purports to do that, but it is a heavily means-tested scheme, which relies on taking the very brightest pupils and the funding that comes with them into the private sector. Does the Minister not agree that this could be a scheme that is tantamount to providing public funding for the independent sector?
If one had such a scheme, I think there might be ways of avoiding that. I agree entirely that we should be increasing social mobility for all pupils. Although the independent sector does a fantastic job, according to the Sutton Trust, which promotes the open access scheme, its 7% of pupils get 50% of the top jobs. Pupils from grammar schools, which educate 5% of the population, get more than 20% of the top jobs. We are focused on ensuring that the 90% of children who go to other schools, who currently get only somewhere between 25% and 30% of those jobs, get a much higher share of that take in the future.
Does the noble Lord agree that, if the parents of the 7% of the nation’s children who attend independent schools were to apply their zeal for educational excellence to the maintained sector, we would see a vast improvement in social cohesion and educational performance?
Will my noble friend explain why, if the Government are in favour of the money following the pupil and in favour of extending choice, they are not in favour of getting the best value for money and of ensuring that people get the best possible education by making resources available to those who cannot afford to go to independent schools so that they can do so?
There are plenty of schemes, such as the Buttle UK springboard, which encourage pupils to go to independent schools. Even if we got a third of independent school places occupied by poorer pupils, we would still be dealing with only 2% of the population. We believe that our money is better spent trying to improve the educational chances of the majority of children.
Does my noble friend agree that, if children from poorer families go to rather grand private schools, they can sometimes have a rather rough time when they first arrive and so on? What measures can the Government encourage those schools to take to make it socially easier for them to integrate?
I was a trustee of Eastside Young Leaders Academy, which focuses on improving the life chances of black boys in the East End. It has already sent 21 pupils to private schools under full bursaryships. One of our concerns was integration and we spent a lot of time working on that. I know that schools that take pupils from diverse backgrounds work very hard to make sure that the transition works.
The assisted places scheme provided valuable support for pupils, who benefited from a place at an independent school, which their parents might not otherwise have been able to afford. The scheme was abolished by the Labour Party in 1998 so that that money could be spent in the state sector. We agree with that sentiment. Our policy is that resources should be targeted at improving state funding for all pupils rather than supporting a minority.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the abolition of the assisted places scheme so that its money could be used in providing free nursery school education was one of five pledges in the 1997 manifesto of the Labour Party—a small number of pledges—and that partly as a result of those pledges, the Labour Party won the general election with a majority of nearly 200.
Central African Republic
My Lords, our immediate priorities are to stop the appalling violence in the Central African Republic, to protect civilians and to ensure humanitarian access. The UK worked to secure UN Resolution 2127 in December. We are now working closely with France and our international partners to support the African Union force and the UN mission. In addition, we have allocated £15 million for humanitarian assistance and provided three airlifts for the French military.
I thank my noble friend for her comprehensive Answer. Just this week, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights team confirmed that certain ex-Seleka perpetrators of human rights abuses are Chadian nationals, even wearing the armbands of the Chadian FOMAC peacekeepers, and credible testimonies were found of collusion between Chadian FOMAC peacekeeping and ex-Seleka forces. The people of the Central African Republic therefore have good reason to view Chadian international peacekeepers as a threat. Can the Minister confirm that it is Her Majesty’s Government’s position that any peacekeeping force, whether under a UN, AU or MISCA mandate, should not contain troops from Chad?
The current African Union MISCA force has contributions from Burundi, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Guinea and Chad. I take on board the concerns that my noble friend has raised, and we of course keep under review the lead in these matters. However, it has been felt that at this stage the African Union lead is a right way forward.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that a key driver of the conflict in the Central African Republic is, and has been, the wealth of mineral resources to be found there, including diamonds, gold, uranium, copper and petroleum products? Will the Minister tell us whether discussions are taking place about how to ensure that there is adequate oversight of the management of the extraction and trade of minerals so that the people can at last enjoy the right to benefit from that lucrative industry?
The noble Baroness is right; that has been an underlying factor to much of the violence that we have seen in the country. I am not aware of what specific conversations have taken place in relation to oversight of the industry to which she referred. I will check and certainly write to her.
My Lords, Gérard Araud, the French Ambassador to the UN, has confirmed that French and AU forces are confronting a near-impossible situation in the CAR. The BBC in Bangui this morning reported that John Ging of the UN is calling for,
“a huge international effort to tackle this situation”.
Does my noble friend therefore accept that the deployment by the United States of two C-17 aircraft to fly in 800 Rwandan troops over the next month will still be woefully inadequate? Will the Government make good the C-17 logistical shortfall to accelerate the delivery and scale of the peacekeeping force and to reduce the rising risk of genocide, which we all fear?
My noble friend is right; there is an absolutely appalling situation on the ground. The violence has been seen by many of us on our TV screens as the news reports have been coming out. We currently have about 3,500 troops deployed there as part of the African Union force and I understand that a total of about 6,000 will be deployed—there are about 1,600 French troops deployed. We have responded to requests from the French for three airlifts, which took place in December. We will of course respond to any further requests for support. My noble friend may be aware that there is a European Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday, and further options may well be discussed there.
My Lords, can the Minister reflect on the role that outside insurgents are playing in the Central African Republic? Can she tell us what the Security Council is doing to ensure that the western borders of the republic are secured, so that organisations such as Boko Haram are not able to influence events inside the CAR, where jihadists are already present?
The information that I have from my brief—although I stand to be corrected by the noble Lord, who is greatly experienced in the area—is that the situation has at this stage been contained within the borders of the Central African Republic. There are some concerns about external elements and a potential religious element to this developing, and we are of course keeping an eye on that.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the scale of the crisis is very large? I am grateful for what the Government are doing in response to this particular crisis, but will they use their offices in the European Union to make sure that all nations take part in dealing with this rather appalling situation? I am not confident that the African Union actually has the capacity to deal with the situation, much as it is on the ground. I hope the Minister can give us some comfort by confirming that the Government are talking to our European allies to ensure that whatever is needed is provided. Otherwise, we will end up with genocide and pictures on our television screens that will make all our stomachs churn day by day.
I take on board what the most reverend Primate has said. Going back to the European Union and the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday, an options paper has been circulated which is currently under discussion. A number of options have been presented in that paper. At this stage, however, we are going back to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2127 from December, which agreed that it was appropriate for the African Union to lead on this and for the French troops to carry on with their deployment.
My Lords, whatever action is taken right now to deal with this horrific emergency, there will be a need for action afterwards, following any stabilisation, both to build the capacity of the state in the Central African Republic and to try to promote reconciliation between the Christian and Muslim communities, which at the moment are tearing each other apart. Can the Conflict Pool or the Building Stability Overseas Strategy of the UK Government make a contribution to either that process of state building or that process of reconciliation, which will be so important on the ground in the aftermath of the current crisis?
I completely agree with the noble Lord; it may well be one of the things we will be considering. The situation that we are facing at the moment means that we have to deal with the immediate violence. The whole point of having the transitional appointments of the president and prime minister, both of whom resigned only last week, was to enable a process to take place in which there would be elections within 18 months of April last year. Unfortunately, the violence has not stopped under the transitional government. There are expected to be further elections for a further transitional government within the next 14 days and then further elections will take place with a process behind them for political discussions. It may well be that at that stage, it will be right for the UK to be involved in the stabilisation work.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Motion to Agree
My Lords, from time to time, the House believes it is right and proper to impose sanctions on Peers who have been found to be in breach of the Code of Conduct. That is always a difficult and unpleasant business. There are currently only two sanctions available to the House. Peers found in breach of the Code of Conduct can be required to apologise. The other sanction available to the House is that of suspension. The House does not have the power to expel and, without primary legislation, it cannot give itself that power.
The impact of suspension is severely constrained by the fact that a suspension expires at the end of the Parliament in which it is imposed. This can give rise to major unfairnesses. Behaviour which the House feels warrants a lengthy suspension may be subject to a relatively short period of a few weeks if it is imposed towards the end of a Parliament. The situation could well arise where behaviour that was a serious breach of the Code of Conduct resulted in an effective suspension for a shorter time than a much less serious breach of the Code of Conduct, merely due to the stage in the Parliament when the sanction was imposed.
The House Committee was of the view that such an outcome would be unfair. The House Committee was also of the view that it would be helpful to have some alternative sanctions which fall short of full suspension but are greater than an apology. The remedy proposed by the House Committee is the introduction of two new sanctions. The first sanction would prevent Peers from claiming any financial support by way of expenses or allowances from the House. The second sanction would prevent Peers from using the facilities of the House. Neither of these sanctions would prevent the Peer from taking part in the proceedings of the House in the Chamber or its committees. These sanctions could be used in addition to suspension from the House or as an alternative to suspension. Unlike suspension, the sanctions could be applied for a period extending beyond the end of a Parliament. They would be applied for a fixed period and therefore are not equivalent to expulsion. They would not be retrospective. The Clerk of the Parliament’s advice is that these sanctions are compatible with both the Letters Patent and the Writ of Summons.
As to the process, it would be for the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct and the Committee for Privileges and Conduct to recommend the appropriate sanctions, and it would be for the House as a whole to agree them. The two committees consider all cases on an individual basis and are able to take into account the individual circumstances of Peers in recommending proportional sanctions. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise not to criticise in any way the intent behind the proposed new sanctions, but to question a little the scope of the sanction referred to under paragraph 1(b):
“denial of access for a specified period to the facilities in the House”.
Paragraph 2 sets out what might on one footing be examples of the facilities access to which is to be denied and on the other footing might be thought to be intended to be definitive of the facilities that are to be denied. A number of the facilities of the House are not mentioned in paragraph 2—the most obvious of which is use of the lavatories of the House. There are other facilities, such as hanging up one’s hat and coat downstairs and things like that.
If paragraph 2 is intended to be definitive, those facilities would still be available. If all facilities are to be denied, those facilities would not be available. If paragraph 2 is intended to be definitive, what is the scope of the proposal that dining and banqueting facilities be denied? Does dining include luncheon or tea? Does it include any use of the House Dining Room? These may seem nit-picking criticisms, but it is important if new sanctions are to be introduced that their scope should be clear and understood and not capable of ambiguity.
I have to confess to the House that I do not like this proposal. It is basically expulsion, but not named as such. What is the person who is the object of these sanctions supposed to do? It is said that he is entitled to remain a Member of the House and is entitled to come here, but will be denied all the facilities which are deemed necessary in the case of every other Member of the House to do that actual job. If we are going to go down the road of saying that we should expel Members from this House, we should do that openly and not, with respect, by a back-door sidle. We are talking in effect of expelling people from this House but are not prepared to name it as that.
My Lords, paragraph 2 of the report is, in fact, a definitive list. The dining facilities and banqueting facilities are, in effect, all the facilities that are under the control of the Refreshment Committee. It is not a series of examples; it is a definitive list.
It is not expulsion because it is for a defined period of time, a limited period of time, so the Member can resume full activity and have full access to the financial support and facilities of the House. We do not have the power to expel. That would require us to receive it through primary legislation and the advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments is that these sanctions are totally compatible with the Writ of Summons and the Letters Patent.
The Future of the Civil Service
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, this may strike you as a genuinely perverse opening remark, but I truly regret the need for this morning’s debate. Why is this? It is because I wish we lived in a well managed state, praised for the quality and delivery of its public services, admired for its ability to complete grand projects on time and within budget, overseen by a Whitehall where—the odd emotional spasm apart—the crucial relationships between Ministers and officials were always and everywhere in good repair. I fear that these tests are not universally met.
However, there is no need to succumb to excessive pessimism nor to unleash a relentless cataract of anxiety or criticism. There is still a lustrous quality to our great tradition of non-politically partisan public service, transferable from one Government to the next along with its perpetual duty of speaking truth unto power; of telling Ministers what they need to know rather than what they wish to hear. As a country, we also possess a considerable, usable past in the history of our conduct of central government. Public service has always attracted capable and well motivated people and it still does. However, each generation has a duty to revisit the traditional verities afresh; to test old models and established practices against new needs and, quite rightly, ever more stretching delivery requirements, while facing up to examples where performance has not risen to the level of events.
It is a very long time—48 years—since a Government commissioned a wide-lens review of the Civil Service when Harold Wilson and his Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, set up the Fulton inquiry in 1966. The Fulton story is not an entirely happy one but it is not for reprising this morning, save to note a serious flaw in its remit when Mr Wilson steered the committee away from the crucial, central question of relationships between Ministers and civil servants. It is this terrain upon which I would like to descend first in today’s debate.
These relationships, which make up what I would call the governing marriage between temporary Ministers and permanent officials, depend upon confident Secretaries of State and confident civil servants in candid symbiosis, raising the quality of each others’ game. The relationship rests on a three-way deal. The deal is the product of two key enquiries—the Gladstone-commissioned Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 and the Lloyd George-commissioned Haldane report of 1918—plus a good deal of practical, everyday experience of working our constitution by Whitehall generations past. Deal one is non-political civil servants speaking truth unto power in private. Deal two is reciprocal: in return for such candour, Secretaries of State carry the can in public, even if things have gone wrong in places over which Ministers did not have direct control. Deal three is a valuable, high level of continuity within the state thanks to the career Civil Service transferring between Administrations without a clean sweep of top posts, as happens in the United States.
The triple deal has been under stress for a good while now due to a number of largely post-Fulton developments. The first has been the arrival of special advisers in some quantity. Although a valuable and vitalising factor in many ways, this has complicated the old-style governing marriage and, in some unfortunate instances, has injected poison into it. The second is the truly welcome development of departments shadowing House of Commons Select Committees since 1979, which has brought senior civil servants into a public and parliamentary limelight experienced previously only by accounting officers appearing before the Public Accounts Committee. This has altered for ever the old calculus of official accountability to Parliament.
As an outside observer, I am struck by the scratchiness in some, but by no means all, current Whitehall departments between the partners to the governing marriage to the point where there are suggestions that elements of the old deals are but Victorian relics that clutter up the path to more effective and efficient government. It is genuinely ironic that, with the ink scarcely dry on the sections of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 enshrining at last the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan tenets, one should hear whispers in Whitehall that if less dramatic reform measures fail, the 2010 Act should be amended to allow Secretaries of State to have the predominant say in who will be their Permanent Secretaries, a process known in the shorthand as ministerial choice.
Place the question of ministerial choice alongside the new development of extended ministerial offices—EMOs—a fusion of Whitehall private offices with a variant of the French Cabinet system announced last summer in the Cabinet Office document, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, and you have what some would see as a combined move towards a real, if unacknowledged, politicisation of the senior Civil Service. Is this a creeping politicisation that dare not speak its name? Certainly, it is the coming of the EMO plus the question of ministerial choice that has proved to be the weathermaker within the wider debate about the coalition’s Civil Service Reform Plan.
I was fortunate to have an on-the-record interview with the Prime Minister last October about, among other things, the new extended ministerial offices and greater ministerial choice. Mr Cameron sought to reassure on both points. I asked him first if he sensed a whiff of danger of the politicisation of the Civil Service through the extended private office. “I don’t”, he said, continuing:
“I think that one of the things that makes the civil service great and makes civil servants proud to be civil servants is that they are not political … I think one of the most exciting things for a civil servant is the transition from one government to another; it’s a great test of professional people”.
The Prime Minister went on to explain that EMOs would allow Secretaries of State to have more back-up with, and I am quoting his words,
“some experts, a bit of implementation, some special advisers. That’s quite like what the Prime Minister has. It’s quite like what some Ministers have already put in place. I think it’s growing organically. I’m helping giving it a nudge along”—
there is the word “nudge” again. Mr Cameron also sought to reassure on ministerial choice in Permanent Secretary appointments. He believed that the process,
“has been constrained, I think, rather excessively in recent years so that there is one name and the Prime Minister either has to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ … I don’t think we should have ended up in that position. I think it would have been better for one or two people to get over the line, as it were. Then the Prime Minister, in conversation with the Cabinet Secretary and perhaps the Secretary of State, to make the decision. I do not think that that’s politicisation. I think that’s just the ability of a government to make sure it’s got the right people in place to carry out the government’s policy”.
The Cabinet Office Minister with day-to-day responsibility for the Civil Service, Francis Maude, has given me similar reassurances that the coalition’s intention is not to politicise. Yet for all these reassurances, the Civil Service Commission, the instrument Mr Gladstone created to nurture and protect the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, plainly remains concerned. The chairman of the commission, the former Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir David Normington, has been engaged in what one might call a rolling conversation on these matters with Francis Maude.
So, where are we now? Mr Maude paused the question of more ministerial choice last year. The pause is due to end soon. On Monday, the Civil Service Commission launched a public consultation on its recruitment principles. The commission noted that the Government proposed in its 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan that Secretaries of State should be able to choose from a list of appointable candidates as assessed by an independent panel. In last year’s document, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, the Government added a new proposal that it should be the Prime Minister, rather than the individual Secretary of State, who possessed the final choice.
In Monday’s consultation document, the Civil Service Commission declares:
“In our view—and that of our predecessor Commissions—merit is best assessed by a process which has independent oversight, is objective and evidence-based. The risk in the Government’s proposal is that it could lead to a Secretary of State substituting his or her personal view of merit for the outcome of an independent, objective assessment process. We doubt whether that is compatible with the legal requirement and it risks candidates being seen to be appointed on the basis of personal or political patronage”.
Those are strong words from the Civil Service Commission. It is striving to clarify and refine the appointments process while retaining the essential Northcote-Trevelyan principles. To this end, it is consulting on two future possibilities. The first would be to go with the new guidance on recruitment principles that the commission published a year ago in response to the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan. This included, and these are the commission’s words,
“for the first time a provision enabling a panel to seek a Secretary of State’s view on candidates of equal merit after final interviews and before it reached a final decision on the recommended candidate”.
The second possibility canvassed in the commission’s consultative document is, and I am quoting,
“Where a panel assesses two or more candidates to be of equivalent merit … it may put those candidates to the Prime Minister for decision. He should then make the final decision, which must still be made on merit, in consultation with the Secretary of State and Head of the Civil Service”.
I have lingered on this terrain because it spans a first order question. I accept that the Prime Minister and Mr Maude do not intend to turn Whitehall into Washington, but I share the anxieties of the Civil Service Commission. To abandon the Northcote-Trevelyan principles would be a national own goal of considerable proportions.
The real test will come not when the first EMOs are set up this year, nor perhaps even when the next batch of Permanent Secretary appointments are made, though Parliament and its Select Committees will need to keep a careful eye on both. On the creation of EMOs, Civil Service Commission approval will be needed for outside recruits brought in for their specialist knowledge at Whitehall director level or above—a welcome safeguard. The true test will bite when a new Government of a different political colour takes office.
If greater ministerial choice of Permanent Secretaries has happened and several EMOs are in place—especially if they have morphed into central directorates, essentially departments within departments—might not the new Secretaries of State feel that they are inheriting a senior Civil Service that has, to quite a high degree, been politicised? True, these new Ministers will be able to create their own EMOs afresh, but is there not a risk of a future Government saying no doubt, with regret, we must replace the senior career officials too with bespoke civil servants of our own choice? Should that happen, the Northcote-Trevelyan principles would effectively have been abandoned and our Civil Service will have passed through a one-way valve.
It is my belief that our Civil Service does not belong to any single party or any single Government—rather, it is a national asset of central importance to Parliament and all our people. If its essential DNA is to be changed, it must be done so openly and on the basis of as high a level of consensus as possible. To achieve this, much care and forethought is required, which brings me to another question that has exercised Parliament over the past year: the need for a very substantial inquiry into the overall condition of the Civil Service as a central capability for the nation in the 21st century.
When I talk to younger officials, their eyes are not just on Northcote-Trevelyan—though they are—they are acutely sensitive to a whole range of pressing concerns that are already in play or may become so during their career lifetime. Such matters embrace the very configuration of the United Kingdom, with the possibility of independence for Scotland, of a UK intact or not, facing life in a cold economic climate outside the European Union in the 2020s—the size and scope of the state, including levels of public spending, the scale of our welfare state and the continuing affordability of our top flight defence capabilities. In my judgment, these factors powerfully reinforce the case for a broader gauge inquiry into the Civil Service.
Last week, the Government replied to the fine report Truth to Power, produced the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, led by Bernard Jenkin. I should declare that I gave evidence to PASC. To my regret, the coalition said that it does not accept the committee’s assessment that the evidence for a,
“comprehensive strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service is overwhelming”.
In my judgment, this reply is as misguided as it is disappointing. Last November, no fewer than 17 other Select Committee chairs, with no recorded dissenters, backed PASC’s call for a joint parliamentary commission on the Civil Service in the Liaison Committee’s report entitled Civil Service: Lacking Capacity. In our interview last October, the Prime Minister did not, however, close his mind to such a possibility when I raised it with him. He said:
“There’s nothing … to stop Parliament, if it wanted to, to set up its own Commission on Civil Service Reform, and it has now, it’s got a committee”—
he is referring to PASC—
“they’ve had an inquiry. They can go on having inquiries if they want. He”—
I think he means Bernard Jenkin—
“was asking me do I want to set up a Royal Commission. No I don’t at the moment. Maybe it would be a good idea in the future”.
I profoundly hope that the Prime Minister will reconsider. David Cameron has a shining opportunity to stimulate a modern Northcote-Trevelyan/Haldane equivalent, and something a bit more, either by encouraging a parliamentary commission or creating an inquiry on which non-parliamentarians could sit. It need not stymie, as some in the Cabinet argue, the Civil Service reforms that are under way—far from it. The Civil Service does not, and I am sure would not, sag back with relief if such an inquiry was established.
I am not a “golden ager” or a seeker after what the much missed Lord Dahrendorf once called “a better yesterday”—I think he was rather unkindly referring to the SDP. Can we see in the hand that history has dealt us—that extraordinary mixture of people and processes and that jumble of departments overseen by a centre which some say is too powerful and some say too weak—the ingredients of a highly functional, self-regenerating, top-flight system of government? We need the inquiry and we need it soon. David Cameron has the chance to do a Gladstone and a Lloyd George for the 21st century. I hope he seizes it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on bringing this important debate to the House. It seems these days in this place, that the more important the subject—whether it is the balkanisation of Britain, our membership of the European Union or the future of the Civil Service—the shorter the time that we are allowed to make speeches. I have only three minutes so I will content myself with saying that I agree with everything that the noble Lord said.
However, I would add one bit of emphasis, which is that I think that the mischief is not so much ministerial choice but having candidates who have come from outwith the Civil Service system. The key point here is that we must maintain not just the non-political nature of the Civil Service but its independence. It is that that I want to talk about in the context of the Civil Service Code.
I received a Written Answer this week from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. In my Question, I asked whether the Government,
“intend to ask the head of the Civil Service to report on whether the preparation and publication of Scotland’s Future by Scottish civil servants complied with the Civil Service Code of Conduct”.
The Answer which I received from my noble friend was:
“Questions relating to compliance with the Code of Conduct of the Civil Service in Scotland are dealt with by the Scottish Government in the first instance”.—[Official Report, 13/1/14; col. WA 1.]
However, my complaint was about the Scottish Government. It was raised in debate, and the Minister said it was not a matter for him.
