Thursday, 26 June 2014.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, my first pleasant duty today is to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to her first debate. I also posed her first Question, so I am delighted that she is here for this debate. I am also grateful to other noble Lords who will speak today.
Once again we are asking Her Majesty’s Government to reconsider their policy on allowing those waiting for asylum decisions to apply for work after 12 months. We want this time reduced to six months. The people we are speaking of are human beings who should be given the chance to support themselves. It is very demeaning to ask for handouts or not to be able to afford decent meals every day. How could we manage on £5 a day? If we go to the Pugin Room for coffee with two or three people, £5 is gone right away. How inadequate. You are stereotyped as a scrounger, and this leads to low esteem and stress.
Until July 2002, asylum seekers who had been waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim for six months or more could apply for permission to work under a Home Office employment concession. This concession was abolished on 25 July 2002. The then Government said that the increasing speed of the asylum determination process—it must have been a remarkable year—and the importance of separating economic migration routes from asylum were why it had been decided to restrict asylum seekers’ right to work. This was clearly the wrong decision.
Many of these asylum seekers are being forced to wait for the full 12-month period before being able to begin their search for work. The Red Cross has said that it often takes the Home Office years to determine an asylum claim. In fact, it says that almost 40% of asylum applications made in the year 2012-13 were not concluded within 12 months. This leaves thousands of asylum seekers unable to apply for work for long periods of time.
Eleven European Union countries already allow asylum seekers access to the labour markets after six months or less. They are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. They have had these policies in place for many years and not one of them has had to change the policy because of any abuse of the asylum route by economic migrants. In fact, all but one of these countries received fewer asylum applications than the UK in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, Germany published its new asylum Bill, which includes plans to reduce the period of time that asylum seekers have to wait before receiving authorisation to work. It is going from nine months to three months. Meanwhile, in the UK we still impose the unreasonable and punitive 12-month limit.
Allowing asylum seekers to work more quickly would lessen the possibility of them being a target for the unscrupulous and the criminal world which can exploit vulnerable people through illegal employment. The recast European Union reception conditions directive gives the period for which asylum seekers can be excluded from the labour market pending an initial decision. It was reduced to nine months. However, the UK has not signed up to this directive, which means that we will be one of the very few countries in Europe where asylum seekers can apply for permission to work only after waiting for more than one year for an initial decision on their case. In this respect, we see that almost all the 27 EU states have a more generous policy than the UK.
Furthermore, in practice, the UK Government effectively prohibit asylum seekers from working even after one year, as they are allowed to work only in highly skilled, shortage occupations. Once again, this is not the policy in many other European countries. Belgium, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden all allow asylum seekers to work in any job—including being self-employed—once they are granted permission to work. As for entrepreneurs, a report in February showed that those from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and especially from Poland, were not only first-class workers but first-class employers, with many of them setting up their own business.
The average asylum seeker spends about 18 months on Section 95 support. Research has shown that those who spend prolonged periods on this level of support are known to suffer from physical and mental health problems. Studies for Refugee Action’s Bring Back Dignity campaign revealed that physical health problems were common among asylum seekers, 38% of whom reported that they could not buy enough food to feed their families. Many asylum seekers were concerned that their limited financial support did not allow them to purchase healthy and nutritious food and they had to opt for a cheaper diet instead. Only the more expensive shops now exchange goods for Azure cards. Why can they not be used in the corner shop or shops such as Asda and Lidl which sell at lower prices? There is no reason to force anyone to pay more than necessary for their basic food and supplies. Cultural dietary requirements are sometimes difficult to obtain because of financial constraints.
The implications of current provision for those with young children are also of great concern, since the Secretary of State failed to take into account essential household goods such as non-prescription medicines and special requirements for new mothers. Reports have demonstrated that current rates of support do not allow for sufficient adaptation to life in the UK. Many cannot afford adequate clothing to face the British climate. Financial limitation also makes it difficult to engage socially or in a community. There is just no money to spare and this can increase social isolation. I would also like assurances that those with long-term, serious medical conditions, such as type 1 diabetes—which can require as many as five injections a day—heart conditions and epilepsy, are able to receive their prescriptions. Is there sufficient finance, not just for the injections, but for the hygienic conditions needed to inject in?
The children of asylum seekers want to look to their father as a role model, who supports them in the usual way by being an example of good family values, getting up in the morning and going to a job. This also helps to keep a healthy mind and lessens the chance of mental health problems developing. Housing is provided, but its standard is often questionable. An asylum seeker cannot choose where to live and it is often in the hard-to-let properties which council tenants do not want.
Cash support is currently set at £36.62 per person, per week: £5.23 a day for food, sanitation and clothing. This amount was set way back in 2007. Between then and April 2013, the consumer prices index increased by 20.5%. If the benefits provided to asylum seekers had increased at this rate, they would currently be on £53 a week, which would make a massive difference. The amount allowed is clearly not adequate. The Government’s claim that Section 95 is adequate was undermined on 9 April 2014 when the High Court handed down its judgment in a case which the judge described as considering,
“what was sufficient to keep about 20,000 people above subsistence level destitution, a significant proportion of whom are vulnerable and have suffered traumatic experiences”.
The ruling states that the Government failed to take account of items that must be considered as essential living needs, such as non-prescription medicines, nappies, formula milk, other requirements for new mothers, basic household cleaning goods and the opportunity to maintain relationships and a minimum level of participation in society. The court also found that errors had been made by the Government in calculating the amount required for asylum seekers to meet their essential living needs. The Government failed to take into account the extent to which asylum support had decreased in real terms in recent years.
We should be leading in these human rights issues. The United Kingdom has a fairly good record, but now we are dragging our feet and causing great hurt and harm to so many people. That is why I cannot see any objection whatever to reducing the number of months from 12 to six. I cannot see an argument for it. Therefore, I ask the Government to consider very seriously the need to think again on this issue.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for once again valiantly trying to change UK government policy in this area. The difficulty is that successive UK Governments have not allowed asylum seekers to work, and for very good reason. On the face of it, and especially for the general public, it appears to be an odd position to maintain, but it is the right one.
I, too, welcome my noble friend the Minister to her new role and in this important and interesting area of government policy. However, I hope that she can resist the tempting dish that my noble friend has so skilfully offered her.
The last time we debated this issue, noble Lords explained—as I expect some will explain today—how valuable to one’s self-esteem is the ability to work and support society. I totally agree. My wife’s brother-in-law has vascular dementia and his short-term memory is down to 30 seconds or less. However, under direct immediate supervision, he is still able to help me in my classic commercial vehicle restoration activities. By the time he gets home, he has absolutely no idea of what he has done or where he has been. The interesting point is this: his feel-good benefit lasts all evening, and my sister-in-law reports that he is much easier to look after, so we can agree that work is good for you. The Committee should not forget that asylum seekers can undertake voluntary work, but I accept that it might be difficult to find.
The problem is that most of the working-age population of the world would like to come to our green and pleasant land to live and work—if not here, then to the United States, where they have similar problems. It is no good looking at other EU states that have more relaxed rules without understanding the full context of those rules or accepting that the UK is the most desirable destination in the EU. I think that answers my noble friend’s point about why we receive more applications for asylum than other EU states that have more relaxed rules about work. If I am wrong, why do people dice with death trying to get to the UK?
There is a well trodden route for economic migrants from outside the EU. They apply for a visa, start working in the informal sector of the economy—thus, to some extent, depressing the market rate for legitimate workers—and eventually, we hope, they will be detected as overstayers. At this point they might suddenly remember that they are asylum seekers. Alternatively, they obtain a visitor’s visa, travel to the UK and immediately claim asylum, possibly having destroyed their travel documents en route. In many cases, it is advantageous for them to make their claim as difficult and as time-consuming as possible in order to stay in the UK for as long as possible.
If my noble friend the Minister were to comply with my noble friend’s wishes, the number of economic migrants would undoubtedly increase. This would have an adverse effect on three deserving groups. First, it will affect those genuine visitors seeking a visitor’s visa, who will inevitably find it harder to get one if they are a borderline case. Secondly, those asylum seekers who have a genuine but complex case will find that it will take longer than necessary to determine because finite resources are being expended on bogus cases. Finally, the UK taxpayer will have to devote more resources to running the system.
I hope that the Committee does not see me as an out-and-out xenophobe, because I am not. I look forward to a later opportunity to give the Committee—or perhaps the whole House—my views on the benefits of the free movement of labour throughout the Community and, in particular, how this benefits us and other EU states. Offering work to asylum seekers will benefit no one, and we certainly cannot welcome everyone, from anywhere, who wants to come and work here.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Baroness to the government Front Bench and look forward to the many exchanges that I suspect we will have.
On this issue, I side very much with the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, rather than with the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. In doing so, I declare an interest as a member of an independent asylum commission which studied this whole issue for three years and reported to the previous Government in 2009. Right at the heart of what we said was that we were very concerned that within the Home Office there was what we called a culture of disbelief. This amounted to a general disbelief of anyone coming to this country. This included people who had been victims of torture, whose stories were also disbelieved. We felt that that was unattractive, not least because it influenced too many decisions that had to be made objectively and were conditioned by something else. During that experience I also saw something that I never thought I would see on the streets of this country—namely, the distribution of Red Cross food parcels to destitute asylum seekers in Manchester. The Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, who was leading the delegation, asked whether he could take one of them away and try to live on it for a week. His report on that, which was included in our report, makes salutary reading.
I suspect that the inadequate reasons that the Government put forward for resisting the suggestion that the period might be reduced to six months, which were questioned by the High Court in the 9 April judgment to which the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, referred, hides a deeper malaise in the Home Office, to which I last drew attention during the passage of the Immigration Bill through this House. At present, there is a monstrous backlog of 500,000 unresolved applications to come to this country. That millstone has not just arrived; it has built up over years. I cannot believe that any system can work properly if it has a millstone of that proportion hanging round its neck. During the passage of the Bill, I made the suggestion that it would only be good sense for the Government to make special arrangements to have that backlog cleared as quickly as possible by drafting in extra people to do the work, which, admittedly, would involve expense. However, having cleared the backlog, the system would be able to function properly, processing day-to-day applications as they arrived.
When a former Home Secretary, John Reid, described the immigration system as being not fit for purpose, I entirely agreed with him because it included many aspects like this. At the time, I was privileged to be working with it as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, with responsibility for inspecting immigration detention centres, so I was close to the coal-face.
There is no evidence at all that the proposals for the punitive 12 months mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, would succeed in deterring what are called economic migrants. Indeed, I think that the economic migrant scare is just that. Of course, there are people who come for the wrong reasons, but the vast majority do not. It is entirely unworthy of this country, with its traditional record of offering sanctuary and as a place where human rights are observed, to persist in the myth that everyone coming here is an economic migrant, a vandal and a vagrant who should not be here. We need to remove that suggestion from any reasoning of why processing cannot happen more quickly. If people got down to it and the designed procedures were operated properly, it would be perfectly easy for all applications to be completed within six months, as happens in other European countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has stated. If they can do it, so can we. It requires will and determination but it can be done. I agree that it is ludicrous to go on with the reasons that, allegedly, we cannot do it and cannot afford it. I do not believe that.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is right to talk about raising the level of support given. The suggestion has been made that it should be 70% of the income support rate—which seems nearer to the £53 that the noble Lord mentions than the £36, which I defy anyone to live on. I absolutely agree with him that the abolition ruling on 25 July 2002 was a mistake that ought to be rectified as soon as possible. Having cleared the backlog, there is absolutely no reason why we should not proceed in a civilised way with the aim of having a six-month ceiling for all decision-making.
My Lords, what I have to say is not original but I do not think that means it is not worth saying. Just because it is not original does not mean that it is trite. However, what is not trite is my welcome to the Minister. This may not be the last time we debate this issue.
It has been anticipated but I am going to say it: I doubt any of us can truly understand what it must be like to seek asylum, or even to be driven to seek to be allowed to live in another country without the reasons which would back up an asylum claim but simply out of concern for one’s own family and to make a reasonable living. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has referred to the baggage around the term “economic migrant”. On the one hand it is vagrancy and laziness; on the other, it suggests a degree of greater affluence than is generally the case. Again this point has been anticipated, but I cannot imagine what it would be like not to be allowed to work; it would dominate my sense of self-worth and my well-being. However, those issues would not dominate if I were trying to live on £5.23 per day—I could not do it for a week, let alone six months— and I have what Mr Justice Popplewell in the recent judicial review called a “significant wardrobe”. I am not someone who, as he described it, arrives,
“with no more than the clothes they stand up in so that the asylum support has to provide for an initial stock of sufficient clothing and footwear for the English climate”.
That is apart from food, healthcare, personal care and so on.
It is clearly common ground that the amount provided is considerably less than income support, the minimum wage or the London living wage. The word “living” is in there for a reason. The London Assembly is one of the organisations—political and non-political, secular and non-secular—which has supported the proposition put forward by my noble friend, and one might expect that in London this would have the most impact.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I have not seen anything to support the assertion that we deter economic migration. As has been said, this is not a view shared by many other European countries with shorter periods of restriction.
Recent news reports—and not only recent reports—have indeed talked about people dicing with death, but they have diced with death to get across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa, mainland Italy or Greece. I do not recognise the description given by my noble friend Lord Attlee. This view of immigrants is applied to asylum seekers by people who do not distinguish between migration and asylum-seeking. I do not charge my noble friend with that—we have had this conversation on the Floor of the Chamber and I know that he makes the distinction—but there are people who say of the two populations that they come only for the benefits.
If an asylum seeker is keen to contribute to society and has not been fast-tracked out within the six months, as I suspect many economic migrants would be, and is seen to be keen, that might be something of an answer to that mindset or, frankly, that prejudice. However, from what I have seen, the policy proposed by my noble friend has public support. We are all very aware of the need to do anything that can assist integration and community cohesion. Not permitting work has a danger of producing the converse, of making very vulnerable people even more vulnerable to exploitation and driving them underground into the black economy. It would help, too, to ease the transition for those who are given status—and there are quite a lot—when their claims succeed.
Of course, a lot can be said about the importance of work for physical and mental health, for keeping up one’s skills—life skills, social skills and skills in handling relationships—and for keeping up one’s confidence and being able to show a prospective employer that one has been employed.
The point was made—I do not know by whom—that many asylum seekers are self-employed. That does not surprise me. If you have the get up and go to face getting up and going, you will probably have something of an entrepreneurial spirit. I do not need to spell out the impact of poverty on dependants, including children, and on their development and learning when combined with being uprooted from one’s original country and culture. I was struck by what Z, a torture survivor said—I think in the recent case but certainly in the report of the case—that,
“for me when you are poor there is no life for you. It is a kind of prison. It is worse than prison.
The Still Human Still Here consortium urges a geographical pilot covering at least two regions—of course, asylum seekers have no choice about where they are dispersed to—for a year to allow for assessment of whether allowing this group to work does indeed lead to an increase in unfounded applications, or whether it helps integration and provides value for money, taking into account administrative costs but also savings from not having to pay for support. I urge the Government to engage with the NGOs and the various organisations which, struggling on very little money themselves, are doing very good work, not just with direct support but in drawing attention to the issues.
I can think of little so demeaning as being prevented from working. Frankly, six months without work seems an unattractive proposition. We demean ourselves as a country with this restriction—perhaps “exclusion” would be the better word.
I know the views of my noble friend Lord Attlee about free movement in the EU. He took me by surprise once when he answered a Question from me very sympathetically on this. He now argues that such a change in policy would prejudice those who are not bogus asylum seekers. I continue to have the view that they are bogus only because that is how we label them. Our systems—this is very much the point of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham—need to be good enough to identify asylum seekers with well-founded claims without unreasonable delay. They should not cause problems which in themselves penalise asylum seekers.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, is to be congratulated on the determination with which he pursues the issue of asylum seekers awaiting application decisions and their right to work. Like all other noble Lords who have spoken, I add my welcome to the Minister.
As we know, in essence asylum seekers can apply for permission to work if they have waited for longer than 12 months for an initial decision on their claim and are not considered responsible for the delay in decision-making. The regular calls to extend asylum seekers’ rights to work have not found favour—as has been said—with successive Governments on the basis that it could encourage and lead to an increase in unfounded asylum applications and that the faster processing of asylum cases made the case for allowing asylum seekers to work less compelling.
The coalition Government—both parties—adopted a similar approach to that of the previous Government. Mr Damian Green, when he was the Minister concerned, said:
“Extending the permission to work policy”,
by reducing the time period,
“risks abuse of the asylum system by economic migrants and detracts from the aim of encouraging those whose claim has failed to return home voluntarily. Our focus … is on implementing new ways to speed up the processing of applications, while also improving the quality of decision making”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/10/11; col. 65W.]
It is on this aspect of the speed of decision-making that I will ask the Minister a few questions.
If there were not delays in dealing with some applications—I understand that a clear majority are dealt with within six months—there would not be the kind of concerns being raised in today’s debate. The number of applications was at a peak in 2002 at over 80,000. That fell dramatically to under 20,000 in 2010 and has started to rise slowly since then. In the year ending March 2014, there were some 23,731 asylum applications—a rise of 5% compared with the previous 12 months. I understand that at the end of March 2014 some 19,685 applications for asylum received since 2006 from main applicants were pending a decision—that is, initial decision, appeal or further review—and that this was 38% more than at the end of March 2013. Could the Government give a breakdown of that figure? Just how long, in terms of numbers of years, have these 19,685 applications been pending a decision and what has been the reason for the delay, where there has been one?
The Government say—as have successive Governments—that some asylum seekers are responsible for the delay in decision-making. How many of those 19,685 applications received since April 2006 are the Government saying have been delayed solely because of the actions, or lack of actions, of the asylum seekers themselves? To what extent are the delays due to the processes for which the Government, or government contractors or agents, are responsible? How many staff are dealing with asylum applications and how have those numbers varied in each year since 2001? How long is it taking for appeals to be heard through the Courts and Tribunals Service? Is it the case that on the day of a tribunal hearing, or shortly before, it is far from unknown for the Government to ask for the case not to proceed because they want more time to make further investigations and that this then puts such a case back towards the end of the queue?
If the Government can show that the delays are almost always attributable to the asylum seekers themselves, their position is a much stronger one. The number of asylum applications has been relatively constant since 2005, ranging between some 19,000 to just over 25,000. So, bearing that in mind, one would think that it would have been possible to ensure that we now had a process for dealing with asylum applications where responsibility for any delays could not be laid at the door of government. I hope that when the Minister responds she will be able to prove that that is the case and that government indifference or incompetence is not a significant factor in those delays.
