Wednesday, 26 November 2014.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
First World War: Commemorations
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the contribution of Britain’s musicians, artists and poets to the First World War.
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum and a member of the council of the Royal College of Music, and by thanking all noble Lords who have taken the time to join in this debate today.
There have been some remarkable acts of commemoration this year, to mark the grim centenary of the outbreak of a devastating war. Like others here, I suspect, I shall never forget being in Westminster Abbey on 4 August, when the candles went out one by one until we were left in darkness to remember those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Many thousands of such acts of solemn commemoration, the length and breadth of the land, have allowed us all opportunities to remember the destruction of those years, the gallant fallen, the slaughter of the innocent and the pity of war. But as we draw to the end of this year, I want us for a moment to remember a special group of people who contributed not just with their blood but with their creative energy.
For our country on the eve of war was brimming with the talent of a generation of artists, poets and composers—a promise that all too often found its apotheosis not in the concert halls and galleries where it should have but in the trenches. We should never forget those young men who, finding themselves at the extreme edge of human experience, sought to convey the horror they saw in words, images and sounds.
The most obvious manifestation of this creative energy were the war poets, an entirely new phenomenon, unique to this conflict. From the very moment on Easter Sunday at St Paul’s in 1915, when Dean Inge read out these words:
“If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England”,
a new form of artist—the soldier poet—was born. In the following years, Rupert Brooke, the author of those lines, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and many others brought direct to millions the horror of war in a way that perhaps only poetry can. Those names were, in so many ways, the tip of an iceberg. According to Catherine Reilly’s exhaustive bibliography, some 2,225 poets from Britain and Ireland wrote war poetry during those years, alongside many hundreds more from what are now the Commonwealth countries. The significance of their output was perhaps best summed up recently by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, whose three great-uncles were killed at the Somme within six weeks of each other.
“Poetry is like time travel”,
“and poems take us to the heart of the matter”.
In this commemoration year, we should salute the many imaginative ways found in schools, on Underground trains and through social media to ensure that we remember the heart of the matter.
As harrowing as the poetry of the war were the paintings depicting its slaughter. A remarkable canon of war art began when many Belgian artists fled into exile in London in 1914 and started to recreate in art the appalling story of the ravage of their country. Inspired by their courage, many British artists volunteered for service, most joining the Artists Rifles. In 1916, the first official war artist, Muirhead Bone, was commissioned by the Foreign Office. In an extraordinary six-week period alone, he completed 150 drawings, depicting the ruination of the French countryside. It was, he said, “war as it is”.
As well as Bone, a young generation of artists with front-line service experience was similarly commissioned, among them those who would shape modern British art for decades: Paul Nash, Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and John Singer Sargent, whose extraordinary painting “Gassed” sums up so much of the horror of the trenches. Like that of the poets, their work bringing home the pity of war is readily available to us today. Much of it can be seen at the Imperial War Museum and, particularly this year, in galleries across the country. Many of them are running special exhibitions for this commemorative year.
The names of many of these artists and poets are very familiar to us all, but considerably less well known is the response to the war of classical musicians. In his director’s address shortly after the outbreak of the war to students at the Royal College of Music—then, as now, home to some of the most remarkable musical talent—Sir Hubert Parry, who himself in 1916 composed in just one morning for the Fight to Right movement perhaps one of the most famous of all British works, “Jerusalem”, had this to say:
“One thing which concerns us deeply is that quite a lot of our happy family party have been honourably inspired to go and chance the risks of a military life; and among them are some very distinguished young musicians. We feel a thrill of regard for them ... But then we must also face the facts with open minds. The College in relation to war is in a different position from other educational institutions. Our pupils ... are gifted and rare in a special way. Some of them are so gifted that their loss could hardly be made good”.
The audience that day would have included such talented students as Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells. Gurney returned after 15 months at the front, having been shot and gassed, but with five of his most enduring songs in place, some written practically at the front line. Some golden talents—those whose loss could “hardly be made good” such as George Butterworth—did not return to the Royal College of Music, along with many other fine musicians at other institutions, such as Ernest Farrar, Willie Manson and Cecil Coles.
Those who did return, shattered from their experiences, proved to be in the vanguard of a renaissance in British musical life in the post-war years, joining many more established composers who were too old or unwell to have served. They produced an extraordinary set of works commemorating the devastation of war, from Frank Bridge’s “Lament” to Gustav Holst’s “Ode to Death” to John Foulds’s epic “World Requiem”, which required a remarkable 1,250 performers.
In a year when it is right to remember the sacrifice of individuals as much as the scale on the horror that unfolded, I will highlight one small individual musical tragedy of the war. Sir Edgar Speyer is not a household name, perhaps because so much effort has been made to expunge his name from the history books. An immigrant to this country from Germany, Sir Edgar was an eminent philanthropist, a friend of Asquith and Churchill and a member of the Privy Council. It was his generosity before the war that single-handedly saved the Proms and guaranteed their accessibility to a popular audience. He was a patron of many early 20th century composers and, in another walk of life, he funded Scott’s expeditions to the Antarctic. Because he was of German birth, however, this remarkable man who gave British life so much fell from grace in 1914. He was eventually hounded out of Britain with his honours and even his British citizenship stripped away. A century on, when we can look back with calm perspective on some of the events that happened in the heat of the moment, it would be right to ensure that the record is set straight and that the contribution to music, science and the arts of this man, who was so unfairly treated, is properly recognised with a fitting memorial. I hope that this might be something that one of the many institutions—those that are so finely taking the events of a century ago and placing them in a modern setting—might be prepared to take on.
I hope that, in my opening remarks, I have been able to set out just a little of the flavour of the extraordinary contribution that so many artists, poets and composers made to the war; and how those who survived used their experiences of that horrible conflict to spur an artistic renaissance in our country in the years afterwards. Out of great evil, some good did come. Across the country, their work—not least thanks to the enormously successful Centenary Partnership of organisations, with the Imperial War Museum at its centre—is being recognised, remembered and refreshed for a new generation. I am delighted that 14-18 NOW, established by the Government, has taken its inspiration from this and is commissioning new large-scale projects across all art forms to encourage people from every community in the land to build a legacy that will last another 100 years.
It is usual in these debates to have something of a shopping list for the Minister. Today I am in the happy position—I hope that means he is in a happy position as well—of not really asking for very much. The Government, through their imaginative support of so many organisations and with the support of all parties in Parliament, have played a vital role in making this year a phenomenal success. Today I ask my noble friend simply to join me—and, I am sure, all the rest of us—in remembering the contribution and sacrifice of so much creative talent in the First World War, to congratulate communities up and down the land on marking that contribution, and to pledge to continue to support artistic and musical projects that ensure that we never, ever forget.
My Lords, I most sincerely thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for obtaining this debate and for his insightful and meaningful remarks.
I liked the reference to John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed”. It is a frightening, huge canvas, with much detail. I suggest that the noble Lord also considers the pendant to that painting, equally large, which is titled, “General Officers of World War I”. If one looks first at “Gassed” and the terrifying impact on the poor, bloody infantry, and then sees the immaculate, shining detail of “General Officers of World War I”, it provides a very helpful contrast.
I commend to the Minister one poet who was born on the Welsh border in Oswestry—Wilfred Owen. He was the poet of the trenches. This is his poem, “The Sentry”:
“We’d found an old Boche dug out, and he knew,
And gave us hell; for shell on frantic shell
Lit full on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime,
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And choked the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes from whizbangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses… There we herded from the blast
Of whizbangs; but one found our door at last,
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles,
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps thumping
And sploshing in the flood, deluging muck,
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged it up, for dead, until he whined
‘O sir - my eyes, - I’m blind, - I’m blind, I'm blind’.
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time they’d get all right.
‘I can’t,’ he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still, - yet I forgot him there
In posting Next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundring about
To other posts under the shrieking air.
Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good,
I try not to remember these things now.
Let Dread hark back for one word only: how,
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his shivered teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath,
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
‘I see your lights!’ But ours had long gone out”.
The noble Lord also referred to artists. I think it is CWR Nevinson’s “The 1st Kensingtons” which shows a dead beat, exhausted platoon; they are armed; they are burdened; they have balaclavas; it is freezing; some are lying, some are sitting and some are standing. It is a study in exhaustion and the grind and terror of the trenches. Another picture by Nevinson is “The Machine Gun”, which depicts the machine gun as its central character. That was, of course, the one destructive invention that ensured hundreds and thousands of deaths and countless maimings. I will mention one other artist before I sit down. Mark Gertler’s painting “Merry-Go-Round”, which is in Tate Britain, is technicoloured and shows a fair on Hampstead Heath. On the whirling horses are soldiers, buttoned up and erect. Every mouth is open; it could be entitled “The Scream”. It is a brilliant depiction of what happens to the soldier. Mark Gertler was a depressive and, ultimately, a suicide. Time presses and I must conclude.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, on securing this debate. The regiment in which my family served during the First World War was the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the headquarters of which were at Wrexham and which was known as the literary regiment. Robert Graves joined the regiment on the outbreak of war and later became a close friend of Siegfried Sassoon, who joined in 1915. Both served in the attack at Mametz Wood on the Somme in July 1916, in which the Welsh Division was severely mauled. Graves’s poem, “A Dead Boche” written at Mametz, demonstrates how much war had sickened him, but the picture he painted is too much for me to repeat today.