The document I referred to, Scotland’s Future, contains within it one page headed, “Gains from independence—whichever party is elected”, and another headed “Gains from independence—if we are the first government of an independent Scotland”. Included in those “gains” are: the renationalisation of the Royal Mail; the abolition of the bedroom tax; and a reduction in corporation tax. None of those things is within the responsibility of the Scottish Government. This is a manifesto in a document paid for by the taxpayer, written by civil servants and costing £800,000. In common with everybody else in Scotland, I got a leaflet through my letterbox, paid for by the taxpayer, urging me to read the document. There are billboards and advertising hoardings.
We used to have a Civil Service code of conduct which was enforced; it is not being enforced, and it is an absolute dereliction of duty on the part of the head of the Civil Service not to bring this nonsense to an end. It creates a precedent, and the Civil Service operates on precedent. I believe that upholding the Civil Service’s code of conduct is a priority if we are to maintain the integrity of our systems of government. I think that it was a great mistake to separate the roles of head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary and to diminish both offices in the process. This goes to the heart of what is going on.
When people say that those of us who are concerned about the issues that the noble Lord has raised are out of date and do not really understand how things have changed from Victorian times, Ministers should remember that the monarch acts on their advice and Ministers are advised by civil servants. If we break that link, we will have lost our way and we will slide into chaos and further reinforce the contempt and dismay that we see among the electorate in our country.
My Lords, I echo the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy.
In 2010 I returned to Whitehall as the Minister of State for Justice after a gap of some 31 years, having served as a special adviser to the late Lord Callaghan in the Foreign Office and Number 10 from 1974 to 1979. I am often asked what my impressions were of working again with our Civil Service after that 30-year-plus gap.
I was impressed by the high quality of bright young people who still join our Civil Service motivated by a desire to serve the public good. What is more, in the intervening 30 years, our Civil Service has achieved a diversity in race, gender and social background that, although still a work in progress, outstrips anything seen in the upper reaches of the judiciary, for example. I found a service that, far from being resistant to change, was eager to embrace new methods of working and new technologies.
However, we are moving to a relationship where the public sector acts more and more as a commissioner of services, with the private sector as a supplier. To make that work, we need to equip our Civil Service with the skills for that task. That will mean the Civil Service embracing greater transparency, underpinned by freedom of information. It is increasingly going to need the skill sets to manage contracts with the private sector in a way that gives the taxpayer high performance and value for money. It will need a capacity to procure and manage highly complex information-technology programmes.
We will recruit and retain the civil servants for those tasks only if Ministers are willing to defend public servants from the mythologies, prejudices and dogmas of left and right. One of the great reforms of 19th-century liberalism, as was referred to, was the implementing of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms that cemented into our governance the concept of a Civil Service that is politically neutral and selected on merit. In the search for efficiency and technical competence, we must not lose either the ethos of public service or the political neutrality and selection on merit that have served us so well in the past and are still qualities to be valued in a Civil Service for the 21st century.
My Lords, this is a timely debate and I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. I agree with every word that he said and with every word that the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord McNally, said, except for one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I do not believe that selection on merit should be entirely confined to those already within the Civil Service. We need a more open choice than that and this has been done in the past 20 years.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, and the other speakers that something is wrong in the current working of our government, and in particular in the relationship between civil servants and politicians. A symptom of that, in my experience, is an unprecedented spate of recrimination against named civil servants, made worse by the fact that much of it has been through unattributable, backstairs briefings.
Another factor, not referred to by previous speakers, is the alarming turnover in the senior ranks of the Civil Service. Every department but one has had a change of Permanent Secretary since 2010: five have had three Permanent Secretaries in that time; and the Department for Transport had no fewer than four Permanent Secretaries between May 2010 and July 2012, which was when the debacle over the west coast main line took place. Paradoxically, the Government’s proposal for five-year fixed-term contracts for Permanent Secretaries would lengthen their tenure, not shorten it.
I support much of the Government’s programme for reform of the Civil Service. The service needs continually to be trained in the skills that today’s complex world requires, and where such skills are deficient they should be brought in from outside, although experience shows that that is both expensive and not always successful. As the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in another place has said,
“we have to ensure that people with the right skills are trained up within the Civil Service”.
However, like the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, that is not at the heart of my concern. What worries me is that the “us and them” attitude of some Ministers endangers the relationship of mutual respect and loyalty between politicians and civil servants that has served the country well for 100 years. Before we let that relationship go, we should think very hard about whether there is a better alternative. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, that that is not a matter for just one party or one Government.
I have come to support the recommendation of the Liaison Committee and the Public Administration Select Committee in another place for a parliamentary commission on the Civil Service. It seems extraordinary that the Government should brush aside a recommendation made unanimously by the very senior chairs of all the Select Committees that scrutinise departments.
I am sorry to suggest that the Prime Minister is ignorant of the Standing Orders of Parliament, but the fact is that we would expect a sovereign Parliament to be able to set up such a commission if it wanted to. That, I am advised, is not the case. It cannot do it without the consent of the Government. That may not be right, but it is the present situation and I hope that the Government will think again.
My Lords, I declare one relevant interest: my position as the Government’s lead independent non-executive board member, a role that provides the context for my brief remarks today.
When the Prime Minister appointed me and 60 other independent non-executive directors, he asked us to make the Government more businesslike and to help equip them with the skills needed to deliver government policy. We have made some progress. The non-executives are providing valuable independent advice and scrutiny and have helped set up the Major Projects Leadership Academy to address one of the critical weaknesses in government. With the support and input of other non-executives, the Government are taking steps to strengthen the functional leadership in the Civil Service, including the appointment of a government head of finance with the equivalent experience of a FTSE-50 finance director.
The institutional and cultural changes driven by non-executives show the great potential for productive co-operation between the public and private sectors, and have played a critical role in equipping the Civil Service for some of the challenges of the 21st century. But there is only so much that independent directors and a reform plan can do: they can make valuable and long-lasting changes within existing structures.
The Civil Service now faces a fundamentally different environment and set of challenges from those for which it perhaps was designed. At some point, incremental reform will no longer be enough. We need to look more fundamentally at how we expect the Civil Service to behave and perform in the 21st century. A comprehensive and independent review of the Civil Service’s structures, processes and lines of accountability is long overdue. So, too, is a thorough review of the roles and responsibilities of Ministers in Parliament when it comes to their relationship with the Civil Service. That review must not distract from the current reform plan. Indeed, it does not need to; it can be part of the plan. It will ensure that we do not to have to do this debate again under the next Administration.
If a review leads to a more flexible, effective and sustainable Civil Service, fit for the modern world, then it would be time well spent. I am sure that noble Lords would agree, though, that if it were just a report for the archive, it would be incredibly damaging.
My Lords, I join those who warmly congratulate the noble Lord on initiating this debate. I am not one who believes in a major commission, except in so far as it would give the noble Lord many opportunities to present evidence which we would all greatly enjoy.
At a time of coalition Government, I do not think that uncharted territory is the time for a fundamental reform. Many of the comments around whether the central role of the Cabinet Secretary as the head of the Civil Service should be split have a lot to do with coalition Government and the fact that we live under severe financial constraint.
I declare my interests as set out in the register, but suffice it to say that, from the experience of running the health service, where we brought in commercial people to help lend their skills to what we were trying to achieve, I have become a very strong believer that there are talented people in the commercial world who have a huge amount to offer government. It is possible to find people who will undertake the work on much reduced income and be committed and add great value to what we are trying to achieve.
My concern is that, even now, the only Permanent Secretary we have who comes from an outside environment is Stephen Lovegrove at DECC, who came from Deutsche Bank to the Shareholder Executive and is now a Permanent Secretary. I do not think that this makes sense. The work that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has been doing with non-executive advisers on departments—I refuse to call them “directors” because they are not—has shown the calibre of people who are prepared to come to assist in government. I see the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, who I remember said, “We want a permanent Civil Service; we do not want permanent civil servants”. We should question more closely whether there is a resistance in the Civil Service Commission to giving ultimate leadership appointments to individuals who have spent a lot of their life in a different field.
Only today I have published a paper about the leadership of universities. We have Bill Rammell, a former Minister; Martin Bean from Microsoft; Sir David Bell, a former Permanent Secretary; Debbie Swallow from the V&A—they are all now vice-chancellors. It is not that they should necessarily come straight into the top job. When commercial people come in, of course they need to learn and understand the subtlety and values of the Civil Service. It is my sense, however, that we should look carefully at what the resistances are.
The Civil Service was commended by my noble friend Lord McNally for diversity—maybe of gender, orientation, race and ethnicity, but not of occupational background. Every other field of endeavour in this modern, fast-changing world needs different skills, which do not necessarily grow themselves.
There are of course great differences—although I understand the ministerial frustration—but, increasingly, politicians have very little business background. They know about press notices; they do not know about delivery of projects. The implementation of anything means you have to go through winter and spring before you get to the summer of delivery. There are key fundamental principles, and my sense is that both Ministers and civil servants need to look again at this.
Finally, have we looked closely enough at the model of the Greater London Authority and some of the local government models, where service delivery and policy formation is much more closely integrated? Certainly, the much underexamined GLA has in many ways a more interesting balance of people coming through into the executive.
My Lords, I add my voice to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on securing this important debate.
In 2005, I was asked to help close down a foundation and ensure that its final sums were spent properly. In agreement with all the trustees, one of the final projects we sponsored was to look at the reform of the Civil Service. We secured the work of the IPPR, and it led to the publication of Whitehall’s Black Box: Accountability and Performance in the Civil Service. During the course of this project, perhaps one of the most disappointing moments was when, during a seminar chaired excellently by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, there was a strong consensus that progress would not be made because reform lacked political salience, attention and will.
I think there is a great deal of political will and a lot of good ideas. I was encouraged by the commitment made by Francis Maude towards reform, by Sir Bob Kerslake’s work and by the involvement of some excellent private sector leaders, such as Martin Read on IT procurement, but I add my voice to those who say that we should be accelerating the size, scope and pace of change—the excellent work of the noble Lord, Lord Browne—and I strongly support the idea of a commission that has come from the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place.
We have a very talented and able Civil Service, founded on sound principles and ethics. I have always believed that probably the worst sin of the Civil Service has been its recognition of its own quality, making it resistant to change rather than making it the pioneer of adaptability, reform and innovation. That is not to say that it has not done much that is impressive—it is, of course, always exposed to one-way criticism—but we should be willing to support and champion our Civil Service and civil servants to reorganise, change, experiment and, on occasion, fail and be open to learning the lessons of it. In looking at reform, we should be live to the balance between policy and delivery, and perhaps it is not yet in the right place. In the private sector, the focus is clearly on the latter. It does not have to be the best plan, but to succeed it has to be executed well.
The cross-fertilisation of personnel between the private and public sectors should be advanced, and this should include local authorities. One has only to look at the impressive growth and development of Manchester to see what an effective public administration can achieve. Sometimes it is about not the skills you bring in but the structures you bring them into. In this, we have accelerated some of the other changes. Management information is a very important aspect of leadership, and I will be very interested in what the Minister has to say on progress on management information and on whether there are any plans to publish any of that material.
I do not think any institution, like any company, can ever think that there is a time to stop changing or reorganising. I urge the Civil Service to use its undoubted skills and the Government to be much more open to allowing people to debate these issues, and to encourage innovation and change and ensure that effective public policy outcomes with efficiency and cost savings can be achieved. It is time we gave greater scope for everyone to achieve that to unlock the huge potential we have.
My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who will be sitting submerged in praise by the end of this debate. I agree with what he said and with a lot of the points that have been made by later speakers.
If there is one thing that is certain about the future of the Civil Service, it is that it will always be needed but that different Governments will want different things from it from their predecessors. The Thatcher and Major Governments wanted different things from the Civil Service from the Wilson and Callaghan Governments. When Mr Blair came to power, he inherited a Civil Service that lacked the skills and people that it needed to tackle the large increase in public spending and the issue of delivery. The Civil Service must always retain the capacity to change—to adapt to the needs of the times—while remaining true to itself. To do that, it needs to operate within a sophisticated, complex political deal which everyone subscribes to and understands. It is no secret, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, rightly outlined, that there are problems with that deal now. I regret very much to have to say it. It is partly to do with problems of capability—the management of large projects, as the PAC has very roundly illustrated—but also problems with the constitutional framework, the role of Ministers in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries, the large ministerial offices, and the accountability of civil servants and Ministers to Parliament, and the problem of the large number of Permanent Secretaries leaving over the past few years fills me with considerable dismay. It is crucial for the Civil Service, for us, for Parliament and for the public that the service should go on attracting the best people.
I am convinced that the Public Administration Select Committee’s report, which is a devastating critique, is the right way to go: we need a parliamentary commission. I congratulate the committee on what it has produced. I think it will become a classic of its kind. However, it needs to be agreed between the parties. It cannot be done by the Government of the day. The Civil Service is not a subject for unilateral experiment by people in power. It has to be done with cross-party support and analysis, and it needs to be a truthful analysis—good management and good politics do not always coincide. The framework within which the service operates and the standards by which it is judged must take that into account. It needs good Ministers as well as good civil servants. All these things need to be taken together and a current Government, whatever Government, are not in a position to reach those judgments. I support the need for a parliamentary commission but it must respect what is bedrock: the non-political nature of the service and selection on merit. Provided they are secured, there is a great deal of room for original thought. It needs to be done now and the Government are missing a real opportunity if they fail to grasp that, as they seem to do.
My Lords, I have spent much of my working life in either the Home Civil Service or the Diplomatic Service, working both in London and abroad. The first, important thing I want to say is that the vast majority of people with whom I have worked over the past 30 or 40 years have been committed, determined, able, politically neutral and very often courageous in ways by which, when I started, I was rather surprised. I shall not forget visiting Baghdad and seeing a dozen government department representatives living and working in a container in an underground car park, being shelled by mortars. That was serving your country at its best and is something we need to recognise more often.
I mention it because, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has said, there is a tendency now to attack, blame and denigrate the Civil Service. That is a mistake. One of the things I have learnt in the time I have spent in the private sector since leaving the Civil Service is that if you want to change an organisation, you need the support of those you are trying to change. That needs to be recognised, perhaps more among some Ministers than is now the case.
Of course, the Civil Service needs to change and adapt to ever-demanding tasks. Many of the reforms now under way are necessary, indeed essential—procurement, delivery and focusing on the skills needed for the 21st century, which must include language skills if we are to pay our way in the world. My noble friend Lord Wilson says, “English”, as well and I agree with that, too. The counterpart of this is the need to be able to move on people who are not able, for whatever reason, to deliver what is needed.
There are some reforms now proposed with which I really have difficulty. They have been mentioned by some noble Lords already. I have serious reservations about a substantial increase in the number of special advisers, creating a sort of cabinet for each Minister. When I mentioned to a senior and highly respected French civil servant recently that the Government were thinking of going down that road, he blanched, looked horrified and said, “Do not put a layer of 25 year-old political appointees in between the professional expertise of the Civil Service and its Ministers”. Perhaps that is not what is intended and I hope that, in replying to this debate, the Minister will be able to clarify that point.
I also, like others, worry about the move towards a more political say in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries. If a Permanent Secretary is regarded as the choice of one Government or Minister, he or she will inevitably be regarded with suspicion by the next Minister or Government. The combination of a more politicised group of Permanent Secretaries with larger numbers of political advisers will inevitably erode the principle of neutrality of the Civil Service, which remains an essential and widely respected pillar of our democratic system.
These are extremely important, indeed fundamental, issues for our system of government. For that reason, like others, I very much agree with the case for a parliamentary commission which can look at the role and functions of the Civil Service in the years ahead.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on his splendid speech, with every word of which I agreed. I also thank my right honourable friend Francis Maude for a useful exchange of views which he had with some of us last Monday. I was glad when he told us that he had not ruled out a commission; the idea has had huge support in the House today.
Before coming to my main argument, I will make two points. First, over the Christmas Recess, I read The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. The blunders are to be laid almost wholly at the door of Ministers and not civil servants. That should be said, and it is made clear in the book. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, referred to the courageous attitude of many civil servants, and I am sure that he is right. However, today, a lot of senior civil servants seem a great deal more reluctant to speak truth unto power, in the sense of warning Ministers frankly that their proposals will not only fail to achieve their objectives but may well prove harmful. I believe that that is a major duty of civil servants and they should not hesitate to exercise it for fear of the impact on their careers. That has been a fear in recent years. Unchallenged “group think” can lead to serious risk of failure.
Finally I come to my main argument, following the points of others about the appointment of Permanent Secretaries. A year ago, I described in the Times how, in 1983, I urged the Cabinet Office to appoint a successor from a different department to follow the retirement of Sir Peter Carey from the Department of Industry. Sir Brian Hayes proved a great success. I did not appoint; I merely urged the Cabinet Office. However, Sir David Normington took issue with me and wrote in the Times the following day:
“The Commission believes that the best way to recruit permanent secretaries continues to be on merit with the final decision taken by an expert panel rather than a single individual”.
Last Monday, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, reminded us, the commission published a fresh consultation paper on recruitment principles. I thought from the press reports that it had moved in my direction—but no. While accepting the Government’s proposal that the Prime Minister should make the final choice, the commission is insisting that this should apply only,
“where there were two candidates of equivalent merit”.
I find this a very difficult concept. Yes, the relevant Secretary of State should be consulted, but I do not think that the restriction of the “equal merit” point is acceptable, and I hope that the Government will reject it.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Hennessy, not just for our having this debate but for the masterly way in which he introduced it. I admit that I am slightly fuelled by nostalgia in contributing because I had the great fortune to first serve in Whitehall in the 1970s, when the Ministry of Defence was fortunate in having some real giants of the Civil Service in its midst. I learnt very quickly the absolutely priceless value of having an independent, honest, impartial, objective civil servant. The integrity of those people was absolutely incredible.
It struck me then that of course you cannot conduct government, and you certainly cannot have continuity, consistency and stability, without that sort of bedrock. One thing was clear: there was locked up among them an institutional memory which meant that, when issues were raised, they could say not just, “It won’t work”, but, “The last time, or on previous occasions, this and that didn’t happen”. When I look around, I have to admit that, although I fully acknowledge the calibre and quality of those in the Civil Service, I regret that some of that institutional memory is being dissipated by the way in which people are being moved around.
All my foxes having been shot—I am not surprised by this—I absolutely agree with a commission; but I would like to focus on what my noble friend Lord Butler said about the importance of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants. It seems to me that there are two crucial words that are slightly old-fashioned and in danger of being lost in that relationship. One is “leadership”, and we should remember that leadership has to be given both to them and by them—by Ministers and by the Permanent Secretary. The other is “loyalty”. Loyalty is absolutely crucial, and loyalty in the Civil Service will not follow unless civil servants feel that Ministers are being loyal to them. That is hugely important.
If I have one final, lingering regret, it is that the wonderful series on television that we all enjoyed, “Yes Minister”, was not called “No Minister”; because I suspect that if more civil servants had said no to their Ministers, we would not have been plagued by some of the legislation with which we have been swamped in recent days.
My Lords, I worked intensively with the Civil Service for six years when I was in government, and with officials at all levels, generally on major, long-running projects. It was for me a most happy experience. These were people of exceptional talent, of real commitment, and of absolute integrity.
In the higher reaches of the Civil Service, well-represented here today, the sense of wisdom, experience and steeliness is tangible. They and their ancestors have been to war, literally and metaphorically, and it shows. But with the scope and extent of the modern state, the Civil Service today faces challenges of unprecedented scale and complexity; and though it has adapted, I do not think it has yet fully adapted to meet those modern challenges.
The skills found in the best-run private sector corporations are insufficiently developed still in Whitehall: for example, a forensic understanding of the total environment in which public institutions are operating; or the ability to analyse closely where in a system economic value is being created or destroyed; or the capacity to deliver, as many have mentioned, large-scale projects with multiple partners. There is a lack of clarity about governance and accountability. Where does the buck stop on long-term projects which may span the terms of office of many Ministers and officials? How can Ministers deal with under-performing or insufficiently skilled officials? How can officials be protected from inexperienced Ministers who make unmeetable demands, which they do in all Governments?
I do think it is an appropriate time to review how we can build a Civil Service fit for modern times; how we can radically improve accountability and responsibility for delivery; how we can create mechanisms which protect the impartiality, the independence and the long-term stewardship of the Civil Service, yet give Ministers the confidence that they have the tools to do their jobs. I do not doubt that we have the best Civil Service in the world. Let us make it better still.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for introducing the debate, I agree with him that we have to go back to the Fulton report, to which I submitted evidence all those years ago. However, the problem with that report was that it unleashed an often mindless pursuit of managerialism into government. The pursuit of this doctrine led to wholesale privatisation, hollowing out of Whitehall, outsourcing of a multitude of government functions, excessive reliance on management consultants, an army of regulators and the introduction of GOATs into this House, all in the belief that private sector practices were always good and public sector practices invariably bad. The axiom has been the unchallenged operating principle in the conduct of government for more than the near half century since the Fulton report, and has been fully articulated here today. It has created institutional anarchy and shown no regard whatever for constitutionalism, which is the bedrock of democracy.
Somehow this anarchic system has had to be serviced. This has been done by a burgeoning “nomenklatura”. Distinctions are now so blurred that it is not easy to tell if its members come from pressure groups, spads, management consultants, regulators, quangos, the residual Civil Service or elsewhere. They constitute a new breed of “fixer” and are a far cry from that earlier generation which spawned Oliver Franks, Arnold Goodman and their like. The new breed does not know very much about anything but it knows its way around and that, apparently, is enough.
Ministers seem to have a flickering of the problem when they call for joined-up government. However, this will remain a chimera unless the necessary prerequisite is fulfilled—that is, joined-up thinking—and there is no sign of that. Writing a definitive textbook on modern British government is a near impossibility these days that would severely tax the powers of the noble Lords, Lords Hennessy and Lord Norton. As Bernard Jenkin from PASC and the FDA have recommended, and as many noble Lords have endorsed today, there is now an urgent need for a comprehensive strategic review of the role and functioning of the non-elected part of our Executive. We need to redefine the constitution and not live with the present fudge if the increasing encroachments of corporate power in dictating the public agenda are to be resisted. Along with others, I ask the Minister in winding to say why Her Majesty’s Government have rejected the PASC’s recommendation for a review.
My Lords, is the criticism of the Civil Service coming from Ministers, Parliament and think tanks justified? Of course, the Civil Service can, and should, raise its performance, but the big picture is that since 1997 it has contracted by 13% and expects to be 20% smaller by 2015. It is handling a rising caseload with less money so its productivity has been significantly increased and many services have been improved by digital delivery. Other countries see the UK as a source of good practice.
Contrast that with the incontinence of the political payroll, with Ministers up by 8% since 1997, despite the savings which devolution should have produced. Spad numbers are up from 38 in 1997 to 98 now, most of whom are political interns and not deep experts. Unlike politicians whose reputation has been damaged by expenses fiddling and influence peddling, the Civil Service has maintained its reputation for integrity, according to the annual MORI survey on trust.
Do civil servants obstruct Ministers, as some have claimed? That is the cry-baby response of the weak Minister. Strong Ministers get what they want. As others have pointed out, the Civil Service has failed more often in the opposite direction—that is, in agreeing with Ministers’ proposals when it should have questioned them: for example, on the poll tax, the new style rail franchises and the overambitious timetable for universal credit.
On accountability, the Institute for Government got it right when it said that,
“secretaries of state and permanent secretaries have shared accountabilities and responsibilities … Trying to separate them is an illusion”.
It also said that the relationship is,
“impossible to express in contractual terms”.