My Lords, I am happy to be involved with this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, who not only asked me my first Question but has engaged me in my first debate. When researching this subject, I noticed that he has an almost Wilberforcian determination to bring the issue forward.
As noble Lords have outlined, the Government’s policy is to allow asylum seekers to apply for permission to work only if they have not received a decision on their claim after 12 months because of reasons outside their control. This is fair and reasonable. In the Government’s view, it is vital that we maintain a distinction between economic migration and asylum. Many noble Lords have raised the issue of the crossover where people awaiting asylum can work. The policy in place is specifically designed to mitigate this risk and to protect labour markets by restricting employment, when permission is granted, to occupations on the shortage occupations list published by the Home Office.
As many noble Lords have said, the desirability of the United Kingdom as a destination for economic migrants is not in doubt—this is a great place to live. The Government have been successful at reducing non-EEA migration, but EEA migration remains high as those who benefit from EU free movement come here to look for work. Widening access to the labour market by relaxing our policy on the right for asylum seekers would send the wrong signals and damage the significant progress that this Government have made in controlling migration.
My noble friend Lord Roberts referred to the attitude of other EU countries to asylum seekers. I have looked into this. It is true that if you arrive in Greece you can work straightaway. However, you cannot avail yourself of some of the asylum support and accommodation that we provide in this country, and life could be made far more difficult for you ultimately. He also referred to Sweden, which is a very good case in point. In Sweden you have to have a personal identification number in order to work. However, in order to work as a migrant you have to learn Swedish and do extensive volunteering work, which in itself takes up time.
The issue of whether it takes too long to consider asylum claims has been raised. The Home Office is addressing the issue. In 2012-13, 78% of asylum claims received a decision within six months. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that all asylum claims must be carefully considered and that this takes time and resources.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned the backlog, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. I have some figures about the number of additional staff being drafted in. I understand that 160 new decision-making executive officers are in place to deal with this, as are 90 administration officers. Nearly 80% of claims are dealt with within six months. However, it is important that the Government do all that they can to deter unfounded claims, not least because such claims must still be decided and this slows down consideration of genuine claims at the expense of people who really need our protection.
Perhaps I can go through some of the other points made by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Roberts talked about the judgment this year that asylum support needs to be reviewed. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, also mentioned it. The judge did not say that the current rate was too low; he said that the methodology for making decisions was flawed. We are, therefore, reviewing that and a report on the outcomes will be produced on 9 August.
My noble friend Lord Roberts also asked whether Azure cards could be offered in Lidl and Aldi. My noble friend kindly gave me the heads-up on the issue yesterday and I have approached my noble friend Lord Taylor, the Minister, to ask whether this could be looked into.
My noble friend Lord Roberts talked about medication, which is, in fact, fully covered by the NHS. I am pleased to report that asylum seekers awaiting a decision can have full access to the NHS, including help with getting to health facilities. He also brought up the issue of the standard of housing. I have to say that it is varied but I can absolutely assure him that any accommodation provided must be fully equipped and appointed with all necessary items.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of self-esteem and the inability to work during the stressful time awaiting an asylum decision. It is absolutely the case that people awaiting decisions on asylum claims can volunteer. They are also not necessarily poor, although I accept that, in giving up their homes and livelihoods in their countries of origin, they may well be poor—but not necessarily. They are able to volunteer. This goes back to the point about not muddying the difference between an asylum claim and seeking a work permit. My noble friend Lord Attlee made the point about volunteering and the UK being such a great place in which to live—hence the number of applications that we receive. My noble friend also made the good distinction between the genuine asylum seeker and those seeking work.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the culture of disbelief. We cannot accept that there is such a culture. All claims are considered on their merits, the evidence and the law. The noble Lord might be pleased to know that on average we grant asylum in 30% of initial decisions.
I have covered the issue of the backlog. The number of undecided cases predating 2012 is decreasing and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, might be pleased to know that we have made a decision in all pre-2011 cases. However, I will look into some of the questions and statistics that he asked me about and, if I have not covered everything, we will ensure that those questions are addressed.
Several noble Lords commented on our decision about reviewing the point at which we would allow asylum seekers to seek employment. We have not reviewed that issue, which lies entirely within the 2003 reception conditions directive. We make a distinction between people seeking asylum and those coming here to seek work.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee made several points, including on asylum seekers not being allowed to work—I referred to volunteering in that regard—and on integration and community cohesion. I acknowledge that an asylum seeker might feel isolated, but we are an incredibly integrated community, particularly in the capital, London, and, indeed, elsewhere in the country. We pride ourselves on that integration and on our tolerance and much work goes on to promote that. My noble friend also said that we need to have good systems. I hope that some of the figures that I have mentioned reassure her. Indeed, almost 80% of the claims are heard within six months.
I hope that I have answered all the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. However, I note that he is about to rise to tell me which ones I have not answered.
I took it from an earlier comment that the noble Baroness made that she would check to see whether all the questions that I raised had been answered and, if that was not the case, would write to me soon. That is perfectly acceptable from my point of view. However, I was particularly interested in the figure in the briefing that we received—as far as I know, these are Home Office figures—on the 19,685 applications received since April 2006, and the issue of how many of those the Government are attributing to delays arising from the actions of asylum seekers and how many are due to the actions of the Government.
Before my noble friend sits down, as we are well within the hour, she mentioned the decision being announced on 9 August, following the review. I accept her point that this is about the methodology, not the amount. If she cannot do so now, and she may not be able to, will she let us know fairly soon when the announcement, which will be made on a Saturday, will take effect if there is to be a new rate? Is there any possibility of the announcement being made while Parliament is still sitting so that we might have an opportunity, possibly as the least important people involved in this, to debate and air the issues that will arise from the decision?
Women: Custodial Sentences
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I have asked for this debate because we have one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in western Europe. The human, social and financial costs are considerable. Women in prison are 10 times more likely than men to harm themselves, most women are in prison for short periods and they have very high reconviction rates, which demonstrate that for many women prison is neither rehabilitative nor a deterrent.
There is a growing consensus that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in treatment for addictions and mental health problems, protection from domestic violence and coercive relationships, secure housing, debt management, education, skills development and employment. Community services enable women to take control of their lives, care for their children and address the causes of their offending. I am quoting the Prison Reform Trust, for whose briefing I am most grateful.
The statistics are worth highlighting. On 20 June this year, there were 3,899 women in prison, accounting for 5% of the total prison population. Last year, 7,008 women were sentenced to custody in England and Wales. The number of women remanded to custody is disproportionately high, with 60% of women received into custody each year being on remand. There were 715 in March this year. Yet 70% of these women do not go on to be convicted or to receive a custodial sentence. They and their families will have suffered serious disruption by being put on remand for an average of four to six weeks. The type of crime committed by women is mostly non-violent. In the last quarter of 2013, eight in 10 women entering prison under an immediate custodial sentence had committed non-violent crimes. Theft from a shop is the primary driver of women’s imprisonment, accounting for 35% of all custodial sentences. In 2013, the average sentence for this offence was less than two months. In 2013, more females were received into prison under an immediate custodial sentence for theft and handling than for the offences of violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, burglary, fraud and forgery, drug offences and motoring offences combined. More than three-quarters of sentenced females received into prison for theft and handling offences in 2013 were serving sentences of six months or less.
It is now accepted that short sentences have the worst reoffending outcomes. More than half of all women leaving prison are reconvicted within 12 months. Of those serving sentences of less than 12 months, the reconviction rate rises to 62%. The extent to which community sentences outperform short spells in prison with respect to reoffending is greater for women than for men. The Government, in recognising the high rate of reoffending following short sentences, are attempting to address this by offering mentoring and through-the- gate supervision on release through their Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, but there remain concerns, as stated by the Prison Reform Trust, that proposals to extend the statutory monitoring and supervision to offenders serving sentences of less than 12 months will disproportionately affect women as the nature of their offending means that they are more likely to be imprisoned for the shortest periods. Unless there is specific provision for women, there is a significant risk that the changes will have an adverse impact on the majority of women who commit minor offences. Section 2 of the Act introduces a 12-month statutory supervision period on release for all those sentenced to custody for however brief a period, so sentencers may view short spells in custody as a gateway to accessing the support and supervision services women need in the community. There is a risk that more women will end up in custody for breach—that is, for failing to comply with the terms of the supervision period. When will Section 2 commence? Will the Minister undertake to monitor the impact on the number of women who are sentenced to custody or imprisoned for breach? If the Sentencing Council, which is consulting on a new theft offences guideline, could discourage reliance on custodial sentences for shoplifting and other theft, it could dramatically reduce the number of women in custody.
When we look at the lives of those women who commit crimes, it becomes clear that many are victims as well as offenders. More than half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, while a similar proportion have been victims of domestic violence. When in prison, women account for 25% of all incidences of self-harm, and the number of such incidences is even higher among those on remand. Nearly half of women in prison report having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use—women’s crimes are more likely to be financially motivated than men’s. Most worryingly for the greater good of society and future generations, women prisoners are more likely than men to be primary carers of children. The survey found that six in 10 women in prison have dependent children.
The recent report from Barnardo’s, On the Outside: Identifying and Supporting Children with a Parent in Prison, estimates that 200,000 children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent, with an increased likelihood of facing family breakdown, poverty and isolation. Barnardo’s points out that there is currently no requirement for courts, local services or government to ask questions about these children, who therefore do not receive appropriate support. It calls on the Government to appoint a lead Minister to have responsibility for children of prisoners, and I ask the Minister to respond to that.
Around 18,000 children are separated from mothers who have been imprisoned, 34% of whom are lone parents. It has been estimated that imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences costs the state more than £17 million over a 10-year period as a result of the increased likelihood of their children becoming NEETs—not in education, employment or training—and therefore having poorer long-term prospects.
Non-custodial sentences would lead to additional savings to the state. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy points out that, of those almost 18,000 children, only 9% are put in the care of their fathers, leading to most being placed in care. Children of prisoners are three times more likely to be at risk of developing mental health problems and/or conduct disorders, while 72% of children in care have behavioural and emotional problems.
The economic arguments are compelling. The average annual cost of a woman’s prison place is £56,415, compared with a community order, costing £2,800 per year, and an average of £1,300 for stand-alone community-based services. The New Economics Foundation found that if alternatives to prison reduced reoffending by just 6%, the necessary expenditure would be recouped in a year.
We need to act urgently to reduce the number of women in custody. I of course welcome this Government’s published strategic objectives for female offenders:
“Ensuring the provision of credible, robust sentencing options in the community that will enable female offenders to be punished and rehabilitated in the community where appropriate”,
but I ask the Minister how much in government resources is going into reconfiguring the women’s custodial estate, compared with providing community alternatives to custody. Now is the time to implement the 2007 report of my noble friend Lady Corston on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. As the Justice Select Committee said in 2013:
“Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety”.
It called for,
“a significant increase in … residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women’s centres”,
as proposed by my noble friend Lady Corston.
Women’s services that have been funded by their local probation trust will continue to receive funding from community rehabilitation companies until March 2015. However, after that date, funding will depend on the commissioning decisions taken in each contract package area for offender services. Considering the proven success of these centres in cutting reoffending, helping women to rebuild their lives after prison and offering support to women at risk of offending, what assurances can the Minister give that these women’s centres will receive adequate funding to ensure their continuation post-March 2015? I draw the Minister’s attention to the excellent report by the Prison Reform Trust, Brighter Futures, which recommends:
“Central government should fund a national network of women’s centres, projects and services as these are critical to improved outcomes for women in contact with the criminal justice system”.
There is still much to do and I hope that the Government’s Advisory Board on Female Offenders and the transforming rehabilitation programme will now focus on cutting the number of women in custody in this country, because the numbers are unacceptable and unnecessary.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on securing this debate. I declare an interest: I am a member of the Women’s Justice Taskforce, established by the Prison Reform Trust in 2010 to consider the needs of women in the criminal justice system and to further look at how women’s justice might be reformed, both in terms of economic benefit and helping to reform lives. We published a report, Reforming Women’s Justice, in 2011.
Although, as the noble Baroness said, women form a very small part of the total prison population, over the past 20 years the numbers have doubled to 3,899 women in prison on 20 June last week. It is said that going to prison often ruins people’s lives. Nowhere is that more true than for women—and not only for the women themselves. They are often linchpins of families so it can also ruin children’s lives. For women on the breadline, even a short spell in prison can mean losing everything they have.
The task force believes that those who commit crimes should be punished. Clearly, some women’s offending is so serious that there is no other option but prison. However, punishment should be appropriate, proportionate and support rehabilitation. As the noble Baroness pointed out, most of the women held in prison are serving short sentences or are on remand for non-violent crimes—usually petty crime such as theft or handling stolen goods, often to feed their children or their drug habit.
In 2009, two-thirds of all women sentenced to custody were serving sentences of six months or less. More than half of women entering prison do so on remand. They spend an average six weeks in prison and 60% of them do not then go on to receive a custodial sentence. Worryingly, one-third of women prisoners lose their home and often all their possessions, which makes it difficult for them to restart their lives when released. Some 41% of women leaving prison did not have accommodation arranged. They come out with almost nothing and have nowhere to go. We heard at Holloway that some women would return voluntarily to prison and beg to come back, or reoffend the same day to ensure a return to custody.
Why make women a special case? First, as we heard, a high percentage of women prisoners have been victims of violent crime themselves—domestic or child sexual abuse. Women are often primary carers for disabled or elderly relatives and, as we heard, an estimated 18,000 children per year are affected by their mothers being sent to prison. Only 5% of those children remain in their own home. While many are cared for by friends and relatives, some are taken into care. Taking a child into care all too often condemns them to a life of underachievement. Research suggests that children with an imprisoned parent are three times more likely to have mental health problems or to engage in anti-social behaviour. How can you learn in school when you are frightened and confused about what is happening at home? Nearly two-thirds of boys who have a parent in prison will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves.
The consequences for the woman herself are devastating. There is a very high incidence of self-harm in prison. Visiting Holloway, we met the “listeners”—those prisoners there for others to talk to—and got some understanding of all this. Imagine, as a mother, what it is like to be in prison and hear that your small child is unhappy and missing you or, even worse, that they will be removed from the family and never see you again. It was felt that, for both social and economic reasons, alternatives to prison should be sought at every opportunity. Economically, robust community orders for low-level offences make more sense, costing between £10,000 and £15,000 per annum as opposed to more than £50,000 for a prison place, not to mention the unquantifiable ongoing social costs of, for example, children in care, creating future offenders, mental healthcare, et cetera. The positive work of the voluntarily run women’s centres was highlighted to us.
One of the most important recommendations made by the task force report is the need for sustained government leadership and oversight of women’s justice. The ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders is a step in the right direction but dedicated government infrastructure such as a women’s justice commission would probably enable us to halve women’s prison numbers, thus enabling some closures of prisons and the reduction of reoffending. This model has already proved transformative with youth justice.
This subject is not new. The 2007 review by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, recommended reducing the women’s prison population. I hope that some progress can truly be made. I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Healy on securing this debate. It is an unusual day today, or it seems so to me at least. We have at least two debates in Grand Committee dealing with this sort of issue and there is a debate in the Chamber. It is a bit difficult to decide where you should be at any particular time, but life was ever thus.
I declare my interest. I chair an organisation called Changing Lives, which is based in the north-east but now has responsibility for women’s centres around the country and in Wales. I will mainly say what I have learnt from them in the north-east.
I am not going to repeat the staggering statistics. I am sure the Minister has them in his briefing too. The reality is that too often the criminal justice system treats women as if they are men. I remember, as a Member of Parliament, going into Durham prison. It was a fairly grim, Victorian, old place, and in those days they had the women in the middle of the prison. They had some very serious offenders who had to be in prison. It was a terrifying experience for me to go in because the men would watch what was going on and shout. The food came from there, and the women knew that various other things were in it apart from what was supposed to be.
I have seen some of the worst of what goes on, but I have also seen some of the very good work that can go on. The litany of statistics should be telling the Minister that there is something wrong. We have not got it right. The reality is that women need to be looked at in particular ways. They are different. Their childhood will have been different to many of the men, leading to particular issues and challenges. By continuing to send women to prison, we are compounding the problems that women and their families have and, indeed, that society has. We also know that it is the most expensive option by a long way. It is expensive financially but it is also hugely expensive socially, emotionally and in terms of the health of communities in this country.
Changing Lives supports women across England and Wales but our specialist knowledge of engaging female offenders originated in the north-east. We were one of the first organisations to receive Ministry of Justice funding following the Corston report. Our interventions demonstrated a 44% reduction in frequency of offending, and after two years at least 20% had stopped their offending and had stopped their addiction, and so on. The figures are very significant but also offer hope. In other words, there are alternatives which work. The Ministry of Justice continued to fund that and saw it as one of the most successful programmes.
We have a model which we are now rolling out in other women’s centres—but I have to tell the Minister, it is exceptionally challenging. I do not get this briefing from my charity because it never wants to be controversial—but it is challenging. The funding comes on an annual basis. The new funders do not look at historic experience and knowledge of what works, and therefore we have to find additional funding. The reality is that there are models that work. I hope that the Government will have another look at getting more stability in funding—one year is simply nonsense —and that they will also work with the judiciary and the magistracy, so that they understand that there are alternatives that will work better and be more effective financially and socially in our local communities.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on obtaining this debate, not least because it maintains the momentum on an issue that has been raised countless times on the Floor of the House but always seems to be marked by a lack of progress. I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, mentioned the difference with men, because one thing that I shall never forget is finding on my initial inspection of Holloway that women’s injuries were recorded on a diagram of a man’s body, as there were no diagrams of female bodies available in the Prison Service.
I am afraid that I am going to sound a hobby-horse that I have been sounding ever since 1995 when I walked out of Holloway because I had found, among other things, that women were in chains while they were in labour. I found that there was absolutely nobody in charge of women’s prisons. I went to the director-general, whom I had never met, and said, “Please may I meet the director of women?”, and he said, “There isn’t one”. So I said, “Well, who is responsible for what happens in prisons in the selection and training of staff, and the organising of programmes and of making good practice somewhere into common practice everywhere?”, so as to make certain that what happens in Durham is the same as what happens down in Gloucestershire. He said, “There is a civil servant in the policy department”, but I said, “That’s no good. Who is responsible for overseeing that it actually happens?”. There was no one and there still is no one today.