Sassoon’s exploits on patrol earned him the name of “Mad Jack” and the Military Cross. He once took a German trench on his own with handfuls of bombs, scattering some 60 German soldiers. He then sat down alone in the mud at the bottom of the trench and read a book of poetry. It is not surprising that he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers in Edinburgh to be treated for shell shock. There he met Wilfred Owen, a neighbour from the nearby town of Oswestry, and encouraged him to write the sort of war poetry that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, has just illustrated so well for us. Both returned to the trenches. Owen was killed in action, while Sassoon was shot in the head by friendly fire from a British soldier.
There were two other famous poets in the regiment. Ellis Humphrey Evans from Trawsfynydd, whose bardic name was Hedd Wyn—Blessed Peace—wrote a poem, “Yr Arwr”, or “The Hero”, while on leave helping on his father’s farm in June 1917. He was killed at Passchendaele the following month. His poem won the first prize, the Chair, at the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead six weeks later and the chair itself was draped in a black sheet and presented to his parents.
David Jones was another who enlisted in the RWF at the beginning of the war. He too fought at Mametz and tried to make sense of his experiences in his great work, In Parenthesis, although it is not as well known as it should be, which was published with a foreword by TS Eliot in 1937. Frank Richards, a Fusilier since 1901, with the encouragement of Graves, left a gripping record of the life of the ordinary ranker entitled, Old Soldiers Never Die. His eyewitness account of the Christmas truce in 1914, during which soldiers on both sides drank two barrels of beer together in no man’s land, is a classic. “French beer”, he declared, “was rotten stuff”,
“and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk”.
Despite his Distinguished Service Medal and Military Medal, he refused all promotion. There were other prose writers in the regiment, particularly Wyn Griffith and the medic Captain JC Dunn, who left vivid accounts of their experiences.
I am myself engaged in a project for the commemoration of the battle at Mametz Wood. Brian Hughes, Wales’s finest contemporary composer, whose cantata “Bells of Paradise” was performed by the parliamentary choir with the Southbank Sinfonia two years ago—I hope that everyone is going to the concert tonight—is writing another work. It will have settings of English, Welsh and German poetry to be sung by a tenor representing the Welsh soldier and a baritone representing the German soldier. The Germans are not to be forgotten and, curiously, it was mostly Jewish German soldiers who wrote poetry. There will also be a chorus of young male voices of the age of those who went to war. A full choir will contain more reflective pieces and I am pleased to say that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, the former archbishop and a very fine poet, has agreed to contribute a text. It is intended to present the work in the three regimental chapels in Wales: Llandaff Cathedral for the Welsh Regiment, Brecon Cathedral for the South Wales Borderers and Wrexham parish church for the Royal Welch Fusiliers, to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle. The project has the support of the Western Front Association, which created the striking memorial of a Welsh dragon that now surveys the Mametz battlefield.
It is appropriate and right, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, has said, that Her Majesty’s Government both here in Westminster and in Cardiff should continue to commemorate in the way they already have the dreadful events of those four years of war. CP Scott, the famous editor of the Guardian, recorded in his diary in December 1917 Lloyd George’s comments, which had been made privately to him in conversation:
“If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business”.
We must never forget.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Black, has initiated a thoughtful and timely debate. I congratulate him on doing so and on his excellent speech. In my view, George Butterworth was a most wonderful composer. I can hardly bear to think what he might have written on the evidence of what we still have. The noble Lord mentioned the Imperial War Museum. I often just walk around it because, strangely, it has the same moving effect on me as going to war graves in various locations. Doing so is to be reminded of those sacrifices, which was a very painful thing indeed. In fact, I congratulate the Government and the organisers of the many memorable events that have taken place over the past year.
I have to say, though, that what the debate has most inspired in me, as I suspect it has in many noble Lords, is very mixed emotions. It is hard to approach this subject without discomfort. If we listen to and look at the substance of the work of First World War writers, painters and musicians, we must heed a very serious note of warning. As we witnessed the extraordinary display of poppies at the Tower, and another moving ceremony on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month at the Cenotaph, a profound sense of grief and admiration for those who fell was, for me, peppered by a sense of the anger that fuelled so much of the creativity of the Great War: in the pictures of Paul Nash, Sargent and Lewis, in the writings of Housman, Kipling, Owen, Sassoon and Brooke, and in the influence of their words on subsequent generations of, for instance, composers like Britten and Tippett.
As we salute what we refer to as the nobility of the dead—we even say “the Glorious Dead”—I fear we must realise that those artists who actually saw action, and often died in it, could not find nobility or glory in the terrible, terrible waste that was born too frequently of arrogance, incompetence and foolhardiness. They wanted us to learn the lesson that I fear, arguably, politicians have failed to learn: strength and discipline are admirable qualities, but so too are humility and understanding. The two world wars, without doubt, had to be fought. However, in recent BBC programmes we have learnt not only that profoundly shell-shocked soldiers were executed but that distinguished military men have begun to acknowledge that, in much more recent conflicts, hubris and ill prepared adventures have forced them into situations where they now feel that they must beg the terrible question, “Was it worth the cost?”. Or, to borrow from Wilfred Owen:
“Was it for this the clay grew tall”?
“All a poet can do”, he said, “is warn”.
My Lords, there could not have been a better person to introduce this important debate than my noble friend Lord Black. Our sense of indebtedness to him is substantial. As he explained, he is closely involved in the work of the Royal College of Music and the Imperial War Museum, both of which benefit greatly from his dedicated support.
The Royal College of Music, working alongside other academic institutions and orchestras up and down the land, will surely help us to improve our understanding of the impact of the war on British music—one of its least examined aspects. Almost a generation of composers was killed. Those who survived were changed forever, whether or not they fought. Think of Elgar. The break with Germany must have been traumatic for him. He owed so much, as did many of his lesser known contemporaries, to German traditions. Deep friendships were suddenly sundered. My noble friend Lord Black has referred to the tragic case of Sir Edgar Speyer, who did so much for Britain before 1914. A strong sense of kindred united the two countries almost up until the point when it was severed. In 1900, the destination most favoured by British people travelling abroad was Berlin.
The sudden termination of Anglo-German accord and the catastrophic loss of life that followed will be recalled forever through the work of poets like Sassoon and Owen, who have entered the mainstream of our culture and become known to millions, evoking the successive generations’ mingled feelings of grief and gratitude evoked for us this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, feelings that must remain always in our collective consciousness:
“Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead”.
Alongside such haunting lines of verse we need to hear more of the poignant music that is also a profoundly important part of our heritage—for example, the superb choral memorial “Morning Heroes”, composed by Arthur Bliss in honour of his dead friends. We must remember and commemorate during these four centenary years that have just begun.
I hope that the Minister will give us a clear indication of the Government’s support for our museums, galleries, orchestras and other institutions as they continue and, I hope, expand their tributes to our country’s wartime poets, artists and musicians. He will no doubt wish to explain to the House on future occasions—in the Chamber itself, I trust—how the Government’s plans have been implemented and with what success.
Such further debates would give us other opportunities to discuss our debt to those who gave so much to their country. Should we not turn in due course to the very important role played by women during the war? All parts of our country need to be borne in mind. I am concerned that the people of Northern Ireland may have access to less music in their concert halls at this time of commemoration because of the financial difficulties facing the Ulster Orchestra, the Province’s only professional orchestra. I have already drawn the issue to the attention of the Minister in the hope that he will encourage the BBC to become more fully involved in the search for a solution. Regrettably, he told me that he had no plans to do so but perhaps he will look again at the matter.
Some 200,000 Irishmen from south and north fought in the First World War. In its cultural contribution, Ireland was no less important. Two Irishmen, both famous painters before 1914, were prominent among the official war artists: John Lavery from Belfast and William Orpen from Dublin. Lavery was unable to travel to the front on grounds of age and health, and tended to deprecate his substantial volume of war work depicting ships at sea and life on the home front as unduly detached from the cruel reality of war. Orpen, a younger man, went to the front, where he captured the reality of suffering and hardship in a remarkable series of pictures that were austere and pitiless in character. They serve as reminders of the varied manner in which both parts of Ireland contributed to the war.
Some of Orpen’s finest pictures form part of the largest exhibition of war art for a century which is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum. Founded in 1917, the museum is rightly at the forefront of our centenary commemorations and is linked to organisations throughout the country through its flourishing centenary partnership scheme. Together, and in close association with the Government, they must sustain the high standards that they have set and maintain the momentum of commemoration until 2018, reinforcing the insistent calls for remembrance of suffering imparted to us by the war poets:
“No mockeries now for them; nor prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for obtaining this debate on commemorating the contribution of First World War musicians, artists and poets. It includes their personal contributions, of course, which in a number of cases led to their untimely deaths. I will come back to that in a moment. However, as we have heard, the issue is broader than that as it concerns their contribution to the public understanding of the war as it was being fought and through the legacy that they left in the following decades. That legacy resonates today every bit as much as it did in the years following the end of the war.
Like others, I pay tribute to the work of the Government, cultural organisations and the broadcast media for getting the tone of our commemoration right and for the quality and relevance of cultural programming. I have been impressed by the range of programmes on television, the development of digital archives online such as Siegfried Sassoon’s war diaries, and by the scale of gallery and museum exhibitions. A lot is being done—more than I had expected—and it is being done very well indeed. I pay particular tribute to the BBC, whose contribution is huge. We are only four months into the centenary and already more than 130 programmes have been broadcast. That shows the strength of public service broadcasting.