As Tam Dalyell said of the West Lothian question, the only answer is not to ask it. The argument on accountability is more with Parliament, which wants greater scope to criticise individual officials without giving them any greater right of reply. We should concentrate on those things that bring Ministers and officials closer together and not on things like contracts, extended ministerial offices or more ministerial appointments which drive them apart.
Should Ministers choose their Permanent Secretaries? The answer is definitely not. That should be exclusively for the Prime Minister, who, after consulting the Minister, appoints someone from a list of those deemed genuinely appointable. Is a parliamentary commission likely to help? Despite being a member of a successful commission on banking, I am probably in a minority in being rather doubtful about whether that would add much to performance. More importantly, should a review be carried out by Parliament? In my view, the answer is no, as Parliament is an insider in this argument with a vested interest. A review should be independent.
What are the real priorities for improvement? My answer is professional skills throughout the service, not just for those who work closely with Ministers, in four areas: project management; contract management so that the Government are not fleeced by contractors; digital delivery; and financial management. All four areas have been identified and are being addressed.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield has been taking a keen interest in the Civil Service, its activities and personnel, for nearly 50 years. That interest has become steadily more benign and supportive over the years. We all mellow with age. At least we can be grateful to him for raising the subject and giving us an opportunity to debate it. With time being very short, I shall confine myself to the main point that I wish to make, although I would have liked to comment on many other matters.
Clearly, the Civil Service has to be nimble and versatile enough to keep pace with the implications of the social and technological changes and challenges that occur and will continue to occur. Its role has always been, and will continue to be, not so much to advise about what policies should be pursued—that is a matter for political and ministerial judgment and decision—as to advise on how the policies chosen by Ministers can be put optimally into effect, and then to put them into effect.
Civil servants are expected to discharge their duties with honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity. These have been the guiding values of the Civil Service, as my noble friend Lord Hennessy reminded us, for a century and a half. In 2010, they were given statutory expression and force. Like motherhood and apple pie, no one seriously contests them. However, we seem to feel a need constantly to parade and reassert them, and to write statutes, codes and regulations to try to ensure that they continue to be applied in every aspect of management. That seems to reflect a lack of confidence in their being properly observed.
The development of elaborate statements of principle, codes and regulations makes me uneasy. There have to be arrangements for disciplining those who transgress, but I should prefer a world in which, as a general rule, the civil servant is the guardian of his own integrity and relies on his own professional conscience and sense of values. It is better that a civil servant should say to himself, “Ought I to be doing this?”, or, “Ought I to be doing this in this way?”, than that he should say to himself, “Can I fit this within the rules and regulations”—or, worse still, “Can I stretch the rules and regulations to cover what I propose to do?”. He really should be thinking about the issues for himself.
In the end, this is a matter, as noble Lords have already said, of mutual respect and trust between Ministers and civil servants. I have had the privilege of knowing from experience that that relationship can be established and that, given goodwill on both sides, there can be a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities, and a recognition that they are there to work together in the public interest and not against each other.
The Civil Service needs to be able constantly to adapt to the challenges of changing economic, social and technological conditions. However, the future of the Civil Service would not be best served by a further proliferation of orders and regulations, or a proliferation of expert advisers in extended ministerial offices—which, I fear, would become a device to enable Ministers who are politically unsure of themselves to surround themselves with politically congenial cronies, paid for by the taxpayer, and distance themselves from departmental realities and their departmental advisers.
The prime requirement for a good future for the Civil Service and, indeed, for the good governance of this country is the maintenance of its traditional values in deed as well as in word, and the establishment of mutual respect and trust, based on good will and a clear understanding and acceptance on the part of both Ministers and civil servants of their respective roles and responsibilities.
My Lords, it seems to me that there are two separate issues here. First, there is the constant process of change and modernisation that the Civil Service, like any other organisation, needs. Some of the things that the Government are proposing seem to be sensible—on project management and IT, for example. They get some of them wrong: it was a grave mistake to separate the Cabinet Secretary from the Head of the Civil Service. I know that in the past there were different ways of doing this, but by far the best is if the most powerful adviser to the Prime Minister is also the man who understands appointments and promotions within the service. The abolition of the Sunningdale college, without its replacement, yet, by anything adequate, is also a mistake.
However, these are ordinary things that go on. Government Ministers and heads of the Civil Service get some of them right and some of them wrong. I am nervous of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for a second Fulton report for the following reason. The noble Lord listed a tremendous number of things that such a commission should look at, taking account of everything, including the defence posture of the country for the next 20 years. I speak with a little nervousness in the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, but that report would perhaps take a great deal of time, whoever chaired the inquiry. During that time, it might realistically put a damper on the necessary process of modernisation that goes on all the time.
I put it to the noble Lord that something more urgent needs to be done. Are things being done and thought about that run into our fundamental, unwritten constitutional principles, which we are calling today, in shorthand form, Northcote-Trevelyan and Haldane? It is good shorthand and represents promotion by merit, independence from political influence, and the accountability of departments resting with Ministers. I am anxious that things are being proposed that threaten those fundamental principles.
I have a grave doubt about the EMOs—not so much about the way in which the conflict between Normington, the Civil Service Commission and the Government is going, although the commission has got itself into an odd position there, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, said. Sir Peter Kemp went to his grave saying that I had sacked him. I had not sacked him, but I had a consultation with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and we agreed that Sir Peter was not the man to be in charge of that particular department at that particular time. It is possible for these things to be done properly if you have the right structures. However, if we get into a situation in which there is a conflict between a commission that is becoming rule-bound and Ministers who—particularly if the commission is headed by distinguished former civil servants—see it as something of an insiders’ club, we are in difficulty.
We therefore need to look quickly, not at a parliamentary commission—here, I am with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull—but at an independent commission in which there might be distinguished lawyers, and others, to look at whether our defences against the attacks on the two fundamental principles are real. We are running into danger, and I want a quick six-month or year-long inquiry into whether in the modern world we have enough defences for those fundamental pillars—after all, the Civil Service Commission is charged with looking not at Haldane but only at Northcote-Trevelyan. That inquiry might lead to recommendations for a new kind of Civil Service commission, which may well be necessary. We need to move more quickly; the situation is more urgent than the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, argued—mellowed though he is.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has instigated this debate, not least because it gives me an opportunity to discharge a duty that has been long outstanding. That duty is to express my gratitude and admiration for the quantity and quality of advice and help given to me and the institution for which I worked for 22 years. I was lucky enough to have a job that required daily communication with the Civil Service and also, of course, with the Diplomatic Service at various levels. I was then, and remain, a staunch admirer of these public servants, from the mandarins at the top—by whom I am surrounded today—right through the ranks. The patience and friendliness with which advice and help were always given were matched only by its quality. To put it bluntly, I could not have done my job without it. I soon realised that the caricature of the civil servant—portrayed sometimes benevolently and at other times more harshly—was hideously inaccurate, and that I was lucky indeed to have been able to draw on such an extraordinary resource.
This debate, however, is about the future of the Civil Service, not its past—and still less about my past. Most Governments seem to arrive in office with the avowed intent of not being “in thrall to their civil servants”. After an initial stand-off, they usually work their way through this phase and arrive at a satisfactory relationship, making the most—rather than the least—of those whose job it is to help them. Just now, however, it seems that this relationship is about to undergo a period of fierce pressure, with an onrushing tide of reforms and an increasing prevalence of special advisers separately and together challenging the traditional role of the Civil Service. To my mind, it is undesirable for the engineers of change or their special advisers to become the creators of policy rather than the sources of specialist advice—the role for which their jobs were created.
My devout hope for the future of the Civil Service is that it retains its position as the hub around which the wheel of government turns, and not just an adjunct to be used or blamed at the last resort. I know it has not quite come to that yet, but I believe we should guard very carefully against it. A review along the lines outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, or a parliamentary commission, would be good ways of mounting this guard.
My Lords, unlike my colleagues, I am wedged here between distinguished civil servants, but I speak as a former Minister of State for the Civil Service. I strongly support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has said. The difference between now and the 1980s, of course, is that there is a breakdown in trust between Ministers and the Civil Service, which is at a serious level. However, we ought to acknowledge at the same time that there has been a considerable change in circumstances facing Governments of the day. The circumstances are more complex: we have a coalition Government; the technology has transformed the scene; and the media demand a 24-hour service.
To my mind, there are two key points. It is essential to preserve, on the one hand, the ethos and the values of the Civil Service, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. Secondly, it is important always to ensure that there is ongoing, incremental improvement in the effectiveness of the Civil Service. That is what the Government are now effectively trying to do in things such as delivery and improving the skills and the quality of advice that the service gives. At the end of the day, we must do nothing to undermine the values of the service.
Then there is the question of accountability. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the Minister, who is accountable to Parliament. It is perfectly sane and sensible in today’s rather complex age of government to expect that the roles of civil servants should be clarified and that systems of accountability should be there. At the end of the day, however, it is Ministers who carry the can: I say with some feeling that there are times when they even have to resign.
Secondly, we should not politicise or personalise the appointments of Permanent Secretaries. The job of the civil servant is to give fearless, objective advice to Ministers. They must have no fear of losing their job because they are doing their job properly. A good Minister will want to hear all the arguments before taking a decision; otherwise the Minister is in danger of taking the wrong decision. Therefore, I am totally opposed to any weakening of the present position where the Secretary of State cannot appoint the Permanent Secretary.
Lastly, I am extremely suspicious about the extended ministerial office. There must be no conflict of loyalties. There must be no cocooning of a Minister within his little bureaucracy. There must be no proliferation of political advisers. There are plenty of junior Ministers in this present Government to give political advice.
I support my colleagues who believe that there ought to be an all-party-supported independent or parliamentary inquiry that reaches its conclusions before the next general election. The country needs a strong and stable Civil Service.
My Lords, I, too, am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has secured this important and timely debate. In the time available, I want to make two points. First, I very much endorse the recommendation of the Public Administration Select Committee for a commission on the Civil Service. That case is well made in its report. The Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan focuses on making the Civil Service more effective both in service delivery and in offering policy advice. As I said in evidence to the Public Administration Committee, it takes a narrow and one-dimensional view of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants.
Ministers depend on good civil servants. Conversely, civil servants rely on good Ministers, and Parliament relies on Ministers and officials who understand their responsibilities to Parliament. The system relies on an understanding of these relationships, but the basis on which this rests is being eroded. It is being eroded as a consequence of the turnover in senior civil servants and the lack of turnover in the party in government. Some politicians have become senior Ministers with no prior experience of government. Turnover in the senior Civil Service takes out the administrative experience and specialisation that offsets the fact that both civil servants and Ministers are generalists.
This makes the case for a major review and one that puts the Civil Service within the context of our system of government and not simply as some discrete managerial entity. Ministers see civil servants as part of the problem without acknowledging that they too are part of the problem. For that reason, the decision on how to address the problem should not be left to government.
That brings me to my second point. The Government have rejected the proposal for a commission. That, combined with my preceding point, means that it is up to Parliament to take ownership of the process. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, and my noble friend Lord Waldegrave: on practical grounds we will not get an independent commission. If the Government decline to support a Joint Committee, it is up to this House to establish an ad hoc committee on the Civil Service. In response to my noble friend Lord Waldegrave, that would time limit the actual inquiry.
We are not short of expertise, as is so clearly demonstrated by this debate. My comments today are thus not addressed to the Minister but to the House. In my view, we should grasp the opportunity.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for introducing this debate and echo the concerns of others that the ingredients for improving efficiency and effectiveness in the Civil Service are not even provided at present. I was a member and former acting chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We did a considerable amount of work on the role of the Civil Service and the importance of its independence. I wish that I had more time to say more about that.
Secondly, as chair of ACAS, I was responsible for promoting good employment relations. Had I been approached about whether a 30% reduction in the number of senior civil servants would improve employment relations and increase effectiveness, I would have been delighted to give my view.
It is extremely important to be aware of the distinction between good employment relations and Civil Service independence, and not confuse the two. When I arrived at ACAS—and its staff were Civil Service-related—it was clear that there was a need for a major reorganisation to recognise the changes in the world of work. This was a big project that involved the staff and was achieved with consent. It took time. If you are going to get the best out of staff, you need to inspire and motivate. Even within the term of one government, there can be between two and eight changes of Minister and junior Minister, all with different priorities. A new Minister comes in and says, “Why are we wasting taxpayers’ money on this?”. The Civil Service has to be able to show the origin of the project, usually the Minister's own predecessor, so accountability is extremely important.
Ministers with perhaps only one or two years of office before them naturally want to get things done. If they see Civil Service caution as an obstacle, they are tempted to be surrounded by their own creatures. Of course, there are Ministers with experience who have been managers. Too often, however, our leaders come from a much narrower background and have absolutely no experience of management or transparent appointment procedures. To extend political appointments will only make a bad situation worse. I only hope that there will be a code of conduct to ensure transparency of appointment and pay. If the limit for Civil Service commissioners’ approval remains as high as £84,000, it will miss the point. Some of these prime ministerial wannabes will do it for nothing and will come from a background where they can afford to. While I accept that project management in government does not have a great record, let us be clear: it can happen even when a non-civil servant is drafted in from top business. The MoD might well be a good example.
Finally, enshrining Civil Service objectivity in law was a good thing and I acknowledge the Government’s achievement in that. But it is in danger of being a totem when huge staff cuts and the growth of political cronyism are the reality.
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, in his long journey from the dark side. I also thank both Houses of Parliament for passing the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which, I have to say, civil servants advised Ministers to do about 150 years before they finally did it. Pace is something we need to think about.
If we are thinking about the pace of change, we should think about what has happened in the past three years. The Civil Service has downsized by about 75,000. It has managed an effective coalition Government, which has not been done before. It has had to deal with cuts in real pay, pensions, redundancy terms and promotion prospects. Yet throughout all of that, morale has gone up. Engagement scores for the Civil Service show an increase of two percentage points. Trust levels, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said, have gone up by six percentage points at a time when, as we know, trust in the political system is not exactly strong. I put it to the House that if the Civil Service were a private sector company, the Harvard Business Schools of this world would be doing case studies on it, and we should applaud that success.
However, let us not hark on the past but talk about the future. What are the challenges for the future? We are in a period of austerity until 2015 and beyond, or is it infinity and beyond—who knows? Can we carry on? Yes, we have skills shortages in the Civil Service in areas such as commissioning, financial management and project management. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for the work that he has been doing on some of these areas. The innovation, of which we need more in the role of non-executive directors, has been fantastic. They have been incredibly helpful in departments and in bringing home to civil servants and Ministers the business skills that we need to deliver these big projects. That is very good.
However, we also need a broader set of skills if we are to look at the reforms for the challenges of government—and I stress government—for the next few years. It is going to be all about things such as behavioural public policy and sorting out how we measure success. In health, we have quality-adjusted life years. For the whole of government, we will need well-being years. Those are things to come. We need a broader range of skills, including those of psychologists and multidisciplinary people. We need more risk-taking, as I have said. If we are to get risk-taking right, we will have to stop the emphasis on ex-post Spanish Inquisitions and do a lot more on ex-ante appraisal of projects before they come to us. Parliament should be demanding more information. We should have something like an office of taxpayer responsibility which, building on the OBR, would look at these projects and give you evidence to show what the risks are. Where is the evidence base? Too often we have what I call the Bachelors’ approach to policy. Do noble Lords remember that Bachelors’ hit “I Believe”? Ministers come in with very strong beliefs and you say, “Very good, Minister, let’s test them. Let’s have a bit of evidence. Let’s have a randomised control trial”. They say, “No, too slow”. We need all of that.
Finally, I strongly support more experts. Of the top 200, 41% were externally recruited in the first place. They should not be experts in telling the Minister who appointed them how brilliant the Minister’s ideas are. They should be genuine experts, based on meritocratic principles. If we think about the future of government, we should analyse government. You cannot just analyse the Civil Service. If you are going to have a commission, make it on government and about Ministers and Civil Service together. It would be a nonsense to do one half of the horse.
My Lords, I am uneasy about extended ministerial offices. There is a risk that we get the worst of all possible worlds. In America, we see the dangers of hiatuses on a change of Government. In France, the danger is that the cabinet system means that policy-making is separated from the expertise of the department as a whole. I am uneasy about surrounding the Minister with more people whose tenure is dependent on the king’s smile. We do not need more courtiers. If the Minister wants sycophants, he gets special advisers: we have plenty of them already. As has been said, in his policy-making meetings he should want honesty. He should want people who know what they are talking about. The turnover numbers in the Civil Service are very scary now. The expertise may not be as great as it should be. I am struck by the fact that the Treasury wastage rate was 28% in 2010 and 22% in 2011: 50% over the two years of a great financial crisis. That cannot be right. It suggests that something is wrong.
On the issue of the apolitical Civil Service, I am struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. It is astonishing if the head of the Civil Service is not taking up with his counterpart in Edinburgh a clear misuse of government money and time in producing a political manifesto. I am uneasy about the exclusion of civil servants from policy-making if one goes down the EMO route. The Minister who does not want his policy subjected to the most rigorous internal dialectic should not be in office. The artificial distinction that is drawn between policy-making and delivery is a false dichotomy. There is no such thing as a good policy that cannot be well delivered. That is a bad policy. You need to have, in the room, as you decide, the people who will be responsible for delivery. Even if you have, in your head, already decided what the policy will be, it is crucial that you pretend to take account of the arguments being advanced. You listen to their talk of pitfalls and precedents and things that could go wrong, and you make them feel that they were present at the creation. It is really important to loyalty that people feel they were present at the creation.
There is something wrong. We have not yet lost the apolitical, independent, expert public service but it is in danger. I do not know what the correct form of inquiry is. I rather go with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, on speed, but something should be done. Some kind of inquiry is needed to make sure we do not lose what is the envy of the French and Americans by going down their route.
My Lords, for 50 years I have been observing, commenting on and, at one point, participating in the Civil Service; as a party functionaire, as a special adviser in Whitehall when those were rare beasts, and as a journalist. For some months, at the Economist, I shared a room with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—we had a lot of fun—and his arrival has been a great asset to this House.
I have observed, with dismay, a real deterioration during recent decades in the performance and capability of the Civil Service and, indeed, in the quality of some of those who occupy key posts in it. To take just one symptom, the quality and preparation of legislation has been getting worse and worse. We have observed this in our own role here. This is sometimes compounded by the determination of civil servants to stick to what they have produced, casting around for ingenious and often spurious arguments to sustain it. This can be compounded by Ministers if they are prepared to act as parrots for the Whitehall view. I would support the idea of a fundamental look at the Civil Service, but on the one condition that it does not delay the changes that can be made and are so urgently needed now.
The whole idea of Northcote-Trevelyan and the subsequent reforms was to move away from patronage to ensure tough, competitive entry so that the Civil Service recruited the brightest and the best and became a meritocratic elite. Its performance must be held to account with rigour by Parliament; this is where I welcome the growing effectiveness of Select Committees. The problem is the attempt to move away from the simple criterion of excellence in recruitment and promotion towards diversity, the aim of which is to make the Civil Service reflect more closely the profile of Britain. The flaw in this is that the role of the Civil Service is too important to be used in some form of politically correct modern patronage dressed up as social engineering.
Better is needed at the bottom and the top of the ladder. At the bottom, private offices—traditionally a crucial staging post on the route to the top—are there to help serving Ministers get things done. In 2011 I asked, in a PQ, what steps HMG were taking to ensure that the staffing of private offices reflected the full diversity of the UK. In reply, I got a whole column of Hansard, proudly announcing such absurdities as roadshows. Private offices are now falling down on the job. Permanent Secretaries have always been key at the top. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, there is now far too much rotation. For example, the deputy secretary at the Home Office responsible for immigration policy, so rightly denounced as not fit for purpose, was promoted to PUS in the Ministry of Defence. His performance was a disaster and his successor lasted only a few months. Where are the giants of the past? Where are the Sir Frank Coopers and the Sir Michael Quinlans?
Britain needs and deserves the best in the Civil Service. I am in favour of an independent elite. Let us recruit it.
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, joined the House I anticipated some outstanding contributions. That anticipation was fully realised today with his excellent introduction to this debate.
When I started my ministerial career in 1999 as Minister for Finance in Scotland, I was responsible for Civil Service issues and relationships between the new Scottish Government and the UK Government, particularly with the secretary for the Cabinet Office. At that time, we established a number of memoranda to try and ensure a decent and efficient operation between the two levels of government—a point that I will return to.
However, let me start by saying that, of all the contributions made so far by noble Lords, I agreed most with that of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. It seems to me that at the heart of the current problem is a lack of ministerial responsibility and acceptance by Ministers of that responsibility in their dealings with the Civil Service and agencies under their remits. The creeping way in which that has come into government under all parties over recent years is at the heart of the current problem, which is about the independence of the Civil Service, the accountability of Ministers and their taking responsibility for mistakes and decisions.
Without a strong and independent Civil Service, and without Ministers who are willing to listen and to change when change is necessary, our system of government makes mistakes and fails. When Ministers are strong and issue clear directions, civil servants know where they stand and are perfectly capable of carrying out the instructions and policies. That was certainly my experience in government, and I think it should be at the core of where we move to in the future.
The other important point that I want to make is that, in the Government’s document on Civil Service reform published in 2012, there is almost no mention whatever of the relationship between central government and the devolved Governments in the skilling and development of the Civil Service and the spreading of knowledge within the service across the different levels of government.
The level of interchange between devolved government civil servants and central government civil servants in this country has almost ground to a halt. That is to the detriment of the devolved Governments, because the civil servants who work in the devolved Administrations no longer have experience of working in the Treasury, at UKRep—rather than the Scottish Government’s office in Brussels—or in a whole range of other central government offices where they can work with people from other departments. Civil servants working in UK government departments no longer have any knowledge of the education service in Scotland or the health service in Wales or, indeed, all those other departments that are now the sole and autonomous responsibility of the devolved Governments.
It seems to me that the issue of interchange between civil servants working in the devolved Governments and civil servants working at the centre needs to be tackled. It has been ignored through an abdication of responsibility by successive Secretaries of State for the Cabinet Office and by Ministers in the devolved Administrations over the past decade or so. It is time that that was tackled, and tackled strongly.
My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who has been praised almost universally by speakers in this debate, is keeping a tick list, but I should think that the score is around 25 to one. The only difference is on the urgency for a commission.
My mind is taken back to the first time that I was exposed to what might be the collective noun for Permanent Secretaries—I do not know whether it is a perfection or a permanence—at the spring conference in Sunningdale in 1987. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will remember it because he presided over it just before he handed over to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and it was just before the election. Every Permanent Secretary there had written his briefs for the right-hand drawer and the left-hand drawer and was in an enormously relaxed mood. We had a debate about the future Government and the role of the Civil Service, and there was a wonderful feeling of confidence and so on.
I suppose I had around 20 years of working with civil servants at senior levels or, in some cases, in quangos having civil servants working for me. I developed enormous respect and admiration for the skills, intellect and dedication of those civil servants. When I was asked to become the chairman of what is now the Senior Salaries Review Body, Lord Plowden, who was my predecessor, said to me, “My boy,”—because I was so much younger than him—“you must realise that this is the ultimate poison pill”. I was slightly comforted because earlier I had taken on another job in the private sector, but I went to a friend to ask his advice. He said, “If you take that job on, you must be even stupider or very much braver than I know you to be”. Anyway, I survived and I am very lucky to be standing here today.