In the two reports that I wrote on women in prison in 1997 and 2001, I recommended that there should be someone. The Prison Reform Trust recommended in 1999, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, has just repeated, that there should be a women’s justice board like the Youth Justice Board. The three reports of the Fawcett Society all recommended that there should be a women’s justice board or somebody in charge. All that was before the Corston report. Nothing has happened. After I had walked out of Holloway, the Government produced an action plan for that prison, which I supervised by annual inspections, to see how it was being maintained. That was fine while the action plan lasted but, after it had finished, there was nothing. So Holloway has zigzagged up and down, as have all other women’s prisons ever since.
Why have the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice consistently refused to put people in charge of different types of prisoners and be responsible and accountable to Ministers for what happens? That is what happens in schools, in hospitals and in businesses, but it does not happen in the Prison Service and it is why nothing has happened. We do not need any more reports or lists of good practice. They are there in spades and have been coming out for years. What we need is action to put it together.
I include the women who are out of custody in all this because I am worried about the future under the new system of community rehabilitation companies. The previous Government’s proposal for custody plus failed because, among other things, people were concerned that magistrates and others would take advantage of the system and award short custody because supervision would follow. I know that this is a worry about men but to me it is much more of a worry about women because of the number of short-sentenced women. I say that because I am concerned about the content of the community service that is then required and what is actually done for the supervision. Many of these women come from a dysfunctional background and have pretty chaotic lives. What therefore ought to be done during the community sentence is management to enable them to live their lives better, to look after their children better and to prepare better food. Masses of things could practically be done in a proper community service that was aimed at preparing the women to live more useful and law-abiding lives in future.
There is therefore an opportunity but, again, I see it all going on as a sort of discussion point rather than an action point unless somebody is made responsible for ensuring that it happens and for driving it through. That somebody is not a Minister. I have lost count of the number of Ministers for Children and Ministers for Women whom I have met and who have all come and gone. They have produced a strategy and disappeared and nothing has happened. What you need is an official who is accountable to Ministers for making it happen. They should be held to account and, until that happens, I am afraid that I can see this debate being repeated over and over again.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, for initiating this debate. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that a number of the points that I was going to make have already been made, so I will resist the temptation to make them all over again. Indeed, many of your Lordships will have had the briefings from various organisations that give the statistics, and so forth.
It is undoubtedly the case that the female prison population disproportionately includes those who face huge challenges in their lives. It is also clear that prison is not the best place to address many of the issues that these people face. I speak as one who is married to a person who used to be the head of healthcare in a prison in a female estate and saw it at first hand. That was a few years ago and, sadly, the problems are clearly still there.
We have heard reference also to the effect on the children and wider families of women in custody. The cost is immense. We have heard about the financial cost of the custody element. The cost of the care of those children, many of whom have to go into care, is also huge. Therefore, there has to be an answer that will be good not only for social well-being, for the children and for the women themselves, but also for the public purse.
We have heard reference to one community-based initiative that addresses these points. I will share one other of which I have some experience, the Anawim Project in Balsall Heath in Birmingham, a city where I lived and worked for 18 years. It is a project supported and sponsored by two Roman Catholic charities and with a project leader from an Anglican mission society; therefore, apart from anything else, there is a bit of ecumenical working, which is no bad thing. One of their interventions, the specified activity requirement, has produced a reoffending rate of 1% in those who go through that programme—that is, one in 100 reoffend. That has to be the right way to go forward. In other community-based initiatives, reoffending rates are in the 3% to 6% range. Surely that has to be the right way. It makes sense financially as well as making sense for the well-being of individual women, their families and the wider society.
We have heard concerns expressed as to how the working out of the transforming rehabilitation programme will affect some of this, particularly the community rehabilitation companies. I join others in urging the Minister and the Government to make sure that this issue does not get compounded rather than cured by the way in which the new programme works its way out.
Reference has been made to sentencing guidelines. Clearly, it is important that the judiciary and the magistracy are aware of the alternative responses and of their undoubted efficacy in addressing some of these issues. They should also be aware of the wider effects, particularly on children, when they decide to sentence a mother to a custodial sentence.
Could we cut that figure of 3,899 by 50%, as one contributor has suggested we might be able to do? I do not see why we could not, with the kind of attention that different contributors to our debate have suggested. It should result in a gain for all parties: for the women; for their families, especially their children; for the wider well-being of society; and for the public purse. It is one of those things that should just make sense and I trust that, as a result of this debate, we may see some progress in ways that really make sense.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Healy for bringing this important debate before us.
Many noble Lords have said that giving custodial sentences to women who commit petty crimes does not work. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, the numerous reports and inquiries on this topic all recommend alternatives such as those suggested in the excellent report of my noble friend Lady Corston. Women in prison have special needs which include childcare responsibilities, often poor physical and mental health, self-harm and domestic abuse. One in three has experienced sexual abuse, and about 25% were in care during their childhood. A number will have attempted suicide.
These are inadequate women, made even more so as a result of being in prison. We know that the majority of women in jail have committed not serious but petty crimes. Do these offences really require a prison sentence? There are other ways, mentioned by other noble Lords, which would be of greater benefit to the women and their families. There is a good economic case for looking at alternatives to prison.
The average annual cost of a prison place in England and Wales for the financial year in 2012-13 was just over £36,000—although I have seen other estimates that suggest that the average cost of keeping a women in prison is more than £56,000, compared to the cost of a community order of £2,800 per year and an average £1,300 for stand-alone community-based services. I should have thought that the Government would be very interested in that as it makes good economic sense to look at alternatives, especially given all the budget cuts.
What are the alternatives? The House of Commons Justice Committee report, Women Offenders: After the Corston Report, states:
“Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety … we recommend a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, coupled with a significant increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women’s centres, as these are likely to be more effective, and cheaper in the long-run, than short custodial sentences”.
The Government’s response said they would set out a new approach to managing female offenders, including setting up an open unit at Styal to accommodate 25 women, and providing support work outside the prison. The aim is to make each custodial establishment in the women’s prison estate a resettlement prison, and to support women though the gate on release. This will be driven by the Advisory Board on Female Offenders.
In its most recent report in March, the Ministry of Justice gave an update on the Government’s delivery of strategic objectives for female offenders. It sets out its objectives for the year ahead, with the idea of supporting women in maintaining links with their children and family; helping women to find suitable housing on release; ensuring that women’s prisons have the strongest possible focus on employment; using the Advisory Board on Female Offenders; and, this year, starting with a particular focus on Wales. We do not have women’s prisons in Wales, and we certainly do not want any, but we would welcome the community approach that we have in Cardiff. What does the focus on Wales mean?
What is happening with Askham Grange in Yorkshire and East Sutton Park in Kent, due to be closed? They are regarded as having successful records in encouraging rehabilitation and enabling mothers to remain with their children. Because of protests, the closures have been halted for some time. Although the closure of prisons is to be welcomed, we should not be closing women’s prisons before all the alternatives are set out, otherwise we will have overcrowding. Can the Minister also say how the ambitious aims of the MoJ in its year-ahead objectives will be achieved?
My Lords, I join the chorus of congratulations for the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, in achieving this very valuable discussion. Most of the ground has already been covered in the preceding speeches. I do not resent this in any way; they were ably saying what I would have tried to do on the subject.
I declare my interest as chairman of the Prison Reform Trust, a post I am extremely proud to hold. One of the recent achievements of the trust was contributing to the campaign to get general recognition in legislation that women prisoners are different and need special consideration. I am very glad to say that, as a result, and with the Government’s acceptance, Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act now makes that clear. I will use my limited time to say why that could now be the catalyst which is needed for what should have been achieved so long ago, in consequence of the excellent reports there have been. I am sure there is truth in what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said about the lack of an individual to drive a programme of reform. However, I am happy that Section 10 gives hope to those who want a special programme for women offenders.
Things are already happening which could be significant for the future. First, there is the Prison Reform Trust’s three-year programme involving a number of those operating in this field, particularly the Pilgrim Trust, with the sole aim of reducing the imprisonment of women. It focuses on the particular difficulties that women in prison undoubtedly have, and I am sure that it will lead to beneficial results. I also refer to another, more recently initiated, programme which is spearheaded by the Mayor of London, the Prison Reform Trust and others. This focuses on finding out what really works, over time, for women prisoners in London. There is potential funding for this programme from lottery sources. If these funds could be made available, this could transform the situation. If the lottery makes this one of its primary targets—as I hope it will—it would be just the sort of initiative which is needed. I am sure the Government will respond positively to any of its recommendations and give it their backing.
Those who have ever had anything to do with prisons know that there are particular problems both because of the needs of women prisoners and because the female prison population is small, relative to the male one. The very small number of women who should be in custody need to have sentences which allow them to maintain connections with their children and the locality to which they will return after they complete their sentence.
Somehow we must recognise that fulfilling the requirement of Section 10 means that the sort of centres that have been talked about today are the obvious option. Where we must imprison women, we should do so in small centres in the locality so that they can maintain, as far as possible, the links with their family. I very much hope that when we come back to this subject—as we will, almost certainly—we will find we are progressing along that path.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, just said about the need for small prisons and prisons near to women’s homes. That is very important.
This has been an excellent debate. I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Healy. Like others, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Corston—who is unfortunately unable to be here this afternoon although she very much wanted to be. Her invaluable report in 2007 focused on,
“the need for a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”.
Seven years on, there is still much more to be done to prevent the lives of women and their families being torn apart by the lack of action to address issues connected with women’s offending before imprisonment becomes a serious option. The decline in the number of women prisoners is welcome but there are still far too many women in prison. Why are so many women prisoners on remand? As my noble friend said, much more needs to be done with the magistrates and judiciary.
As a result of the Corston report, much was done with the support of the last Labour Government. There was funding to start building a network of women’s centres, mandatory strip-searching in prisons was ended and governance structures, including a cross-departmental women’s team, were established. I recognise what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. When women first enter a prison, they are now treated with dignity and are able to make contact with their children to ensure they are being properly cared for.
Sadly, this Government have not maintained the momentum. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, where is the sustained government leadership on this issue? As the Justice Select Committee report on the Corston agenda said:
“In the first two years of the Coalition Government there was a hiatus in efforts to make headway”.
The reforms put in place were, it said, clearly designed with men in mind. As my noble friend Lady Armstrong said, too often prisons treat women as if they were men. Instead of a proper women’s strategy, we have a government agenda which the committee judged to have been,
“produced in haste with insufficient thought”,
and that fails to make progress or commit to improve the rehabilitative services and outcomes for women offenders.
Why have the Government proposed the closure of the open prisons in Askham Grange and East Sutton Park despite both having a proven track record of encouraging rehabilitation and enabling mums to remain with their children? The Government appear to have abandoned the women at risk agenda. Not enough is being done in relation to evidence-based rehabilitation and prevention, without which women suffer. The decline in the number of women given custodial sentences is not sustainable.
As has been said, prisons are rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Of course, there will be cases where women need to go to prison but we must ensure that these environments support and promote an easier transition back into society. Many programmes up and down the country have been mentioned this afternoon. I cite the excellent example of the social enterprise in Eastwood Park prison, where the women make quality and beautifully presented soap. I am proud to be associated with that programme. The women gain skills, dignity and confidence. They leave prison with a little more money in those first days of freedom when they are most vulnerable.
As noble Lords said, good practice should be common practice. Reducing offending is a vital goal but so, too, is preventing women from falling into the criminal justice system in the first place. As the Prison Reform Trust said, most solutions to women’s offending lie outside the prison walls. This is where women’s centres play such a crucial role. They provide support and care for those who have suffered domestic abuse or have mental health problems. Appallingly, this is likely to be the majority of the female prison population. More than half of the women currently in prison have reported suffering from domestic abuse, and women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than women in the general population.
The centres also offer educational and skills support to the 40% of women offenders who left school before they were 16 and the 10% who left before they were 13 years old. When 58% of the women identified unemployment and lack of skills as contributing to their offending, it is crucial that these resources are available to women across the country. What safeguards are the Government putting in place to ensure that the new providers will continue to fund these vital centres?
I hope that this afternoon the Government will demonstrate that they really are taking seriously a reduction in the number of women being given custodial sentences. The women, their children and our society deserve no less. This afternoon, we have heard many fine examples of where the Government and we as a society, and our communities, can do better. We must do better for the benefit of these women and society.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, on securing this debate. Your Lordships have long had an interest in the plight of female offenders. I am sure that noble Lords will not misunderstand me if I say that a number of them who have participated in this debate are very much recidivists in addressing the issues that we must confront.
Noble Lords will, of course, know that the decision to send someone to prison is a matter for the independent judiciary. Courts take into account all the circumstances of the offence and the offender in determining this, including whether the offender is a primary carer, as will often be the case. Courts must consider custody only where they are satisfied that the offence is so serious that neither a fine alone, nor a community order, can be justified—the so-called custody threshold.
I should declare an interest as having sat as a recorder for some 10 years until relatively recently. I can tell the Committee how slow someone in my position is to send a woman to prison, for all the reasons that have been so ably outlined in this debate. In fact, I can hardly think of an occasion when I had cause to do so.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 introduced a new provision which means that people should be released on bail if it is unlikely that they will receive a custodial sentence on conviction. That provision should go some way to dealing with the point made by a number of noble Lords about women who are remanded and then ultimately not sent to prison when their case comes up for sentence.
As was acknowledged by a number of noble Lords, custody must be available where appropriate, but only when the thresholds are passed. I should be absolutely clear that the Government are committed to making sure that all offenders are given the support they need to turn their lives around. That commitment is central to our transforming rehabilitation reforms. We also recognise the need to address women’s specific needs where these differ, as they often will, from those of men.
Noble Lords will recall that the Government published their strategic objectives for female offenders in March last year. These are aimed at reducing the number of women in custody—which is desirable for all the reasons that have been given throughout this debate—by making sure that women receive the support that they need in custody and in the community to address the factors associated with their offending. Those are fine words, but what do they mean in practice?
First, our transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that those serving sentences of less than 12 months will, for the very first time, be subject to statutory supervision, including a licence period in the community aimed at supporting successful community reintegration and rehabilitation. As was rightly pointed out, proportionally more women than men are serving short sentences, so they, in particular, will be beneficiaries of this element of the reform.
The companies bidding for contracts under our transforming rehabilitation reforms must demonstrate in their bids an effective approach to the identification and recognition of women’s needs to make sure that those needs are properly addressed. To assist, we have made available guidance which identifies the key gender-specific factors associated with women’s offending and provides signposting to specialist services. The contracts will also require providers, where practicable, to give women the option of being interviewed in a women-only environment, having a female supervisor and not being the only woman in an otherwise all-male group on, for example, unpaid work, subject to any requirements.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, quite rightly drew attention to Section 10 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. I join him in paying tribute to the Prison Reform Trust in this context. Section 10 relates to female offenders and was widely supported across the House. It came into force on 1 June and the new requirement specifically to address the concerns of female offenders will apply both to contracts with CRCs—community rehabilitation companies—and services provided by the new National Probation Service.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger raised the suggestion of a women’s commissioner, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, suggested someone with overall control of women’s prisons, an official or even a Minister. All those points have been made eloquently before. The Government do not think for the moment that that is appropriate. It would be a significant cost at this time. However, I hope and believe that the provision of Section 10 will be something of a catalyst—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said. Together with the other initiatives, it should help to address the many issues that have been identified in this debate.
We are working towards ensuring sentencers have robust community options at their disposal. Under the guidance of the Advisory Board on Female Offenders, we are working with Greater Manchester to develop a pathfinder that will look at how we can provide robust and effective sentencing options in the community for female offenders that may divert women from custodial sentences, where appropriate.
We are also working with the Department of Health, the Home Office and NHS England to develop a model for youth and adult liaison and diversion services at police custody and courts. That service will assess and refer individuals with a range of vulnerabilities, including mental health problems and substance misuse. Those with mental health problems represent a considerable proportion of women who are or might be sent to prison. The Department of Health has committed £25 million this year to test a liaison and diversion model in 10 different areas in England.
For women who are given custodial sentences, we are making changes to the women’s custodial estate to keep women closer to their home. This is one of the issues raised during this debate. It will help them to maintain links with their children and families and also support them to get the skills they need to find employment on release. We are increasing capacity at prisons close to conurbations, including giving priority to Welsh women at Eastwood Park. We are also improving access to interventions and resettlement opportunities across the entire estate, supported by the fact that all women’s prisons will become resettlement prisons.
I was asked questions about Askham Grange and East Sutton Park. I cannot discuss the Government’s intention to close these open prisons as this is the subject of ongoing litigation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, may know. However, we are reconfiguring the estate to allow women to be held closer to home, for the very reasons that have been identified by a number of noble Lords.
In addition, an officials’ sub-group under the Social Justice Cabinet Committee has been set up to examine the relationship between women’s offending behaviour and debt and finance issues. The support of the SJCC for this work is a good example of the progress we are making. We will continue to work with other government departments to make it easier in the future for women to move away from crime.
I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked me about ensuring that community services will be maintained following the transforming rehabilitation plan. As well as the Section 10 requirement, we are continuing to fund women’s community services in 2014-15 and taking appropriate steps. There is not a gap between those existing services and whatever will be provided by the new providers. As the noble Baroness will understand, this is a complex matter, and I will write to her in a little more detail about how we are going to ensure this continuity. I wholly understand her concern about it.
I conclude by saying that the anxiety to avoid sending women to prison is one that is of course shared by the Government and all noble Lords, as is the desire to explore alternative options. We believe that the initiatives we are taking with transforming rehabilitation represent a real opportunity to improve this. As I said, those who are serving a sentence of less than 12 months will, for the first time, be able to get help. I think that noble Lords will be peculiarly aware of the danger that when women, and of course men, leave prison they are lost. They do not know what the next step is and are particularly vulnerable to reoffending and coming back to prison. We believe that this will be significantly addressed by our changes.
We are concerned that the strategic objectives on female offenders will be addressed. The report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, has remained extremely valuable. Almost all her recommendations have in fact been implemented; I think it was something like 40 out of 43 of them, so it remains an extremely valuable source. I repeat my gratitude to all noble Lords for their participation in this important debate.
Egypt: Human Rights
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the recent presidential election in Egypt and the subsequent inauguration of former Field Marshal Sisi as president make this a very timely debate. This week’s visit of the United States Secretary of State to Cairo, as well as the conviction of the three Al-Jazeera journalists, casts a spotlight on the human rights situation in Egypt. The return of the strongman to Egypt once again brings to centre stage the classic dilemma of how we navigate between interests and values in our foreign policy.