As the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, it is encouraging that the official cultural programme, 14-18 NOW, is commissioning work across all art forms that reflects on the centenary, with work being exhibited across the UK over six weeks in 2016 and 2018. Crucially, they will reflect how World War I has influenced public attitudes to conflict. We need to remember that we went to war with huge public support and strong national fervour, which was reflected sometimes in music and poetry. In poetry, that was not least in the work of Jessie Pope, whose poems commanded a wide audience and seem to have given genuine confidence in the early years of the war to many front-line soldiers. Had people known then what they knew later, her work might not have been so popular. As we commemorate, we should remember and learn from the attitudes towards war in those early years, not just from those later and after the end of the war.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Black, did not have a wish list of suggestions for the Minister to respond to. I have four suggestions; perhaps some have been considered but, if not, perhaps they might be. First, I hope that there might be major cultural events specifically around the commemoration of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 2016. I am thinking of film, cinema and television. Is there some original archive material that might be broadcast? Might other countries’ material be broadcast? I heard suggestions a few months ago that there might be some new archive film of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That could be shown right across the country in cinemas, which would be a very good thing.
The second idea is to look at the streaming of drama. We are getting used to streaming from London and Stratford, and from the Met in New York, to cinemas across the UK, and it is hugely popular. This summer, my wife and I attended a performance of a play called “Front” at the Royal Lyceum Theatre at the Edinburgh festival. It was about the waste of war. It was in four languages and was based on two anti-war novels including All Quiet on the Western Front. It was a joint performance by German and Flemish theatre companies and was deeply moving. It struck me that perhaps only a few hundred people saw the performance, when it would merit a much bigger audience. Is there a way in which we could stream far more drama that related to the First World War and to conflict, from abroad—if necessary with subtitles—and from elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
The third idea is that we should be seeking to commemorate a number of national cultural figures killed in the First World War, who we have heard about today. Could events be held and broadcasts made on the centenary date of their death? I am thinking of figures such as George Butterworth, killed on the Somme, Cecil Coles, killed near Amiens, and Edward Thomas, killed at Arras. It would be nice to think that there could be simultaneous events in all the places that they knew, had lived in and had worked in, along with broadcast support on the day so we could all participate. I am sure that many places are developing their own plans but how good it would be if there could be national co-ordination of those commemorations—and indeed international commemoration, for that matter, as we recall that Cecil Coles was assistant conductor with the Stuttgart opera in the years before the war.
My final suggestion is for touring exhibitions. Are there any plans to organise touring exhibitions of our major First World War paintings, which are mostly, though not entirely, located in London? The vast majority of people across the UK have little access to them, which is a pity, so I hope that we could look at ways in which access could be enhanced.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap because I wanted to put on the record a memory of Robert Sterling, a first cousin of my mother’s who volunteered at the beginning of the war in the autumn of 1914, having previously won the Newdigate prize at Oxford for poetry. He was held to be a coming poet. He went to France in March 1915. He wrote a very few poems in the trenches but, sadly, he was killed near Ypres only a month later, in April 1915.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, and other noble Lords who have contributed to this very moving debate. When I think of World War I art and literature, I remember two things from my youth. The first is the film “Oh! What a Lovely War”, which I saw aged 16 as a committed anti-war activist, as I was then, and I thought was amazing. I saw it again more recently at the Stratford East Theatre, and it still holds firm and is as powerful now as it was then. The second is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I read when I was 17 years old. It had a profound impact on me and I have reread it many times since.
That book—and my father, it has to be said—led me to the World War I poets mentioned by many noble Lords. Unfortunately, though, I have no recollection of studying World War I in any depth in history or English literature in my school when I was growing up, unlike my own children, who, at their excellent Camden comprehensive, are both familiar with the history and the poetic and dramatic outputs of World War I. Like many noble Lords, I congratulate the Government, and I particularly congratulate the BBC and other public service broadcasters on their great output and programming throughout this year, particularly the recognition of many of their programmes of those who made the great sacrifice from all over the world from what was then the Empire, particularly the Indian subcontinent.
I want to mention three matters. First, I commend and congratulate Yorkshire’s museums on holding wonderful exhibitions and activities, led by the York Museum. I particularly mention my home town, Bradford, where there has been a huge programme of World War I exhibitions and activity. A great son of our city, JB Priestley, served for five years in the British Army during the First World War in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and as an officer in the Devonshires. His powerful first-hand account was published 50 years later in the memoir Margin Released, and his letters home, other archived documents and his uniform are in the JB Priestley archive at the library of the University of Bradford and have been on show at Bradford Industrial Museum this spring and summer.
Secondly, Bradford WW1 is online and will run from 2014 to 2018. It is a social history research project exploring the daily life of those at home in Bradford during World War I, investigating a wide range of issues from recruiting, construction and the impact on trade to food rationing and increased industrial unrest. Bradford’s MP at the time said:
“This will be the greatest war the world has ever seen, and I hope Great Britain will not be drawn into such a crime against civilisation … It is all very well for those who make their money producing armaments—that filthy gang which makes profits by creating jealousies and bad blood between nations. The high prices which will immediately follow will not cause any hardship to the capitalists. The working classes have to pay now, and I wonder how long it is going to continue”.
So said Fred Jowett, Labour MP for Bradford West, two days before Britain declared war on Germany. With the outbreak of hostilities and the patriotic fervour that was then generated, it became increasingly controversial to take an openly anti-war stance, at least for many years.
I turn to the role of women, mentioned by several noble Lords. While Wilfred Owen wrote powerful poetry that has lasted through the generations, he was, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, one of 2,225 men and women from Britain and Ireland who had poems published during that war. Indeed, he wrote his anti-jingoistic poems as part of his therapy to overcome shell shock. His was a very personal, very powerful reaction to war. Other verses submitted to trench magazines reveal how soldiers also used humour and anti-German feeling to cope with the conflict. Much poetry was written on the front line by such poets as Padre Woodbine Willie that was about everyday concerns—such as when the next rum ration was coming. As the contemporary verse in “Oh! What a Lovely War” goes:
“Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush,
Using the kind of language
That makes the sergeant blush.
Who wouldn’t join the Army?
That’s what we all inquire;
Don't we pity the poor civilian,
Sitting beside the fire”.
Women on the home front battled against the fear and terror that they felt for the safety of their fathers, husbands and sons far away. Evelyn Underhill wrote:
“Theirs be the hard, but ours the lonely bed”.
Millions of women knew that they would face a future possibly without their loved ones; indeed, as Vera Brittain said, they did so. Although women were portrayed by some soldier poets as innocent and idealistic, the literature from the time suggests that that was unfair. There were some 500 women writing and publishing poetry during World War I, among them Teresa Hooley, Jessie Pope, Mary Henderson and Charlotte Mew. Women’s poetry and songs also reflected the new roles that they took on. Women were in the munitions factories and were proud to be there. They sang “We’re the Girls from Arsenal”—I will not quote that song because I am almost out of time.
The third thing that I want to ask the Minister concerns the Imperial War Museum, which has been at the centre of the activities to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. At the opening of the First World War galleries this summer, the Prime Minister praised the museum for creating,
“something fitting and lasting–something of which we can all be proud”.
So I ask the Minister what comment he has to make about the proposed £4 million cut to the budget of the museum, which puts in jeopardy its library and educational facilities. I really hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that that is not the case.
My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend for securing this debate; indeed, I thank all your Lordships. This has been a most moving debate. The Government are commemorating this historic centenary with a rich and varied programme of national ceremonial events, education and learning opportunities and community-based projects. It is clear that, even at this early stage of the four-year centenary period, the nation has taken these commemorations to its heart and people are connecting with them in a deeply personal way.
Properly recognising the extraordinary output of musicians, artists, poets and writers to which the war gave rise is an integral part of these commemorations. It ranges from the poems of Rupert Brooke and Charlotte Mew to the memoirs of Robert Graves—indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. It ranges from the artistic brilliance of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer to the musical inspiration of Ivor Gurney and the Scottish composer Cecil Coles, and they—noble Lords have recorded many more—are being commemorated.
My noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned Ireland and the artists Orpen and Lavery, so well represented at the Imperial War Museum. It was extremely encouraging and absolutely right that a representative from the Republic of Ireland was at the Cenotaph service this year. Culture can touch people as meaningfully and as poignantly as our services of remembrance. You have only to look at the millions of people whose imagination was so powerfully captured by the poppies at the Tower of London.
It is for this very reason that the Government established the 14-18 NOW programme of artistic commissions for the centenary. Contemporary artists are being inspired to participate, in part because they know how potent the work of their predecessors has been. The success of the 14-18 NOW programme this year demonstrates the public’s strong desire to participate in the centenary in a number of different ways. A thousand public buildings and nearly 17 million people in every part of the United Kingdom, many of them in their own homes, darkened their lights between 10 pm and 11 pm on 4 August as part of the national Lights Out programme. Well over 21,000 people wrote a letter to the statue of the unknown soldier at Paddington station. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned all that is going on in Yorkshire. A million people in Liverpool saw “Memories of Giants”, commemorating the Liverpool Pals battalions through giant puppets. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford spoke of the Battle of Murmansk, and the production by the National Theatre of Wales recalling the lead up to that battle. Countless people were enthused by dazzle ships in London and Liverpool.
There will be creative programmes in 2016 and 2018 which will seek to move and engage even bigger audiences. I shall very much take back all four points made by my noble friend Lord Shipley. I know that work is being done to look into archives for material to commemorate the Battle of the Somme. It was very helpful to receive my noble friend’s points. The Government are delighted that two parts of the poppies at the Tower, the weeping window and the wave, will be presented at a number of locations throughout the country as part of those programmes.