I agree entirely with what so many speakers have said. What we have had in the Civil Service is what I would call the “four I’s”—independence, integrity, impartiality and I have forgotten the last one but it is in much the same vein. I also agree with what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Luce, that in the service provided by Permanent Secretaries and senior civil servants there has to be courage and a certain robustness in order to be prepared to challenge Ministers on their chosen policies along with an ability to convert those policies into legislation and systems that work. So I am entirely in favour of what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has said. The values were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, as the bedrock. I would describe them as the gold standard of values: a public service ethic and the wish to do good for the country, along with a desire for fairness. These values have, I think, been eroded.
I will finish by referring to one more point. Sir Hayden Phillips wrote an article about the Civil Service for the Times in which he used the term “shared enterprise” in the partnership between Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries. I think that that has been eroded. All I know is that in the private sector, unless there is confidence between the non-executive chairman and the chief executive and there is a working relationship, the right answers will not be produced. That is what is lacking, and I support the fact that there needs to be a major look at the Civil Service.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for securing this debate, and I agree with most of what he said. As the custodians of Civil Service values, the Civil Service Commissioners operate where operational issues and propriety issues interact. My experience as the First Civil Service Commissioner from 2000 to 2005 convinced me that any reform of the Civil Service must be tested against the principles, values and conventions which have guided the Civil Service for several decades.
Radical reform of the Civil Service started in the 1980s, but it has been piecemeal and predominantly managerial. In the 1980s and 1990s, fears arose that those piecemeal reforms might undermine or erode the values of the Civil Service and weaken the conventions which act as checks and balances within our unwritten constitution. Publication of the Civil Service Code in 1995 and putting the Civil Service Commission on to a statutory footing in 2010 were testaments to that fear.
The current proposals with regard to the relationship between Ministers and top civil servants, ministerial involvement in senior appointments and extended ministerial offices have aroused similar fears. That is because, in my view, these proposals underplay the significant functions carried out by the Civil Service within our constitutional arrangements—functions such as helping to ensure that the Government of the day act with propriety, supporting Ministers in the management of decision-making and providing objective advice; that is, speaking truth unto power.
In recent years we have seen many of the consequences that have resulted from defective decision-making, partly due to a lack of capability in the Civil Service, which of course needs to be addressed, but also due in part to the weak application of these principles. In December 2013 Sir Alan Beith, the chairman of the Liaison Committee in the other place, said:
“In our report, we identified examples where we felt that things had gone wrong because Ministers were told what they wanted to hear”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/13; col. 372.]
But this issue is not new. In 2003, the former Prime Minister the right honourable John Major said that many Ministers behaved as if officials should be committed extensions of the Government’s electoral platform and that they openly blamed civil servants for errors that in the past had been accepted as the responsibility of Ministers.
It is also worrying that the IPPR report, Accountability and Responsiveness in the Civil Service, which was commissioned by the right honourable Francis Maude MP, sees “tension” between “responsiveness” and “independence”, and does not appreciate the distinction between independence and impartiality.
I believe that the time is right for a comprehensive and strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service, as recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee. Any commission that is set up should look not just at the Civil Service but at the role of Ministers as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, said, the Civil Service is a national asset and is not owned by the Government of the day but held in trust for the next Administration. I urge the Government to change their mind and set up an independent commission for the sake of the future of the Civil Service and for the health of our democracy.
My Lords, I echo the last words of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who has just addressed us. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, feels that he has been present at the creation, but he has certainly been present at a very splendid debate, marred only by the time constraints under which we all have to speak. I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on the splendid and spirited way in which he introduced the debate. All those who have spoken with vast experience of the higher reaches of the Civil Service demonstrate the value of this House, because they are all wonderful examples of good parliamentarians, even if they are not politicians.
The one thing that troubles me about the Civil Service is its increased politicisation. I believe that that is due, mainly, to the enormous growth in the number of so-called special advisers. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 1970, I had the good fortune to be asked in the July of that year to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Security. It was one department covering all those areas, with only four Ministers: a Secretary of State, a Minister of State in this House and two Under-Secretaries. I saw at first hand how the effective working—and it was an effective working—of a splendid department, under Sir Keith Joseph, depended so much on the trust that existed between the civil servants and the Ministers. Trust is the essential hallmark of a good Civil Service and a good Civil Service is the bulwark of a true, free democracy.
We talk a lot in this place about free speech, a free Parliament, and we are right to do so. However, at the base of it all, if we are to have a properly functioning democracy, we need those who are imbued by an ideal of public service, who are themselves following a vocation to public service and who are bringing their integrity and their ability to making sure that our country works properly. What has happened over recent years was illustrated for me in 1995, when I called on a colleague who was a Secretary of State to discuss some matters. I was met by a young man who was excessively polite and extremely welcoming. The Secretary of State came in and said “Have you been talking to …” and mentioned his name. I said yes and asked him, “What exactly is his job?”. “Oh, he’s my special adviser”. I said “Oh yes, how old is he?”. “He is 23”. I said “What on earth can he specially advise you on?”. “Oh, he does the party stuff”.
The party stuff may be important, but it should never get in the way of the proper stuff. Over the past 30 years, there has been such an increase in the number of special advisers that it really has got in the way of the proper stuff. I have seen a breakdown of trust and confidence between Ministers and those who serve them because of that.
The time constraint means that I cannot go on longer, I wish I could. But I end as I began by echoing the need for either a parliamentary or a royal commission to look at the role and position of the Civil Service in a modern democracy.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for his initiative in arranging this debate and I am happy to add to his already mammoth score. There have been quite a number of claims recently—sometimes from Ministers—that civil servants in government departments have not properly pursued the policy that their Ministers have laid down and are being insufficiently supportive of their department’s work. I do not share that view at all.
As some noble Lords may recall, I was, at the time, one of the very few people to have been catapulted into the Civil Service from outside to become a Permanent Secretary. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Butler, will remember the occasion. However, whatever the circumstances may have been concerning that particular appointment, it gave me the huge privilege—I still regard it as a huge privilege—of joining the Civil Service at the top and seeing and learning for myself how the system operated. When I joined the MoD 30 years ago, I had experienced its workings only from the outside and shared the prejudices of many people in relation to civil servants that, fundamentally, they did not work very hard and were inadequately aware of the world outside of their somewhat cloistered existence.
It did not take me very long to realise how wrong I was. When I appeared in the office for the first time, I said to the staff in my private office, “Look, I want everybody in here at 8.30 in the morning”. Their response was, “Of course, then what shall we do in the first hour?”. I recall that not long after the start of the Blair government, one or two Ministers were complaining that their staff did not brief them adequately on the actions that they should take going forward and simply presented to them a number of options without a recommendation. If I recall correctly, it was the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, who, on leaving office himself, commented sagely that that was indeed the proper role for civil servants—to present options to their Ministers and then it was for Ministers, at the end of the day, to take the decision. He was, of course, absolutely right.
Having experienced my own realisation of what the role should be, I developed a great respect for civil servants and I made the following remark to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, when he was writing his seminal book entitled Whitehall back in 1987:
“We have people within the MoD, within the Civil Service, for whom I would have given my right arm in industry”.
Our Civil Service is, happily, not politicised. It is made up of people who are well trained for their job, recognise their role in the process and work hard for relatively modest reward to serve their country to the best of their ability. I hope, therefore, that in debating the topic put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for this debate—the future of the Civil Service—we can build on the excellent ethos that has been built up over so many years. I am certainly of the view that we tamper with it at our peril.
My Lords, we had a splendid opening to this debate and that has been carried through, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hennessy on that. A number of years ago when I was serving what I suppose was, in a university context, an apprenticeship for this kind of thing, I was the junior member of a senate and had to sit on an appointment panel for a very senior administrative post—university registrar, I think. We were wise and we brought in someone from the Civil Service to help—which is the reverse of the process that we have been complaining about today—as it was an administrative post. He started his questions by looking the first candidate in the eye and saying, “You are evil, but you are necessary”.
I have pondered that ever since and, on the whole, have come down on the “necessary” side, especially in the present company. That was a lesson, and I have to say that any civil servant who was feeling a little bruised in the run-up to this debate might take a turn sitting in front of a senate of academics. I say to them, what you are experiencing now is nothing in comparison.
Lest I run out of time, there are two comments that I will make straightaway. One is that wherever I travel in the world where there is still evidence of the influence of the British Civil Service system, it is a benign influence. Where it is wholly absent, you can tell. By whatever measure you use, this is a benign influence. Secondly—and I should say that I do not think that it is all the fault of the politicians, because we do run the risk of moving in that direction and saying that they are to blame and this perfect Rolls-Royce model is trundling on—I want to focus my remarks for my remaining minute or so on something that has not been discussed in this debate: namely, the place of quangos. They sit roughly between the Civil Service operating as it does and the special advisers brought in to do the jobs that they seem to do.
This came to light in my experience when I was chairing a commission looking at the national tests debacle for schools in 2008, when thousands of schoolchildren did not receive their results on time. The essence of it, eventually, was that there was a quango running this. The internal processes of that quango had failed and the procurement process, though it ticked all the boxes, was not adequate. I have spoken about this before in the House. Also, the lines of communication between the Civil Service, the Department for Education and the quango were messy.
The plan was to deal with the problem of devolving power to a quango by putting observers on the quango and all its subcommittees. It did not work. The observers did not have defined instructions or roles. They did not know, for example, whether they were reporting everything that happened to the Permanent Secretary or not. The members of the quango thought, “Well, we have observers from the DfE sitting here; surely what we are doing is all right”. There was, of course, a real problem and a collapse: a process that spent potentially £150 million of government money collapsed. I ask that, if there is a move towards having a much wider debate, the role of quangos—their powers and their responsibility and accountability to the department—should be sorted out very clearly, especially for those bright young people who go in as observers and do not quite know what they are doing.
My Lords, I, too, thank the—mellow—noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, my PhD supervisor, for introducing such an erudite debate. I am somewhat intimidated by having to follow more than a dozen former Ministers, former Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries and Peers with experience inside Number 10, as well as two professors, one former First Civil Service Commissioner and the Government’s lead non-executive. We also have the benefit of the Truth to Power report, the Civil Service Reform Plan and its one-year update, reports from the Institute for Government, the IPPR, the Liaison Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and our own Constitution Committee, and the annual reports of the noble Lord, Lord Browne; not forgetting the FDA’s own Delivering for the Nation. All these indicate a mood for change.
Despite being neither a former Minister nor a former Permanent Secretary, I want to reflect a third approach, that of consumers of government—especially given that, as Truth to Power says,
“citizens as consumers have hugely increased their demands and expectations of what Government should be able to deliver”.
Indeed, it is for the final user or taxpayer—who funds government—that this relationship between politicians and the service must be world class. People are unhappy when “few ministers or officials” are,
“held accountable when things go wrong”—
“things” which affect their universal credit or other bits of their lives—or when they see their taxes frittered away on expensive mistakes, which does happen. I, too, spent Christmas reading The Blunders of our Governments, which documents not just ministerial errors and the astonishing waste of public money but the often faulty relationship between policy and delivery, as well as the need for less churn, more niche expertise and changes in accountability.
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has done us a major service. First, he quoted the words of the Prime Minister, who, despite being head of the whole service, has said little on this—worse, his odd criticism, such as saying that the service is the enemy of enterprise, has hardly helped relations. Secondly, the noble Lord has, in his inimitable style, recalled “the lustrous quality” of our,
“non-politically partisan public service, transferable from one Government to the next, along with its perpetual duty of speaking truth unto power”.
Indeed, the role of politicians should not be overlooked, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and other noble Lords emphasised today. The service does not work in a vacuum but as part of what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, calls, “the governing marriage” between temporary Ministers and permanent officials. Sadly, most of the bundle of reports concentrates only on the Civil Service, omitting what Ministers might do differently to make it more effective—whether in the complexity of laws or procedures, the lack of devolution or our constant demand for new skills to fulfil new tasks.
As has been acknowledged, our Civil Service is admired around the world. It is politically impartial, with core values of integrity, propriety and objectivity, and it has the ability to transfer its expertise and loyalty from one Government to the next. However, that does not mean that there is no need for change. In a fast-changing world, with new technologies and new forms of service delivery, the Civil Service itself wants to change, to meet the increasing demands of government and the higher expectations of the public. That means addressing skills gaps in procurement, accountability and performance management, the integration of corporate functions and better delivery of major projects. We need the best people to be recruited, trained and retained to deliver quality service and—yes—to be reflective of the population that they serve.
However, the Government’s progress report on the Civil Service capabilities plan gave it a red rating for lack of implementation, while the Jenkin committee—Jenkin junior—wrote of,
“increasing dysfunctionality in aspects of the Civil Service key skills”.
The Public Accounts Committee noted that commercial and contracting skills remain weak. There is a lack of leadership expertise, with only four of the 15 Permanent Secretaries of delivery departments having significant operational delivery or commercial experience. Processes for overseeing major projects lack teeth and are seemingly unable to stop ill conceived or poorly managed projects, while the MPA lacks power.
Some of the Government’s policies have merit, such as greater scrutiny of major projects, reduced turnover of senior responsible officers and integration of corporate functions. However, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office has admitted, the implementation of many of these reforms has been poor and slow to start. Meanwhile, the PAC claims:
“The existing accountability arrangements for permanent secretaries are inadequate”,
and that senior civil servants are not held accountable for poor performance, while good performance is not properly recognised.
There are challenges. Constancy of change is a feature of any large organisation, but the skills and attitudes of civil servants need to reflect the ongoing change challenge. There is a need to provide proper support for Ministers, including in their political role, from a high-functioning, responsive and sufficiently political office, while avoiding what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, calls the “politicisation” of the senior Civil Service when aligned with greater political input into the choosing of Permanent Secretaries, and the noble Lord’s fear of turning Whitehall into Washington. These issues are too serious to be undermined by overt denigration of the service—by what Truth to Power describes as,
“the vehemence of Ministers’ criticism of the Civil Service”,
or by scapegoating a few officials rather than addressing shortcomings in systems and culture. Morale is key to a high-functioning service, and we damage that at our peril.
The plea for a parliamentary commission from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, the chairs of 17 committees and the majority of noble Lords who have spoken today should be taken seriously. We remain open-minded, as we are still examining Civil Service reform as part of our policy review, while the timing of any such commission presents its own challenge. There are changes that need implementing in 2015 and we must be sure that any such commission would not distract from, or undermine, reform efforts either in this Parliament or the next. We have heard great words of wisdom today and we look forward to a similar response from the Minister.
My Lords, that is a pretty firm pass. It is very good to be back after a period away, although this is the first time I will have tried to stand for 20 minutes non-stop. I do not regret the need for this debate and I was rather puzzled that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, said that in his opening remarks. It seems to me that it is exactly the job of this House to debate the principles of government to see where we think government may be going wrong. We are, in effect, the institutional memory—though some of us can remember rather more than others. In dealing with a number of papers over the past 10 days, I have been very struck by how the institutional memory does not go back much beyond about 1990; however, mine does, so I was able to say, “No, the problem did not begin then”. That is precisely the sort of thing that we should be doing here.
I should declare a few interests. I am a member of the Civil Service reform board. My wife was a civil servant for seven years, at a time when the Civil Service was pretty unfriendly to women with children. My daughter is a civil servant, at a time when the Civil Service is very friendly to women with children—I am happy to say that that is part of the transformation over the past 30 years.
As a young academic, in 1977 I published a study of Whitehall’s management of Britain’s international relations and then got caught up in a government review, the Berrill report, of much the same thing. I vividly remember being carpeted in the Paris embassy by Sir Nicholas Henderson, who thought that I was a dangerous radical suggesting all sorts of things that would undermine Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service—and, indeed, the Diplomatic Service saw off the Berrill report pretty firmly. That was a mistake. It is part of the problem that we have with the absence of language skills across the Civil Service at present that we did not think, as the Berrill commission and others like me were saying, that we needed to spread those skills across the Department of Trade and Industry and other departments. The internationalisation of government is one of the revolutions that we have been running through since then.
Over the past 30 or 40 years, Whitehall and the British Government as a whole have had to cope with a whole series of changes. I have mentioned internationalisation, but we have also seen the gradual centralisation of the delivery of public services—first across the country and then with the partial reversal of that in the establishment of the devolved Governments—which has left England as the most centralised country in the advanced industrialised world. I hope that what the coalition Government is now doing with city deals is beginning to reverse that. That will have implications for the central Civil Service.
The expansion of public services, particularly the provision of welfare and health, is running up against the limits of the capacity of government to finance the services being provided. That is one of the underlying problems that any Government of any party will face in the coming years.
Over the past 20 years, there has also been the growth of outsourcing and contract management. The move away from lifetime employment has been a matter not just for the Civil Service but for our entire economy and society. It has been recognised that the accumulation of skills from shifts in post in your career helps you on your way to reaching positions of responsibility at the top—particularly, the need to acquire management skills, which the Civil Service has been much concerned about.
Of course, there is also now the digital revolution. The Government have been behind the private sector in moving from paper to digital exchange, but I am happy to say that through the Cabinet Office—Francis Maude and others—they are doing their utmost to catch up. One of the most effective pieces of insourcing in which this Government have been engaged is the creation of the Government Digital Service. This is made up of a number of bright outsiders who hate wearing ties when they come to work but who are very good at pushing forward the revolution that we need in this respect.
There has also been the revolution of the coalition Government, to which the Civil Service has had to adapt. In my experience, a number of civil servants have adapted extremely well to the tactful ways in which Ministers of two different parties have to be treated. There has been a need for adaptation while, as a number of people have argued, sticking to the core principles of Northcote-Trevelyan.
On the concept of civil servants following the national interest, we no longer talk about them as being “servants of the Crown” but the noble Lord, Lord McNally, talked about the ethos of public service and a sense of altruism as being important parts of what they believe in. That ethos has been undermined to some extent, particularly on the economic right, by the growth of public-choice economics and by the philosophies of Ayn Rand which have come across the Atlantic, but I think that all of us here would hold to the idea that service to the state and the concept of public service are important parts of what holds government, the Civil Service and society together.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the transformation of the Civil Service in terms of diversity and gender. It is encouraging how many bright young women there are coming up in the Civil Service. I think that eight of the 36 Permanent Secretary posts are now held by women—that is not enough; it was rather more two years ago and we hope that it will again be rather more in a few years’ time. There is real diversity across the sector. When I travel to other countries, it seems to me that at every embassy that I visit the economic counsellor is of south Asian extraction. Lots of bright people, men and women, are coming through the Civil Service. That is one of the achievements in particular of the Blair Government and, within the Foreign Office, of Robin Cook. We recognise that that has helped to take us forward.
On the issue of a parliamentary commission, the Government are not persuaded of the need for a vast commission. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, is too young to remember some of the royal commissions of the past. When he was probably still at school, I was a junior adviser to the Crowther-Hunt Royal Commission on the Constitution. If he has the nine volumes on his shelves, he will find in volume VII a paper that I wrote. The commission took several years and almost no one now remembers it. We are hesitant about getting back to the circumstance in which, as they used to say, such commissions “take minutes and years”.
The Prime Minister did say to the Liaison Committee that he is not entirely closed to the idea of further inquiries. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested, it would be more helpful if we took one chunk at a time rather than tried to take the whole thing. For example, there is the question of the relationship among Ministers, civil servants and Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, talked about the role of junior Ministers and how many we may need, which is a rather fundamental issue for the future of the relationship between Executive and legislature. The noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, suggested that we look at the future of the Civil Service Commission.
Through committees and in debates, there are a range of things that this House and the other House should be encouraged to do. That is a different exercise from saying that we need to start again and re-examine the principles of Northcote-Trevelyan, of Haldane or indeed of Fulton.
My Lords, I am not entirely sure what the position on this is, but I suspect that there is a formal position and an informal one. Parliamentary committees inquire into a great many aspects of government, and that is welcome and will no doubt continue. I think that where a good case for a parliamentary inquiry is made, the Government will not obstruct it.
My Lords, the Government are not opposed to intelligent inquiry by Parliament. One of the many things that has changed over the past 40 years is the relationship between Parliament and civil servants. Parliamentary inquiries by my honourable friend Bernard Jenkin’s committee, Margaret Hodge’s committee and others are a regular part of life in a way that they were not 40 years ago. That is a desirable development. We are now having to think about how we rewrite the Osmotherly rules to fit in with this new development.
I have heard a diversity of views in this debate about how far civil servants and senior officials should be directly answerable to Parliament for the major projects that they have been leading. That is another area that is worth examining. After all, we are light years away from the Crichel Down affair, when a Minister resigned over a failure in his department about which he knew little. We would not want go back to that. This is another area where the relationship among Ministers, senior officials and Parliament has evolved, and it will no doubt need to evolve further.
My Lords, I said that the Government are not opposed to parliamentary inquiries. The Prime Minister is not currently persuaded of the case for a massive commission of inquiry of the sort that my honourable friend Bernard Jenkin’s committee recommended. No doubt there will be further discussion on that and on the sorts of topics that it would be reasonable to address.
I turn to the politicisation of the Civil Service, which a number of noble Lords have touched on and expressed concern about. In my experience over the past three and a half years, I have found special advisers, both those within the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office and those working for Conservative Secretaries of State, to be extremely helpful in easing the relations between the coalition partners and in assisting private offices in the division of work between what is entirely administrative and what becomes political. Perhaps it would be appropriate for a parliamentary committee to look at the expansion of special advisers but I certainly would give evidence in favour of their usefulness in the scene. Whether or not the expanded ministerial office will be that different from what one saw in Gordon Brown’s private office, for example, where the spads were very much part of the office, I am not entirely sure. Again, we should recognise that practice has already evolved and will evolve further.
There has also been concern about the question of choice in Permanent Secretary appointments. We have been round this many times before. I am old enough to remember as a student the great spat between Richard Crossman and his Permanent Secretary. Since then, a number of Secretaries of State—Jack Straw and others—have insisted that they have in effect chosen their Permanent Secretaries. This is an area in which it seems that the recent suggestion that the Prime Minister should have the ultimate say on the appointment of a Permanent Secretary is an acceptable move in this evolving set of relations.
The move to fixed-tenure Permanent Secretary appointments also seems a worthwhile step forward. We are conscious that there has been a fairly rapid turnover in the past two years, although I point out that the average tenure of Permanent Secretaries currently in place and those who have retired since 2010 is about four years. This is not too violent a change.
How do we strengthen Civil Service accountability? That takes us to the Osmotherly rules and the question of how far Parliament and parliamentary committees should be examining officials directly. We have already gone a long way down that road, as we well know. That requires some further study and investigation because of course one wants to protect officials from too aggressive parliamentary scrutiny. That question therefore relates to Parliament as much as Ministers.
The Civil Service reform plan has been very much concerned with the capabilities, skills and training of the senior Civil Service and with contract management and improving commercial skills. I said to one of my former students the other day that I was not entirely sure about the recommendation that there should be substantial additional payments for some senior officials. I had my ear chewed off by a bright young civil servant who said that we need to buy in commercial and management skills from time to time and if we have to pay more for them it is worth doing. That, after all, is part of what we are now trying to do.
We are carrying through the digital revolution. I have just written a rather sharp note to the Department for Transport about some of the design problems in the DVLA online form for over-70s renewing their driving licence, and had an extremely good reply from the Secretary of State. We are improving, as noble Lords know. The gov.uk website received an award last year.