President Sisi takes office in the midst of a fiercely orchestrated campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and civil society activists, and at a time of serious security threats in Egypt and, of course, the region. Since the revolution that ousted Mohamed Morsi from office on 3 July 2013, more than 41,000 people have been arrested for political reasons, among them many youth activists who played such a prominent role in toppling both Mubarak and Morsi. Undoubtedly, Morsi’s rule caused widespread discomfort in Egypt and led to an intensification of violence against Christians and other minorities. His removal was welcomed by large sections of society. Nevertheless, many court rulings against the opponents of the present regime have been nothing short of scandalous. I think of the repeated death penalties handed down to approximately 1,500 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Minya earlier this year.
We could also mention dozens of other cases where the courts’ harsh rulings are disproportionate to the deeds of the accused in any regard. Press freedom, academic freedom, freedom of thought and speech, and freedom of assembly remain heavily restricted in Egypt. The introduction of tough protest laws and the prospect of ever more restrictive laws on NGOs are all signs of a polarised and silenced society. Taken together, they have contributed to a climate of populist tolerance and a shrinking of the democratic space in Egypt.
In the field of religious freedom, the end of Egypt’s first Islamic presidency has not presaged a golden age for Muslim Coptic relations. Instances of violence and physical intimidation against Coptic Christians remain disturbingly high. Police investigations are haphazard and prosecutions rare. In addition to the targeted attacks against Christians, we are, sadly, witnessing a predictable return to the subtler, pernicious problems of the Sadat-Mubarak era. Egypt’s outdated laws and authoritarian institutions continue to enshrine inequality and discrimination, which breed social tension and religious conflict. The implementation of Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which criminalises contempt for religion, continues to be used against religious minorities despite the new constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion.
At its heart, this is a question of citizenship and what it means to have full membership in the national political community. I am inspired by the words of his Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, when he said that Egyptian Christians need to be seen as citizens on the basis that they are Egyptians who take pride in their indigenous homeland. Before anything else, he called for equal citizenship for all, by which he meant,
“equal rights and equal accountability before the law”,
regardless of religion. Any discussion on religious freedom in Egypt should note that, besides the Copts, the Shiites and the Baha’i suffer from many hardships. These hardships are at least as onerous as the problems encountered by the Copts, but because they are so much smaller in number, their problems do not appear as pressing—although, of course, they are.
Against this background it would be wrong to assume that the presidential elections signal a meaningful return to democracy or even political stability; they do not appear to do that at all. The European Union election observation mission to the Egyptian elections demonstrated in its preliminary statement of 29 May that the elections were administered in an environment that fell short of the principles of the new constitution. Do the Government agree with the assessment that the voting took place within an inherently biased framework?
Although it remains too early to say how President Sisi will act in office, and whether hopes that his political connections with the army will be properly severed, the early signs are not encouraging. Let one small example suffice: the week before last, all branches of the well established Seoudi supermarket chain were raided by the police and temporarily shut down. The owner’s family is alleged to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood but the move was clearly designed to ease competition for other military-run supermarkets. Egyptians without personal connections to the army appear to be treated as second-class citizens when interacting with their Government.
I am aware that this depressing picture presents the Government with an all too familiar quandary. I am conscious that Egypt’s current hypersensitivity to foreign criticism means that there might be little short-term prospect of effecting positive change. Yet without bringing these human rights injustices to attention, the stability and prosperity that is currently being sought through repression of these rights is itself undermined. Clearly, the Government should work with President Sisi on development, security, migration and other mutual interests but they must at the same time also maintain clear and critical distance from the regime. I would be grateful, therefore, for the Minister’s reassurance that the Government will continue to argue both privately and publicly that Egypt’s future development, including its stability, depends on a political system that gives a fair and equal stake to all its citizens, and which allows for the free and open expression of dissenting political views.
In addition, I would be glad to know what impact the EU’s Support for Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth programme is having on the ground in Egypt. At the very least, I hope that Her Majesty’s Government and their EU partners will not look to assist the stabilisation effort by following the US lead and loosening the restrictions on arms licences that were put in place by the Foreign Affairs Council in August of last year. I recognise the countervailing economic pressures, not least given impending US arms exports to Egypt, but I trust that these will be resisted. The likelihood of an escalating cycle of repression and violence in Egypt cannot be ruled out. The deep divisions of Egyptian society require determined processes of reconciliation. Does the Minister hold out any hope that there might be a reconciling role here for the EU, given that it appears to be the only actor currently able to talk to all sides?
Whatever we conclude about the UK’s short-term capacity to assist Egypt to significantly improve its human rights record, I hope that this debate will serve as a timely reminder that the situation in Egypt leaves the liberties of its people severely restricted. Finally, I hope that it will strengthen our resolve to avoid slipping back into the habits of old whereby the values on which human dignity depend are too readily sacrificed on the altar of political stability.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate. The terrible events and strife in Syria, and now in Iraq, have somewhat swung the media spotlight away from Egypt, leaving an impression, after last month’s democratic presidential election, that the country has emerged from difficult years. However, I was personally rather abruptly shaken out of this view when I met an Egyptian contact at the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. She painted a very different picture of what has really been happening in Egypt this past year. I have never known her to be so anxious—indeed, frightened—about what is happening. She described a situation where security has deteriorated and a suppressive authoritarian culture has been imposed. People are terrified to speak out and any opposition is mercilessly crushed. I shall share with noble Lords some examples she provided and also draw their attention to the plight of women in particular.
Many noble Lords know that I champion the rights of women in developing and conflict countries. Human Rights Watch has long reported that Egyptian women are underrepresented in public life and face endemic levels of sexual and gender-based violence, with the authorities failing to take substantive action to acknowledge the problem or combat it. This adds immense fear and difficulty to women’s daily lives.
In 2011, I visited Egypt with Plan International and saw projects in the poorest parts of Cairo. What I saw was truly shocking. FGM is prevalent. I was told that 91% of women had undergone it, although it is illegal. It is hard to prosecute and is a taboo subject in their society. Most of the women I met were illiterate. There was terrible poverty, which meant early marriage was prevalent, with girls aged 13 to 15 being removed from education, if they were receiving it at all. There was also a market in child brides. Girls were effectively being sold to men who came from the Gulf. They often bored of the girls after a few months and just threw them out. Some of them were already pregnant.
Positively, there was a women’s movement, with a strong women’s body, the National Council for Women of Egypt, and women were starting to speak out. During the revolution in 2011, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men in Tahrir Square to topple Mubarak’s dictatorship. However, these women paid a price, being verbally abused and harassed by male protesters. A few were arrested and subjected to “virginity tests” because they had camped out in tents alongside male protestors. The Arab spring frustratingly brought with it a fundamentalist credo that these burgeoning women’s rights belonged with the ousted dictators and that women in leadership roles was un-Islamic. Therefore in the elections that followed, sweeping the Muslim Brotherhood to power, women’s rights were proactively downgraded. Despite this, during demonstrations last year, women bravely continued to participate, but there was a higher price, a wave of sexual violence, with more than 100 attacks reported in Tahrir Square alone.
I speak about the situation for women because women’s rights are part of human rights and must be given equal consideration, more so when such gender- based abuses are endemic in a country. Creating a strong and resilient women’s civil society is the cornerstone to addressing human rights abuses as a whole.
There is a sliver of light, as on paper there have been some legal developments under the new Government. On 10 June, they approved a law that punishes sexual assault. Although the newly drafted constitution shows signs of improvement compared to its predecessor, when noble Lords consider the wider human rights context being debated today, I expect they will join me in being doubtful as to whether President al-Sisi is the right person to implement these changes effectively. Indeed, he was the senior general who defended the army’s policy of subjecting female detainees to “virginity tests”.
So, I return to the voice of my fearful contact. She told me that independent local NGOs daily verifying data from local sources say that in the six months from July 2013 to 31 January 2014, 3,248 people have been killed on protests, in detention and during police raids. She spoke of the mass arrests which we have already heard about, the 44,163 Egyptian citizens who were arrested between 3 July 2013 and 15 May 2014. More than 9,000 of them have now stood trial. I say “trial”, but in reality there appears to have been an abandonment of democratic legal process. There has been a renewal of pretrial detention orders with people, including children, illegally held for months. Mass trials are resulting in lengthy prison sentences or death penalties, as we have already heard. In one case, 554 Egyptians were sentenced to death, most of them in absentia. The Henry Jackson Society informs me that prosecutors fail to investigate the security forces for the killing of protesters. Not a single police officer has stood trial. Meanwhile, I understand dozens of people have disappeared since July 2013. Savage torture and sexual assault have been reported by 79 protesters held in Abu Zaabal prison after a recent mass arrest and over 100 in Wadi al-Natrun.
My contact reported a worrying clampdown on the press and free speech. On 3 July 2013, at least six TV stations were shut down. Now, only TV stations owned by businessmen supportive of al-Sisi are allowed to work. Local NGOs report that around 27 journalists are currently detained. Dozens of people are similarly detained simply for possessing flyers with opposition slogans.
Death, illegal arrest, detention, a compromised legal process, torture, the repression of free speech and the repression of women are an intolerable situation. Today I join the call for Egypt’s Government to make their human rights record a top priority. But can we have any real hope that there will be any political will for this? I hope that the Minister may offer some reassurance about the situation in Egypt and indicate what influence the UK Government will be able to exert to address the human rights record there.
My Lords, I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for calling this debate. Lest we look unusually critical of Egypt, one has to acknowledge at the outset that violations of human rights are, sadly, all too widespread throughout the Middle East, from the Maghreb to the Gulf, with freedom of religion and freedom of speech and association routinely circumscribed and disregarded. Representative government and an independent judiciary and press are deficient or absent in many cases.
There are of course differences, and in some Arab countries there is greater tolerance than in others. I note in passing the acquittal in Bahrain yesterday of a Shiite critic of the Government, Khalil Marzook, one of the leaders of the opposition Wefaq party. As for freedom of religion in Bahrain, its ambassador here is a Christian, and her counterpart, the Bahrainian ambassador in Washington DC, is Jewish. All of us would wish Bahrain well in a process of reconciliation, which, I hope, can include the now-freed Khalil Marzook.
Turning to Egypt, one cannot begin but with the shocking jailing of the three journalists in Cairo just a few days ago. Here I declare an interest as the international trustee of the BBC and as someone who remembers Peter Greste from the time when we both worked together in the World Service at Bush House in the late 1980s. He is a professional journalist of the highest calibre who would acquit himself well in any of the world’s major news organisations. It is no surprise to me that journalists at the BBC held a demonstration on Tuesday in support of Peter and his colleagues.
I have to say that it was shocking to see footage of three journalists held in cages in a 10-minute session in court, being sentenced in two cases to seven years’ imprisonment and to 10 years in the third. It was sadly reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Two other British journalists were tried in absentia and, needless to say, found guilty. All this is a chilling warning to the international press, and to the British press, in their coverage of Egypt. Those sentences have been widely condemned. The Prime Minister called them “appalling”, and the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop—Peter Greste is Australian—considered the sentences to be a serious attack on the freedom of the press. Condemnation came from Governments and press associations around the world.
Egypt is in danger of losing friends, not gaining them. For all his faults, and there were very many—especially his meddling with the constitution, which concerned Egypt’s large Coptic Christian and secular communities—Mohamed Morsi was the only civilian elected president of the Egyptian Arab Republic in 62 years. He was replaced as interim president by Adly Mansour, a judge—but he was not elected. Egypt and Egyptian politics cannot be defined for ever by the limits of the garrison state. Like other Arab countries, it needs to look to models elsewhere, such as India, South Africa and Indonesia—incidentally the world’s largest Muslim country—which have made that difficult transition to real economic development, representative government, protection of human rights and religious tolerance.
There are, sadly, many areas of human rights where conditions in Egypt fall far below acceptable international standards. The reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group can provide chapter and verse, including, it has to be said, reports of widespread incidents of torture.
What then should be the attitude of the British Government? I believe that we should act on the words of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and raise our concerns about the case of the three journalists and other human rights violations in Egypt. As a former special adviser to two Foreign Secretaries and the current Secretary-General of the UN, I can imagine the advice that will go forward to Ministers. At other times, I would perhaps have written it. It would include the conflict between human rights considerations and security issues, the importance of Egypt because of the peace treaty with Israel, counterterrorism co-operation and so on. It will not be easy, but diplomacy is not meant to be easy. Our Government need to be tough in addressing concerns about the behaviour of the Government of President Sisi. I therefore submit that this is the moment for Ministers to act, not necessarily publicly but in a robust manner, on human rights violations, which have no place in the fight against terrorism and which are completely counterproductive. The political contest with the Ikhwan—the Islamic Brotherhood—is never going to be won if Egypt continues to undermine human rights in this manner.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has vast experience and is absolutely right to emphasise the significance of what has happened to journalists. This is very sinister, as the whole concept of the freedom of the press is essential to a stable, secure society and to the cause of democracy itself. I hope we can send a very strong message of support from this debate to the journalist community. I take second place to nobody in having to be peeled off the ceiling sometimes because of things journalists say. However, whatever our frustrations, we ought to be congratulating journalists and encouraging them in the crucial role they play for the things we believe in.
I warmly endorse the observations and analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger. I was greatly heartened by what she said; she ticked off the points one after another. I would like to add and re-emphasise a couple of things. First, I have rather admired the way that the Foreign Secretary has—without qualification—advocated his total conviction on the importance of human rights and the rule of law. It is very important for the Minister to convince and reassure us this afternoon that the Government’s position on Egypt is absolutely consistent with that approach because it would be a tragedy if, by default, the credibility of what the Foreign Secretary is saying was undermined.
It is also important to look at the harsh realities; they have been mentioned but I must repeat them. We have spoken of journalists, but how can the mass trials and death sentences be reconciled with the rule of law and with justice as we understand it? What about the disappearances? When I was rapporteur to the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya, I found this in very real terms. I kept saying to myself: “Think of the mass concern in my country if one child or young person disappears”. People in large numbers are just disappearing. Imagine what that means for ordinary families and people throughout Egyptian society. There is also ruthless, cruel, sadistic torture and all the implications for women of what is happening.
As an old man, I have come to the conclusion that there comes a time when the niceties have to be put in perspective. At the moment, our basic message should be one of solidarity with the Egyptian people. We do not want any rationalisation about how we must be reasonable and so on. What happened in Egypt was, in fact, a military coup. There is no other way to describe it. I was in Cairo when the demonstrations were on. What worried me then was that a number of people with whom I spoke said, “All that matters is to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood”. I said, “What are you going to replace it with? First, you should not be doing it this way but building up to the next election when you deal with these things.” They said, “That does not matter. We must just get rid of it”. There is a great need for some investigation by historians into what the riots were really about, who orchestrated them and who stirred up the passion there. I think there are some very ugly realities there. I detect the hand of the old guard. I am absolutely certain about that. I suspect the military were very much involved, too.
To conclude, I again emphasise that if we are worried about extremism in the world—I am very worried about it—the one thing we must forgo at all costs is direct or indirect counterproductivity. To try to apologise for or find ways to accommodate the military regime is direct provocation to the cause of extremism and militant behaviour in the Islamic community. We have to be even-handed. I am very uncomfortable about a situation in which we have an inquiry going on about the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood while we may find all sorts of rationalisations for our behaviour on other fronts with Egypt. That is just not even-handed. I look to the Minister to reassure us on these issues.
My Lords, I took part in two visits this year to Cairo by the all-party group. Egypt has had a deservedly bad press following shootings, mass trials and death sentences. I understand that civilians can still be tried before military courts for certain offences and that some 62,000 people are in prison, many of them facing very poor conditions. This week, the New York Times estimated that 15,000 of them are there for political reasons. Another source in April thought that 2,000 were in pre-trial detention.
As far as I know, there is no process for reviewing cases before they come to court. As a delegation, we met with the National Council for Human Rights. It appeared—certainly to me—that it lacks independence and real authority. Six journalists have been killed and 20 arrested. Five received long sentences after a questionable trial. I am glad that the Egyptian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office following those verdicts. I note that media control has already failed in Tunis and may yet fail in Egypt.
There are other relevant points. Preachers in mosques will in future have to be licensed and qualified persons—a move intended to prevent extremists and rabble-rousers. Almost all the senior and middle-rank judges were appointed in the Mubarak era and may well have very conservative views. We were told that the Government were funding the rebuilding or repair of 27 churches, mainly Coptic Orthodox, that were destroyed or damaged.
I noted that Mr Amr Moussa, the veteran Minister and former Secretary-General of the Arab League, did not demonise the Muslim Brotherhood as others have done but suggested that the 50-member constitutional committee might have a continuing role in guiding the new Parliament that should be elected before the end of this year. The real test will be whether the Government actively promote common citizenship and equality of opportunity for all. One small and low-cost improvement would be to remove the obligation to show religious affiliation on a person’s identity card.
Given the anxieties of the Egyptian Government about the Libyan frontier and the Sinai peninsula, my fear is that the military will keep a harsh grip on events. Already the state owns a significant part of the media and the many-headed private and commercial media may well feel constrained to act with great caution. The outlook for freedom of expression may not be too bright. It would be good if there could be an independent investigation of the many violent deaths that occurred in 2013, of the alleged torture in prison and of police impunity.
I conclude by asking whether Her Majesty’s Government will combine maximum co-operation for the good of Egypt’s economy and for the benefit of its neighbours with a critical eye on all abuses of human rights, whether these occur against Egypt’s own citizens or they are suffered by refugees who found themselves in Egypt.
My Lords, I was fortunate to be added to the second visit of the all-party group to Egypt two weeks’ ago on the grounds that on the previous visit it was suggested that it would be helpful if someone with a military background joined the delegation.
I was particularly interested to have, first, a two-hour meeting with Mr Sisi—he was very much Mr, not Field Marshal, Sisi. We all came away impressed with the grasp that he had of the issues that were facing the country and some of the ways in which he said he was approaching them. He said that Egypt was embarked on a road map which had three main ingredients—two of which had been completed and the third was to come. The first was the writing of the constitution by the committee of 50. Like my noble friend Lord Hylton, I was extremely interested in the exposition of this by Mr Amr Moussa, a wise man. It was interesting that the scope of the people included in the 50- person committee was very wide. I definitely share the impression he got that the Muslim Brotherhood was not to be excluded from future discussions because it was very much part of Egypt.
The second part of the road map, of course, was the election of the president. Although people think that he had a vast majority in the votes cast, we were left under no illusion that the general feeling was that it was of votes cast and did not represent that percentage of the population of Egypt. I was gratified to hear that, knowing of the number of people who deliberately abstained, particularly from the Muslim Brotherhood, because that meant that he would not claim it.