The First World War was the first conflict to spawn a wealth of artistic output from those who fought on its battlefields. The Somme alone saw more writers take part than any other battle in history—Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, JRR Tolkien and Edmund Blunden, to name but a few. Some were killed in action, bright lights of their generation, including Wilfred Owen, who wrote the powerful poem read by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, the composer George Butterworth, a Somme casualty mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, and Robert Sterling, whom my noble friend Lord Jopling mentioned. Those creative promises would never be fulfilled.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned the role of women and how significant it was on the home front and the front line. In connection with my earlier words, I want to mention Nina Baird, the Royal Academy student who died from typhoid as a result of her war work in north Africa. Countless others of immense talent were lost to this war, which my noble friend Lord Black of Brentford highlighted so movingly. He also spoke about Sir Edgar Speyer, another casualty of the horror of this war. All leave an invaluable legacy, whether through poetry, memoirs, fiction or art, helping future generations to understand the dreadful reality of war.
The contribution of artists of all kinds has featured prominently, and will continue to do so, in the events and activities being delivered by government departments, arm’s-length bodies and partners. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friend Lord Shipley quite rightly congratulated the BBC on its ambitious centenary season across all its platforms which has attracted the interest of so many. I was particularly struck by the recent “War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme”, a documentary on BBC2 detailing the experiences of poets, including Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Jones, Rosenberg and Tolkien, who served in the Battle of the Somme and many more.
My noble friend Lord Lexden spoke of music. The centenary also featured as part of this year’s Proms season. On 3 August, the War Horse Prom, inspired by the National Theatre’s play, featured a new suite created by Adrian Sutton as well as other music from the period. On 4 August—the day the nation commemorated the outbreak of the war—the Tallis Scholars and the Heath Quartet performed Tavener’s heartbreakingly prescient “Requiem Fragments”, composed shortly before his death. The British Library hosted “Goodbye to All That”. In readings and conversation, Lavinia Greenlaw, one of Britain’s most eminent poets and respected literary figures, invited 10 writers from countries involved in the war to respond to the title of Robert Graves’s famous book.
The Royal Museums Greenwich exhibition “War Artists at Sea”, running until February next year, is showing the best of its collections, including visually arresting depictions of events at home and on the front and of everyday life. This exhibition demonstrates that war art went far beyond the simple recording of events. “The Great War in Portraits” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year viewed the war through images of the many individuals involved. From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considered a wide range of visual responses to “the war to end all wars”, culminating in the visual violence of expressionist masterpieces by Max Beckmann and Ernst Kirchner.
However, it is, of course, not just our national institutions that are bringing the art and culture of the war to new generations. On Saturday, the Newcastle Choral Society will stage a commemorative concert with Orchestra North East at Sage Gateshead. It will include a performance of “The Armed Man” by Karl Jenkins. These are examples of the very many events that are taking place across the country and will unfold during the next four years. The list of events and activities that are planned or under way in every part of the United Kingdom is such a long one that it would be impossible to do full justice to it today; but full details are available through the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Centenary Partnership website.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned the Imperial War Museum. I had an opportunity to see and have a short discussion with Diane Lees, the director-general of the museum, on the matter of the cuts that the museum is considering and working on. We understand that the Imperial War Museum is committed to ensuring that it will continue to give the centenary programme the priority it deserves. We should all congratulate the museum on the excellent refurbished First World War galleries that opened this summer. I promise your Lordships that I shall keep in regular touch as matters develop; the museum’s work is hugely important and it could not have a better champion than my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood.
The 14-18 NOW programme, along with our national museums, galleries and cultural institutions—and in addition to countless local projects supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council—will deliver a rich and diverse cultural programme. Remembrance, youth and education are the hallmarks of our national commemorations. It is essential to take the centenary to young people. Inviting contemporary artists to use the inspiration of their wartime predecessors to engage the next generations is an extremely valuable way of achieving this.
Cultural expression is fundamental to our sense of national well-being, pride and citizenship; it reflects how we see our civilisation and society. It is therefore entirely fitting that the cultural outpouring arising from this most dreadful of wars is properly recognised. The Government are playing their part in this and leading from the front, from their own programme of events and those of many other organisations across the United Kingdom. We have all sought to do justice to the memory of all those whose creativity shone during some of the darkest times for mankind.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase the electoral registration of British citizens living abroad.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important but largely neglected subject. My starting point is that a high voter turnout is the sign of a healthy democracy. One cannot achieve a high turnout unless those eligible to register as voters actually do register. Many nations recognise and treat their citizens overseas as a major asset and actively solicit their engagement. In contrast, UK citizens living abroad are an untapped asset. Indeed, they are a largely ignored asset.
There are believed to be something in the region of 5.5 million Britons living abroad, and of those about 3 million are estimated to be eligible to be on the electoral register; that is, aged 18 and over and having lived abroad for no more than 15 years. It is very much an estimate as there are no official statistics, but the number is clearly substantial. How many are actually registered? The figure is believed to be between 20,000 and 30,000, well under 1% of the total estimated to be eligible. Even if the estimate of those eligible to register is substantially out—even if it is 2 million rather than 3 million—it is clear that an appallingly low percentage is registered to vote. Although a great deal of concern is expressed about low registration rates in the UK, this concern does not appear to extend to UK nationals living abroad. They are in many respects neglected voters, or rather, non-voters.
This neglect may stem from various myths that exist about British nationals living abroad. Contrary to how they are sometimes portrayed, most of those eligible to register are working abroad. Nor are Britons living abroad a drain on United Kingdom resources, but a major resource for the UK. Working abroad for UK firms means that many contribute significantly to the UK economy. There is clearly a case to encourage British expatriates to participate in the electoral process. It will strengthen their ties with the country and they will bring a valuable international perspective to our elections. Their active interest will be passed on to the next generation and beyond, and help to retain the latter’s ties with Britain. Furthermore, Britons living abroad are a major source of soft power for the UK. Encouraging their active participation can be a means of getting them to influence attitudes towards the UK in their country of settlement.
The most compelling case for action, though, is one of principle. British citizens who live abroad, and have done so for less than 15 years, are entitled under UK law to vote. They should therefore be encouraged in the same way as are citizens resident in the UK to ensure that they are registered and exercise their right to vote. As I said in opening, a high turnout rate is the sign of a healthy democracy. UK citizens living abroad should be seen as intrinsic to ensuring such a democracy.
Recognising the nature of the problem, a cross-party group of parliamentarians was formed last year to address the issue, and I had the honour of chairing the group. The other members were my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Tyler, who are present today, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, is speaking at a conference today and cannot be with us. He had hoped to be here to explain the efforts being made by the Indian Government to engage with the Indian diaspora. We were joined by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown from the Commons. Our report, entitled Making Votes Count, was published in March of this year. Our task was to identify the obstacles to achieving a high registration rate and what could be done to tackle them.
We identified seven problems. First, there is the difficulty of identifying UK nationals living abroad who are eligible to vote. Their whereabouts are often not known. Data on citizens living abroad are held by public bodies, but the data are limited or not necessarily current, and the bodies concerned are usually precluded from releasing personal data to other bodies. Secondly, there is poor communication. Limited efforts have been made to reach citizens living abroad. One study of British nationals living in New Zealand found that those who were registered had discovered their right to register only through word-of-mouth rather than by receiving any official communication.
Thirdly, there are practical difficulties in registering and voting. British citizens resident overseas are to a much greater extent responsible for their own registration than citizens living in the UK. The current process of issuing and returning ballot papers also creates problems. That was highlighted by a number of UK expatriates in evidence to us. The extension of the election timetable will go some way to reducing this problem, as will the move to online application in respect of registration, but the problem of ensuring that those eligible to vote actually register to do so remains.
Fourthly, there are separate responsibilities within Government. It was clear from our inquiry that there is an absence of joined-up government. Responsibility for overseas voters is spread among a number of bodies.
Fifthly, there are different approaches taken by embassies and consulates. The willingness to encourage registration appears to vary considerably.
Sixthly, there is an absence of incentives. The absence of joined-up government means that there is no one body that sees it as its responsibility to give a lead or has an obvious reason to do so. The only body with a clear remit is the Electoral Commission, but its role is to encourage. There is no clear incentive within departments to devote money and resources to enhancing voter registration by UK citizens living abroad.
Lastly, at the root of the problem, from which the foregoing stems, is an absence of political will to ensure that British citizens living abroad are taken seriously as citizens eligible to register and hence to vote in elections in the United Kingdom. They are, as we noted in the report, forgotten citizens for the purposes of implementing effectively UK electoral law.
Tackling the problem has at its starting point recognition of the merits of encouraging British nationals to exercise their statutory rights. Once the political will is there, many of the practical problems that we have adumbrated can be overcome or at least tackled. Identifying the problems forms the basis of the solutions. We recommend joined-up government, with responsibility for British nationals abroad and driving up voter registration, vested in one Minister; incentives for different bodies responsible for enhancing voter registration; data sharing, so that citizens living abroad can be identified; greater dissemination of information, not least through social media; exhortation—citizens living abroad should be seen to be valued and voting encouraged as a civic duty; and, finally, enabling ballot papers to be downloaded electronically.
It is clear that a great deal can be done to encourage British nationals living abroad to register and exercise their right to vote and we believe that there is an overwhelming case for it to be done. My noble friend the Minister is, I know, very much seized of the issue—he was among the witnesses to give evidence to the group—and I look forward to hearing from him about what the Government are doing to address what is a very serious issue.