The role of the head of the Civil Service has also been touched on. Over the years, we have moved from a combined head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary to occasional splits between the two. From my time on the Civil Service Board, it seems to me that the current division works well. Others in later periods may differ again, but that is the preference of the current Government.
Having now worked in five different departments in the past four years, I am concerned about the gap between the departments and the centre. The obscurantism of one or two departments—unnamed—is worrying. The difference in quality of civil servants at the middle level in a number of departments is worrying. Therefore, I am strongly in favour of providing more shared services from the centre as we hope to shrink the central administration and push more delivery down to the local level.
This has been a worthwhile debate. I come back to where I started: the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, should not regret having to call for a debate such as this. It is very much the job of the House of Lords to hold debates about the structure of government and the nature of the state. That should be part of our prime purpose. There is an awful lot of institutional memory inside this Chamber. Sometimes perhaps we think that there was a golden age or that we would like the world to be the way it was 20 to 30 years ago, without fully recognising the challenges we have now. Nevertheless, we have a great deal to contribute.
I thank all those who have contributed, one or two of whom I can remember interviewing when I was a junior academic—
Before the noble Lord concludes, will he deal with the serious point I made in my speech, which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, also raised, about the upholding of the Civil Service Code and the failure of that to be done in Scotland, and the responsibility that lies with the head of the Civil Service in England because of the precedents it will create to deal with this?
My Lords, I would prefer to write to the noble Lord on that extremely sensitive issue. I think he will understand why. Such matters under the Civil Service Code are for the Scottish Government in the first instance and will be dealt with by the relevant Permanent Secretary. But I will go back and write to him. I know where he is coming from and the point he is trying to make.
We have had a worthwhile debate. It is very good to have a range of different contributions from people who have seen the evolution of British government—
I will certainly provide a copy of the letter to the Library.
I look forward to the next debate in this House on the Civil Service and perhaps to the ad hoc committee that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, might succeed in persuading the authorities to have. This is a subject that we need to continue to discuss, although not necessarily through establishing very large and long-lasting joint parliamentary commissions.
My Lords, we have had a terrific debate. I am aware of the clock and I shall be brief.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the care and thought of his reply. But I must express some disappointment about his views—reflecting the Prime Minister’s views, as he says—on the big inquiry, although I note what he says about little inquiries. No doubt we shall come back to that.
I thank, too, my stellar PhD student, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter—terrific PhD student, like no other—for her and the Labour Party’s open-mindedness on the big inquiry. Above all, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate for their multiple wisdoms, the cornucopian wealth of their cumulated experience and their stimulating reflections. I think it is a record that we have had five former Cabinet Secretaries speaking—I do not think we have had five breathing at the same time before.
A final thought: the Hansard of today’s debate could serve as a very fine submission, a very good briefing paper for the inquiry, in whatever form it comes, whenever it comes. It is just a matter of time. Today’s Hansard will be up there, shimmering, ready. I beg to move.
25th Anniversary of the World Wide Web
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I start by thanking noble Lords for signing up to my debate. I must confess that, as I saw the list of names increase, I was slightly alarmed that perhaps people thought I was going to give some kind of technology master class in the Chamber. However, I think that noble Lords’ enthusiasm, and the breadth of experience that we will hear from this afternoon, is testament to the extraordinary impact this relatively new invention has already had on all our lives.
I first began grappling with the opportunity of the web in 1997 when Brent Hoberman and I co-founded lastminute.com. We were on an evangelical mission. We had to convince suppliers, customers and investors that the internet was here to stay, that the web was not going to blow up and that it was safe to buy things online. Imagine the landscape then: no Facebook, no Google, no Twitter, and certainly no smartphones. What a short time—and how much everything has changed.
The UK has a long history of technology breakthroughs. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention follows on the footsteps of Ada Lovelace’s first computer program, which she wrote for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1842. Obviously, the Bletchley codebreakers deserve a mention for their role in helping us win the Second World War.
I now find the web’s usage numbers not even surprisingly huge any longer: 2.4 billion people worldwide use the web; 1.2 billion are shoppers online. To put this in context, the rate of adoption is warp speed. It took 38 years for the radio to reach 50 million users, it took 13 years for television, it took four years for the web and it took 10 months for Facebook.
The fastest growing demographic using social media is the over-55s. Africa has the fastest growing number of web users, with Nigeria having the largest number; 47% of them are accessing the web via their smartphones. More than 55,000 projects have been started on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, most of which would never have got started without it. In the UK alone, £4.6 billion has been earned by people sharing their products and services using what is called the gift economy through sites such as Airbnb or Zopa.
The web has transformed the way we work, the way we interact and the way we play. Some of health’s greatest challenges are being rethought. Millions of so-called citizen scientists are plotting cancer gene patterns via online games. Early intervention in dementia is becoming more common after the success of an online test for patients. Education is being opened up on a global scale through the use of massive open online courses, from Khan Academy’s tutorials to Coursera’s degrees.
All industries are being disrupted. Farmers in Ghana are saving time and money by using their smartphones to trade their products before the long walk to market begins. Underprivileged women in South Africa are breaking out of the cycle of poverty after training that enables them to help US customers with their technology problems.
Even the animal videos posted online—much mocked by some—are now enabling scientists to gather meaningful data about animal relationships that would never have been accessible before. Noble Lords may have seen the BBC’s brilliant documentary “Animal Odd Couples” based on this.
Beyond the hyperbole, this 25th birthday—and as part of that, I hope, this debate—is a good moment to reflect on all these different aspects to the web. The UK’s relative position on the technology stage is a complex one. There are many areas where we lead the world. Products and services delivered online now account for at least 10% of UK GDP. We have the highest proportion in G20 countries. The British are the most advanced online shoppers on the planet. Estimates are that in 2014 e-commerce will be 20% of total UK retail. The UK internet sector is bigger than the health, education or construction sectors. Britain has created some world-leading businesses—Asos, Moshi Monsters and, dare I say it, lastminute.com.
London is becoming a significant tech hub, but it is not alone. Edinburgh, Bristol and Brighton are all seeing record numbers of digital start-ups. Our location and our language mean that we are a vital part of every dominant global web business. London is the only English-speaking city in Facebook’s top 10 and we have the highest number of Twitter users on the planet.
The Government are also making some big strides in how they embrace the web. Through the Government Digital Service, which I am proud to have played a small part in creating, the Government are leading the way for open data, open standards and digital government. The government digital platform, gov.uk, even won a design of the year award from the Design Museum—surely a world first.
This year, coding will be part of the school curriculum and all children aged five and above will be taught computer science. The UK now has the most visionary policy in the G8 for educating children. Yet we face some big challenges. There are 11 million adults who lack the ability to do four basic things online—communicate, transact, search and share information—and to do these things safely. Of these, 50% are over 65 but 50% are of working age in a country where 90% of new jobs require basic online skills and many vacancies are advertised only online. In addition, only 30% of small businesses are able to transact online, meaning that they miss out on both huge sales and savings. Go On UK, the cross-sector charity I chair, estimates that there is £68 billion of value to the economy if we address these adult skills.
We will need to fill 1 million technology sector jobs by 2020, which is looking nearly impossible from our current workforce. More depressingly, the number of women in the UK tech sector is actually falling as an overall percentage. If current trends are not reversed, only 1% of the sector will be female by 2040. Looking around the Chamber today, I am sad to see that this does not seem an alarmist statistic.
Despite the Government’s ambition to improve our infrastructure—I welcome Maria Miller’s announcement this morning about a rural broadband fund—we lag far behind Taiwan, Korea and Japan for universal coverage and a long way behind Singapore or Korea for available average speeds.
I am constantly surprised and frustrated that the only local website in the top 10 most visited websites in this country is the BBC. So although we start as many digital businesses as anywhere in the world, we do not scale them and we do not compete with the global web businesses in the world.
Finally, and perhaps most seriously, we do not have the skills and understanding of the digital world at the top of our corporate, public and political life. This leads to a lack of high-quality decisions about our future—a future where so much will inevitably revolve around technology. Only four FTSE 100 businesses have a CTO or digital executive on their plc board and yet all these businesses face huge upheavals.
Turning to Whitehall, the picture changes again. Just think of the UK Government’s reaction to the Snowden allegations. The political discourse lags far behind that of the US, where an expert panel has looked into the NSA’s claims about the necessity of data gathering and found that only one case was solved by the bulk collection of data—just one, and that was a small incident of money-laundering. We are woefully quiet on the subject of liberty versus security. Allegations that GCHQ and the NSA worked to undermine encryption should caution anyone who trusts the web with their medical, financial or personal records. To add to the complexity, the technology landscape is not remotely stable but is changing at mind-boggling speed.
We face hard questions as we grapple with the technology we already know about, let alone that coming up in the future. What should be the regulation of personal drones? How do we regulate driverless cars? How do we protect against increasing cybercrime? What are the privacy implications of wearable technology? What is the IP of a 3D-printed object in your home? How do we teach children about online identity and anonymity? How do we protect the free flow of information around the world and avoid a balkanised web? How do we make sure that we have the understanding and experience to debate these areas effectively?
To celebrate this anniversary year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wants to kick off as many open source-style, local discussions as possible to try to answer the question, “What kind of web do we want?”. I would construct my answer by going back to what I imagine were some of his guiding principles in 1989: inclusion, by making sure no one is left behind demographically or geographically; freedom and transparency, by making sure that consumers understand the quid pro quo with the handful of big companies whose services they mainly use without obvious charge; and openness, by making sure no Government can control access and content. This is tested every day. Just this weekend, the Turkish authorities announced a clampdown on websites and a new wave of censorship.
The web has immense power. I find something magical and remarkable on it every single day, but I agree with Sir Tim. We need to talk about the web we want. We need to pause for breath and perhaps be more conscious of the next 25 years of development. At the moment, we are sleepwalking into assuming that the platform underpinning so much of our daily life is not changing.
I should like to ask the Government two questions. First, what plans do they have to mark this extraordinary global invention that should be a brilliant inspiration for the next wave of British inventors? Secondly, do the Government agree that a fitting tribute to Tim’s vision that this is for everyone would be to review the billions government invests annually in adult skills and employment training to ensure that digital skills are embedded throughout the whole of our society?
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for initiating this debate. As a distinguished entrepreneur who quickly saw the commercial opportunities that the internet provided, she has gained an iconic reputation for understanding its potential role in every aspect of modern life. Her words today confirm how privileged we are to have her leading this debate.
My contribution is inspired by my first-hand experience of a 94 year-old friend who is determined not to be excluded. He has combated bereavement and loneliness, kept mentally active and even, perhaps, deferred or diminished the onset of mental illness by becoming internet-proficient. In the UK today, there are 10 million people over 65, and by 2050 there will be more than 20 million. Some 11% of one-person households over state pensionable age had internet access in 2000; today it is more than 40%. However, as the noble Baroness pointed out, there are still around 6 million pensioners who have never used the internet. Seventy-five per cent of people in the UK who are over 75 consider themselves lonely. My 94 year-old friend would never consider himself lonely. For him, the internet is infinitely flexible. Online book groups, staying in touch with friends via e-mail and texts, Skype calls and downloading music and videos keep him alert and interested in the world outside. A Dutch survey confirms that people who feel lonely are significantly more likely to develop clinical dementia than those who have no such feelings.
For many older people, the internet empowers them. They are starting small businesses, going on virtual world tours, learning how to stay healthy and even learning to play a musical instrument. Recent research suggests that video games help keep brains alert and improve cognitive function and hand-eye co-ordination. The gaming industry is now looking to develop more video games specifically tailored for older people. Dr Gary Small, a professor specialising in ageing at the University of California, points out that internet surfing uses more brain activity than reading. “It seems”, says Dr Small,
“that people who are more adept with internet technology are likely to remain mentally agile”.
The internet is a global boon to those who are retired, alone, ageing, no longer as active as they were and facing the potential slowing of their mental faculties. Their ability to access the internet, particularly via their TV, a friend they really understand and love, rather than via unfamiliar tablets and phones, will encourage even more of them to use it to the full. This morning, my 94 year-old friend had the last word. He sent me a message inviting me to join him on LinkedIn. I have no doubt that, although physically frail, his astute, inquiring and agile mind is due to his genes but also in no small part due to the invention 25 years ago of the world wide web.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on inspiring this debate. My decision to contribute was a bit belated—a bit lastminute.com, if she will pardon the allusion—and given three minutes my speech will need compression techniques.
The cybergenie is well and truly out of the bottle. After a very panoramic view of the range and speed of development, there is not much I can add. No doubt 25 years after Gutenberg and Caxton revolutionised communications in the 14th century, there was a similar debate. I look at the right reverend Prelates, and I am almost certain that there was, given the way that quite contentious pieces of text were circulating.
What we know is that the world wide web—the internet—presents an enormous range of benefits and challenges. It is all pervasive, as the noble Baroness told us, in every sphere of our society, whether health, education, banking, retail, science or defence. The ability for the world to be a truly global place and for people to communicate quite cheaply using Skype is another profound change in the way people communicate.
There are lots of positive benefits but perhaps some of the biggest challenges that the Government face are things such as cybersecurity. Everything now rests on the web or the internet in one way or the other. Keeping that information safe is a big challenge. Only yesterday, we saw a horrifying use of the internet in child abuse and paedophilia. Young children in the Philippines were being used to gratify the obscene needs of some people scattered around the world. We have to look at all aspects of that. There is the question of taxing the companies which make enormous profits on the internet and the world wide web in a way that does not hamper growth but makes sure that they make a real contribution to the economies that they benefit from. Equality of access is another point to which the noble Baroness drew our attention. There is still a digital divide when it comes to speed of access and, for some, a generational divide. We need to do more to encourage the older generation to participate, as the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, said in his contribution, although I think that as each successive generation comes along, they will be more able to do that, and the younger generation to be internet savvy. I agree with the noble Baroness that the essential skills that employers need are not just literacy and numeracy but computer skills as well.
We need to remind ourselves that 50 years ago Gordon Moore came up with Moore’s law. For those who are not aware of it, it says that every two years the number of transistors on a chip will double. Without that vision and the determination of industry to provide it, the internet would probably be a lot slower. We need to remind ourselves that we have more power in our mobile phones than they had when they landed the first man on the moon.
What do we want the Government to do? The Government should encourage the older generation to participate and perhaps have an overall digital strategy to ensure that society as a whole benefits from the world wide web and the internet. I am an incurable optimist so I believe that the internet glass is half full.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, not only on opening this debate in such an inspiring way but on so successfully carrying out her role as the Government’s UK digital champion.
The use of the internet in the UK climbs inexorably. We celebrated the universality of the web at the Olympic opening ceremony with Sir Tim Berners-Lee tweeting, “This is for everyone”—a phrase mentioned by the noble Baroness—which was instantly spelled out in lights attached to the tablets on the seats of the 80,000 people in the audience. I absolutely share the noble Baroness’s concern to ensure that no one is excluded.
Having come to the web myself some 20 years ago, and now standing here with my iPad with all its apps, I still find the speed of developments since I first used the Netscape browser quite extraordinary. Sir Tim and the early pioneers of the web deserve huge recognition for setting the open and neutral standards that ensured the growth of the world wide web. However, the development of ethical safeguards and standards now needs to evolve at the same pace as the range of applications. The web is not some kind of foreign country where ordinary rules of conduct do not apply. We need an alignment of online and offline rights and protections. Freedom of expression is a vital principle that needs to be upheld both online and offline but it needs to be balanced with rights of privacy.
One commentator has said that Silicon Valley appears to regard privacy as a “marketable commodity”. The Government, through what we now know about their access to the Prism programme, appear to have a similar view. It is vital that we have maximum control over our own metadata. The UK’s ranking in the World Wide Web Foundation’s Web Index is reduced by concerns over the UK Government’s attitude to privacy rights. I hope that Communications Data Bill will not resurface in its previous form. Therefore, I welcome the campaign, the Web We Want, and the statement of 19 December co-ordinated by the foundation.
I also welcome the recognition by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport of the need for adequate filtering to protect young people from online abuse. However, as was discussed in this House only recently with the Online Safety Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, should we not be making filtering compulsory? Is it enough simply to leave it up to parents to make the choice about appropriate safety features?
There is concern about the content of online music videos, highlighted among others by Reg Bailey in his review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children. The proposed amendment to the Video Recordings Act is designed to ensure that content presently exempt from classification but unsuitable and potentially harmful for younger children will in future require BBFC classification. However, it covers only hard copy video works. Should not online music videos containing sexual or explicit content be subject to the same age ratings and regulations? As my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has advocated, we also need better guidance for young people about the dangers of online pornography.
I also ask my perennial question to my noble friend the Minister. When can we expect full implementation of the Digital Economy Act 2010 or at least an alternative effective remedy to combat online copyright piracy? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on setting the scene so brilliantly. In my three minutes I will speak only of health, where the world wide web already contributes enormously but where there is much more to come.
The web enables clinicians to access information where and when they need it, which is ever more important in a world where, for example, there are now more than 6,000 different disease entities. It also enables them to consult colleagues. Organisations such as the Swinfen Charitable Trust, run by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and his wife, allow clinicians in even the most remote and isolated locations in the world to consult a network of clinicians in every discipline. The web also helps meet patients’ demand for information and empowerment. For example, there are 27 million views of NHS Choices a month and 1 million patient reviews of services on the site. It also allows for the remote monitoring of patients where, with the whole system demonstrator, the NHS leads the world in terms of evidence-based use of this technology at significant scale. There is even patient self-treatment. There is an excellent programme called “Beating the Blues”, which is designed to do exactly what its name implies, and I wonder whether this is the first internet-delivered treatment available on NHS prescription. If so, I am sure there will be many more.
A very important point has been made about inclusion, where again there is much to do. The sickest are probably the least able to access help electronically, but conversely the web offers much greater reach to people than otherwise. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, as the nation’s digital inclusion champion.
However, progress in health has not, perhaps, been as a fast as one might have expected because behaviour change is slow in health and redesign involves many other aspects of health systems. This is problematic but not necessarily always a bad thing. It is important that, in a subject as crucial as people’s health, evidence of impact and effectiveness is properly weighed and we should not rush in just because something seems attractive.
I conclude on a point where we need national and international co-ordination. I am privileged to be one of the Global eHealth ambassadors, in a programme chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It exists to promote telemedicine and e-health globally. It sees e-health as a means of transforming healthcare delivery to make it economically and socially much more sustainable. It campaigns for some standardisation of systems and methodologies in e-health to ensure that data can be properly shared and that every clinician can judge the reliability and effectiveness of the electronic tools they are offered. We need a global framework for this. This is very ambitious but much of the infrastructure to sustain that transformation already exists. The programme gives an example of one of those wonderful internet facts. It asserts that there are now more cell phones in Africa than toothbrushes. I am not sure that we can verify this assertion but we have known for years that toothbrushes are essential for health and we now know that cell phones and the world wide web are even more essential.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on introducing a party into this Chamber. Perhaps the screens should have moving images and the lights should move much more quickly.
The world wide web is a wonderful development but it is full of challenges. It is a mixed bag, as we have heard from a number of noble Lords. Regarding health, I was part of the IF campaign for enough food for everybody, and the web enabled that campaign to involve all kinds of people. It was inclusive, flexible, transparent, participative and enormously successful. The web is the new political tool.
On the other hand, I have been involved in debates in the past couple of months in this Chamber—as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, hinted—about online pornography, the objectification of women and the bullying of young people. There is a dark side to the internet and we should not be surprised at that, given that this is human nature engaging with a wonderful invention with all kinds of dark possibilities.
I am reminded from my experience of being a university teacher that when students writing an essay searched the web to fill up a couple of pages, you could always tell—the information just did not fit with the main argument because they did not understand the angle it came from. The information that the web is so wonderful at making available needs interpretation. Wisdom is interpretation on a very wide scale—a big picture—and the bigger the picture, the more you can see, appreciate and interpret.
The marvel of this world wide web is that you can now hold it in the palm of your hand, and, with one finger—or two thumbs, if you are more dextrous than me—control the web and have the information come to you. That raises huge questions about how we help people interpret all the information, temptation and possibilities. My simple question is: what is the role of a Government concerned about human rights and human welfare in trying to give people a hinterland and some tools, with allies—which allies the Government would recognise is another question—so that there is a big picture to help people interpret? People talk about giving parental control. That is a technical solution, but parents and others need a kind of hinterland; a wider vision with which all this information can be processed, evaluated and deployed creatively.
My Lords, www.chrisholmes.co.uk—if I am not in the Chamber, that is where you can find me. That is the point; we all need an online presence, or at least an online connection. If we want the best shopping deals, the cheapest flights, the best hotels, or if we want to interact with local or national government, we do so online. When I was a schoolboy, 25 years ago, I had no idea about the world wide web or its potential; I was still playing on my ZX Spectrum.
Latterly, at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, when we were making the Games’ website, we were profoundly aware of the impact that it could have. It was the most visited website of the year, reaching billions around the world to become the first truly new-media Olympic and Paralympic Games. That is the point; we need to be online, and yet millions suffer on the wrong side of the digital divide, for reasons of age and geography, for social and economic reasons, or because of disability-related factors. Disabled people who are currently offline number 3.8 million. This has to change. We need to look across the piece at the skills, kit and technology—and, crucially, at ensuring that the best broadband is rolled out right across Britain. I ask my noble friend the Minister to comment specifically on all the points around broadband.
The coming decade will be fascinating, not least in the relationship between our on and offline environments, such as the connection between bricks and clicks in retail. Click and collect was excellently delivered this Christmas by our retailers, not least John Lewis. In a wider context, to see how the internet has impacted politics, we should look to Libya and Egypt. There is all this to come, and the time moves so quickly in this internet age.
Similarly, considering where the next steps will come from, we have already heard about issues of online security. As Eric Schmidt of Google said, “Mea culpa, we didn’t think criminals would show up”. It is crucial that we make this environment safe and secure. A lot of that will tie in with the quality and credibility of the content that is online: how it is ranked, how we access it, whether we can rely on what we are reading online and how we can make sure that we are secure while we are there.
In short, we have to consider accessibility in its widest possible sense. We have to consider usability in its widest possible sense. As has already been mentioned by noble Lords, we need inclusion and inclusivity in their widest possible senses. We need to ensure that we do not construct in the internet world artificial, exclusionary barriers and steps in cyberspace.
I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for bringing a party to the House and apologise for raining a little on the parade. I declare an interest as having recently made a documentary film about teenagers and the net. I am specifically raising the issue of how data relate to young people today.
Unlike the early cry of “free, open and democratic”, we are all aware that the web has become monetised with a value that is entirely dependent on harvesting data—data created by our interacting as much as humanly possible with the commercial platforms on the web. The millions spent on the vast and incremental experimentation of combining neuroscience and technology to keep us attached to our devices is not disputed by those who do it, but it fuels a culture of compulsion, disclosure and distraction that has a particular implication for young people who are not yet fully formed.
Our young people are growing up with devices that act as their telephone, post box, camera, scrapbook, family album, newspaper and school pigeonhole. In using those devices they routinely relinquish ownership of every interaction, private and public. It is worth reminding ourselves that, in this context, the data we are talking about are actually the intimate details of young people in their period of greatest personal developmental and social change. It is as if we are taking their bedrooms and putting them up for sale on eBay. We have allowed a situation to develop in which it is legal for a multibillion dollar industry to own, wholly and in perpetuity, the intimate and personal details of children. We all know that this space is moving so fast that we do not really know what might happen to it in the future.