The third part, of course, is the election of Parliament. Quite a lot of time was spent on that. Not least, we were interested to learn that guaranteed numbers of women and Christians would be appointed to that Parliament. Although it sounded extremely complicated, there was a kind of first past the post representation all over Egypt. There was then the production of party lists, which had to contain a number of people of different kinds. Then there was a presidential addition of 20. It all seems complicated but at least it is based on a constitution. Certainly I came away feeling that the jury was out and we would be unwise to be too critical of everything that is in train until it has actually happened and we can see what part it can play in the development of Egypt.
The second point that President Sisi made to us very clearly—as has already been pointed out by my noble friend Lord Williams of Baglan—was that Egypt comes first. As far as he was concerned, gender and religion did not matter. Provided that you put Egypt first, then Egypt welcomed you, but if you put something above Egypt, that was where you parted company. That is where—he did not say as much but others mentioned it—the Muslim Brotherhood had appeared to go wrong, because they had put something above being Egyptian. He went on to criticise the British for our involvement in Iraq and in Libya, and for leaving Libya so soon. Others added a little dagger with the two names of Sykes and Picot, who had successfully mucked up that part of the world. Our status was not as high as we would like .
However, President Sisi said several times that task number one was to put food on everyone’s table, so there was a feeling of reality in all these discussions. The person who most concerned me was the Minister of Defence, not least when he suggested that the internal security situation in Sinai was 85% under control. I did not get the chance to ask him about the other 15%. As a soldier, I have never been able to measure internal security situations in that way. I was interested in the co-operation with Israel over this because, not surprisingly, Israel has as much interest in any terrorism based in Sinai as Egypt has.
The other group which interested me enormously were groups of students, in a meeting arranged by the British Council. I was grouped with a wonderful team of about 15 male and female students from the old Egyptian university in Cairo. Had any of them voted in the presidential election? The answer was no. Were any of them going to vote in the parliamentary election? Again, the answer was no, because they were disillusioned with politics. This was rather sad, because they are the coming generation. They were bright and one just hoped that there was more from that.
So what did I conclude from all this? I declare an interest as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. When I look at the world and consider the national security interests, I look at the geopolitical position of Egypt, the junction between Arabia and Africa and that immensely important waterway between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. We have a very long connection with Egypt. Despite all the human rights problems, I think that the attitude of critical friend is the one that we should adopt.
Finally, the most interesting person we met quite apart from the political scene was the Grand Mufti. I had not realised until he spoke to us that when all these death penalties are passed in the courts, that does not mean that they have been passed. Every death penalty that is imposed then comes to the Grand Mufti and he looks at it from the Islamic point of view. It then goes to the appeal court, then back to the Grand Mufti, then to the president. So I suspect that there is quite a long way to go. That is not to say that I support any of this, but I am interested that there are checks and balances in the system. These ought to be allowed to work through before we damage our position in the eyes of a country which is one with which we ought to maintain friendship—albeit a critical one.
Before the noble Lord sits down, may I just ask him one question? It would be interesting to hear his research. In this House he is renowned for his stand on the implementation of justice and the penal system. Did he make any inquiries about what was happening within the penal system?
My Lords, while I quite often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on this occasion I fundamentally disagree with him. I agree that we should be critical friends, but this is a country where there is no proper judicial process, where hundreds and thousands of people are sentenced to death, where journalists are banged up for seven years for doing nothing, where there is no freedom of speech and where women’s rights are totally abused. It is right to be critical, and probably right to be a friend, but I do not share the confidence that the noble Lord puts in the country of Egypt.
This has been an excellent, if depressing, debate, and I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for tabling the Question. The catalyst for the Arab spring was the struggle for dignity, and I fear that, after three years of challenges and change, few people have had their dignity enhanced—quite the contrary. The current human rights situation is a degradation of dignity. There is no equality of citizenship.
Journalism is not a crime—at least, it should not be—but it is a crime in Egypt. My noble friend Lord Williams spoke graphically about the sentencing and imprisonment of the three journalists on charges that they provided aid to a terrorist organisation by broadcasting falsified news. This, combined with the previous imprisonment of other journalists, makes Egypt one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world. The chilling effect on freedom of speech of imprisoning those who report what is happening in the country is dramatic and it risks shifting Egypt back towards its authoritarian past. This effect will be felt not only by Egyptian and overseas journalists in Egypt but by its people. These sentences can be interpreted only as the military-led Government’s attempt to silence dissent in the country.
In the trial, the prosecution offered no evidence that was publicly available which would have shown that the journalists supported the Muslim Brotherhood or that they had broadcast anything that was not accurate. In fact, there were Kafkaesque scenes in the courtroom. It is evident that what the journalists experienced was very far from due process—in fact, quite the contrary. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to pressure Egypt to release the journalists.
I turn to another pressing human rights issue that Egypt is facing at the moment: women’s rights. There were many brave women protesting in Tahrir Square in 2011, demanding change for their country and society, but their voices have not been properly heard and they paid a price, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said. Indeed, that price grows even higher. Like the noble Baroness, I was shocked to learn that according to UNICEF 91% of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to female genital mutilation. While support for the practice has been falling in the past 20 years, and while it was legally banned in 2008, it is still broadly an accepted practice in Egypt. This acceptance is particularly prevalent in areas with lower levels of education, which underscores the importance of promoting better education for girls. I was encouraged to read that in March this year, for the first time, a doctor was prosecuted for FGM after a 13 year-old girl died in his clinic last year. I hope that this will not be an isolated case and that the new Government take the issue seriously.
Violence against women more broadly has been a grave problem in Egypt. The new Government have criminalised the physical and verbal harassment of women and set harsh punishments for these crimes. However, real progress will be made when enforcement against these crimes takes place. During the inauguration of President al-Sisi, many women were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square, including a gang rape. In describing the current situation for women in Egypt, Human Rights Watch calls it an “epidemic of sexual violence”. In the past year, Egyptian authorities have taken little action to prevent or investigate violence against women or to prosecute those responsible. According to recent surveys, women face alarmingly high levels of sexual and gender-based violence. This includes widespread sexual harassment in public, as well as high levels of domestic violence. More broadly, women remain underrepresented in public life, are paid less than men and are prevented from advancing to higher positions. It is clear that FGM, domestic violence and street sexual violence are all connected and form a broader pattern of crimes against women.
It is imperative that the new Egyptian Government take the issue of women’s rights seriously, and that it becomes a high priority. However, I have a pessimistic lack of confidence, although I hope it will be confounded. The future of the country as a whole depends on women not being afraid of being assaulted when walking down the street or while at home. A democratic, progressive Egypt must include women from all walks of life, especially in leadership positions. The death sentence on hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members is abhorrent, notwithstanding what the noble Lord said.
Sadly, it is clear that the new Government are cracking down on other political parties to deter people organising and uniting. Party-political activists are fearful of arrest. I pay tribute to friends who are members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has the support of my party, and who have been doing some fantastic work to build and grow their party, but a proposed new law on party politics would ban parties fielding candidates and allow candidates to stand only as independents.
These actions detract Egypt from the secure, stable, democratic future its people rightfully deserve and have fought tenaciously to secure, but voting does not equal democracy. Human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of political expression must underpin any democratic system. I fervently hope that the new Government will come to understand that, so that Egypt can look forward to a fair and prosperous future. I also trust that our Government will be tough, but of course I recognise—as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said—that diplomacy is not always easy.
My Lords, this Question asks us to assess the human rights situation in Egypt. I have to say that it is poor, and at the moment is getting worse. We all recognise that and the severity of the situation. We also recognise, as the right reverend Prelate said, the conflict between interest and values in foreign policy. Egypt is one of the most important countries in the Arab and Muslim world. It is also an important player in the world economy because of the Suez Canal, and in regional order, because it is Israel’s neighbour and part of the key to Gaza. So we have a complex number of interests there.
I recall that when I first started studying international relations, Egypt was in those days the largest and most important player in the Arab world and the source of influence on other countries. That is less so now because the Egyptian economy is in an extremely weak position and has gone backwards sharply over the past three years. The poverty of Egypt, in contrast to the wealth of the oil-producing states, has to some extent altered the balance. We have to start by recognising that the countries which now support the Egyptian economy and are perhaps helping to rebuild it are the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which gives them much more direct influence on what is happening in Egypt than we have.
We also have to recognise that Egypt has, after all, the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood—an important Sunni player. The Muslim Brotherhood, in a sense, was one way in which to reconcile traditional Islam and aspects of modernity. As such, it is seen by a number of other Governments in the Gulf as being a threat to their rule. The Saudi Government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in March this year; that was very much because of its history within Saudi Arabia, in the sense that it is a challenge to the nature of the Gulf regimes.
Therefore, alongside the pressures that we are putting on the Egyptian Government, we also have to recognise that others have different priorities, which are not ours. Her Majesty’s Government have a close and continuing relationship with the Egyptian Government. We speak frankly to them. We have issued a number of statements about the numbers who have been imprisoned and, in particular, about the recent condemnation of the journalists and the liberal activists with whom we were in indirect contact. We have made, and continue to make, our position entirely clear to the current Egyptian Government.
Some participants in this debate have suggested that there are chinks of light. The new constitution has elements guaranteeing the rights of women. If we are to believe President Sisi, he sees his role as being to provide a gradual transition to democracy. We all know that such a transition can be extremely gradual; that is part of the problem we have to bear. The European Union has some influence. Egypt is part of the southern neighbourhood with which we work. We, and others, through, in our case, the Arab Partnership Participation Fund and a number of European Union funds, have been working with bodies in Egypt which want to promote a more open, liberal and equal society.
That is not easy under the current conditions. In the Chamber not long ago, some of us were debating whether foreign NGOs and other organisations are recognised as legitimate in other states. Egypt is as conscious of sovereignty as any other state in this regard. The Egyptian Government’s response to Secretary of State Kerry’s condemnation of the punishment of the journalists demonstrates how difficult it is to get one’s influence through.
That being said, the Government will maintain their dialogue and their strong condemnation of the direction in which Egypt is going. To be honest, we have to recognise that Egypt, like Turkey until recently, has a deep state which is the military—linked to military control of aspects of the economy, the intelligence services, the police and the judiciary. I never entirely understood what was meant by the phrase “the deep state” until I worked on the Cyprus problem many years ago. After funny articles and various bits in the press started getting published attacking me, I met somebody in Istanbul who told me how that had been arranged. There are parallels between Egypt and Turkey. They are not entirely dissimilar regimes, although Turkey is a great deal more developed than Egypt.
Moving the Egyptian regime on from the current privileged position of the military within the state apparatus and the economy is going to be extremely difficult. We have to recognise that, in doing so, we will not be pushing them in the same direction as Saudi Arabia or the Emirates. Thus the Europeans and, to an extent, the Americans will have a hard task to get their messages through. What we saw with the Arab spring in Egypt, as in a number of other countries, was the emergence for the first time of an urban middle class. There is a similar one in Tehran. Iran, after all, has all the tensions between rural elements and educated urban elements that we now see in Egypt, although, again, Iran is much more economically developed than Egypt.
There is a very long way to go in Egypt, and I have not yet touched on the treatment of minorities, the Coptic Church and other elements which we also have a great deal of concern about. We recognise that what happens in Egypt matters for the whole of the Middle East, for the Sunni dimension of the Middle East, in particular, and for the relationship between the Middle East and Europe as a whole. We therefore must maintain our dialogue and our criticism. We need to speak on the rights of minorities and the role of women, as well as the need to accept that the media must be allowed to criticise and that foreign media play a legitimate role in contributing to the national debate. All those messages, which the current Egyptian Government do not wish to hear, have to be repeated on a regular basis.
I think I have covered all the points. I accept what the noble Baroness said about mass arrests, torture, the role of the remarkably untrained and over-independent judiciary and all the problems that we see in that society. We are attempting to train a small number of Egyptian judges but that is also a very large task. The experience we have gained in helping to move the states of eastern Europe through transition shows just how difficult this can be. I recall going to Budapest in about 1995 and meeting my noble friend Lord Lester, who said: “We are having great difficulty in explaining to the judges here that they can rule against the state.” If that was the case in a country as developed as Hungary, the problems are much larger in less developed states and those with no tradition of democracy.
The right reverend Prelate said that Egypt is currently narrowing the space for democracy. Egypt has not yet been a democracy for any sustained period. As we all now understand in this country, democracy is a frail concept which we have to cherish. It is very easy to lose and very hard to build. It will take a long time to build it across the Middle East but we must work as hard as we can, through all the means and with all the allies we have to promote it. I assure him that the Government will continue to make their views clear as we continue a close, frank dialogue with the Egyptian Government.
My Lords, the noble Lord has been emphasising positive engagement and dialogue. Before he sits down, can he give us a specific assurance that the Government’s representations will include the dangers of counterproductivity and the hard-headed argument that what is happening within the penal system plays right into the hands of the extremists?
I apologise. No, it is not envisaged. There are those who think it is a not entirely happy event that they should have announced that—for good security reasons about Sinai—just before the judgments on the journalists came out. We have no such intention.
Women: Local Services
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to improve how local services respond to women with multiple and complex needs including homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and physical and mental health problems.
I start by thanking noble Lords for participating in this short debate, offering what I know will be their valuable insights and expertise. It is very timely that we have an opportunity to consider what more could and should be done to ensure that the well over 10,000 women in this country with multiple and complex needs receive the help that they need to start rebuilding their lives.
These are women whose lives have been blighted by more than one of the following: homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems, physical health problems, rape, imprisonment and the consequences of prostitution. If your Lordships believe, as I do, that public services, be they in the public or voluntary sectors, have a moral duty to improve the well-being of the worst off, then the plight of these women demands our attention.
I want to set the scene by painting a picture based on a visit that I made a couple of months ago to a St Mungo’s women’s hostel in north London. The hostel had 29 beds for single homeless women with high and medium support needs. To give an idea of the challenges that these women currently face, let us consider the following snapshot of the hostel’s 28 clients at one point last year. Of those 28 women, 22 had a problem with crack cocaine or heroin, 10 used alcohol problematically, 25 had a mental health problem, 23 had some form sort of physical health condition, 15 had engaged in prostitution, 15 had experienced violence or abuse from a family member and 13 had been in prison.
St Mungo’s is a fantastic facility. It provides women with resources such as access to counsellors trained in helping people with multiple needs and complex care caseworkers, who, among other things, understand the intricacies of the benefit system. Crucially, it also provides emotional support to women regarding their relationship with their children.
However, far too few women have access to somewhere like St Mungo’s. It is clear from both recent and forthcoming research that we need to make a greater effort to consider certain gender-specific concerns about services for people with multiple needs. New research commissioned by the Lankelly Chase Foundation, which will be published shortly, finds that gender matters a great deal when it comes to the causes and effects of vulnerability, and that gender-specific analysis and solutions are needed.
To try to bring to life what I am talking about, more than one in every three homeless women who seek a bed in a hostel will have experienced some kind of domestic violence, as opposed to fewer than one in 10 men. Often, the lack of a safe home is the key reason why these women have no place to live, yet many areas lack any kind of all-women facilities such as hostels, mental and physical health clinics and drug treatment centres. Something is wrong when a woman turns to the state or, indeed, to local services for help only to be offered a situation in which she will feel just as unsafe as she did prior to seeking support.
Of course, I am not suggesting that all men who turn to hostels for an emergency bed are a threat to women’s safety—anything but. However, the testimony from the women at St Mungo’s suggests that some men in these settings do target women. Stories abound of women in drug treatment groups and hostels being targeted by unwanted sexual advances. These women are at their most vulnerable and need a place where they feel safe and secure. For many, given the traumatic experiences of their lives, that place will simply have to be an all-woman environment. If it is a mixed environment, they will at least need a safe place within it.
Indeed, that was a key recommendation in the St Mungo’s report, Rebuilding Shattered Lives, published in March this year. The report found that homeless women have a number of severe interrelated and exceptionally complex problems and that they tend to access support services later than men, when their problems have escalated significantly and they are less ready to begin their recovery. I am aware that this report has been considered by the ministerial working group on homelessness, and I should be grateful if, in her summing up, the Minister could update us on the Government’s response to the report. The report contained recommendations targeted at a wide range of government departments as well as at local service providers.
Of all the terrible things that have happened to these women, for many the worst thing by far is being separated from their children. Given the social stigma attached to having children removed, it is not surprising that many of these women suffer from deep feelings of shame and distress as a result of their loss. They need access to highly skilled social workers and counsellors who are experienced in helping women to deal with the emotional distress it causes, without having to keep telling their life story again and again at each step in the process of accessing services.
In addition to the increased need for a sense of safety and security, there is a pressing need for more gender-sensitive support and staff training. For example, eating disorders are common among women with multiple and complex needs. However, a recent article in Community Care tells the story of a woman who was repeatedly told that her problems with food were due entirely to alcohol abuse, despite the fact that she had been previously diagnosed with an eating disorder.
We also need to think seriously about how the criminal justice system treats these women. Many women with multiple and complex needs end up imprisoned for non-violent crimes such as shoplifting, prostitution or drug-related charges. Women who are imprisoned are likely to be separated from their children and to have further traumatic experiences while in prison. I know that there was a separate debate this afternoon on ending custodial sentences for non-violent criminal offenders. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend because I was speaking in the debate on the voluntary sector; indeed, there seems to have been rather a pile-up of debates on similar issues today. However, I look forward to reading the transcript of that debate, knowing that other noble Lords will have had much relevant expertise to bring.
It should be clear by now that improving the lives of women with multiple needs is part of a wider need to join up more effectively homelessness, mental health, drug treatment, domestic violence, criminal justice and other services, and I am sure that we will hear today about how the troubled families initiative is attempting to do this. It is also an area in which the charitable sector has been making significant progress. As I declared in the register of interests, in the past year I have had the privilege of serving as chair of Making Every Adult Matter, a coalition of the following charities: Clinks, which focuses on working with offenders and their families; DrugScope, which supports drug and alcohol recovery professionals; Homeless Link, a membership body of charities working to end homelessness; and Mind, a leading mental health charity.
One aspect of the coalition’s work is to form a local networks team in localities where those four charities operate. The local networks team then partners with a local authority or other local organisations to develop a plan for how best to co-ordinate the delivery of public services for adults with multiple and complex needs. A good example of this is in Oxford, where the local networks team, in partnership with the city council, met a wide range of local stakeholders to receive feedback on how homelessness services, mental health services and those working with young people could work better together. The next step was to engage the police and public health authorities to continue building this co-ordinated, interdisciplinary network. With such laudable efforts at local level to join up local services, the question must be asked what more central government could and should be doing to improve the lives of the people we are talking about today.