My Lords, I am delighted to support my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, not just on this occasion but also in recognition of his very successful chairmanship in bringing all of us in his informal group to a successful decision. As a regular adviser of the Electoral Commission on the cross-party informal group, I obviously cannot speak on behalf of the Electoral Commission, but I think that my noble friend will agree that the commission is beginning to address some of the issues, not least because of the very effective pressure made possible by my noble friend. In particular, I think that the commission now recognises that with online registration and the extension of the electoral timetable, some of the problems that we identified in our group are being addressed.
To supplement my noble friend’s masterly summary of our group’s recommendations, I will make a short contribution on the basis of my 14 years’ service as a constituency MP. I had 87,000 constituents in North Cornwall. They deserved, and I hope that they largely received, the best individual and collective representation that I could realistically provide. I hope that was demonstrated by the fact that my small majority did get bigger.
In those circumstances it is important to put on record that the average constituency Member of Parliament, even if they have a substantial number of overseas residents, will never see them as a high priority in terms of representation. If at any point during those 14 years I had had regular communication with overseas residents who had previously lived in the constituency, I think that I would have remembered them, but it did not happen. I am afraid that it was very often a case of out of sight, out of mind. Even if the current level of registration of such potential electors was increased dramatically—I think that it is less than 20,000 at present—I fear that their special interests would not receive the attention they deserved and simply extending the opportunity to vote in a specific constituency beyond the current 15 years would, I suggest, not improve their chances of being heard.
In a previous debate I suggested that, as soon as registration levels justified it, we should look very carefully at the suggestion that there should be a specific constituency for overseas electors. The clinching argument for me is the fact that we pride ourselves in this country on the strong connection between a Member of Parliament and the residents of the geographical area that he or she seeks to represent. As a Cornish MP with a long Cornish ancestry and a mother who claimed ancestry going back to 1066—although the ancestors were probably immigrants at that stage—I had a personal commitment to that area. While we have the first past the post electoral system, which continues this close one-to-one relationship, which is always claimed to be such a strong advantage that it outweighs its disadvantages, that is all the more the case. Indeed, members of all parties have claimed it to be a reason to prefer the alternative vote to other preferential systems. So in those circumstances it would be illogical to boast of this crucial connection and then advance the case for unlimited electoral connection for those who have long since left the area. For those reasons, I think that the 15-year limit is not the crucial limit. Hence, when we in the group examined the options, I argued that we should examine the case for a specific constituency or constituencies for overseas voters, as mentioned in our report, as happens in France, Italy, Portugal, Croatia and, indeed, one or two other democracies in the wider world. As soon as the registration levels justify this, which I think would be something in the region of 75,000 under the current arrangements, I believe that we should review those arguments.
That brings us back to the report of the Cross-Party Group on Overseas Voters. The recommendations of the group bear repetition. I wish to put them on record as I think they are extremely important. We said that,
“we do not address the existing 15-year rule, but rather work within it. For those who wish to get rid of the limit, what we recommend will be necessary but not sufficient. For those who are opposed to, or see little point in, extending the limit, what we recommend will be necessary and sufficient. The unifying feature is that there is agreement on the existence of a principled case for encouraging all those who under our current law are entitled to register to exercise that right”.
I wholeheartedly endorse what my noble friend has just said on that point. The report went on to say that,
“contemplating having an MP for overseas UK nationals is not presently feasible given the small number of overseas voters who are registered to vote. They constitute the equivalent of about one-third of a constituency electorate. Were the number of voters registered to reach a six-figure number then there would be a case for reviewing the proposal. We recognise that there is a chicken and egg element to this debate. UK nationals may not register to vote because they lack any clear connection to those who they are entitled to vote for. Were they accorded a dedicated MP then they might be more inclined to register and vote. However, as there is no evidence to demonstrate that registration rates would shoot up sufficiently were a dedicated seat to be allocated, the case for introducing such a seat at this stage is not compelling”.
It is a case of registration, registration, registration.
I welcome the moves that the Government and the Electoral Commission have taken, partly as a result of my noble friend’s group and the occasions on which he, and others, have raised the issue in your Lordships’ House. However, there are a huge number of opportunities to improve on that and I hope we will hear of a few more this afternoon.
My Lords, since I last took part in a debate on this issue in March 2001, there has been modest progress. The Electoral Registration Act, introduced last year, extended the timetable for postal votes from 15 to 25 days. This a small change but helpful as, at the last general election, many postal votes arrived too late to be counted. However, the Government’s record of increasing voting by those who live abroad is still pretty dismal. As we know, just over 30,000 voted at the last election, out of a possible turnout of somewhere between 3 million and 5 million. We know that 40,000 downloaded registration forms but a third of these were unable to complete them or vote. The form was too complicated and difficult.
It is a sad record. For example, if all the British citizens who live in Belgium had voted it would have doubled the number of overseas voters. They can register online, which is an improvement, but it is not easy and most living abroad still do not know how to do it. What is the Foreign Office doing to help promote voting? It seems unfair to expect the Electoral Commission to undertake this role when the Foreign Office has the best contacts and best system for getting in touch with possible voters who live overseas.
I welcome the report of the group chaired by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, but one issue which it does not cover is voting and the armed services. The most disappointing thing at the last general election was the inability of our Armed Forces to register and vote when serving overseas. Many, if not most, of those serving abroad were unable to get their ballot papers back in time. The extension to 25 days will obviously help at the next election. However, it was particularly ironic that those who were fighting in Afghanistan to improve democracy were themselves denied their own democratic right to vote. What is being done to rectify this problem? At the next election, we hope there will be rather fewer serving abroad but they will be spread around the world in smaller numbers and in odd places. This will present a greater logistical problem than it did last time.
I agree with the conclusions of my noble friend Lord Norton’s report and hope that the Minister will respond positively. I hope that after the next election, the Conservative Government, unfettered by a coalition, will look again at the 15-year rule, introduced by the last Labour Government. It is unfair because those who live abroad have contributed to Britain. Many have always paid their taxes and still do. It is unfair and discriminatory. Even the EU Justice Commissioner thinks the law should be changed. Every other country in the European Union has a better system and most can vote at their consulate or embassy, something that is denied to our citizens. Let us have no more excuses about voting by proxy: it does not work. Voters want to cast their own individual ballot. They do not trust even their very best friend to tick the right box on the ballot paper.
The challenge is to get the word across the globe that it should be easier to register and vote and that everybody should vote. Unfortunately, as the report points out, they cannot yet do so electronically. Because electronic voting will perhaps come in after the next general election, the question in the short term is: who will lead the campaign to increase voter registration? This issue has often fallen down the gap between departments. As is also recommended in the report, which department and which Minister will be held accountable for improving voter registration?
Perhaps I should end by saying that I have never voted. I took my seat in this House 41 years ago, aged 21, so I have never been able to vote. There have been various attempts by various political parties to give me the chance, but they have all been thwarted, either here or in another place. I am not sure whether I should be looking forward to the day when I can vote. Only time will tell.
My Lords, a watching and eager world has my noble friend Lord Wallace to thank for this debate. We are considering the outcome of the all-party inquiry, which my noble friend kindly recommended to me in the closing stages of our debates on what is now the Electoral Reform and Administration Act 2013. My noble friend said on 23 January last year:
“I would suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, should pursue the question of an all-party inquiry into this rather neglected area, not leaving everything to the Government here”.—[Official Report, 23/1/13; col. 1130.]
Governments the world over tend to hold exclusively to themselves those matters from which glory or credit can be extracted; other matters can happily be placed in other hands. So perhaps it was, to some extent, in this case.
I took the sensible course in response to my noble friend’s suggestion. I passed the baton immediately to the skilful, learned and scholarly hands of my noble friend Lord Norton. Having done that, I enlisted as a humble foot soldier in the impressive little platoon which he assembled to undertake the all-party inquiry so generously suggested by my noble friend Lord Wallace. I turn to the summary of the recommendations of the inquiry, with which the short and incisive report—thanks to my noble friend Lord Norton—concludes. The first of them states:
“A Cabinet Office Minister should be given specific responsibility for co-ordinating all Government Departments to increase radically the take-up of overseas voting”.
Who is the individual referred to here? The fuller version of this, our first recommendation, reads:
“At the moment, Lord Wallace of Saltaire answers in the House of Lords for the Cabinet Office and also does so for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That appears to us to be a pertinent combination in terms of departmental responsibilities”.
As to the duties that my noble friend will acquire by accepting this recommendation, as I hope he will, our report makes it clear that he would have,
“responsibility for British nationals living overseas and for ensuring a co-ordinated approach within Government. This should also encompass ensuring effective communication between the Electoral Commission and the FCO”.
No good deed should go unrewarded or, as some say, unpunished. The all-party inquiry, which my noble friend set in train, has found unanimously in favour of vesting in him the crucial task of bringing together the disparate strands of responsibility within government so that a really effective campaign can be undertaken—driven with the energy for which my noble friend is renowned—to establish arrangements for the first time under which our fellow country men and women living abroad for fewer than 15 years are, in the words of the report,
“encouraged, in the same way as citizens resident in the UK, to ensure that they are registered and exercise their right to vote”.
How glad my noble friend will be that he initiated the all-party inquiry.
The creation of a powerful co-ordinator within Government is our first recommendation because so much turns upon it. Our report states:
“British citizens living abroad are effective agents in spreading British influence. Many nations recognise and treat their citizens overseas as a major asset. The United Kingdom is not among them”.