In every other part of life, children are children, and we take a view on their level of maturity and accompanying levels of responsibility. We protect them from every other addictive substance. On the net, it seems, we are asking that they take responsibility on their own, even as we denude them of power over, and ownership of, their own histories.
I did want to come to the party. I was an early adopter and I love the internet. It has delivered previously unimaginable opportunities that hold within them the full gamut of human creativity, but it is not without cost. We have a responsibility in this House to ensure that it is not the next generation who pay the price. In July last year, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that,
“when it comes to the internet in the balance between freedom and responsibility we’ve neglected our responsibility to children … So we’ve got to be more active, more aware, more responsible about what happens online. And when I say we I mean we collectively: governments, parents, internet providers and platforms, educators and charities”.
I could not agree more.
At 25, the world wide web, unlike many of its young users, has reached the age of maturity. What better celebration could we have than designing and putting in place a regulatory framework that protects young people from the routine collection of their data, to be stored and sold in perpetuity without any recourse or protection?
My Lords, I join the queue in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on having initiated this debate, and say what a great addition she is to your Lordships’ House. That is my three minutes more or less gone.
I will be more extravagant than most other speakers so far and say that the internet has been the greatest transformative force in history bar none, because of the speed of its transformation; as has already been mentioned: it took 20 years. The invention of writing is perhaps the only parallel, but that took 5,000 years and was the prerogative only of elites. It is the greatest transformative force because of its scope, because it is the instrument of globalisation on a level never seen before; and because of its intensity—it enters all our lives. We see people going along the streets who cannot let go of their mobile phone. It has become an intrinsic part of who they are. There has never been anything like this before in history, so it is not surprising that it is rather difficult to come to terms with its longer-term impact.
I will make some brief comments on higher education and the advent of MOOCs. MOOCs are not a kind of medieval curse; the acronym stands for massive open online courses, which promise to be deeply transformative of universities. When I was running the LSE about 15 years ago, we all thought that the future of universities would be online. We had consortia with other universities in the United States, but that did not really work. The only experiment that worked a bit was with the University of Phoenix, which was more or less an online university.
MOOCs are transforming that situation. Now these courses are being adopted by the elite American universities: Harvard, MIT and Stanford. They promise to be both deeply shocking to traditional universities and also to add to their armoury. In this country we lag behind. The Open University is in the forefront, but the Americans—as before, perhaps—are well in the lead.
The advent of massive online courses will not see the end of the campus-based university, because such universities have other things to offer. We are not having this debate online, but in your Lordships’ Chamber. There is what sociologists call the “compulsion of proximity”—the need to be with other people—and the added value of having been to a campus-based university. However, massive online courses will probably transform universities as fundamentally as Amazon has transformed the book trade; that is the future they offer.
They also offer the opposite—the digital divide, which has been referred to by many people. Billions of people will be able to follow these courses online and interact with other people in real time, in seminar groups across the world. That will be possible for billions of people in Africa, for example. It will be like mobile phones; Africa will be able to jump a stage in the evolution of education.
I conclude by saying, “Don’t go all high-tech”, because back to the future will often be one of our political remedies. We used to think that the car was the instrument of the future, but now we are going back to bicycling and walking. That will be true of all areas. I wave my piece of paper, but that is not because I think I am just a remnant of a previous age; there will be many areas where simple, back to the future solutions will be just as important as technologically developed ones.
My Lords, the great thing about anniversaries is that they happen every year. I suggest to the noble Baroness that she puts in her diary now the date 16 January 2015 and that we do this all again. I am making a sensible point there: we should be having annual debates about the effect of the digital revolution we face. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, as the internet is certainly the most transformative thing that has happened in my lifetime and is something that we cannot ignore.
As chairman of the Information Committee in your Lordships’ House I was absolutely delighted—that is the only word I can use—when I heard that the noble Baroness was joining us, because I was sure that she would have an effect on the way we work. We have been engaged in parliamentary business for 700 years. We are now facing a change in circumstances that will require revolutionary methods of responding if we are not to fall far behind. The process of legislation that is the important duty of this House will become more difficult to deliver if we do not respond to the degree of challenge we now face.
I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness about the three or four values she set out as absolute necessities for the future: inclusion, transparency and openness, in that order. As somebody who is involved and interested in social security, inclusion for me is first: the last thing we need in this country is a digital divide that is exacerbated by leaving a huge proportion of our population behind. That is something to which we must attend.
In the next two minutes, I want to persuade your Lordships that we have a serious problem in the way we do business here if we are to keep up with the change that is coming. The nexus of mobile working together with cloud computing, social media and big data information that is about to happen to us, if it is not happening already, is extraordinary. If we continue to ignore it, we will be leaving the process of engagement and disengagement with Parliament in a much more difficult position over the next few years. Somebody said to me the other day that, by 2017, 75% of all government data will be in the public domain, so we cannot continue to go on the way we are going.
There is good news. Now that we have a completely wi-fied parliamentary precinct, which was a welcome decision by the administration, we will—although this will be troublesome for some Members, and I am sorry we cannot avoid that—be rolling out Windows 365 during the rest of this year. It is hoped that by the summer we will all be capable of moving and working at the same time. I exhort Members to take advantage of the possibilities now being offered.
However, in the future we need to get a plan for a digital political system of operating in Parliament. Otherwise, the public will leave us behind completely, which will not be good for Parliament or for the rest of the country.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for bringing to bear her expertise, which I hope to test further towards the end of my three minutes.
Education is at the root of so much with which we concern ourselves in this House. What is the greatest prerequisite of education? I say that it is curiosity. When we think that, thanks to the web and the internet, I can in a second summon up a page of an original Bach manuscript, look at a detail of a Leonardo da Vinci sketch or put in a line of Shakespeare and have the context quoted back to me almost immediately, it is little wonder that students and children, young and old alike, find tuition and research on the web. We owe much to it for that.
Even your Lordships, when they cannot be here for a whole day, can keep au fait with what is going on in this House and, perhaps more fundamentally, taxpayers can see what we are up to and what Members are up to in the other place. I often wonder what Moses might have thought, had he had access to the web, and how much trouble it would have saved him, but then he probably would have been rather horrified at the way the commandments are being broken on the web as well as acceded to. Certainly, to pick up on an earlier remark, this morning’s news item from the Philippines is a good example of things that we have to be careful about and legislate against, for the web is a double-edged sword.
If I might speak now as a composer, there are problems. Frankly, I am hugely flattered when I find that people have accessed my music, legally or illegally, on the web. My publishers, record companies and instrumental players and singers are slightly less happy, because they do not get the rewards due to them. Here comes my challenge to my noble friend and to the Minister: really, there is a problem here. I love it that so many people come into my shop, if you like, but it is a worry that they can take things off the shelves without paying for them—a worry not only for the people I mentioned but for the bills that other composer colleagues have to pay. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, we have not managed to deal with copyright exception measures, especially the copyright infringement provisions, which have not yet been implemented.
I know that this is a very difficult area to police, but if the noble Baroness and, in particular, the Minister, would look at this area, they would be doing good to a section of the creative industry that brings a huge amount into the economy, whether it be the Beatles, Radiohead, Coldplay, Peter Maxwell Davies or Harrison Birtwistle. You need to protect that which we are bringing into your economy.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her magnificent speech, I must say that she and I belong to a very exclusive club in your Lordships’ House: we are both IT entrepreneurs, although there are a few others. I pay every tribute to all she has done. For the help she has given in the skills sector through Go ON and for the help she has given me in my role in Labour Digital, I thank her again.
In 1967 at the age of 24, I joined what was then called the data processing industry. I was a systems engineer, and the first central processor I ever worked on was an IBM 360/30. It had 64,000 bits of memory and it cost £65,000 to buy. The CPU was a huge box with dials and lights on it. It was kept in a dedicated air-conditioned environment and it must have weighed a ton. Input was via punched cards. Today, I have an iPhone 5 in my pocket, which has a million times more memory and costs one-thousandth of the price. It has no air conditioning, no punched cards and input is via touch or voice. This is Moore’s law in action, with processing speeds doubling every 18 months.
The world wide web needed not only massive leaps in computing speed but also massive leaps in communication ability. We all remember fax machines that connected at 9,600 bits per second—how fast they seemed then. My network at home has a speed of 100 megabytes per second—10,000 times as fast. We are witnesses to a revolution in digital that is every bit as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution was 200 years ago. Just as James Watt showed that steam could drive a machine and replace muscle, so Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web has replaced the way we access data, communicate and organise our lives. As coal, oil, petrol and electricity give us energy to power our lives, so digital is now giving us mass access to swathes of information.
I would like to take a look at retail. In the UK, more than 3 million people work in this sector. If you compare the number of employees required for each £1,000 sold online against the numbers required for traditional retailing, the ratio is 1:3, so any move to online retailing is bound to cause significant reductions in employment. Last year, Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster all went bust due to their own technology myopia. There are many more to come. In the past week we have seen that, over the holidays, the quantity of retail sales completed online reached 20%—a massive increase. The retailers who are succeeding are those who embraced online many years ago. However, Morrisons was never interested in online retailing, and we have seen what is happening to that company.
I have cited retail, but I could have mentioned schools, universities, medicine or even government itself. All these sectors are changing at a very rapid pace. As other noble Lords have mentioned, the next big thing will be wearable technology. What we see before us is Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” on steroids. The digital revolution is sweeping all before it. Those who embrace it will prosper, and I suspect that those who do not will mostly perish.
My Lords, I, too, would like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox on such an inspiring introductory speech to the debate.
As some noble Lords have said, the internet, which Sir Tim Berners-Lee opened up in 1988, has become the greatest source of information and freely exchanged ideas in history. However, these early ideals are under threat as Governments struggle to try to control this source of free speech. It is not just in undemocratic countries that citizens face being cut off from free access to the world wide web; the threat to the freedom and openness of the internet extends into western democracies as well and concerns all of us in the United Kingdom.
I fear that the independence of the international organisations that run the internet is in danger. I would like to draw your Lordships’ attention to what is happening to two of these bodies. At the moment, an independent body, the Internet Engineering Task Force, decides on the protocols for the internet—that is, the nuts and bolts of how it is run. Its role is vital as it selects the technology to ensure easy and unimpeded movement of information, safeguarding security for people who bank, trade and move sensitive information across the net. Likewise, ICANN, the phonebook of the internet, is an independent, not-for-profit organisation. At the moment, its ownership and control are evolving.
However, there are determined attempts, led by Russia and some Middle East Governments, to subvert the independent control of these and other organisations which run the internet. These Governments want them to become part of the United Nations International Telecommunication Union. If they succeed, national Governments will have the final say on how to innovate technology and control access to websites on the internet. They will have the power to negotiate and prohibit the technology as it is rolled out on the internet and even to veto it. The ITU meetings are often held behind closed doors, with civic and user organisations excluded.
These Governments also want ICANN to come into the ITU, opening the possibility that Governments who do not like whole categories of websites could try to cut them off from the internet by banning them from the directory. I, for one, do not think that this offers a guarantee of free speech. Sir Tim Berners-Lee said that the running of the internet should be left to its users rather than to a UN agency representing the world’s Governments, which would only interfere further with its openness.
For some years now there have been attempts to set up independent multi-stakeholder control of these crucial internet bodies. That approach would allow internet companies and citizens to be equal partners with national Governments, so that one group does not abuse another. It would enshrine transparency and open up discussion to ensure that national Governments do not dominate the running of the internet. That issue will be central to the agenda of the internet governance conference to be held in April in Brazil, to which the UK will be sending a sizeable delegation.
I ask the Minister to require that our Government do everything possible to ensure that the bodies which run the internet are not subverted by national Governments opposed to freedom and openness.
My Lords, I confess an interest in that I earn most of my income from the web and that the social enterprise I am promoting at the moment, which is called The Good Careers Guide, depends for its potential success entirely on web technologies, so I am perforce an optimist for the web but, I hope, a rational one.
As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, we are in the middle of an unprecedented upheaval, but we probably do not yet realise the size of its consequences. I am optimistic that this will lead to a far better world than we have at the moment, but we will have to work hard to make sure that it does. We in Parliament have a very important role to play in that, acting in the interests of citizens and the country to tame the forces which might otherwise overwhelm us.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, talked about the importance of education and of including all our citizens in the benefits of the internet. Doubtless, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, will also speak about that. I entirely agree with that.
I hope, too, that we will take a stand against those parts of the internet which have become, or seem to be becoming, more powerful than states. We should stand beside Sherlock Holmes in confronting our digital Charles Augustus Magnussens and the amoral, all-knowing Amazon, Google, Facebook and others. I think we should stop short of Sherlock Holmes’s solution of actually shooting them, but we should stand up to them. We should not allow them to use legal tax avoidance to destroy our own domestic companies which cannot take advantage of the routes that the international companies do.
We also have to take a strong look at ownership. I own my library, which was my parents’ library and my grandparents’ library and beyond that, but my children will have no library. All they are being offered at the moment is the opportunity to rent, and they will have nothing to give to their children. That is the other side of the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Why I do not approve of piracy is because the owners of copyright are trying to deprive us of the right of ownership once we have paid for it. We need something along the lines of an information right—something to give us as citizens the right over our own information against the all-powerful organisations which have made themselves a necessary part of life and demand all our information and all power over it if we are to use their services.
Politics and politicians have a very important part to play in the future of the internet. I very much hope that the Government will face up to that.
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Baroness for the opportunity to discuss and debate this subject. I declare an interest as I am a very pale imitation of the noble Baroness and I struggle to match her achievements: I am the national digital champion of the Republic of Ireland. Through the Open University, Promethean and the Times Educational Supplement, I have been able to engage with education transformation right across the piece.
I start with some amazingly good news. Ten days ago, on 6 January, 1 million teachers shared lesson plans and ideas with each other across the web on this one day at the beginning of term. Not only did that possibility not exist at all in 2008, but that degree of co-operation would have been unimaginable during the six years that I worked with the Department of Education not that long ago. Quite extraordinary things are taking place but, as has been said, the digital world is both a creator and, potentially, a destroyer of jobs, even of lives. I do not believe that that is fully understood by government or business. In their own ways, both the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, are right: there are extraordinary opportunities and great dangers. Jaron Lanier’s book, Who Owns the Future?, unblinkingly sets out these challenges. He, like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, seeks what he describes as a very humanistic economy enabled by the world wide web. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, suggested that we should seek the web that we want and I agree with her.
In the couple of moments left to me, I want to make a suggestion, which I hope does not sound too Utopian because it is not intended to be so. Governments always tend to be behind the curve on this type of thing but here is a suggestion that I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Bates, in responding, will like very much indeed. Almost 20 years ago, I had the pleasure of serving under the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, in the early days of the National Lottery, looking at ways in which that extraordinary creation of Sir John Major was able genuinely to transform opportunities for arts and other organisations in the UK. Similarly, an amazing statistic—I rely here entirely on the Email Statistics Report published in Palo Alto last year—is that 183 billion e-mails are sent every day. At the outset, had we had the wit to place a 1p levy on each e-mail—these are unaudited figures—that would generate today £730 billion worldwide. That figure is 29 times the total amount spent by the United Nations and all its agencies each year. It is more than the global aspiration for development and climate change mitigation recommended by the UN. Last year, the need of UNICEF, of which I was UK president, was £1.7 billion, of which only 46% is currently funded. This tiny 1p levy could totally change the landscape of aid and the opportunities for multinational support worldwide.
I realise that it is rather late in the day to suggest this, but there is another advantage. If there were such a levy, it might allow people to pause momentarily before hitting that quite dreadful “Reply to All” button.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of three companies listed in the register which conduct their business on the internet. The world wide web is a veritable miracle of science and technology, captured brilliantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in her opening remarks. Information can be uncovered in seconds which once would have taken days; pictures and news can be shared instantly with friends and family; grandparents can Skype their loved ones in Australia; anyone can set up shop, or start a business, for next to nothing; and individuals are free to express their political and other passions, convictions and beliefs, as never before, unmediated. Events can be broadcast that repressive states once covered up with ease. The internet has enabled, empowered and enriched us. But it also brings worries as well as wonders, and neither nationally nor internationally have we developed an appropriate policy or institutional framework to address them.
In the UK, we have a lively start-up sector, yet we have to look abroad for many of our skills. There is a huge shortage of programmers in some web languages, especially those needed for developing mobile applications, and the UK’s educational bodies are not fleet-footed enough to meet that shortfall. We are tolerating behaviour and actions on the internet that would never be allowed in the physical domain. For a while, Facebook, with spurious justification, believed that videos of beheadings should be allowed on its service. If our banks exploited information about our private transactions in the manner of Google, there would be uproar. If the ugly, threatening, sexist abuse that is harboured routinely on Twitter took place in a pub, it would more often be prosecuted. When Lily Allen criticised online copyright theft, her website was the target of a DDoS—a distributed denial of service—attack by online anarchist warriors, no doubt using malware placed on millions of computers known to the ISPs, but not to their innocent owners, all mounted with impunity.
Online fraud takes place on a gigantic and global scale. In the UK, we neither measure its impact on our citizens, nor do we do anything material to counter it. Without threatening in any way the precious, priceless benefits that the world wide web has brought us, the task over the next 25 years is to extend to it civilised standards and the rule of law.
My Lords, last night, looking at the time limit for today, I tweeted in despair:
“Tomorrow I speak in @Marthalanefox’s Lords debate in 25th birthday of World Wide Web. Time limit of 3 minutes! What’s most important to say?”.
Adam replied from New York:
“That you can simply ask the ‘common folk’ what to spend your 3 minutes saying, just by tweeting the question!”.
So that was that. I will use my time to tell you what my social media followers on the world wide web wanted me to say. I must first refer the House to my entry in the register, in particular as chair of the Tinder Foundation. Thanks to successive government funding, we have helped 1.2 million people to get online since 2010 through UK online centres.
I turn back to Twitter and Facebook, starting with Tom Watson MP:
“Just say: Thanks Tim!”.
Ed Balls just said:
Then Councillor Warren Morgan said:
“The web has connected and empowered, informed and democratised, tackled isolation, built new generations of businesses, spread ideas”.
Susan had the freedom of Facebook to say more:
“Connections through the internet enable ordinary people in different countries to communicate directly with each other, to understand each other better ... It also means lots of people who would otherwise be isolated—whether geographically or because of disability or because they are carers—are able to keep their minds and spirits alive. Politically, it's wonderful. More people can be engaged in trying to influence the decisions a country makes”.
Louise and Peter had a more nuanced view:
“The web is a powerful tool that's used for good and ill. With the freedom the WWW gives comes greater personal responsibility resting on the shoulders of those in power”.
Stephen Heppell asked:
“Why isn’t Tim on a banknote yet?”.
He also wants kids to own their learning data and to have education discounts on connectivity for learners. Ruth agreed and added:
“Plus maybe something about digital exclusion—geographically (it’s still APPALLING in some parts of the country) and demographically (viz poverty). And you ought to celebrate the richness of life brought through cat videos. Probably”.
Helen agreed with Ruth and said:
“Make sure you mention how handy it is for sharing cat videos”.
Emma Mulqueeny just posted another video of her kitten, Grape.
There were also several who celebrated the freedom of the web but worried about who controls it. That was best summed up by Mark, William and Adam who said:
“This will only be persistent as a benefit if we actively seek to protect the neutrality of the network. 25 years can be about celebrating the past but absolutely also needs to be a call for vigilance in developing further an equitable future. We need to address the surveillance problem. And we need personal control over personal data. The freedom and anonymity of the web which is a vital part of its power and vitality is being eaten away by govts and big corps. If this continues a lot of what makes it important will vanish. Sorry to sound like a liberal”.
I have curated all the comments on Storify but will conclude by quoting Owen:
“The web is the single most powerful thing that mankind has ever created but, like most other things, it can be used for good or for evil purposes. What we have to master is giving freedom to the good whilst curbing the evil”.
Finally, from me, thanks Tim for your gift to everyone. You gave it for free to keep it universal. As a result, we all have to change how we do things to make the most of it, for everyone.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for introducing what must be a central topic for all of us. She also asked the right question: what sort of world wide web do we want? There are also the questions of what sort of web we can have and have now.
We are probably living in the twilight of the cyber-romantics who think that zero regulation of everything online is the way we should head. We obviously are not in that situation. The effective and enriching use of the web is life-transforming but depends on the right sort of legislation and regulation in the right places. If we doubt that, we have to think, just for a moment, about all the online shopping that people do and what it has taken for people to have a reasonable degree of confidence about entering that world. Of course, there are other worlds about which they do not have that confidence.
The area of greatest worry to a lot of people is online privacy and surveillance. However, it is odd that they feel it is okay for the Amazons, Googles and others to have their private data but somehow not okay for Governments to have it. That proposition will need to be tested down the route. Commercial power is not negligible.
I should like to ask the Minister some limited questions on privacy. We are, as we know, facing a new data protection regulation, which, if it comes through the process in Brussels, will spread across the entire European Union and ostensibly aims to protect privacy more by raising the standards for consent. Will it do that or will it protect fictions of privacy by allowing fictions of consent to count as legitimating? Do Her Majesty’s Government have a view on that?
I should also like to ask the Minister a question about anonymity. This is a matter of some disagreement. Some people think that online anonymity is highly desirable. They note, of course, that it protects the spamster, the scamster and the cyberbully but feel that that issue should be settled at another level. However, knowing that we are anonymous is, to be sure, liberating but often in dangerous ways. In serious situations, we stand by our words, and free communication depends upon being able to judge what the other party says.
We have heard a good deal in this debate about the merits of transparency. I do not believe that transparency is a sufficient, ethical ideal for online communication. It is a remedy for secrecy but is not sufficient for communication, which is surely what matters, online as much as face to face—being able to judge what others are saying and what they are doing in saying it. Are they, for example, promising something or threatening something? We need to be able to judge not just speech content but speech acts. This can be frustrated in many ways, and I ask the Minister whether he thinks that there are things that we need to do to limit online anonymity in order to protect the future possibilities of online communication.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness on her introduction to this historic debate. While the internet impacts on every aspect of life, two areas of society affected most are education and the media.
The changes that have taken place in education have been breathtaking, not least for adults who benefit in terms of lifelong learning. I think, for instance, of the work of the Royal College of Music, on whose council I sit, and I declare an interest accordingly. One of the hallmarks of the RCM’s wonderful teaching is the virtuoso master class. Each year 4,500 people attend them, but by making them available online, a much bigger audience can participate. Consider this: in the past three months alone, more than 60,000 people have watched one of those master classes, more than had attended all master classes in person in the previous decade. The RCM is also pioneering an online resource to teach people the basics of music theory. So far, it has delivered more than 200,000 lessons to more than 50,000 students in 50 countries. That is the great egalitarian, inclusive side of the internet—making things possible for those who, a generation ago, could never have dreamt of achieving something such as that.
The media is another area where change has been dramatic, and I declare my interest as director of the Telegraph Media Group. While some suggest that the internet is destroying the media, the truth is the opposite for innovative and enterprising companies because of the new audiences that the web provides. The Telegraph was the first paper to get a website, back in 1994, but at that time its audience was limited to those who read newspapers in the UK. Twenty-five years on, audiences are global, and when people want authoritative news analysis, it is trusted news brands to which they turn. During the London Olympics, the Telegraph website alone attracted a record 408 million page views— 220 million here in the UK and 190 million abroad.