In March, the Fabian Society, in collaboration with CentreForum and the Centre for Social Justice, produced a report entitled Within Reach: The New Politics of Multiple Needs and Exclusions. It highlighted that helping people with multiple needs would require both more collaborative working across government departments and more devolution of power to local level. It really is both/and, not either/or. Recommendations include putting the right financial arrangements in place locally, such as: pooled budgets; allowing local areas to keep savings made through co-ordinated action; and raising new sources of funding, such as social investment. Finally, the report makes a compelling case that national government needs to play a strong role, working collaboratively across departments and between central and local government, including things such as cross-departmental projects, data sharing and pooling of budgets.
In her summing up, will the Minister say what role the Social Justice Cabinet Committee is playing to ensure a more joined-up approach across government in meeting the needs of people with multiple needs, when it last discussed the subject and, indeed, when it last met? If it is not the role of the Social Justice Cabinet Committee to co-ordinate this approach across government, then whose role is it?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this debate. However, as she said, it is one of several debates taking place today and some of us have had to choose the one in which we wish to speak.
This is a very important issue. I declare my interest as chairman of Changing Lives, which is a national organisation, although it is based in the north-east. It started as an organisation for the homeless, working almost exclusively, but not quite, with men. Now it is a very different organisation working with clients with complex needs, the majority of whom are women. That has presented the organisation with lots of challenges but has also energised it and, importantly, has brought about new thinking and new ways of working.
I, too, have read the document produced by the Lankelly Chase Foundation which will be important in guiding those organisations looking to work with women with complex needs across the board. I was also involved in some of the early meetings at St Mungo’s which led to its Rebuilding Shattered Lives report, which is a significant piece of work.
When I was Social Exclusion Minister, my department studied what causes people to end up with such enormous problems with which the state hardly comes to grips. We did a scoping study in a north London borough, looking at the people who turned up in police cells, at mental health projects, A&E and housing departments, and found—surprise, surprise—that the same people turned up at the different agencies on different days. They did not turn up at agencies where they had recently upset someone; they went somewhere else. They were looking for assistance but no one was getting hold of the underlying issue. That is one of the things that I want the Minister to think about. These women were frequently labelled as being addicts, having mental health problems, being homeless or whatever, but we need to ascertain who will work with them in a locality to understand what their problems are and to find practical ways to deal with them.
I helped set up one of the very first women’s refuges in Sunderland 40-odd years ago. However, even I underestimated the impact of domestic violence on some women’s lives. It has affected many more women’s lives than we ever imagined. I have read the Troubled Families Programme case studies and they are deeply shocking. Every single case study talks about the prevalence and acceptance of violence. That violence is also seen and experienced by the children in these families. One never actually changes the experience of those families, to which the children are exposed as they grow up.
One of the best things I ever did as a Minister was bring to this country what was called in America the Nurse Family Partnership. We rebranded it the Family Nurse Partnership. The results were staggering. The personnel involved in the partnership work with young women when they first become pregnant on the issues that they will face as new young mothers, and tackle their addictions and alcohol problems. I urge the Minister to go out with some of the nurses. In the second session, they look at the image of the brain and go through what happens. Surprise, surprise, the young women realise that if they change their behaviour with support, the outcomes for them and their children are going to be better. When the child is 15, the outcomes for the mother and the child are phenomenal. I encourage people to look at that. I congratulate the Government on having expanded what the previous Government did on this.
As we do more work with women, we are becoming more convinced that these early intervention programmes are very important and that we need to look at them much more carefully. We have a lot of addiction services and try to work with women in women’s centres in a holistic way, but we have one project that I want to tell the Minister and noble Lords about. It is a residential project for women with their children. They are there for about six months and follow very intensive parenting programmes. They are women who have lost one or more children into care or are danger of doing so if they do not sort out their problems and their addiction. Last week, we had a shocking report about the number of women who continually show up in court, with their child going to be taken into care because of their addiction, behaviour problems and multiple complex needs.
We are demonstrating that you can change behaviour and opportunities. At one level, it is ridiculous because the NHS said it wanted this programme and paid for it. It is now jointly done between the NHS and the local authorities. It started by the NHS not being able to refer people because we work on the abstinence model only, and the NHS kept upping the methadone, which made it impossible for the women to undergo the programme. We think we have now sorted that, and the local authority, without bidding, now talks to visitors looking at the programme and the work that is being done about how much money it is saving and how much better the outcomes are. There are programmes out there. I urge the Government to look at them with more care and to work together—rather than have the rows that I know sometimes go on across government—to begin to change opportunities for these women.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on obtaining this debate. Having taken part in the earlier debate, I am very glad that this debate leads on from it. I am also very glad to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, because what she has just said coincides with the themes of what I was going to say about joined-up government and cross-party work.
Noble Lords will not be surprised that I come at this initially from a criminal justice system point of view, because as Chief Inspector of Prisons, on the first night of my first inspection of Holloway, I was very taken to find a remarkable organisation then called the Bourne Trust, now called the Prison Advice and Care Trust, running a first-night centre in Holloway. Volunteers were asking the women what problems they had. They were, of course, staggering, and they were otherwise unknown to the prison authorities. Women coming into prison brought all sorts of problems which had nothing to do with the daily routine in the prison but which dominated their thinking, such as their children, their accommodation and so on. If there is one Act of the 1992 Conservative Government I would wish to be repealed it was one that was passed just before that Government left office when the then Secretary of State for Social Services, I think, passed a rule that anyone leaving their council property for 13 weeks or more lost it. That period I thought was far too short, not least because of the time people spend in prison. How on earth is a woman coming out of prison with £46 going to restart her life, having lost the property and everything in it, and the children gone? The time allowed used to be a year. I cannot think why it was taken to 13 weeks, when all the advice was not to do so. It was done. Look at the damage that it has caused.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons has drawn attention to the vast number of women with complex problems, in particular mental health problems. More than 70% have least two personality disorders of some kind. That does not mean to say that they are mad, but that there is something impacting on their behaviour, which can be identified. If it can be identified, something can be done. Then there are the 50%-plus who have been victims of domestic violence, and 47% who have attempted suicide. More than 60% have children under 16. There is substance misuse. There are the numbers who have been in care, and so on. Add it all up and it is a pretty complex problem. What on earth can the Prison Service do during the very short time that it has them there, other than identify some of these problems? It can do very little. That is why I am so glad that the noble Baroness included the phrase “local services” in her title. That is why I agree so much about the need for a joint approach. It does not matter where these problems are identified. Their solution is going to happen in the community. It is essential that anyone who discovers any information that can help that treatment is made to pass it on to those who can do something about it.
I am chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, and we recently conducted an examination of the links between social disadvantage and speech, language and communication needs. It was a very revealing report and it entirely endorsed the proposal that every child should have their communication abilities assessed by the age of two, to enable them to engage with education. I hope that that is going to come to something. We found outstanding examples of where the problems of mothers and children were being looked at by people outside the normal structure. For example, in Stoke, the lollipop men and dinner ladies were being trained to identify children who might have problems, which could then be followed up. That was intelligent, because they come into contact with people in a different situation.
I was very interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, said about eating disorders. I am also vice-president of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, which concentrates on nutrition. We have carried out work both in a secondary school in Dagenham and in young offender institutions, proving that the right mix of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids can improve behaviour and so can improve comprehension. Of particular value, because of the influence that it has on the growing brain, is starting the right nutrition during pregnancy. Here again, one feels that the complex needs are being exacerbated by a lack of complex education for the women. They need to know what is best, particularly in order for their children to avoid their growing up with the same complex needs.
In an earlier debate this afternoon, I appealed yet again for something I have been appealing for since 1995—a women’s justice board with somebody responsible and accountable for looking after the needs of women in the criminal justice system, whether in custody or in the community. I particularly say that now, in view of the new transforming rehabilitation rules whereby people on short sentences are going to be put under supervision in the community.
The number of women on short sentences is proportionately vastly more than the number of men. The attempt by the previous Government to do something about this— the “custody plus” scheme—failed because of the concern that magistrates in particular would take advantage of the fact that people on short sentences would be supervised, and therefore award them short-term custodial sentences in order to get the supervision. There is a danger that that might happen now.
I am worried about the content of the supervision because, bearing in mind how many women have these vulnerable and complex needs, it is essential that whatever supervision they are given is directed at challenging those needs and educating the women to live better lives as a result. It could, therefore, be termed a positive, provided that it is properly orchestrated—and it will be orchestrated only if someone is responsible and accountable for the orchestration. That does not mean a Minister who is overseeing it: it means an official who is responsible for seeing that it happens everywhere, that people are trained to do it and that it is followed up. Bearing in mind the fact that this kind of work will be covered not by the old Probation Service but by people on contract to the new community rehabilitation companies, it is even more important that someone should be put in charge.
Everyone has got to pull together—those in the criminal justice system and those outside—in order to make certain that these women are helped to overcome some of the problems that are exacerbated by their wide-ranging and complex needs.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for keeping this vitally important area high on the agenda. I confess that I was slightly reticent in putting my name down to speak today because it is not an area in which I am an expert. However, I find myself regularly bumping into people who are involved in it and come across it as a matter of real concern for us. Certainly we are discussing a complex subject which affects women in many different ways and impacts on a wide range of agencies—police, health professionals, probation services and statutory and voluntary groups which are working in homelessness, substance use and abuse, human trafficking and so on.
It is interesting that a theme is emerging about the importance of multi-agency working and joined-up thinking, which seems to have caused so many problems in trying to move this area forward. In talking about the topicality of this subject, I noticed a few days ago reports from West Yorkshire Police that it received twice as many calls reporting abuse after England’s first match against Italy in the World Cup, much of which was domestic violence. This is not just a general problem: we see it at key flashpoints. Certainly it becomes more difficult around Christmas and on the very occasions when people want to have a more relaxing time. Indeed, it seems to be those flashpoints that are so difficult.
My personal interest in this area arises from some of the churches in my diocese which are involved in supporting women with multiple and complex needs, not least through raising money, donating clothing and food and in many cases acting as volunteers. The Mothers’ Union also does significant work in this area. Within the diocese of St Albans we have members who are actively involved in contact centres, in the prisons in Bovingdon and Bedford, the Women’s Refuge, the mother and baby home in Bedford and Manor Farm Family Centre in Sandy. Some years ago, my cathedral was one of the main funders in the early years when the St Albans and Hertsmere Women’s Refuge was being set up. I pay tribute to the work of such organisations.
I do not want to use the short time available to describe the problems—they are all too evident and well documented—so I will home in on four areas. First, let me say something about the funding of this vitally important work. It is difficult to get hold of hard evidence but it is fairly clear that funding is declining. Like everyone in your Lordships’ House, I am well aware of the financial constraints facing us in many areas, not least the problems that local councils face. However, it is vital that councils and the NHS maintain a basic level of support, not least because a lot of money going into this area is matched by funding from companies, charities and churches. We cannot solve the problem with just the voluntary sector being expected to pick up these extraordinarily complex problems.
Secondly one of the main problems for women with multiple and complex needs is affordable housing. I know this is stating the obvious but if we do not address it we are not going to get very far. When women are identified as having this need we must find a way to ensure that it is addressed with some kind of housing support, especially in places such as London where rents are prohibitively high and in situations such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, where people are coming out of custody or prison. I do not intend to trespass on the deeply conflicted area of how we find that support, whether it is through rent caps or finding additional funding. However, unless the accommodation issue is sorted out, we are actually immediately moving people coming out of hostels or whatever back into a situation which is much worse than before.
Thirdly, I am aware that there is a pretty vigorous debate on the Troubled Families programme, which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, mentioned. I have been watching this subject and have asked one or two questions on it in the House. From talking to noble Lords and other people involved, I have picked up the fact that one of the most effective aspects has been the appointment of key workers. Their job is to ensure one point of contact, so that people do not fall between the various agencies, that there is data sharing and that there is a champion who will be a friend. The key is trust: in my own—limited—experience and that of everybody who talks about this, building up a strong, one-to-one relationship is absolutely crucial if we are to move forward.
It is interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, described graphically the way people turn up in place after place for all sorts of reasons. They may be told some blunt truths, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes they are simply passed from pillar to post. The key worker needs to co-ordinate data sharing and so on. We need something similar with those working with women who have multiple and complex needs. We also need to co-ordinate the financial resources as well as the personnel. For example, I was glad that in April last year the National Offender Management Service provided an extra £3.78 million to probation trusts for the rehabilitation of women. It is crucial that this is joined up to make a difference.
In my previous post I had a number of roles but, particularly, I chaired the strategic partnership in Shropshire. I know that, in some cases, partnership working is now being derided but the great advantage was that we got everybody round the table. As chairman, I had to knock heads together but there were occasions when we got various agencies to start putting funding together and thinking, “Rather than holding on to our bailiwicks and saying we are king of our castle, can we put this together and try to find a way forward that will make a real and significant difference to these people?”. This multi-agency work, with key workers or someone similar who could provide skilled help—by gum, we need seriously skilled help—and know their way round the different agencies and can gain the trust of the victims who are suffering is the way to get this level of co-operation.
Finally, I notice, in passing, that there is very wide variation in the number of successful prosecutions for domestic violence in different parts of the country. The statistics are really rather stark. For example—I have, of course, picked some of the most extreme to make the point—in 2013 just 4.2% of reported incidents of domestic violence in the Thames Valley resulted in prosecutions, but in Cheshire it was 21.7%. Would the Minister agree to write to chief constables and the Crown Prosecution Service to highlight these discrepancies and see whether there is either some way to ask people from those areas where it seems less effective to go and learn from those where it is clearly more effective, or in some other way to learn how to achieve more effective rates of prosecution? That may prevent some of this in the first place.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on initiating this debate and thank all the speakers who have spoken. It strikes me that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is multitasking this afternoon with the number of debates in which he is participating. At my count, there are also five Bishops taking part in debates this afternoon. It is absolutely wonderful when they bring to us the value of their experience. I also thank my noble friend Lady Armstrong, who brings huge wisdom and experience to this field.
This debate has shown that, without doubt, we have a very serious problem to address. As several noble Lords have said, women who are homeless tend to have multiple and severe support needs, including high levels of poor mental health, loss of and separation from their children, and drug use. Women who are homeless also progress more slowly than men towards recovery when the services are not tailored to meet their needs. We know also that the price being paid for these shattered lives, as the St Mungo’s report calls it, is huge. It is a huge price for these women, their children, their wider families, their communities and indeed the state because of the resources needed to put their lives back together and support them back into health, work, homes and relationships. Sometimes the price they pay is their own lives.
The right reverend Prelate mentioned domestic violence. We know that domestic violence has a part to play in this complex and sad web. We also know that it is not only an urban problem. It is important to say that. I have the statistics for homeless women in London and, like the right reverend Prelate, those for domestic violence across the country. However, I wonder how many more women will end up homeless or dead because of the cuts to our domestic violence services.
For example, the Gloucestershire Domestic Abuse Support Service has seen a 35% rise in the number of calls and referrals from women and girls suffering from domestic violence in Gloucester over the past 10 months. I also remind noble Lords that three women have been murdered in that county. One of these women was Hollie Gazzard who in February, at 20 years old, was stabbed to death at her workplace in Gloucester city centre by her ex-boyfriend. Another was a 16 year-old, Kayleigh-Anne Palmer, who was strangled and died a few days later. She was pregnant. I pay tribute to the family of Hollie Gazzard who, in the wake of that, have established the Hollie Gazzard Trust, which will help to support and finance a programme to be taken into schools to help educate teenagers on how to identify abuse and subsequently deal with it. Prevention seems to be one of the key things in this debate.
Women make up 30% of the clients of single homeless accommodation projects in 2014. There were 786 women recorded as sleeping rough in London in 2012-13, which is 12% of the total. Around a quarter of the clients of St Mungo’s Broadway are female. I congratulate St Mungo’s on its excellent report Rebuilding Shattered Lives from which I, like other noble Lords, have drawn much of my information. I am aware that this problem and that of supporting families and women would be much worse without the work of voluntary organisations and charities such as St Mungo’s. Indeed, today I was visiting the Ismaili Centre in Kensington and learnt that, next weekend, that faith community in London is collecting and providing thousands of food baskets for distribution among many organisations, including St Mungo’s. As the right reverend Prelate said, local organisations and their work are absolutely vital.
It seems clear that the true number of women who are homeless is probably higher than the statistics show. Women take care to hide themselves when sleeping rough and many more will be the hidden homeless, those living outside mainstream homelessness accommodation, sofa surfing, trapped in abusive relationships, living in crack houses or engaging in prostitution.
The problems that women face in becoming homeless, as the noble Baroness has said, are multiple and complex. Addressing these problems requires concentrated and co-ordinated action across government departments and at a local level. For example, the reports of my noble friends Lady Corston and Lord Bradley have demonstrated how taking an overarching view of complex issues and identifying practical solutions across the relevant services is an effective driver for change. We strongly believe that understanding how to support women to be independent and, importantly, to prevent them becoming homeless would not only be transformative for those individual women but also financially prudent. Indeed, changes to the welfare system have had a disproportionate effect on women who are most likely to be dependent on benefit income, including housing benefit.
The facts are before us and, like other noble Lords, I have some questions for the Minister. In 1997, the incoming Labour Government pledged to end the disgrace of youth homelessness on our streets. They largely did so through a co-ordinated, cross-government national and local effort. Does the Minister think that there are some lessons to be learnt and how that might be applied today?
I echo what the right reverend Prelate said about domestic violence. What are the Government doing to ensure that police forces in the country receive training about how to deal with domestic violence? What are the Government doing to ensure that schools educate young people about domestic violence?
On mental health, mental health services have received a 20% cut compared to other health services. What impact does the noble Baroness think that this will have on the women we are talking about in this debate?
I have a particular concern about women’s centres, which have often been pivotal and played a positive role in co-ordinating services to support homeless or vulnerable women. Funding for women’s centres is guaranteed by the Government for 2014-15, but then becomes part of the decision-making process of the private sector bidders who win probation contracts. I would like some assurance from the Minister that the important work of women’s centres will be protected within this bidding process.
Does the Minister agree with her noble friend that strong national leadership is needed to address women’s homelessness? For example, how is the Minister for Housing working with the Minister for Women to consider the needs of homeless women? How is that being focused across government?
Again echoing a point made by the right reverend Prelate, data are very important here. What data do the Government hold on women’s homelessness and have they been published? Indeed should the DCLG publish an annual report analysing existing data on women’s homelessness, drawing together data from the full range of sources available to them? How will the Government ensure homelessness provision includes gender sensitive issues?