A recent report in the Economist revealed that of the 193 UN member states, 110 have formal programmes to build links with their citizens abroad. The UK is not one of them; it should be. Attitudes will not change without the consistent and determined pressure that a co-ordinating Minister would bring. Our embassies and consulates have always been left to decide how—indeed, whether—to encourage British nationals in their countries to register to vote. Our report notes:
“We found little evidence of a notable effort by them to engage in a voter registration drive or to make efforts to mark elections in the United Kingdom. Whereas the embassies of some nations appear to have a tradition of hosting receptions on their national election days, there appears to be no such tradition on the part of UK embassies”.
We propose that the co-ordinating Minister should instil a proper sense of duty in our posts throughout the world. In the words of our report, we recommended,
“following the practice of some other countries in emphasising the importance of the nation’s citizens overseas and stressing the value of their votes and commitment to the United Kingdom … Our citizens living overseas should be made to feel valued. That is an essential prerequisite for encouraging them to vote”.
The need for a co-ordinating Minister grows ever stronger as the problem of underregistration gets worse. The latest figure of registered overseas voters available to us when we finalised our report in March was 23,366. That is alarming enough, out of a potential total of around 3 million, but by June, the figure had dropped to 15,848. The Electoral Commission has set itself a target of 100,000 new registrations by the time of the election next May, in accordance with one of the recommendations of our report. The briefing that the commission has provided for this debate suggests that it is seeking assistance from a wide range of organisations, including universities, pension providers and financial advisors, as well as the FCO. This is surely to be welcomed. The existence of a co-ordinating Minister would surely be invaluable to the Electoral Commission in this endeavour.
Our neglected and forgotten voters abroad should be given the means of becoming full participants in our democratic life. That is what so many of them want and we should feel proud that they do.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I place on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for securing this debate today in the Moses Room. I am pleased to be speaking in this debate, as I am always pleased to speak in any debate about how important it is for citizens to be registered to vote and participate in our democracy, no matter where they live.
I am the chair of the All-Party Group on Voter Registration, so it was good to hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is a very active member of our group. We have had some interesting discussions in recent meetings about what we need to do to increase the number of people on the register. I confess that I did not know that there was a group on overseas voters, and I have today asked the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, if I could be involved in any future work. I think the report by the cross-party group, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is a very good one and provides a welcome opportunity to focus on this issue.
It is important for any democracy to have simple and easy processes in place to ensure that its citizens can register to vote and cast their vote at elections. The number of people presently registered to vote who live overseas is only a few thousand, and even in 2010—the year of the previous general election—the figure peaked at 32,739. Since the introduction of overseas voting, the all-time high was in 1991, when 34,454 people were registered to vote. We shall see whether that figure is bettered in the forthcoming general election. However, these are small numbers when you consider, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble Viscount told us, that there are more than 5 million British citizens living abroad at present; of those, probably 3 million have lived in the UK in the past 15 years, so under the current system are eligible to vote.
British citizens living abroad have had the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections since 1985. The eligible period was initially five years, but that was extended to 20 years following the introduction of the 1989 Act, and subsequently it was brought back down to 15 years on the introduction of the 2000 Act. That was brought about by a huge amount of change in the political and electoral make-up of the UK. The process to register as an overseas elector is relatively straightforward, with probably the biggest barrier being that people do not realise that they have the right to vote, while getting another British citizen to attest to the application may be another one. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, made an important point about service men and women and their right to vote. I fully endorse all his remarks.
The introduction of individual electoral registration would remove the latter requirement for attestation. It will be interesting to see whether that was in reality a barrier if voter registration improves as a result of that one change. As I have said previously, I used to be a member of the Electoral Commission, which certainly took the issue very seriously. We sought to improve on the number of people living abroad who are registered to vote. I would also like to inform noble Lords that my own parents are both British citizens and citizens of the Irish Republic. They have been living in the Republic of Ireland since 2002, but they have never chosen to vote in a UK election because they participate in elections in the Irish Republic. They feel that that is right for them. However, they certainly have the right to vote here, although they will lose it in 2017. I might have one more go at trying to persuade them to register to vote so that they can cast their votes in the 2015 general election.
The problems in getting people to register to vote are well identified in the report. Perhaps the biggest barrier is actually being able to locate expatriate Britons because of the very poor communications that can exist when people are living abroad. As I say, I expect that many expatriate Britons have no idea that they have the right to vote in UK general elections, and that that right lasts for 15 years after leaving the country. The report also identifies that they have a problem with the many organisations that are involved. These include the Electoral Commission, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the local electoral registration office and others. It should also be noted as a matter of regret that in some local authorities, the whole electoral registration service can be seen as one that is not given quite the priority it deserves. That has an effect in getting citizens registered to vote, both those living in the UK and those living abroad. That needs to change.
I thought that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, about our embassies and consulates around the world taking no real lead in marking UK elections as part of their work was a very good one. It is a big omission on the part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are aware of how many embassies and high commissions in the UK mark elections in their respective countries with events, receptions and voting along with their own citizens who are living here. That is a very good thing.
The recommendations are all positive, but I would say that a lot more needs to be done in the UK to locate the 6 million people living here who are not on the register. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, appointing a specific Minister to co-ordinate all government departments to radically increase the take-up of overseas voting seems a good idea. Perhaps we should broaden that requirement to making one Minister responsible for getting more people in general on to the electoral register, both those at home and abroad.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, will have heard me say many times before that if we end up with fewer people on the electoral register at the end of the IER process than we had at the start, that will be a matter of much regret. That the Electoral Commission is devoting more time and resources to these issues is a good thing, although I think that we should also look at other organisations and how can they help in registering people. Here in the UK, the Bite the Ballot campaign is able to get people on to the register for a few pence. If the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, was here, I am sure that he would be able to tell us the exact amount. However, it is literally a few pence. Only last week I made a point in Grand Committee about data sharing. Much more work needs to be done on this. Experian and similar organisations know where we all live and hold a great deal of data about us all. I am sure that they could help locate voters both here in the UK and abroad and get them on to the electoral register. I also very much like the idea of our embassies and consulates abroad taking a much more proactive interest in our elections here and working with the expatriate communities.
I am not so sure about the electronic voting recommendation because I want to know a bit more about it. I am worried about trying to run before we can actually walk. I note that the group did not address the issue of the 15-year limit on being able to vote. I am also aware of the case of Shindler v the United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the limit was not a breach of Article 3 of Protocol 1. I think that the 15-year limit is about right and there is not going to be any change this side of the general election. After the election it is of course a matter for the Government of the day to keep under review and to propose changes to Parliament in due course.
I would like to raise one final matter that was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that he may want to get his cross-party group to look at the idea of having a Member or Members elected to represent UK voters living abroad. The French National Assembly has elected Members who represent the expatriate community across the whole world. It would be good to see how that is done, and how they have increased participation rates. The Member for Northern Europe actually lives in London. She used to work in the House of Commons until her election to the National Assembly in France a couple of years ago. I am sure that she will be delighted to come to the group and talk about what happened there. We could also get people from France to talk to us because they are one example of a near neighbour that has gone down this route.
In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for allowing us to debate this topic. I am sure that we will return to it again and again.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for this debate. I am not sure that I would accept as much of the responsibility for initiating the debate as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has suggested. I do remember our conversations and I very much welcomed them because I said that if we are going to take this further we need a better information base of evidence on which to take it, and this report provides that.
I declare an interest in that my son is an overseas voter. He has a proxy vote, which his mother exercises—he trusts his mother more than his father. Of course, there are a number of proxy voters who are overseas voters; at the moment we have some 15,000 to 20,000 people who we think are on the registers. A fundamental issue here is that our system of electoral registration and our system of constituencies are based on locality and not on any national study. In the first three months of 2015, as at the end of 2009 and in early 2010, we expect to see a surge in overseas registration for very obvious reasons, and we do not know how far that will go.
I welcome the steps that the Electoral Commission is taking to provide as much information as possible. I hope that those taking part in this debate and others welcome the efforts that the Government have taken to make electronic registration easier. As noble Lords will know, the proportion of voters now registering online is much higher than we originally anticipated, so things are getting easier. We may well get a surge that takes us well above 30,000 next year. We very much hope so.
I will, however, make a number of cautionary remarks. In the parallel debates on whether we should lower the voting age to 16, including overseas voters, I recognise some undercover thoughts from different parties about whom these extra bits of constituencies might be most likely to vote for. I need not say any more than that; we all understand where we are. As we take the debate about extending the franchise further, I think that it would be advantageous if we were perhaps to pull these two together. Both are ways of extending the opportunity to vote. If we were talking about the two together, it would not necessarily imply advantages for both sides or for one side against the other, and they are both about extending the level of franchise. Of course, we do not know who our overseas voters will vote for in large numbers. At this point, I think I should stop.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, there are nine minutes remaining in this debate.