Local newspapers, too, are seeing strong growth in online audiences. Three regional publishers, including the owners of the Scotsman, the Northern Echo and the Manchester Evening News passed 10 million monthly online readers last year, a massive figure, considering the geographical limits on their print circulation. Of course, newspapers still face huge challenges in this age of the internet: protecting copyright, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, said; monetising digital content; and adapting business models. Gaining a global audience also means attracting global competition. Such a period of transition is proving to be painful for many in publishing but it is change that is absolutely essential for survival. For those who are succeeding, the internet is taking the UK’s iconic newspaper and magazine titles and turning them into global media brands.
I conclude with this point in praise of the web: with so much content from so many publishers, the vast majority of them individuals, being provided in so many jurisdictions, any attempt to censor the web through legal or statutory regulation is ultimately doomed to failure. This point is vital to any debate about press regulation, which is dear to my heart, but which was, ironically, completely ignored during the Leveson inquiry, which was an analogue inquiry for our digital world. What the web, in all its glorious anarchy, has done is to make any form of statutory press control futile in an online age. As someone who believes passionately in freedom of expression, that is one of many good reasons to say, “Happy anniversary”.
My Lords, I am grateful to be able to contribute to this welcome debate on the world wide web and the internet, a key aspect of technology and society. More debates on this area will persuade sceptical scientists and technologists to accept that Parliament is relevant. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, will take over Harold Wilson’s position as probably the only, or best known, prominent politician to be identified with technology and society in the past 40 years.
The Met Office, of which I was the chief executive, was one of the first agencies of government to apply the web in its operations. It may surprise noble Lords that in the 1980s the Met Office used not only the radio fax but Morse code. Many of our operators had to learn it; in fact, I learnt it as a boy from my great-aunt. That shows how far we have come. Morse code was then needed to take data from Atlantic weather ships, which, of course, do not exist any more.
In the 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee discussed with the Met Office how weather forecasts, data and research could be helped by the new developments. In fact, he then gave advice to Gordon Brown’s Government about the importance of opening up data. That has been a big change in the past 30 or 40 years. The World Meteorological Organisation’s congress in 1995 established the new approach. The UN has come in for some criticism this afternoon but it has certainly helped in some areas, including openness of data. The great thing now is that with this data, it is possible for users to be informed about alternatives, from weather forecasts to purchases. That will give people more confidence in many senses.
However, as others have commented, there are dangers. The security of the web is a dodgy business—I was swindled last year. Every time I give a credit card to someone, I fear for my life but, obviously, most other people do not. Of course, I do not fear for my life in the restaurant in the House of Lords; I am very confident there.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, commented, new users of the internet are often weakest and poorest, not only in this country but around the world. So the fact that hurricanes and typhoons can be forecast more accurately and then displayed on the web provides enormous assistance and life-saving help to some communities. In Myanmar—Burma to some people—the coastal communities do not have the web, so hundreds of thousands of people died in the hurricane in 2011.
Air pollution is now predicted in many urban areas: it was used in Beijing and used in London. This can be predicted right down to street levels. If you look at the number 73 bus, it will tell you that if you have breathing difficulties, get a message from your doctor and then you get this information. But this information—I have been talking about it and everybody has been talking about it—is essentially one-way information in terms of technical information. Now, however, we have the possibility of people providing information back. There is a fascinating example from Manila, which was able to deal with floods in a way that we could perhaps learn about in the UK. People there have mobile phones and send back information in the form of a colour—yellow, red or green—as to whether the water has reached their ankles, their knees, their thighs or their shoulders. This goes to a central centre, which can see where all the water is travelling in terms of height; it then runs its computer programs hour by hour and tells people whether to get out or to stay put. This is what is called the “web 2.0”—this business of much more feedback between people—and it is part of the new revolution.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, deserves our thanks for instigating this debate on what is surely the most transformative innovation of the past decades. I will focus on how the web is impacting just two things: research and education. Web archives, electronic journals, blogs and wikis have levelled the academic playing field globally and have democratised research.
The involvement of amateurs has been traditional in sciences such as botany, but the scope for citizen scientists is now much wider. In my subject of astronomy, for instance, there is so much data that the professionals cannot scrutinise them fully. It is now possible for eagle-eyed amateurs to access archives and themselves discover new planets or galaxies. Likewise, large datasets in genetics, healthcare and environmental science can be accessed anywhere. This openness can promote the progress of science, the understanding of it and trust in it. The web’s benefits to research spread beyond the sciences. For example, amateur scholars are reading and transcribing ships’ log books from the 18th and 19th centuries, unearthing fascinating social history as well as important data for climate scientists.
What about education? Here I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. The web may thankfully have a disruptive and benign effect on some unsatisfactory features of formal education, especially higher education. It will offer access to an ever-growing menu of outstanding courses—star lecturers and teachers will have a global reach. Traditional universities will survive only in so far as their faculties offer mentoring and personal contact with their students.
The Open University model—distance learning supplemented by a network of local tutors and mentors—surely has vastly more potential in the era of the web and smart phone than when it was founded back in the age of black and white TV. We can all freely access wonderful material on the OU’s Openlearn website, much prepared jointly with the BBC. In the United States, two organisations, edX and Coursera, disseminate MOOC courses developed by leading universities. The OU has set up a similar system called FutureLearn. I think all UK universities should seize the opportunity to widen their impact via the web. In particular, they should do this by supporting the Open University and by contributing content to FutureLearn rather than getting locked into one of the American platforms. The OU and the BBC have unrivalled reputations in their sectors. It is surely in this country’s interests that they should set the gold standard for web education and strive for a global reach.
The opening speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, was an inspiring one. I hope it is widely disseminated. The first thing I would like to do is to echo her call on the Government to find a way of recognising the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention. This is, after all, the country that invented the industrial revolution, the second one that changed mankind out of all shape following the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s step is another giant step on the road for this country and we ought to recognise it as much as other countries do, where you often see public memorials to him even before he is dead, which is quite an achievement. I congratulate him again on that.
My second point is that this moves very fast. I started my blog as a Member of Parliament in the early part of this century. There were just three of us who did it. I then moved it here to the House of Lords under “Lords of the Blog” and it is still going, but I slipped off the edge a bit and I need to reinvent myself. One of the beauties of the world wide web and the internet is that you can actually reinvent yourself. As someone said earlier, you actually can stimulate your own mind in doing so, although I might need the assistance of the noble Lord’s 94 year-old friend to give me a leg up on the situation. I might have to give him a call.
We have talked a lot today about how the web and the internet will change the way everyone works. We do not talk enough about how it will change this place and the way we do politics. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, touched on that point. We really have not thought that through. I give a simple example: the argument about security and privacy, which came to the fore with the revelations about the interception of messages. The Bill that we passed five or six years ago was out of date technologically before it received Royal Assent. Many of the Acts of Parliament that we enact now are also technologically out of date. We have to find a way for Parliament to modify laws as we move on. We have tended over the years to have a system where we simply added amendments or changes or a new Act every five, 10 or 15 years. The speed of change is so great, however, that on anything involving technology, we get left behind.
My last message is to the political parties. I am no longer involved in drawing up manifestos, thank heavens, but all the parties need to have a very clear statement about science and technology in their manifestos for the next election, particularly on how they are going to approach the privacy and security of the world wide web and the internet. It is profoundly important. There are very exciting possibilities here. We really can change the way we do politics and involve people in the political process much more effectively than we have done in the past. It is not easy to work out how to do this, but we need to respond to how people are thinking about things and how we can create politics out of ideas and movements rather than just carry on with political parties in the older form.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the others who have thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for securing this debate and launching it so comprehensively. It seems impossible to believe that it was only in 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee presented his bosses at CERN with a paper that foreshadowed the web. He got it back with the comment scrolled on the top: “Vague but exciting”. How exciting it turned out to be.
The world wide web has changed lives, generally for the better. It has fuelled revolutions and shrunk the world. I speak as a trustee of the British Museum. The world wide web has made the contents of that museum available to anyone anywhere. There are 3.5 million objects now online and they are visited all the time. The web site traffic grew last year by 47% to 19.5 million visits. Yesterday, the museum celebrated its 255th birthday with a record number of visits, fuelled by a Google doodle.
However, we need to be discriminating. This is no comment on the Lords of the Blog or the noble Lord, Lord Soley, but there is quite a lot of rubbish on the web. One of my favourite cartoons was in the New Yorker and it showed two dogs looking at each other. One says to the other, “Do you blog?” The other says, “I’ve stopped. I’ve just gone back to incessant stupid barking”. There is some wonderful stuff on the web, but there is also a lot of rubbish and policing is never going to work. The net will always be ahead of those who try to police it. Perhaps that is why even some respectable news organisations seem to apply different standards to what they put online to what they put in print.
Wikipedia of course is a wonderful source, but it is not infallible. The users of the web have to learn to discriminate. They have to apply their own judgment. Nevertheless, it is an amazing force for good. It has changed lives for the better, not just by enabling people to shop the world, but to educate themselves and entertain themselves. As the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, explained to us, it is also a wonderful way for some people, who may be housebound, to combat the loneliness that affects so many.
I have only one question for the Minister. In the internet age, why on earth are we providing free television licences for people, taxed or not taxed, when perhaps we should be offering them subsidised broadband?
My Lords, I should like to talk about the benefits as opposed to the risks that the linking together of people can bring to the UK in different dimensions—not just in huge organisations but in small, not just for the young but for our age, not just for big data but for human stories and not just for global but for local.
In retail, the internet works for big firms but also for small independent businesses such as that of my daughter, Susie Stone, who has a new vibrant couture business in which I declare an interest. The internet is incredibly useful for her and other SMEs. Via social media and networking sites, the global reach of the internet allows such small firms to share ideas, collaborate, promote their work and have success.
It is not just for the young. Ten years ago, customers at N Brown group, most of whom are over the age of 45, bought online 2% of sales. Now it is 58%; over £400 million. Its CEO, Angela Spindler, says that the group is developing relationships through the web making shopping for fashion easier and more enjoyable, regardless of customers’ size and age. Also, very traditional British retail names, such as Burberry and Jaeger, and some that are new but becoming traditional, such as Jigsaw and Paul Smith, can now spread their wings and fly all over the world. “Ah!”, people say. “But what about the high street? It’s being destroyed by online”. Nope. Believe me, even with the growth of these so-called dark stores, the physical marketplace will not disappear. A new Israeli start-up, Appick Shopping, will launch a new internet technology in the high street soon to make shopping more enjoyable. It is coming to London because it knows that we in the UK spread shopping technologies to the world.
The web can be a vehicle for coherence for all beings. Its dangers lie not in the technology, but in whether users act mindfully. It can work in peacemaking, not only globally but locally. In Jerusalem, PICO—People, Ideas, Community, Opportunities—has an exciting new concept in co-working shared space, creating a grassroots change in a complex neighbourhood. It sets out to include both the Arab and Jewish communities in West Jerusalem and will link with a similar set-up in East Jerusalem. The web crosses the physical walls and those of culture and language.
In world health, we use not only big data, but also patients’ personal stories. Healthtalkonline knows that patients and their loved ones need more than just medical facts when facing illness. The site provides real people’s experience shared on digital film to help others understand what it is really like to have an illness. It covers more than 80 illnesses and conditions and gets 3 million unique visits a year.
Oxford University’s research is of such a high standard that it is now working with universities and hospitals in 10 countries, from the Far East to Canada. DIPEx International is now a global charity. Recognising the growing importance of the third sector, the new social innovation commission is bringing together leading experts, entrepreneurs and parliamentarians around the intersection between social enterprise, impact investing and crowd funding to develop this field.
Finally, on health, this Government are part-privatising the health service, which creates fragmentation. We should have a system of whole person care using the world wide web to move in health from fragmentation to integration. By the way, can some techie tell me how it is that other noble Lords in three minutes speak much more slowly than I do and yet seem to say more?
My Lords, the noble Lord may be about to be proved wrong. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, was concerned that we would think we were going to receive a masterclass and would be disappointed, but that is indeed what we received. When she asked if I would contribute to this debate, she said it would be good if the youth wing of the House were represented. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, showed, this is an invention for all ages and for all time to come.
If the noble Baroness and I have anything in common, it is that we were the last generation of children to go through school without any online resources. We were the last to have our childhood with no online play and no online interaction with other children. This now happens around the world. Today we are debating an empowering invention. There are some areas where we need to consider the dark side, but the rest of my contribution will be about the positives: the platform it is providing for future generations of young people who will be more creative and entrepreneurial and will invent great things that we cannot comprehend today. It will be the platform for our future leaders.
In essence, the world wide web is a means for humans to communicate, celebrate, inspire, amuse, insult and learn. My business card is printed on the last Victorian printing press in Scotland, Robert Smail’s printing works in Innerleithen. Some 150 years ago, that print works promoted passage and communication to Canada and the new world for people wishing to leave Scotland. With this e-mail and web address, people from my own family who moved to Canada can now communicate with me instantaneously through the world wide web. The motive to communicate is the same: it is the mechanism that is different.
A number of years ago, at the National Library of Scotland, I held in my hand the second book to be printed in Scotland; it was printed in 1509. Today, I have it in my pocket, along with Magna Carta, the US declaration of independence, Ann Frank’s diary and a fair few movies produced by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. The noble Baroness mentioned Taiwan. I was there as a guest of the Government just after Christmas. We have also heard Sherlock Holmes mentioned in today’s debate. You might think this a slightly incongruous link, but when I was there, using the Taipei-wide wi-fi system that is free to anyone, local resident or tourist, I read the South China Post, which reported that 2.8 million people had watched the new episode of “Sherlock” on their version of YouTube.
It is an exciting, empowering invention—but, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, it is also a challenge for this place. If we are to have genuinely open participation and an open democracy, we also need an open Parliament and an online Parliament.
Finally, I mentioned Innerleithen not just to plug my former constituency but because it is about to receive superfast, fibre to the cabinet and fibre to the property broadband of up to 300 megabits per second. The community wanted it and won a competition from BT. They put pressure on the Scottish Government. I hope that we will put pressure on the UK Government to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom have the right infrastructure to allow us to utilise the invention to the full.
My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for introducing this very topical debate and for her excellent overview of the subject. I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of Silicon Valley Bank and as someone who has been involved for several years in building and managing data centres.
We now live in a hyperconnected world in which a number of technologies work together to provide a new paradigm for work and private life. The nature of the workplace has dramatically changed, with more and more people working from home in the so-called virtual workplace. With cloud computing, and mobile and work collaboration platforms, this has resulted in anytime, anywhere, on-demand access to information which can only grow. The web has also enabled entrepreneurs, young and old, to build global businesses that from their early stages can reach customers and partners in all parts of the globe. It has huge potential for job creation.
Although there is satisfactory broadband connectivity in most major cities in the United Kingdom, we have a long way to go to provide adequate broadband to rural communities. I share the concerns of most of your Lordships who have spoken about the need for more action to be taken to address the digital divide. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox that digital skills need to be embedded. We have moved, in a very short time, from an analogue age to a digital age to an on-demand age—and, now, to an interconnected age. Mobile and cloud are converging to create a new platform that can provide unlimited computer resources, unconstrained by traditional memory, processing and battery life.
It is extraordinary that more than 1 billion people are connecting on Facebook alone on a monthly basis. There is no doubt that media convergence has opened up myriad opportunities, but it has also posed a number of challenges that will need to be constantly monitored and addressed by Ofcom. I agree with my noble friend Lady O’Neill that there will be a need for some form of additional regulation. Although we have all heard of the benefits of the mobile internet, cloud computing and the so-called internet of things, we are increasingly subject to growing security risks, often referred to as botnet threats. There is no doubt that cybersecurity breaches threaten both individual and business data, and business continuity.
Time restricts me from addressing another major concern, the dark web or deep web, which has been used for illicit activity. A lot more focus needs to be placed on controlling the content of the deep web.
In conclusion, although challenges remain with security and privacy concerns, we are in a period of profound and exciting change.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for making this timely debate possible, and for her inspiring speech. The irony is that most of the history of the web is ahead of us. The internet is far from reaching its full potential as an agent of empowerment. The reality is that only 25% of the world’s population currently use the web, and in this year, 7 million adults in the UK have never used it. The noble Baroness emphasised the importance of inclusion, which was part of the vision of Sir Tim Berners-Lee for universal access.
However, there is a group that is excluded from access to the internet by way of government policy. I am not asking the Government to change the policy, but to modify it in relation to some within that group. Its members are part of the digital divide and they are on the wrong side. At present, UK prisoners are excluded from the internet. We imprison more people than any other nation in Europe and our prisons are full to capacity, with more than 85,000 prisoners, but the policy is not working. More than 70% of prisoners reoffend within the first year of release, and major factors concerning reconviction are a lack of education and training, and the inability to gain employment.
For low-security, category D open prisons, I suggest that where prisoners are preparing for release back into the world, the intranet or even the internet under controlled supervision should be made accessible for training, education and researching job opportunities. It should be a privilege to be earned and not a right. Some 74% of UK prison governors surveyed this year by the Prison Reform Trust believed that low-risk prisoners should have secure and controlled access to the internet as part of their release process. Norway and Australia are among the countries leading the way on internet provision in prison, where it has led to decreasing reconviction rates.
The other issue I would like to raise is that of cyberbullying. Some 28% of 11 to 16 year-olds have been targeted, threatened or humiliated by an individual or a group through the use of mobile phones or the internet. For a quarter of the victims, the bullying was ongoing for weeks or months, and there have been high-profile cases where Twitter has been used to intimidate people. I am an admirer of a small charity called the Cybersmile Foundation, which started in 2010. It offers advice to victims. Organisations like Cybersmile and charities like BeatBullying, ChildLine and Kidscape have an important role to play in this. I urge the Government to find ways of working with these charities and to offer them more support.
The growth of the web has revolutionised the UK and the rest of the world, but it has not been a bloodless revolution, because the web has brought with it some difficult challenges. But while humans manage to remain at least one step ahead of computers, I believe that its future can be approached with faith, not fear.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for this opportunity, and in her honour I prepared for it only at the last minute. I have some interests that are declared in the register, but I also chair EyeHub, which is one of the TSB-funded IoT projects. The internet is very new, and most of us have not been using it for anything like 25 years. We are only just beginning to make a start on the internet of things, to which my noble friend also referred. That will change things, because machines will start reporting what we are doing behind our backs. There are all sorts of implications in that which we have not yet thought about.
In fact, people all over the world are only just beginning to evolve and think about how they will adjust to the implications of the global internet and the consequent cultural clashes that are happening. One of the major ones is how much Governments should be allowed to control their citizens. The whole thing is global, and Governments are losing control because people can work from anywhere. To whom do the taxes belong? We are seeing that debate now.
We will have to rethink entirely how we interface, work with and talk to people. Also, I will just slip in a comment that we still need to meet people face to face. You have to share hospitality with people to know whether you can trust them; you cannot just trust electronic tokens or people whom you have never met, unless they come highly recommended by a friend. That is going to be one of the big issues in the near future.
The other great thing about the internet is that remote communities and communities on the edge of urban conurbations can become global players. You do not have to be situated in the middle of things. However, they need to be able to access the internet properly—and access is a real problem in Britain, despite all the things that the Government are saying. I am afraid that an awful lot of stuff is flying around that is not quite true.
Vast amounts of information are out there, and the problem is that some of it is about you. Much of it is inaccurate and misleading, and it always will be. That is partly because it is easy to fool a machine and partly because it is easy to get things wrong. It is very easy for criminals to fool machines. If I want an alibi, I will lend you my telephone and iPad and get you to establish an alibi for me. We have to be careful about what we think we are actually seeing about people if we are talking about Governments and control.
The point is that it is dangerous to allow the puritans who try to tell us what to do for our own good to have too much control, because life will not be much fun. The other problem is that when they are the Government, they can make you into a non-person, and that may be done on inaccurate information. It has happened to people already, so we have to be very careful about it. I recommend that noble Lords watch a 2008 miniseries called “The Last Enemy”, which can be bought on DVD; it is very interesting.
You cannot regulate or block criminal or unethical practices out of existence—I am afraid that that is true. All we can do is try to arrest the criminals and disincentivise them, and try to disincentivise the big players by modifying their behaviour through cultural pressure. The web may sometimes help with this, but its basic resilient design means that there are always ways to get around the blocks. Like life, the internet will never be completely safe; that would be boring. We love the freedom of being able to hear the cries of the downtrodden, but we are going to have to fight to keep that freedom for ourselves. Our fathers and our grandfathers died for it.
My Lords, I thank all speakers for their contributions to this debate. They have necessarily had to be short and sparky, but they have also been very informative. I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for securing this debate in the first place and for her excellent introductory speech, not only for its immediate and relevant content, but for giving us the historic context on the whole question of the web. I also thank her for her other work until recently as the UK’s digital champion.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, mentioned the need for everyone to have an online presence and indeed he gave us a small glimpse of his own. It is obviously useful to have that. I immediately rushed to my iPad to see what his looked like and I was much impressed by that. I also thought that I had better check out the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, so I looked immediately at her website and discovered that she had already put her speech up on the web. It is here, you can read it now. I think it was done afterwards, because it says,
“This is a speech I made in the House of Lords”,
and not “This is a speech I am about to make”. We are in the middle of a revolution both of our thinking and of our operations.
The noble Baroness ended by asking us: what kind of web do we want? That echoes what I was doing in researching for this debate by thinking about what people thought about the web. The best description that I came across was that the world wide web is humanity connected by technology—humanity, not just people. That is something that I will come back to.
There are those who would argue, and there is some merit in this argument, that the web is just another technology, although of course it is very exciting, different and distinctive in the way that it is applied. I suppose, like any other technology, the web can be whatever we make it; we can shape it and mould it. Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that we can use it to do something that I do not think any other technology has ever done, which is to connect every single person on earth—every single person. The web gives people the ability as users and contributors to improve their lives and communities or, in other words, to create humanity.
As we have heard, there are some 2 billion people currently on the web, mostly in the West and the developed nations but, as the internet becomes more connectable and more available through mobile, that will grow to an estimated 5 billion by 2020. That means huge opportunities and challenges, but it also means huge changes in the way in which we approach and think about the world.
Is the web just another technology? It seems to me that the things that it does that other technologies have not done are important, and we need to think about how we approach and engage with that technology. It does something to time. Whereas before we always had some time to reflect on an activity, people now report on and read about events as they occur. You get instant pictures and information. What happened to reflection?
The world wide web also localises. That seems like a contradiction in terms, but the way in which the web is organised so that any community can find a way of sharing information relevant to their interests and to their members and fellow citizens is an important aspect of what it does. At the same time, it is also universal, in that you have access anywhere in the world where you can get a connection—although that is not always possible, even in Britain.
The web also has a different way of focusing things. We have millions of communities, we all have multiple identities and those identities can be reflected on the web though our languages, our hobbies and our different natures. It allows those with shared interests to exchange resources in a way that has not been possible before. That is helped, of course, by search engines. Information has always existed; it has always been in repositories and difficult to access but now it is available. It is of variable quality, as we have heard, but it certainly is there if you can find it.
The web also provides links, both in real time and in a parallel way, across things. Many noble Lords will understand that if they have young children or grandchildren. My children seem to enjoy in a relaxing moment—although they say that they are working—lying on a sofa together, the three of them, interacting through texting and e-mailing while watching television and possibly reading something on their iPads. I cannot do that, but then multitasking has never been one of my strengths.