The Troubled Families Programme has been mentioned. It is important because there are lessons to be learnt about early intervention. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, says, it seems likely that that provides us with a useful framework for addressing the multiple needs of vulnerable people. Does the Minister agree, and how will the Government take that forward? How will they apply those lessons?
How will the Government respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham? Given the vulnerability of women in prison and the risk of homelessness, it is important to increase the availability of court diversion schemes to women. Are the Government supporting the work of organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust to improve responses to women in the criminal justice system?
These questions have been raised throughout the debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, should be congratulated on holding her own Government’s feet to the fire on this issue. We join her in doing so. This is a long-term issue and therefore not only this Government will need to resolve it. My Government will also need to address it next year.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. Although I cannot say it has been enjoyable—it has been very serious—it is obviously vital to ensure that the services we provide are effective and joined-up, as most contributors have said. Perhaps I may also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, because he appears to be taking part in every Question for Short Debate today. That is a marathon effort.
Many noble Lords have asked about the various programmes and funding streams that are available to tackle these issues and so I will go through some of the current initiatives. I turn first to the preventive services, for which the Government are providing £580 million over five years for homelessness prevention. I congratulate councils on this. Early intervention is very important because it stops minor problems from escalating into homelessness crises. In 2012-13, some 202,000 households were helped in this way.
Many contributors mentioned cross-government working and the Public Service Transformation Network, which is a very important aspect of joined-up thinking in the provision of these services. As a local council leader, I saw many an instance of vulnerable people going to different organisations to see where they could get help. When one failed them, they would move on to the next. On cross-government working, the Government have brought together relevant departments, such as health and education, in order that the Ministerial Working Group on Homelessness can help to identify and then begin to tackle the multiple and complex needs of homeless women.
As I am sure noble Lords will know, the Public Service Transformation Network brings together local and national public service providers. Some of the councils which are tackling the way in which they approach domestic violence include Essex, Hammersmith and Fulham and Surrey; they are exemplars of this kind of public service transformation.
There were contributions about helping women to not only get out of domestic violence or homelessness situations but to turn their lives around by giving them skills and basic training in how to support themselves. The STRIVE programme has been effective in this area. The treatment system works hard to respond to the needs of drug and alcohol-dependent women which, as noble Lords have said, can often be linked to both homelessness and domestic violence. It is alert to the changing patterns of use among women so that it can respond and promote recovery and reintegration.
A big issue that I know noble Lords are concerned about is the fact that domestic violence and homelessness are often linked to each other. Services are configured to meet people’s individual needs, and that is how we try to prevent repeat homelessness. Not surprisingly, the majority of those being helped are women.
Turning to domestic violence, the Government have ring-fenced £40 million of stable funding for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services until 2015. I will get back to the noble Baroness who asked about funding and commitments beyond 2015. I will not go through every one of the various services because to do so would use up my entire 10 minutes and noble Lords would rightly feel short changed. However, I will address some of the issues that were raised in the debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, specifically requested a Government response to the Rebuilding Shattered Lives report. It is a lengthy report but, basically, on recommendation 1 the Government absolutely agree that homelessness services need to be more than just about providing accommodation. All the issues that noble Lords have talked about have been acknowledged in terms of joining up services and support and a capital fund is available to improve some of the hostels. There were various contributions about joining up the Minister for Housing with the Minister for Women and Equalities. That has certainly been the case. The Minister for Housing invited the Minister for Women and Equalities to be part of the group considering the report.
A point was raised about a choice between women-only and mixed services for vulnerable women. Local authorities are very sensitive to that. Good local housing authorities should definitely provide the option for women to speak to women if that is what they feel comfortable doing. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, raised the issue of girls, the cycle of homelessness and the risk of underage pregnancy. To a huge extent, the Troubled Families programme—which deals with the problems of children not going to school, offending in the family and drug and alcohol abuse—provides a very good platform to help prevent these cycles of problems that often repeat themselves within families. That programme has turned 40,000 families round. That means that the children consistently attend school, there has been an attempt to get work and issues such as anti-social behaviour have either been dramatically reduced or eliminated altogether. That is about a third of the total. There is a huge task ahead of us and the Government are thinking about extending the Troubled Families programme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, referred to the issue of people repeatedly turning up at different agencies to deal with exactly the same problem and cycle of problems, which I have already addressed. She also asked about the Family Nurse Partnership programme. The Government have announced that they will expand this successful programme to 16,000 places by 2015. The evidence shows that the Family Nurse Partnership can make a real difference to young lives.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about prisons and supporting women in prison. The noble Lord is an expert in this area and I commend the work he does and has done. The transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that all female offenders—many of whom receive short custodial sentences, as the noble Lord said—are supported through the gate and into the community to help reduce their reoffending. We have set up a case supervision system for women with the most complex needs in the custodial estate with the aim of ensuring that they benefit from the most appropriate interventions and regimes available for their particular needs. We have just completed a three-month pilot of a domestic violence helpline at HMP and YOI Holloway. Women had access to the National Domestic Violence Helpline run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, which gave support, help and guidance to those experiencing domestic violence. Following an evaluation, consideration will be given to rolling out the service across the women’s estate.
The noble Lord also raised the issue of mental health, as did other noble Lords. The Government have committed £25 million to introduce a new standard specification of liaison and diversion services in England to identify and assess the health issues and vulnerabilities of all offenders when they first enter the criminal justice system, as opposed to spotting them as they go along.
I will write to the noble Lord on the Women’s Justice Board, if I may.
The noble Lord also referred to a subject that is very close to my heart—nutrition—and I declare an interest as a qualified nutritionist. It is an important issue that rarely gets an airing but nutrition and well-being are closely linked. I thought I would get that one in.
The right reverend Prelate, whom I hope I have called by his correct title today, alluded to several very important areas. One was domestic violence during the World Cup. Yes, as soon as a World Cup is on, domestic violence has the propensity to increase quite exponentially. We are running a campaign during the World Cup to remind perpetrators of the devastating effects of domestic abuse. Noble Lords may have seen some of those posters around and about. We are also supporting the Women’s Aid’s Football United Against Domestic Abuse campaign, which is working with grass-roots football clubs to highlight abuse and the services available to support victims.
The right reverend Prelate also asked whether the cuts mean that voluntary and community groups are taking up the slack. That is not borne out in reality. Certainly in my experience, we worked for many years with local voluntary and community services to tackle many issues faced by the community, all with service level agreements and funding in place. Certainly, the Government fund and work with St Mungo’s Broadway in order to provide the support that it gives to some 25,000 people a year. The right reverend Prelate also mentioned key workers. It is absolutely crucial that there is an identifiable point of contact. Perhaps I could get back to him in more detail on what we are doing. He also challenged me to write to the chief constables of Cheshire and another local area. I am not far from Cheshire and I shall follow that up.
I have gone over my time. If it is okay with noble Lords, perhaps I can follow up some of the final questions with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I thank all noble Lords again for what has been a very interesting debate.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very glad to have the opportunity of asking Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to encourage craft apprenticeships. This is a cause very close to my heart. Perhaps I might begin with an illustration. When I sit at my study desk in Lincoln, I look across to the judgment porch of that great and glorious cathedral. It is currently encased in scaffolding, and there will not be any moment in my life when a portion of Lincoln Cathedral is not encased in scaffolding. That is a vivid reminder of the fact that we need and depend upon crafts men and women for the preservation of our great historic buildings and the building of new great buildings. Far too few of them would qualify for the adjective “great” but, nevertheless, there are some.
Occasionally, when I am looking across to the cathedral, I take out my pocket watch, which was bought by my great-grandfather in 1876 and recently repaired by a skilled watch repairer, and I am reminded that that continuing ticking is dependent upon a crafts man or woman. There is a very vivid reminder—my noble friend the Minister has just reminded me of it—in today’s Times, where there is a picture of the statute of St Peter just being completed. It will be dedicated this Sunday, St Peter’s day. In Lincoln, on 31 March, a wonderful new statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary by a very great modern sculptor, Aidan Hart, was dedicated by our bishop.
I say this by way of background. I should also declare an interest as the founder and chairman of the William Morris Craft Fellowships and as patron of the more recently formed Heritage Crafts Association. I shall devote my remarks, first, to the craftsmanship that the William Morris Craft Fellowship is concerned with and, secondly, to the crafts that the Heritage Crafts Association is concerned with.
We formed the William Morris Craft Fellowships some 30 years ago under the patronage of the late Queen Mother and with people drawn from all the major amenity societies in the country. We did so because we were conscious of the fact that unless we could encourage young crafts men and women—I am delighted to say that many of the fellows have been women—to perfect their crafts and learn others, we would not have people capable of overseeing major restoration and conservation projects. We had in mind a wonderful man called John Baskerville who had just presided over the restoration of Calke Abbey, that great house in Derbyshire which is now owned by the National Trust. Indeed, the William Morris Craft Fellowship gave the Queen Mother Memorial Medal to John Baskerville a few years back for his wonderful work. I am reminded in a letter I received only today from City and Guilds that recently Len Conway, who is the principal of the Building Crafts College at Stratford here in London, has received the Prince Philip Medal.
I pay tribute to all those involved in the fostering and developing of crafts, such as the livery companies of the City of London and City and Guilds itself. However, I can illustrate the immensity of their task by saying that the livery companies have been involved with a wonderful new scheme, which provides 52 places and costs all of £2 million. When I consider that Lincoln Cathedral needs something like £10 million in the next few years for its regular maintenance and repair, it puts this very tiny figure in context.
I turn to the Heritage Crafts Association, which has a membership of some 300 individual crafts men and women, who are mostly working on their own. Some 80% of them are self-employed, their average salary is £19,000 a year and in most cases 100% of the cost of an apprentice has to be borne by a single person. The apprentice is not much use until the end of his or her period of apprenticeship, so a craftsman has to make a very real commitment to take on an apprentice. Although my noble friend who will reply to this debate has been immensely supportive and interested, and tried to be helpful, nevertheless we fall between two stools. On the one hand, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tells us we are a creative organisation; on the other, DCMS tells us we are a trade association. We do not qualify for any of the funding that the Crafts Council gets because it is exclusively concerned with contemporary crafts.
Yet we are in danger of losing many of our crafts. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was hardly a small village, let alone a town, that did not have resident craftsmen. Whether we talk of clockmakers, watchmakers or silversmiths—remember, there were seven or eight assay officers in the 18th and 19th centuries—every town and city, and many villages, had wonderful craftsmen working very hard. Today in the Lake District, the last of the makers of those wonderful oak baskets that you see in your Beatrix Potter books is over the age of 50 and there is not another to follow him. There is only one maker of pocket knives in Sheffield left, and he is in his late 60s. There are only two or three silver spinners, who make the rims for silver vessels. They are all in their 60s. The three surviving scissor makers are, again, all in their 60s and 70s.
We have to do two things: first, we have to encourage our young people in schools to recognise that the crafts offer a challenging and truly rewarding career, in the broadest sense of that word. We should go out into our schools and colleges, encouraging young people to embrace a career in crafts. In Germany, anybody who wants to become an engineer or craftsman is lauded to the skies. Here there is still that slightly—dare I say it—toffee-nosed attitude towards those who are going to work with their hands. However, you cannot work with your hands unless you have an active and fertile mind. Some of the craftsmen working on Lincoln Cathedral are among the brightest, most intelligent and interesting people you could hope to meet. We need to get this message out into our schools and colleges in a way that we have singularly failed to do up to now.
The other thing is that government has to recognise the supreme importance of our crafts, not just as preservers of the past but as makers of the future. A nation that loses these crafts loses part of its soul. As I illustrated in that reference to the apprenticeship scheme, which I warmly approve of and applaud, the sums involved are not great. There has to be a bigger commitment on the part of Government. I am not talking in a party sense at all, because this has to be a continuing thing. The All-Party Group on Arts and Heritage has flourished over the 40 years since I founded it only because it has worked on an all-party basis. There has to be a commitment from all sides of both Houses to recognise the great importance of what I have sought to say this afternoon.
Therefore, knowing my noble friend’s commitment, appreciating the help he has already given and knowing his skills as an advocate within government circles, I hope that he will be able to give us an encouraging reply this afternoon to show that there is a commitment to the continuation of our crafts and an encouragement of young people to consider embracing them.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his fascinating contribution and for this opportunity to discuss the important role of craft apprenticeships in putting young people on what can be a productive and satisfying career path. It certainly was that for many of my generation, who served craft apprenticeships in the 1950s and 1960s as engineers, electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, et cetera—all the traditional manual trades. It was a working-class rite of passage that helped turn raw apprentices into time-served tradesmen, and of course we were almost exclusively men in those days. Then came the 1970s and decades of decline in manual labour with the contraction of the old industries. However, new options opened up for school leavers with the expansion of our universities and the rapid growth of the service sector. Compared to the new jobs on offer, craft apprenticeships for 16 to 21 year-olds were often five years long and poorly paid. Sadly, the money problem persists. Today, an estimated 30% of apprentices are not paid the minimum wage to which they are entitled. In the Queen’s Speech the Government promised to ensure that all employers respect the national minimum wage levels, and it is particularly important that apprenticeships are made more rewarding.
The decline in the appeal of apprenticeships was evident in the figures that confronted the incoming Labour Government in 1997. After 18 years of Conservative government, the number of apprenticeship starts had fallen to just 65,000 a year. Noble Lords may recall that the Blair Government’s election slogan had been “Education, education, education”, with priority to be given to improving schools and increasing the number of young people going on to university. I offer no apologies for that, as around half of all our young people are now in higher education. However, the Labour Government, of whom I was part, also worked to boost vocational training, and by 2010 they had raised the number of new apprenticeships from that 65,000 to 280,000 a year. In addition, we also raised the school leaving age, which is now 17. That helps to explain why the percentage of young people in England not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—is now at its lowest level for 20 years, down to 7.6% last year. Some 81% of 16 to 18 year-olds are now in education or work-based learning, and that figure should rise again next year, when the school leaving age rises to 18.
Labour now sees untapped potential for training in craft skills and our further education sector. The shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, cites Chichester College in West Sussex as a model that might be adopted nationally. Chichester College is turning out 100 skilled woodworkers a year. Ten of its students have now set up their own furniture-making businesses, while others have helped local craft businesses expand internationally. Given higher status accreditation as institutes of technical education, FE colleges, building on local tradition or identifying new market opportunities, could also be encouraged to produce craft clusters, such as those in Chichester, offering new skills to those of all ages who prefer to work with their hands.
Both Labour and coalition Governments have made welcome progress in vocational training in recent years, and I echo the eloquent appeal made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The number of apprenticeship starts has risen to around half a million a year. There is now a cross-party consensus that employers must take a more active role, and then we can do even more.
However, in this debate about craft apprenticeships, we should note that the top sector for annual apprenticeship starts is now business administration and law. Next comes health, public services and the care sector, and then retail and commercial enterprise. I make it clear that I make no complaint about these rankings. New jobs in these sectors can be very worth while, and they certainly produce a much better gender balance than craft apprenticeships have ever achieved.
In this sectoral table, engineering and manufacturing together now rank fourth, with 66,000 new apprenticeships a year but, to bridge the existing skills gap across that industry, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers wants to see that number double. Perhaps the most alarming gap in the supply of craft skills is in the construction industry, which is responsible for 6% of our GDP and currently employs 2.65 million people, with the majority of those in south-east England coming from outside the UK to work.
The Construction Industry Training Board estimates that over the next five years 180,000 new construction jobs will be created and that 400,000 building workers will reach retirement age. To fill this alarming gap, the CITB reckons that, in total, 120,000 additional apprenticeships will be required by 2019, about 25,000 new starts a year. That is in contrast to the number of completed apprenticeships in UK construction last year—just 7,000. Back in 2010, a key government policy was to reduce our reliance on skilled migrants. Nowhere is that more evident than in construction. In the recent debate on the Queen’s Speech, I asked whether this issue is getting the urgent attention from government that it so obviously needs. I got no reply, but I hope that the Minister replying this evening can help with an answer.
At a national level, I recommend to noble Lords that the Government look again at another Labour Party proposal, which is to link public procurement to the provision of apprenticeships on larger contracts. Sadly, about half of the UK’s largest companies do not offer apprenticeships. The leverage of public procurement could surely change that. Large companies in regulated sectors could also be required to commit to apprenticeship training as appropriate as part of their contractual obligations.
To conclude, I have no doubt that any ambitious but practical policy which offers more young people a greater chance of a craft apprenticeship will have enthusiastic public support. I now look forward, in particular, to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who will surely create a new Lords record when he speaks in his fifth successive debate in a single afternoon.
My Lords, mention of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, makes me feel particularly ashamed of what I am about to say. When I saw the subject of this debate, I thought that I knew what I was looking at, but when I started looking at craft apprenticeships, I discovered that really I did not. It is a very complicated field with a variety of ways in. The apprentice or trainee is often much older; different and confusing levels of funding are available; and we do not really know how to advise people. I came to this debate with one idea—how to give advice to people on how to get into this field, but it is clear that we have a problem there. It is difficult to explain a way in, particularly as, as has been pointed out, craft apprentices tend to be older entrants.
We should give better careers guidance to people, but it is clear that careers guidance is particularly bad for those who are not coming out of schools or colleges. I think it is something that we all do. We say, “What I have done is what everybody else should do”, regardless of whether that is what we need. In academic institutions with a graduate-based teaching foundation, there tends to be a prejudice, with people saying that that is the way that others should go. All of us who have followed that route have that prejudice. We have to fight hard against that, and I do not think that anybody would disagree. I know many people who are involved in trades and crafts who say, “Wouldn’t it have been nice to go to university?”. It is particularly odd at the moment because I feel that crafts, trade, building and working with your hands is so popular. It is difficult to switch on our television sets without hearing the praises of good craftsmen in numerous property programmes—or is it just me who finds those programmes when I am trying to switch on the monitor early in the morning in your Lordships’ House, or indeed, in the evening?
Possibly we are missing the trick. We are not saying that it is rewarding—often financially rewarding as well as spiritually rewarding. If legislation is in place that we shall have listed buildings, there is almost a guaranteed market created for some of the work needed and the fact that we will provide funding for such work. There are jobs, careers and ways forward. As has already been stated, these are careers that are valuable in modern building. They augment and support. When it comes to the finer skills, possibly a few will die out in terms of certain types of trade and certain ways of doing the work. Knowledge of those will at least be valuable for museums. Surely there is an ongoing market, but finding your way through is incredibly difficult. Simplification is needed.