My Lords, I was about to say that there are some fundamental differences between the way we approach and citizenship and the way that other countries, including France, do so. The attitude to those who are overseas is very different there. The assumption is that the French state wants them to remain French citizens closely allied to France. That means that consulates and embassies are staffed more generously where there are strong communities of citizens and French schools are subsidised. Those are not things which this country has done. This country has not had such a strong sense of the state and of the need for the state to hold on to its citizens overseas. It is a national duty, in a sense, for a French citizen to take part in democratic life. We have not thought that the local basis for political engagement was quite the same, so we are talking about some quite wide changes in our attitude to government. I wonder whether we would see ourselves having candidates campaigning in Dubai or Hong Kong to appeal to their overseas voters in the way that French presidential candidates now campaign in London because London is a significant base for French citizens abroad.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, talked about the need to consider special constituencies. That would be a large departure and again would require some philosophical thinking about the nature of British citizenship. At present, the Government have not begun to think about the possibility of overseas constituencies because the basis of our system is the single-member constituency, local voting and local registration. That is also part of the reason for the 15-year limit because after 15 years someone who lives overseas will have begun to lose a sense of identification with the place in which they last lived and the local representative for whom they would be voting. We are beginning to get into a quite large discussion about the nature of representation and citizenship within the United Kingdom if we go as far down the road as some are suggesting.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, said that British citizens go abroad to work. I agree that is true for some. Some go abroad to retire. Some go abroad to avoid tax. The five largest countries for British citizens living abroad are Australia, Spain, the USA, Canada and France. They are quite different. In Spain and France, a quite substantial number have gone there to retire. In the USA and Canada, I suspect—particularly in Canada—a number of people have gone there thinking that they are leaving the UK behind and emigrating to live, as in New Zealand and Australia. In other places such as the UAE, where we have now 160,000 citizens, very clearly people have gone there to work.
If I were in opposition, I do not know whether I would want to exclude those who live in the Cayman Islands and Monaco from the right to vote in Britain because of the issue of whether or not they have gone abroad to avoid the citizen’s duty of paying tax. Noble Lords will be aware of the American attitude to citizens abroad and taxation, which is very different from our own, and, indeed, has attracted some publicity recently with regard to the Mayor of London.
The Government are actively engaged in this and we readily accept that the Electoral Commission’s expanded efforts are partly in response to what the group has done. Turning to the question of the responsible Minister, it is a Cabinet Office responsibility—Greg Clark, Sam Gyimah and, in the Lords, myself. I am very grateful for the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that I should shoulder the entire responsibility. I have to say, my wife rather hopes that I might retire over the next six months and then there may not be someone who has this bridging responsibility between the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office.
I will say something about the Foreign Office involvement in all this. Unlike the French, we do not keep records of citizens living abroad, nor do we expect and require citizens to register. After the 30% cut that the Foreign Office took in its budget between 2010 and 2013, we are thinly staffed in a number of countries. We have reduced the number of consulates within the European Union, which is where nearly half our overseas citizens live. It would be a very major and expensive effort to ask embassies to expand into this new area. There are some limited efforts that can be made. Of course, one of the problems of having voting in embassies and consulates-general is that if you are upcountry, so to speak, it is much harder to vote than if you are in the capital. At present, it would require a very substantial shift and expansion of FCO resources to be able to provide the sorts of resources that are required.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, talked about electronic voting. The Government are not yet convinced that electronic voting is secure. The question about electronic registration—downloading the forms and then sending them back, as in New Zealand—is an interesting one, which I will take back and which the Government could certainly consider.
I hope that I have covered most of the questions that I was asked. I return to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, with whom, in the course of discussing a number of SIs over the past 18 months, I have had many exchanges. We are still extremely happy with the response to individual electoral registration and with the very high proportion who have registered online. We are not content with the number of people who have registered from abroad. We welcome the efforts the Electoral Commission is undertaking to raise awareness of this and we hope that the numbers will therefore increase. But I say again that this is not for government alone—it is also for private bodies, the media and political parties. I will make one small remark on this. I was recently in Andalucia and looked at the English-language newspaper there. It seemed to me that if one were to have a Spanish constituency of overseas voters, none of the conventional parties would necessarily win, if you understand me. Some citizens who live overseas are discontented with the state of Britain, the European Union and many other things as well.
My noble friend the Minister has not been able to address the issue of the Armed Forces in time. I ask if he can take that issue back to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence so that we can help those serving abroad to vote.
I apologise for that and I thank the noble Viscount for reminding me. On the question of the Armed Forces, we are exercised with that. It has become easier, partly because the basing structure of our armed forces is changing. It is intended that most major units will stay within one place as their home: Catterick or Aldershot or wherever it may be. This will make future Armed Forces voting easier than it has been. I will take this back and if there is anything more that I can say to the noble Viscount to reassure him, I will write to him.
I will finish by saying that I very much welcome this report. I hope that the group who produced it will continue its efforts. We should all be concerned with maximising, first, registration and, secondly voting from all those entitled to do so. There are some much wider issues about the future of representation in Britain which we should also engage in before and after the election. I look forward to further debates on this broad issue.
My Lords, we have caught up some time. I will arrange the officers for the next debate and we will start straight away.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the challenges facing the government of India on the issues of poverty and caste discrimination.
My Lords, India is one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. It has had, to take just one example, a highly sophisticated level of mathematics from the 12th century up to today. Its achievements are truly staggering. India produces 5 million graduates a year and one-third of the world’s software engineers. It is the world’s largest democracy and earlier this year ran a successful election in which 540 million people voted; 66.4% of those eligible. The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, comes with the clear support of the majority of the population and the world can only wish him well as he faces the challenges of poverty and caste discrimination.
Those problems are on a massive scale. One in six Indian women is illiterate and India has more absolute poverty than the whole of Africa put together. In particular, there are people who suffer extreme degradation, the Dalits—the former untouchables. More than 320 million people in India live below the national poverty line. Of these, some 200 million are Dalits or scheduled castes. Caste discrimination, one of the most serious ongoing human rights violations in the world today, has rightly been described by the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as “a blot on humanity”.
Dalits, who occupy the lowest position in the caste system—strictly speaking, outside it altogether—continue to suffer deeply hurtful rejection, violence, poverty and a level of exploitation which often amounts to modern-day slavery. India has a very fine constitution and excellent legislation but, sadly, there is little political will or judicial capacity to enforce the laws. The result is that caste discrimination continues with impunity and its worst excesses culminate in the rape and murder of Dalit girls and women every day. That extreme disparity between a financial elite, and those who can tuck in the slipstream behind them, and the millions who are left far behind—which is such a feature of the world as a whole today—exists in India in extreme form.
According to official Indian crime statistics, more than three Dalit women are raped every day. You may have read of the recent case of the two young Dalit girls, raped and murdered in Uttar Pradesh. Like many in India, they had no access to water or the most basic of sanitation facilities, forcing them to defecate in the open fields. This put them, and millions like them, at risk. However, it was because they were Dalit girls that they were particularly vulnerable and regarded as “fair” targets for the violence meted out against them. This case received global media attention and it is important to note that this was the first time a story about Dalits received such publicity, even though these types of crimes against Dalits happen every day. Until now there has been no public outrage or political will to address them.
That is violence against women, but it is not just women who are subject to such brutality. Another case which reached the world press a couple of weeks ago concerned a boy who allowed his goat to wander on to land owned by a higher-caste family. The boy was murdered on the grounds that he had made the land unclean. What is no less terrible than the crimes themselves is that no action seems to have been taken against the perpetrators, once again highlighting a fundamental aspect of the problem: that although there are good laws in place, they are simply not being enforced when the victims are Dalits because of pressure from the families of the perpetrators. There is a law in place— the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989—but it is simply not being enforced. Implementation and conviction rates are less than 5%, mainly due to the mindset of the general populace, the apathy of the judiciary and lack of political will.
I urge the United Kingdom Government to offer technical assistance to develop the capacity of the judiciary and police to deal more effectively with these crimes against Dalits. In particular, what is needed is, first, to improve accountability through better documentation, investigations and prosecutions, and better legislation implementing international obligations and standards. Secondly, what is needed is greater support and protection for survivors of sexual violence, including children. Thirdly, we need to ensure that the responses to sexual and gender-based violence, and the promotion of gender equality, are fully integrated in the security and justice sector and also in all military and police training.
There is in India a tension-a -paradox that affects the human spirit itself. On the one hand there is the sheer scale of the problem: a country with a population four times the size of America, so much corruption and a political class too often out of touch with how the majority live. This makes it all too easy to despair. Yet the sheer resilience of the Indian poor simply in surviving always staggers me. There is something else too. On one visit with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association a couple of years ago to look at aid projects, the group I was with had a session with some girls who had been able to stay on at school, with the support of a few pence a day which their day labourer fathers could not afford. They had bussed 12 hours to see us, and in their smart uniforms they shared with us their ambitions to be doctors, teachers and politicians. They came from nowhere with nothing, but they had confidence and they had hope. In Rohinton Mistry's devastating novel, A Fine Balance, about the appalling suffering of lower castes in India, one character says:
“You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair”.
Since taking up office, Mr Modi has offered some hope. Traditionally many Dalits, for generation after generation, were allowed to work only as manual scavengers, but last month he launched his Clean India mission to modernise sanitation within five years. He started by trying to change attitudes, and he set a personal example by taking a broom and sweeping up rubbish in a Delhi neighbourhood occupied by members of the Valmiki sub-caste, whose lot in life is traditionally manual scavenging, a euphemism for clearing other people’s faeces. Mr Modi said:
“Often we assume the job of cleaning up belongs to the safai karmacharis and don’t bother to clean”,
and he went on,
“Don’t we all have a duty to clean the country?”.
To drive home his point, he ordered government workers, including his Ministers, to come to work on the Thursday to sweep offices and clean toilets. He made a similar commitment to end poverty and bring the shame of so many rapes to an end.
He has, however, so far as I can find, said nothing on the caste system itself, which is at the root of the problem. The fundamental point is that there is an inescapable connection in India between its massive, degrading poverty and the caste system. The poverty cannot be tackled without facing and dealing with the reality that this poverty affects those at the bottom of the caste system in a totally disproportionate way. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to bring this point home to the Indian Government and to offer help, particularly in strengthening the judiciary.