In that way, we are engaging by voicing opinions and raising issues in a way that has not been possible before. It is inexpensive, it is free—or virtually free—it is immediate and, if well looked after, it is durable. We have engagement and a chance to get involved in things that we would not otherwise have done. We also have the chance to raise opinions and, as people have said, to make a better fist of democracy, or participatory democracy, than has perhaps been possible before.
So there are huge opportunities but, of course, as many people have said, big challenges. There are, within those challenges, very substantial ethical ones. It will be interesting to listen to the Minister respond, if he can, to some of the very difficult questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and her ethical concerns about some of the issues about the web.
The good news is that the UK seems to have embraced the new technology in a terrific way. We have made economic use of the web and we buy and sell more goods online than any other country. I am not quite so sure about the fact that we have the highest number of Twitter users on the planet. I suspect, and have always thought, that this is largely due to my noble friend Lord Knight—he certainly confirmed in his speech that he has played a major part in that growth.
There are of course other important things, such as MOOCs, which we heard about. We heard how the Open University is developing this new technology, about the sort of digital services that we know are possible through the web and about the way in which an open government system can support these things.
Against that, we also hear that only 30% of small businesses are online, that there are alarming difficulties in getting access for the older parts of our population and that skills shortages are significant. We are also very worried about rural coverage. I read one statistic in my research which suggests that fewer than 0.5% of students choose computer science at A-level. That surely needs to go up, particularly for girls, for whom the figure is a fifth of that.
What comes next? The interesting thing is that most of the history of the web is ahead of us: it is a very young technology and very far from reaching its full potential as an agent of empowerment for everyone in the world. Web access for, perhaps, 4 billion or 5 billion people is an incredible opportunity, and new technologies will enable billions of people who are currently excluded to join in.
However, there are some big questions, such as access and skills, which I have mentioned. There is also a need for a change in the whole way in which we do business from physical interaction, although that will still be important, to one-click shopping. That is, of course, related to things such as transport and logistics—the physical movement of goods. How different it is now watching downloaded films compared to going to a cinema, particularly when you think about the change from reels of film to the way they are now broadcast or available on DVD. I have a particular concern about archiving material on the web. I am not sure that we are up to speed on that and wonder whether the noble Lord might respond to that, particularly about e-mails in government.
There are also points about privacy, which were well made initially by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in relation to children and also by the noble Lord, Lord Birt. We need to address some of the concerns that we have about the “dark side” of the web, as it has been called. The Prism and Snowden cases raise big questions. Perhaps most worrying for me, and an issue raised by other noble Lords, is what comes next in this area rather than what has already happened.
Other noble Lords raised questions that we also have to address, including those relating to intellectual property and whether that is up to date for the digital age. I suspect it is not. It needs much deeper and more effective work to get us ready for what is going to happen there. There is also the question about how we relate to the data that are stored about us. We need a mature conversation about that. As one noble Lord said, we are quite happy to give up considerable details about our personal data, including our credit card details, to commercial operators but we quibble about how much data government holds. That is very silly: we need to get this right and get the balance right. It may well be, as has been said, that we need champions—somebody who looks after information—but we cannot go on living in a parallel world on this.
The world wide web is a technology, but what it does and what it can achieve is really up to us, the users. Like all new technologies, the internet is often blamed for many of the problems in society. This is not the first time. One thinks of Shakespeare’s Globe and why it was situated outside the city, the penny dreadfuls in Victorian times and video nasties. These things are always blamed for society’s ills, but they are a feature of human endeavour and not of the technology itself. The Government have to come up with policies, although sometimes—including, I suggest, in this area—not doing something is almost as important as legislating. Particularly in relation to privacy and other issues, it should always be remembered that one person’s filter is another person’s censorship.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made some good points about the things we can do in our own House. My suggestion would be voting electronically: why do we have to troop through the Lobbies every time a vote comes, as we do currently? Surely we can do something differently with that. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, had a good idea, modelled on the Tobin tax, of raising funds for good purposes, which is something we should think about. It is probably too late but it is a good idea. We need to go back to the essential issues about inclusion, openness and transformational thinking about how we operate commercially and personally in a digital world, and how to promote humanity connected by technology—
We meet each other in the Division Lobby. If we do not and we all start to press buttons, are we saying that that is progress? One of the themes of today is that we have to balance humanity with technology. That seems to be balancing technology with technology.
On that last point from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, we all look across at the Whips, who, above all, enjoy the human-to-human contact in the Division Lobbies as Members come in.
For this debate, I read Twitter this morning and saw some entries by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, expressing some apprehension about addressing your Lordships’ House. I think we can agree that it was a truly inspiring and insightful speech, and masterful in how she set out the debate’s context and some of the issues that we need to address. I join the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and many others in saying that she is an outstanding addition to your Lordships’ House. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Kirkwood has yet secured the noble Baroness’s membership on his Information Committee, but if not I am sure that an invitation will be on its way.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her time as the Government’s digital champion and the tremendous work that she did to narrow the digital divide, and extend and set the framework for government policy on broadening access. Many people have talked about how the world wide web has transformed the way in which we do business, and how our society and the economy operate. A number of Members talked about how it is transforming this place. The idea of regular debates, whether annual or virtual and ongoing, seems appropriate. The cross-party nature of this discussion shows that the world wide web is a bigger phenomenon than any narrow political party or country can control. That is a point to which I will return.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for creating that entity, the Lords of the Blog. This morning I noticed that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth had posted interesting data there about the number of hard-copy letters that were received by your Lordships’ House. In 2005, the figure was 4.7 million. In 2013, that had fallen to 2.4 million. This again reflects the changing way in which we interact with those whose interests we seek to represent.
Many Members have articulated in this debate that no technological change has advanced our world as much as the world wide web. It is hard to believe that it was only 25 years ago that Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first protocols that created the web. The principles of inclusion, freedom, transparency and openness that he included, and that have been referred to by many Members, are still at the heart of the Government’s view of how the world wide web should operate.
When my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones referred to the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, I recalled the scrolling message going around the stadium, “This is for everyone”. The fact that this was viewed live by an audience of around a billion and has been viewed by many more online is an important thing, and we must keeping coming back to it. Many noble Lords spoke about the potential that this vast creation has for enabling two-way traffic, not just to push but bring in the thoughts of people. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, spoke of research that is taking place online. My noble friend Lady Wheatcroft spoke of the British Museum and its online exhibits. I think that we were all moved this week to see the 1.5 million pages of World War One diaries that were placed online—an example of how, when we go online, we are invited not just to view but to participate in archiving and contributing to material, and certainly to engage with it.
The noble Lords, Lord Mitchell and Lord Stone, were among many who referred to the UK being at the forefront of connectivity and consumers engaging with online enthusiasm, and the implications of that for the high street. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, made the point powerfully that many people see that as a threat to the high street but actually it is something that ought to be celebrated and, for those on the high street who embrace it, it can have a dynamic effect on their businesses.
My noble friend Lord Black referred to the impact the internet is having in a very similar context on the media, creating global brands. Of course, I was particularly pleased to hear, in addition to the Daily Telegraph online, his reference to the Northern Echo being at the forefront of this activity, which was very welcome indeed.
Seventy-two per cent of business premises have subscribed to broadband and 14% of premises now have a superfast broadband service. This last figure is higher than any of the other five major EU countries, which is something we can be pleased about. Last year, AT Kearney estimated that the internet economy ecosystem was worth £82 billion a year in the UK, which is 5.7% of GDP. This is because the web enhances speed, efficiency and productivity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, referred to the development of this technology as “warp speed”, which appealed enormously to me, as a Trekkie, but this does not come without its challenges. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, among others, referred to the importance of intellectual property rights, which I will come back to.
According to the Digital Efficiency Report of 2011, the cost of an online transaction is 20 times lower than a phone one, 30 times lower than a postal one and 50 times lower than face to face, although I accept the point made by several Members that human interaction is key, a point that the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, made so powerfully. During this Parliament, the Government will save £1.2 billion by going digital and £1.8 billion year-on-year from making government services digital by default, which I know was an aspiration of the noble Baroness.
As well as the economic issues, we have also had outlined for us the philosophical, almost theological issues, most notably by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who spoke of the information overload—the scope of what we have. The picture of holding the world in the palm of your hand was very powerful. I was able to scroll up on my—I do not think I am allowed to say the brand—personal internet device and find that line from TS Eliot, when he bewails in “The Rock”:
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”.
Placing things in context, understanding wisdom, is something that we all have to be aware of, not least the Government.
Using the web may be second nature to many but for some there are still considerable challenges to going online, despite the optimistic anecdote that my noble friend Lord Chadlington told of his friend with whom he is now connected on LinkedIn. Many figures have been quoted today but recent BBC survey data show that some 11 million people—18% of the population—are not online. Given the progress and the importance of it, that is a very worrying figure. I will outline some of the things that Her Majesty’s Government are doing to try to address the issue.
One challenge is making the necessary improvements to the underlying infrastructure. That is well under way, with £1 billion of government investment by 2015 or very soon after. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, was able to report that superfast broadband had arrived in his part of the country.
By 2015, or very soon after, virtually all premises will have a good standard of broadband, with 90% of businesses being able to access superfast broadband. Broadband and superfast broadband, and indeed the world wide web, bring not only purely economic benefits but other benefits. We heard powerfully and insightfully from the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, on healthcare and how the future might take shape with people increasingly accessing their health services via the internet. I was intrigued and looked up the programme Beating the Blues, initially a little worried that this might be a partisan point, but I now recognise that it is a helpful programme. I am sure that we will avail ourselves of this many times in your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend Lord Holmes, as well as giving his own side a good plug, spoke very well about how having a presence on the internet is just part of normal human life. It is important that we increase the access of as many people as possible, which is why I am delighted to report that yesterday, my right honourable friend the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, announced a £10 million fund for alternative technology providers with innovative ideas about how to help superfast broadband reach Britain’s most remote communities. That is something that will be very important.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke of the importance of the internet, which may not yet be able to make the weather but can certainly forecast it, and how that not only has a curiosity interest but can, in very real terms, save lives and save property.
I turn to some of the specific points that were raised in relation to the governance of the web. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, mentioned this, and asked what the position of Her Majesty’s Government was in relation to control of the internet. It is very clear that this Government favour a self-regulatory approach to the internet, engaging with all relevant stakeholders. We champion a process and model whereby Governments work with industry, civil society and technical communities on an equal footing to ensure the internet is managed effectively. This point was communicated by the Minister responsible for this, Ed Vaizey, at the international global forum on the internet in Bali last year.
Digital inclusion, of course, is wider than just access. Inclusion is about encouraging and supporting individuals, small businesses and charities that are not online, to develop their digital skills and build the confidence to go online independently. I realise that many charitable organisations are doing this. I also pay tribute, in this context, to Go On UK, which is the charity that the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, chairs. It does a tremendous amount. I know this from my home town of Gateshead, where there has been some great work going on, as there has in Liverpool with Race Online, where some really innovative initiatives are happening within the charitable sector to engage people and get them equipped with the skills necessary to go online.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, raised an interesting point, which I do not dismiss, although of course it raises challenges. He talked about extending internet access to those in prison. That is something which I will certainly relay back. It seems to me that, at a minimum, where there are many good charities that are working with ex-offenders as they immediately come out, equipping people with internet and digital skills ought to be very much at the heart of that, helping to narrow the digital divide.
In that context, my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft raised the innovative idea of moving from subsidising TV licences to subsidising broadband. I can inform my noble friend that the Government continue to work with the internet service providers on low-cost tariffs. The digital deals sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions, and supported by the charity of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, the Tinder Foundation, are a prime example of how the Government are helping to provide low-cost broadband, but again we accept that much more needs to be done.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to mark the tremendous achievement of Sir Tim Berners-Lee in creating this innovation that we are celebrating and marking today. I am pleased to say, not in any small way due to the timeliness of this debate, that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been in contact with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s office about discussing a fitting way to mark this remarkable anniversary. The Minister responsible, Ed Vaizey, has specifically asked for an opportunity to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, to discuss ideas that she may have. I know that they are both following our debate today very closely.
Many noble Lords mentioned the value of the internet to education. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, referred to MOOCs and online communities, and my noble friend Lord Black referred to the master classes that are available online. Education is obviously a key area that will benefit from this, but I suspect that, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, we should not anticipate too much of a change. There will be elements of back to the future about it where the interaction between student and tutor will be central.
The likes of Tech City, as well as the plethora of tech hubs around the country, have been essential in fostering the right environment to build momentum. We are reducing red tape to help entrepreneurs, a point which the noble Lord, Lord St John, raised, and ensure that we have many more UK success stories such as lastminute.com. We believe we have the right foundations in place to bring that about.
In order for that to happen—I am conscious of time—we are aware that the issue of intellectual property, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, my noble friends Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Lucas, and others, is important. There are 1.68 million people employed in the creative industries and the technology sector. In 2012, it contributed £71.4 billion to the economy, a growth of 10%, so I totally take the point about people taking things off the shelves without paying for them, as my noble friend Lord Lucas described it. The Government are fully behind industry efforts to introduce a voluntary copyright alert programme which should be quicker, more flexible and cheaper than the Digital Economy Act, which the noble Lord, Lord Soley, rightly identified as probably being out of date before it came on to the statute book, presenting some of the challenges we have.
The noble Baronesses, Lady O’Neill and Lady Kidron, spoke very movingly about the challenges, particularly for young people. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the speech made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last year on internet child safety. It is an issue that we are taking very seriously indeed. It is important to make children aware of the risks they face. That is why, as well as placing restrictions on internet providers, we need to make sure that children and young people are educated about the dangers so that when they go into this community they do so safely. There are some specific issues that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised in this context about privacy and the archiving of e-mails by government. I will come back to the noble Lord, if I may, on that. The noble Lord, Lord Young, also spoke about issues of child internet safety. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, reminded us of that with the good phrase that the internet—the world wide web—provides us with worries and wonders. I am sure that every parent would echo that view, but the potential and the benefits vastly outweigh the disadvantages, as so many people have said. Many examples were given. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, mentioned a million teachers going online to share lesson plans. That is innovative and very welcome indeed.
We must get the framework right. It is right that all stakeholders—Governments, civil society, the private sector and the technical community—are involved in how best to ensure the internet operates effectively and efficiently. We believe that this current multi-stakeholder approach is the right one. It will ensure that we have the right data protection framework in place and the right intellectual property.
In conclusion, I fully support the noble Baroness’s Motion and urge the House to take note of the tremendous impact that the world wide web has had in its 25 short years. It was British ingenuity and innovation that brought it about. The web shows that Britain is great—open, innovative and creative—and we should all take inspiration from Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention. We should rightly be proud of this, celebrate it and build on it. There are many issues and it is traditional for Members responding from the government side to say that they will write to noble Lords and place a copy in the Library. It is probably appropriate that I e-mail noble Lords and place a copy on the web.
I thank the Minister for his answers. I am delighted that we have had the first debate on the world wide web here in the Chamber. It is perhaps one small step for mankind and one bigger leap for the House of Lords. If I was going to organise a birthday party, I think I would engineer the presence of an astronomer, a writer, a philosopher, a composer, some film directors and maybe, dare I say, even a politician or two. I would argue that it has been a very successful birthday party for the world wide web; I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and look forward to many more high-quality debates about the future of our technology landscape.
China: Air Defence Identification Zone
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very glad to have the opportunity to raise this important topic. There is no doubt that China shocked both its neighbours and the international community when, last November, it announced its highly controversial decision to create an ADIZ beyond its territorial airspace in the skies above the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Those shock-waves are still reverberating around the region and beyond, and I believe it is essential for British interests that we adopt a clear position when assessing the significance of China’s abrupt unilateral action. In particular, China promised emergency defence measures in the case of non-compliance and an intent to establish more of these zones in the future.
In this latest escalation, Beijing insists that the ADIZ was drawn with no specific country in mind, but it seems highly likely that it was intended as a rebuke to the Japanese Government for their private purchase of three of the islands in September 2012—a move that gave rise to anti-Japan protests across China and caused concern among Japan’s allies. Since then, Chinese coastguard vessels have repeatedly asserted an operational presence in the territorial seas around the islands, raising the spectre of a new Sino-Japanese conflict and sparking fears of tit-for-tat retaliatory measures spreading volatility and uncertainty across the region.
Of course, ADIZs are hardly uncommon in the region and have been used to political ends in the past, but no other country in the region extends its ADIZ to cover disputed territory that it does not control. Following the announcement, the United States expressed its “deep concern”, as did the EU. Does the Minister agree that incorporating the skies over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands within its alert zone is, at best, a significant misjudgment on China’s part and that, beyond the present war of words, it will increase the likelihood of further escalation, creating fertile conditions for a serious incident in the region as a result?
This particular dispute in the East China Sea has attracted much attention because of the potential for war between the region’s biggest economies. However, as this House well knows, the resource-rich South China Sea is the subject of a number of equally contentious territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. Worryingly, clashes in the South and East China Seas have risen significantly over the past two years, with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam all accusing China of a more aggressive posture over disputed territories and waters.
It would cause international outrage if China were to create an ADIZ over the whole South China Sea, but this has not stopped Beijing from choosing to provoke its neighbours, most particularly in its decision to use an image of the highly controversial “nine-dash line” in Chinese passports in 2012. A Chinese ADIZ in the north of the South China Sea would be particularly sensitive, especially if it overlapped with Vietnam’s ADIZ and included the disputed Paracel Islands.
Of course, we cannot debate this issue without reference to British interests in the region. The region’s economic vitality, its influence and its ever-increasing importance are without doubt and its dynamism fuels the global economy. Last year, ahead of a visit there, the Foreign Office Minister, Hugo Swire, in a candid and important statement, rightly called Japan,
“our closest partner in Asia”.
“Whether it is global trade or international peacekeeping our relationship with Japan is fundamental to UK foreign policy, not just in Asia but around the world”.
Our close ties and mutual interests with Japan are particularly articulated through our long record of working together to maintain Asia-Pacific regional stability, as well as in a host of other global security issues, from reconstruction in Afghanistan and counterproliferation in Iran to cyberdefence. It is equally important that we work together with China to improve international stability and security, to increase mutual prosperity and to support China’s process of modernisation and reform.
From the Sino-Japanese wars and the occupation of Manchuria, the relationships in the region are deep, complex and historically multilayered. The China-Japan relationship is at the very core of this inextricable enmeshing of old rivalries, wars, antagonism and competition. Memories of Japan’s early 20th century empire-building are still raw within the region—thus the Chinese reaction to Prime Minister Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine. China’s past empire, too, is surely heavy and emotive historical baggage for today’s Chinese leaders to carry as they contemplate the future regional hierarchy.
Beijing has argued that its latest move is no more than legitimate defence. However, the Chinese concept of defence is notoriously broad. Officially, all Chinese security policies and uses of force since 1949 have been defensive, this being the most recent case of China defending Chinese territory. However, in recent years in particular, Beijing has seemed unwilling to recognise that, in the eyes of its neighbours, Chinese defence might appear indistinguishable from Chinese aggression.
It is, of course, the law of unintended consequences that we fear: stoking simmering tensions and raising the temperature for short-term political gain can be the touch-paper for conflagrations that quickly get out of control. This is a real flashpoint—not because any country necessarily individually wants to start a shooting war, but because accidents happen.
This is all happening at a time when the security balance of the region is changing. The present poor state of relations between Japan and China is certainly a catalyst for that change, if not a cause. In the face of sharp criticism from China, Japan is increasingly moving away from its post-war pacifist stance. Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a new five-year defence spending plan that calls for the acquisition of drones, jet fighters, destroyers and amphibious assault vehicles to bolster the nation’s armed forces. Prime Minister Abe described the spending plan as “proactive pacifism”, but—significantly, given Japan’s traditionally pacifist public—with a substantial measure of popular support, it continues a trend of reversing a decade of military cuts to counter China’s rapid military build-up and the relative decline of American influence. Although the US still provides the basis for Japan’s national security, under the new draft strategy, Japan will,
“build a comprehensive defensive posture that can completely defend our nation”.
That is an important declaration of intent.
Much of the new spending will go towards strengthening Japan’s ability to monitor and defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands among others, and will include more early-warning aircraft stationed in Okinawa and the purchase of unarmed surveillance drones. China’s efforts to pursue a more proactive diplomacy with its neighbours, in quiet rejection of Deng Xiaoping’s famous low-key approach to foreign affairs, saw Beijing hold a major conference on peripheral diplomacy last September. Ironically, it was at this conference, intended to demonstrate the leadership’s wish to promote a stable regional environment for China’s future development, that final approval was reportedly given to the long-held objective of establishing the East China Sea ADIZ and reinforcing China’s claim to disputed maritime territories.
The question remains: what can and should the UK do? With the public mood in both Japan and China being one of renewed nationalism and self-assertion, how can a period of political quiet and trust between China and Japan be engendered, prior to the resumption of high-level discussions on confidence-building measures? Will confidence-building measures be enough?
As noble Lords are well aware, two days after the Chinese ADIZ announcement, the US Administration flew B52 bombers over the disputed islands without alerting China, in what can only be described as a warning to Beijing. The key dynamic is clearly the relationship with America. For the US in particular, it will be a fine balance to urge restraint by all parties and diffuse these looming confrontations on the one hand, while robustly reaffirming its security commitment to Japan.
It remains to be seen what tangible support Britain might be able to bring to bear in future and what, if anything, we—or, indeed, Europe—could do practically in terms of hard power to shape or respond to the present situation in East Asia, should the need arise. We can and should use our very effective diplomacy and soft power to act as an influence multiplier in support of stability and to help to build a capable regional, multilateral security structure that would encompass a workable code of conduct to avoid a new round of ADIZs announced in the South China Sea. But what comes next, if confidence-building mechanisms such as hotlines, agreements on incidents at sea and mid- and high-level diplomacy do not prove sufficient?
My remarks today would not be complete without some thoughts on where this competition for influence will end. This is about the whole shift of economic and political power and influence to Asia. It seems to me that the tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting and that the rearrangement of the post-war settlement in the wider Pacific Rim ultimately lies ahead of us. As we know, China is rapidly and profoundly changing. China’s rise inevitably challenges the current system, built by Western states and reflecting their interests and rules-based values.
The issue of the Chinese ADIZ, while pressing, is a jigsaw puzzle piece in a much bigger picture. With China’s rise, the dynamics of the region are changing, and it remains to be seen who will win and who will lose in this global shift of power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Will we see a change from a US-led regional security system to a Chinese-led one, and who will decide? The extent to which countries in the region continue to want an American counterweight to the rise of their mighty neighbour and the extent to which the US will continue to provide is key.
We have heard a great deal about Mr Obama’s rebalancing to Asia, to extricate the US from more than a decade of war in the greater Middle East and to pivot America’s strategic focus and resources towards Asia and the Pacific Rim, and about the highly complex relationships with China and key US allies there. For the United States, China has become, if not the key, certainly a key bilateral relationship.
In conclusion, within its region China remains a solitary rising power, facing potentially insurmountable domestic challenges and currently encircled by US military bases and allies. There is still a major risk of mutual misunderstanding, miscalculation and strategic non-comprehension between China and the United States, and it seems clear that our policy should be to help diffuse that trust deficit when we can. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on whether she believes that is a sensible way forward and on how we in the UK can help realise it for the future peace, security and prosperity not just of the region but of the world.