I may be the bearer of a comparatively small brain when it comes to dealing with facts, figures and interlocking things. I was totally lost half way through. I knew that it could be done somehow if you were lucky and the wind was with you, and that you smiled on, but after that I would give no advice whatever. I would not know where to go to get advice. I would not know whether it was a one-stop shop to get even the first comments on this. We must look at the way we have encouraged people to go into craft trades, working with their hands, and how we communicate the value of such work. It is quite clear that this answers many economic questions and issues of value both to ourselves and to society. It will be rewarding to the person and society as a whole.
Making this path clearer and more straightforward is a very important facet of how to get the best out of it. I promised myself that I would not talk exclusively about dyslexia and apprenticeships, but will my noble friend comment on how the new access arrangements are going? It is another cliché that dyslexics tended to find themselves in niches where they did not have to do too much writing. In the past they tended to work with their hands. Telling people how to get through to that point would be extremely helpful. With modern technology, the problems with dyslexia are not what they were if you get the right stuff in front of you and are trained how to use it.
My comments about the disabled students’ allowance should probably wait for next week. We shall, however, ask what the Government are doing to make it easier for those who have problems with literacy, due to dyslexia, to access something that they can do, given that they want a qualification. That is a reasonable question. The real point I am making is how we can disseminate the information and educate the population that these career options and paths are available to them, and how this group can be kept informed.
I could reiterate these points but I do not think that anything would be achieved by that. As for the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, making five speeches in one day, I am still betting that he will be more coherent on his fifth one than I have been on my first.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on obtaining this debate. I am extremely glad that he has given me the opportunity to raise this important issue. It has been an extraordinary afternoon. I am pleased that the time limits of these debates in Grand Committee mean that you do not bore too many people. We have debated subjects of extraordinary interest. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for picking up some of the points that were made, which have triggered further thoughts on my part.
My starting point is a speech by Winston Churchill on 20 July 1910 in a debate on the prison estimates, which are often cited in the House in connection with the criminal justice system. In the middle of his speech are the wonderful words that,
“there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/1910; col. 1354.]
Of course, the purpose of that is to say to those involved in the criminal justice system, “It’s your job to find it”. I have often said in the House that the only asset that every nation has in common is its people, and woe betide it if it does not do everything it can to identify, nurture and develop the talents of all its people, because, if it does not, it has only itself to blame if it goes up the spout.
I am extremely glad that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, focused on craft apprenticeships. He rightly referred to the phrase “Education, education, education” used by the former Prime Minister, Mr Blair. I have in my study a monograph written by Glubb Pasha, who noble Lords may remember commanded the Arab Legion. It is about empires. His theory is that empires last for 250 years or 10 generations and are driven initially by ambition but peak when higher education becomes available to virtually everyone, after which people become idle, the ambition goes and they focus on education and not on doing things. Glubb Pasha says that the British Empire lasted from 1700 to 1950, but that is a matter for debate.
The Secretary of State for Justice has just announced that he is going to form new secure colleges for young offenders which will focus on education. This morning I was speaking at a conference and there were a lot of questions about what education actually means. I submit that education does not mean just classroom work but rather identifying someone’s talent and developing it so that they can make use of it as a life skill.
I once spent a fascinating morning with the excellent clerk of works at Salisbury Cathedral when its spire was being repaired. He encouraged young people to learn from the older stonemasons, carpenters and window-makers so that the skills were passed on. A great friend of mine who inherited a house in Dorset had on his land an old building with a collapsed waterwheel which he wanted to repair. There was only one man in Dorset who could do it. He asked him to come and do it and the man wisely said, “I will only do it provided you allow me to bring a young person to learn how to do it because otherwise this craft will die”.
When the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned a college at Stratford, I was reminded of the occasion two years ago when, as a member of the strategy board of the City and Guilds, I had the great privilege of presenting the prizes to the stonemasons and carpenters. Their skill was incredible. I also presented master carpenter certificates, which go back to the 1480s, to people in their sixties who were being rewarded for bringing on apprentices, which takes me to my last reminiscence. On the wall of my study is a beautiful wall clock that was presented to me when I retired as Chief Inspector of Prisons. It was made in Acklington Prison in Northumberland. The work on it is quite beautiful, including the inlay, because in charge of the carpentry was a master craftsman who insisted that all work was done to the highest possible standard.
At the moment, my elder son is chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce. Of course, bringing an area like that out of the recession involves looking in particular for work to employ people. There is no shortage of initiative, no shortage of ideas and no shortage of will to do something. The big problem is skills shortage. The noble Lord mentioned engineers. They need 80,000 engineers, but only 40,000 are available and some of them are ageing. We have let those employers down over the years by not developing people. What we ought to do, as the noble Lord said, is raise the whole status of apprenticeships—craft, building and engineering apprenticeships—because of what they represent in terms of employability.
I come back to my main purpose in speaking in this debate, which is to ask whether this could not be passed on to the criminal justice system, because if you identify talents through aptitude tests, particularly of the young people coming into the criminal justice system, you can then harness those talents. Many of them include just the skills about which we have been talking. We have seen the enthusiasm with which people have suddenly realised that they can do something and the self-esteem that results from that. Taking that on would help not only with rehabilitation but solve the skills shortage problems of employers. It is a question of attitude here, and I think it must begin and end, again, with Winston Churchill saying,
“there is a treasure … in the heart of every man”.
It is our job to find it and then to make sure that it has maximum advantage and is exercised properly.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on ensuring that we debate this vital issue. I probably do not share the same political analysis as the noble Lord, but in a few issues we share an enthusiastic—dare I say passionate—interest that crosses the political boundaries. There are at least three such issues, one of which is apprenticeships. I, too, am a fan of William Morris, a fantastic polymath of crafts and art. Another interest is parish churches, which may seem surprising because I have declared that I am a non-practising Jewish atheist. I have probably put a fair share of my money into parish churches that I have visited around the country. They are, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, reminded us, a wonderful repository of so many craft skills, including stonemasonry, woodcarving, stained glass, silversmith, goldsmith, tapestries—the list is numerous.
Of course, we are surrounded by the enthusiastic genius of Pugin, who ensured that thousands of craftsmen, and probably a few women at the time, contributed to this amazing Gothic temple. You need only to look at the doors. Anybody who has tried to hang a door will know how difficult that is—never mind the carving that goes with it. I have failed in that particular DIY task and given it to others. Sometimes we do not recognise what is around us. Recently they have been repairing the floor tiles—these wonderful medieval tiles, these encaustic tiles. They involve a craft skill in themselves, being remade and relaid in the House. So I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, because it is vital that we ensure that these skills continue.
The numerous funding arrangements available are confusing, and tend to be a deterrent for employers, especially the small, perhaps single, employers who are working in the crafts that I have described. There is probably not one single solution. Many different paths are being created. I congratulate the National Trust whose apprenticeship scheme is growing in this area. Getting craftsmen and women together in something like a group training association would be one of the possible solutions because what often deters people is the administration and, perhaps, some basic training. I would welcome the Minister’s response to that idea. It merits serious consideration, if we want to take away some of that burden.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said that he would not know where to go. There is a one-stop shop. We created the National Apprenticeship Service. It may not be a perfect organisation but it is the place to go. I certainly point potential employers in that direction. It has a website and is easy to find.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on his pentathlon of speeches. He said that this was all about skill shortages. There I must part company with him. It is partly about that, but it is also about the lack of employers who are willing to take on apprentices. We still have only about 8% of employers in this country who employ apprentices. We have a long way to go. As I have said before, I welcome the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. I do not criticise that. There is some innovative work going on with the trailblazers scheme—but we still have not cracked that problem. I would like the Minister to address that. My noble friend Lord Macdonald gave the figures on the construction and manufacturing industries. They are worrying figures. Again, that is partly about skills, but we need more employers in those industries willing to take on apprenticeships. The issue is two-fold.
Then there is the question of the status of apprenticeships. I make no apologies for raising this point again. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made this point about encouraging people to go to university. He is quite right. We still have a situation in which if you go into schools and ask those aged between about 14 and 18 where they are going, mostly they will talk about university. If you ask them if they are aware of apprenticeships, it is very rare that they are—though that awareness is beginning to increase. Smart parents and smart younger students are beginning to realise that the university debt burden of somewhere between £40,000 and £50,000, without a guaranteed job at the end, is a bit of a deterrent. Finding a way to earn while they learn is a pretty smart solution. The status of vocational training and apprenticeships is something we need to work at.
We also need to get schools and colleges to fulfil their obligation under the Education Act to give a wide range of career advice that includes vocational training, as well as the academic pathways. I hope the Minister will tell me that the Government are going to make strenuous efforts to ensure that there is not just lip-service being paid to that idea. It is not about a separate advice service. It is the advice that young people listen to most, from teachers and parents. I have said this before. Getting young people—apprentices and skilled craftsmen—back into schools to tell people about it is valuable. It is that peer-group advice that is so valuable. That is one of the things to which I hope the Minister will respond.
The Minister ought to look at where best practice is—what is going on around the country, where there must be a drive to create more apprentices in crafts and more generally. One should look at those local authorities that are working in partnership with the local employment partnerships and surrounding industry. That ought to be taking place everywhere around the country. My noble friend Lord Macdonald quoted the Chichester experience; there are plenty of others, but it is all about creating a greater volume of apprenticeships.
I have previously mentioned the Government’s desire to talk about the success of apprenticeships, and that is okay, but that will not be the case if we bulk up the figures by including adult apprenticeships. The Richards review asked the Government to consider whether they are, in reality, apprenticeships or are re-skilling and retraining. That is not to say we should not retrain people, but the real challenge for us are those not in education, employment or training. The figures may have reduced but are still alarmingly large.
I hope that my noble friend Lord Macdonald will not mind if I correct him: we did not actually raise the school leaving age but raised the participation age, which is slightly different—that is important. He mentioned that people should be in education, employment or training, and that is what we were aiming at. I thought that that was a smart bit of legislation. I would therefore welcome some comment on that.
I have mentioned group training associations because they are important and could help a problem in relation to heritage and craft skills. But more generally they could help in involving small and medium-sized employers. It would be welcome if the Minister had any evidence on whether the number of group training associations is increasing, which was part of the strategy.
This has been a helpful and valuable debate on one of the most important challenges we face, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing for apprenticeships and to ensure that our craft industries remain an important part of our national fabric. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cormack for tabling this debate, and to noble Lords who have made contributions. I applaud my noble friend’s commitment and passion as patron of the Heritage Crafts Association and as chairman of the William Morris Craft Fellowship.
Before I continue, I should like to express my great admiration for the energy and stamina of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, this afternoon—or it may have been all day. “Five in a row” has a certain ring to it.
Britain leads the world in many creative industries and key skills. The crafts are something that we can be proud of, and I agree that it is important to keep these skills alive, generating employment and contributing to the economy. My noble friend Lord Cormack, in highlighting certain endangered skills, makes a pertinent point about skills developed and honed over many years that need to be passed down to the next generation. This is because we need to safeguard our national heritage. This country’s many castles, churches, cathedrals and museums—not to mention listed buildings—form an integral part of the fabric of Britain. For example, so many gargoyles and friezes eroded by pollution need to be repaired and maintained. Noble Lords will be aware that stonemason apprentices have been working here in this magnificent building doing stone and encaustic tile conservation work.
It is important that young people are inspired in the heritage crafts. It should be an easy sell to persuade people to want to work on maintaining historic and beautiful buildings. We need to promote such careers—and they are careers—as valuable, honourable and rewarding, as my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Addington, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, correctly mentioned. We strongly believe that craft-sector employers have a responsibility to inspire and engage with young people by getting involved with schools and local training providers. The noble Lord, Lord Young, mentioned the importance of collaboration in this respect.
The National Careers Service provides information and advice on careers in arts, crafts and design. This includes details of jobs, careers, the skills and qualifications needed and a link to representative bodies. It is important that we continue to expand engagement between employers and the National Careers Service to ensure that our young people get the information they need on academic and vocational paths. My noble friend Lord Addington emphasised the importance of this in his passionate speech.
We know that apprenticeships are important: they give people of all ages the chance to develop the practical skills and experience that employers want. Under this Government there are more people in apprenticeships in this country, working for more employers and in more sectors than ever before and covering the whole economy. In fact, as the Committee may be aware, the number of apprenticeships started each year has doubled since 2009-10. A record 1.8 million people started an apprenticeship during this Parliament, as published today. We are on track to meet our ambition of 2 million new apprenticeships by the end of this Parliament, including more young women than ever before.
Reforms are being taken forward by trailblazers, led by employers of all sizes and professional bodies, who are leading the way in developing the new standards for apprenticeships, giving employers more control. We have had a continued focus on apprenticeship quality, insisting that all such jobs are paid, have a minimum duration of a year, including off-the-job training, and meet the needs of employers. The reforms are designed to address exactly the barriers that employers have identified to taking on apprentices. By putting employers in the driving seat on designing the new apprenticeships, skills needs will be addressed. This will make it easier for them to offer more apprenticeships in the future, including through the university technical colleges, thus raising opportunities for, and encouraging greater numbers of, young people to study engineering and science with a practical application. These important points were highlighted by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Young and Lord Macdonald.
I am pleased to tell the Committee that representatives from across the craft sector, including the Heritage Crafts Association, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cormack, are fully engaged with the apprenticeship reforms. Significant progress has already been made by the craft trailblazers, with their standard being submitted for consideration this week. More than 350 craftspeople and stakeholders have provided overwhelming levels of support for the trailblazers, and they have taken an innovative approach when designing their standard. They are developing one overarching standard which, I am pleased to say, is accessible to a variety of different craft disciplines. By taking this approach, it will open up apprenticeship possibilities to non-specified craft disciplines which have previously been excluded from apprenticeships.
A wide range of job roles are covered in the draft standard, including—this is interesting—wood turner, organ builder, thatcher, calligrapher, furniture maker, stonemason, cordwainer, milliner, wheelwright and more. They are such wonderful Hardy-esque descriptions.
We are indebted to Jason Holt, who is chairing the craft trailblazer project and championing the needs of small businesses and their engagement with apprenticeships. My noble friend Lord Cormack emphasised correctly that the craft industry is unique in that the majority of those involved are self-employed or work for micro-businesses. He is of course right that this provides particular challenges. We also know that across the sectors there are too many small businesses not engaged with apprenticeships, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Young.
That is why we are working diligently with the Federation of Small Businesses and other stakeholders such as the Heritage Crafts Association to ensure that our reforms are small and micro-business friendly. Apprenticeship training agencies and group training agencies can also help small and micro-businesses employ apprentices which, for whatever reason, are unable to commit to employing an apprentice directly.
Putting employers in the driving seat means exactly that. We need more employers to take the lead. I noted the widening of the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, to the construction and engineering sectors in which certain craft skills are essential. He made some very good points on that front.
We also know that the national skills academy is working with the sector to extend its projects to embrace cultural heritage skills. The Government have also introduced the apprenticeship grant for employers, providing £1,500 payments to encourage and support our smaller employers to take on a young apprentice. The Budget made £170,000 of additional funding available over two years from this year, 2014, in order to extend the grant, which will provide more than 100,000 additional incentive payments that can help exactly the small businesses that are working to keep our heritage craft skills alive. Furthermore, a two-year grant scheme will provide £20 million toward repairs for churches and cathedrals, which have been mentioned today.
I turn to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Addington. Apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for young people, including those with dyslexia or other disabilities, to demonstrate what they are capable of. In 2012-13, more than 18,630 of those who successfully completed an apprenticeship declared a disability or learning difficulty. I am sure that my noble friend will say that the Government should be doing more, and indeed he makes a good point. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has recently launched a toolkit to help more disabled people gain access to apprenticeships.
Noble Lords asked a number of questions, and I will address as many as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, raised the issue of public procurement. The Government support the appropriate use of apprenticeships in procurement. The process can sometimes deter small businesses and voluntary and charitable organisations, which is why each contract should be considered on an individual basis. Many public bodies in local government already build skills into their procurement process. For example, HS2 will create up to 2,000 apprenticeships over the lifetime of its construction.
The noble Lord raised the issue of apprentices not being paid the national minimum wage. He will know that I have been up at the Dispatch Box on several occasions to address this important point. To reassure him, HMRC investigates all the complaints that it receives through the pay and work rights helpline, and we have a commitment to ensure that all people, not just apprentices, are paid the minimum wage. Our regular announcements naming and shaming those who are not complying with national minimum wage regulations are proof of that. Sadly, I suspect that there will be more of those to come.
My noble friend Lord Addington asked how we better educate the population, both young and old, about the opportunities available through apprenticeships. The National Careers Service provides advice and guidance to young people and adults online, by telephone helpline and face to face in the community. It can handle 1 million helpline calls from adults and 370,000 from young people, and there are 20 million hits on its website each year. In fact, it gives 700,000 people face-to-face advice each year, which I hope will be some answer to his question.
I want to pick up a point that my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made about the City livery companies. It is excellent that they have taken such a lead in promoting apprenticeships. In terms of the buying-in of apprenticeships, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who made the point that the more that they can do to help, the better, because they are the guardians of some of the best traditional skills that we have in this particular country.
I might need to address separately by letter the question from the noble Lord, Lord Young, about administration and the lack of employers willing to take on apprenticeships. His question, “How do we encourage smaller employers to do so?”, is a very pertinent point. The Government have made it clear that we want good quality apprenticeship training agencies to be able to continue to operate once the apprenticeship funding reforms have been introduced. We are also encouraging more and better quality group training agencies.
This welcome debate has allowed me to set out the Government’s continued commitment to apprenticeships and the whole range of activity that is supporting our craft industries.
Could my noble friend, for whose reply I am grateful, clarify one point for me? Will those individual crafts men and women, such as those who belong to the Heritage Crafts Association, be able to benefit from funds from an apprentice agency or some other source so that they can afford to take on apprentices, and therefore their crafts will continue into the future? My noble friend referred to this in a way that seemed to give me that assurance, but I would be most grateful if he would clarify that.
My Lords, I will keep an eye on the clock and be brief. I have one comment and a couple of questions. On the subject of public procurement contracts, I refer the Minister to the Crossrail experience, where every subcontractor is employing apprentices. There is no deterrent there and no need for one. We are not talking about every public procurement contract, just those over £1 million.
Secondly, the Minister still talks about the total number of apprenticeships. I know that the actual number is true, but it is time we started to disaggregate them so that we deal with adult apprenticeships and then find the total number in the 16 to 24 age range. There has been a decline in these in the past year—certainly for those under 19—and that is worrying, given the number of NEETS.
Lastly, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us how many more Group Training Associations have been created.
Committee adjourned at 5.56 pm.