Recently the impressive Indian space programme sent a spacecraft into orbit around Mars. It was the first country that managed to do so on its first attempt and the first Asian country to achieve that. It has the technical ability and political will to achieve there. It has the technical ability and the skilled human resources to bring clean water and sanitation to millions of people now without these basics, a lack of which makes women in particular so vulnerable to violence. Has it got the political will to do this?
We had a wonderful example recently from the Bikaner district in Rajasthan, where local leadership, getting the whole community activated, actually managed to improve 500 toilets in 10 days, with the villages working themselves. Faecal-related diseases went down from more than 50 a month to one or two. Where there is a will, things can happen.
Mr Modi has said he wants every Indian to have a bank account. However important that may be in the modern world, surely it is not as important as access to clean water and sanitation. Is there a political will to do this? Is there a political will to bring about equal concern and respect for all members of the society? Is there the courage to see that this cannot be done without looking at the way these terrible ills are linked through caste? The world wishes Mr Modi well, and I very much hope that the British Government will strengthen him in his resolve.
My Lords, speaking on this subject gives me no satisfaction whatever because it is a subject that should have been left in the shadows of the history of the 19th century but which we are dealing with only now, in the 21st century.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, this affects men, women and children every single minute of every single day. It is easy to run off the figure of 250 million people, but imagine half the population of the 28 member states of the European Union and then you have something approaching the magnitude of the issue with which we are dealing.
I spoke on this on many occasions in my 15 years in the European Parliament, not only on the petitions committee and the justice and home affairs committee but on the international development committee, and that is where we place that focus today. I will not refer to the cases to which the noble and right reverend Lord has referred. The most recent case is of the goat herder. In all these things, as I said in my maiden speech, we always have to use the power of the imagination: “What if that were me? What if that were my daughter, my mother, my father, my family? Would it be okay?”. If not, it cannot be right for another.
Let me refer to what others have said. The Indian National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights gives the following description of who the Dalits are in the context of caste system in south Asia:
“Historically, the caste system has formed the social and economic framework for the life of the people of India. In its essential form, this caste system involves the division of people into a hierarchy of unequal social groups where basic rights and duties are assigned based on birth”—
these are not my words—
“and are not subject to change. Dalits are ‘outcastes’ falling outside the traditional four classes … Dalits are typically considered low, impure and polluting”—
again, the issue of the goat herder demonstrates that forcefully—
“based on their birth and traditional occupation, thus they face multiple forms of discrimination, violence, and exclusion from the rest of society”.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network, with which I had the privilege and pleasure to work in the European Parliament, lists the following key issues affecting Dalits in the modern day. It is a sad list because it is not academic but a list of that which happens every single day. The list includes:
“Bonded labour in which a person is bonded by a loan advance taken against their work, resulting in a loss of control over labour conditions and terms of work … Violence and inhuman treatment, such as sexual assault, rape, and naked parading, against Dalit women serving as a social mechanism to maintain their subordinate position in society … The forced prostitution of Dalit girls. Originally a sacred, religious practice, the dedication of girls to temples has turned into a systematic sexual abuse of young Dalit girls serving as prostitutes for dominant caste community members and subsequent auctioning into brothels … Discrimination against Dalits in the educational system”—
an education system should be a mechanism to lift people up out of poverty, persecution and discrimination, but within that education system we see,
“segregation … in class rooms and harassment by teachers”.
Then there is manual scavenging—and yes, I will go into what that means. It is,
“a term used to describe the job of removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, buckets and baskets, lined with sacking, carried on the head, which is a caste-based and hereditary occupation for Dalits”.
The list goes on to say that Dalits,
“are often limited from equal and meaningful political participation”,
but I am pleased to see that that is at last changing. Then, of course, there is the,
“non-implementation of constitutional and legislative measures to protect the rights of Dalits”.
It is interesting, as I approach the final canter of this six minutes, to look at what the International Development Committee in the other place proposed. It said:
“India has high levels of inequality—particular castes, tribes, and religious groups do less well than others because of entrenched discriminatory practices and despite laws against such behaviour”—
hence why we need cultural and educational change. They met groups of Dalits,
“including children, who were beginning to challenge social norms”,
but they are not hopeful that these changes will come during the lifetimes of these individuals. The committee encourages DfID to,
“place greater explicit emphasis on tackling inequalities throughout DFID’s programmes”.
That is what I ask the Government to report back on, if they can now. It is vitally important, as the noble and right reverend Lord said, that we deal with capacity building, reforming institutions and the accountability of the police. But at the end of all this, we also have to deal with the tricky notion of religion as an excuse or a reason. No religion can be an excuse or a reason imposed on another—or on 250 million—to diminish them and rob them of their civil liberties and human rights.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for this debate and welcome his contribution. This debate is timely because we now have a new Government and a new Prime Minister in India. The diplomatic isolation of India is over. We in Britain have a long-standing interest in India. Educational, historic, cultural and people-to-people ties have replaced the excesses of colonial empire. With an Indian diaspora of 1.5 million, the link between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracy will continue to flourish.
Let us look at the issue of poverty in the context of the challenges facing India. Sixty per cent of India’s population is below the age of 35. It is estimated that 10 million to 15 million young people enter the labour market each year. India needs to create about 1 million jobs per month to absorb new entrants to the workforce. The industrial sector is crying out for investment and reform, securing income for farmers and rebuilding outdated infrastructure. As the noble and right reverend Lord said, a substantial population still lives below the poverty line.
Despite these challenges, most observers expect India to become the world’s third largest economy by 2030. People’s expectations are great, and Mr Modi has not disappointed them. We have seen clarity in his vision on domestic matters. Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech on 15 August set out his vision on governance, which included a plea for a united, selfless, skilled and peaceful India. He expressed his concern about rape, equality and the safety of women and girls. He took the momentous occasion of the Independence Day of India on 15 August to make this speech to a large gathering. It was reported right across the length and breadth of India. He also talked about the devolution of power and control which would result in more economic liberalisation and less central control. He launched his flagship programme aimed at tackling poverty by ending financial untouchability. He said:
“Economic resources of the country should be utilised for the wellbeing of the poor”.
So we now have a champion in Mr Modi, who has risen from a humble beginning, from a lower caste, to the top of the political structure in India.
Let me now turn to caste discrimination. We abhor discrimination of any kind based on race, colour or national or ethnic origin. This equally applies to gender discrimination or discrimination based on sexual orientation and disability. Discrimination based on caste is unacceptable. India has a powerful human rights commission and an impressive record of how it treats such issues. I have been there, and I have seen how it acts on issues referred to it. India also has a powerful judiciary, which, unlike in any other country in the world, often challenges the lack of action by the legislators, which is a remarkable achievement. I have no doubt that concerted efforts by the new Government, the judiciary, the human rights commission and the new generation of the young educated class will challenge centuries-old traditions in India.
The rights of minorities are protected under India’s constitution. Let me remind noble Lords that this was well before this country even thought of race relations or equality legislation. There is already machinery in place. I accept that whether it is effective is something we should be looking at, but the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 deal with untouchability, atrocities, national overseas scholarships for scheduled caste and scheduled tribes candidates and a number of other initiatives designed as positive action leading towards equality of opportunity for all citizens. The 1989 Act clearly defines what needs to be done in any case where the practice of untouchability is noticed.
I am further encouraged by Prime Minister Modi’s statement on Independence Day. He said:
“Even after Independence, we have had to face the poison of casteism and communalism. How long these evils will continue? Whom does it benefit? We have had enough of fights, many have been killed. Friends, look behind you and you will find that nobody has benefited from it. Except casting a slur on Mother India, we have done nothing. Therefore, I appeal to all those people that whether it is the poison of casteism, communalism, regionalism, discrimination on social and economic basis, all these are obstacles in our way forward”.
There is recognition at the highest level of the evil of caste discrimination. There is the legislative framework to tackle such practices in India. The barriers of caste are breaking down in the new generations of Indians emerging with better education and social responsibility. In Britain, we have moved away from the old values of compartmentalising communities based on caste. Generations have grown up over the years who see no obstacles to crossing the caste divide. We must remember that any time we deny anyone equality of opportunity based on any grounds, we weaken our own claims to have a fair and just society.
My Lords, no one has done more to keep the issues of caste, untouchability and the Dalits before your Lordships’ House than my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth. Earlier this year I was very privileged, as I feel I am again today, to share a platform with him at a conference here in London that looked at the issue of caste.
To prepare for that conference, I read Dhananjay Keer’s admirable biography of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was the architect of the Indian constitution, which the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, just referred to. He was born into a family of untouchables in 1891, and he said:
“Untouchability is far worse than slavery, for the latter may be abolished by statute. It will take more than a law to remove the stigma from the people of India. Nothing less than the aroused opinion of the world can do it”.
In the speeches we have heard already in this debate, we have heard the aroused conscience of the world. No one, therefore, is attacking the state of India. It has done a great deal to try to address this question. My noble and right reverend friend quoted Dr Manmohan Singh, and many illustrious Indian politicians have done their best to try to tackle this problem, but the sheer scale of it is what has struck me most in the contributions we have heard so far.
It was Ambedkar who, while still a young man, aged just 20, pointed to perhaps the best way forward in dealing with this issue. He said:
“Let your mission be to educate and preach the idea of education to those at least who are near to and in close contact with you”.
As other noble Lords have said, education is the key to addressing the poverty and exploitation of Dalits in India. Education provides the knowledge, skills and qualifications that have the potential to help Dalits escape the cycle of poverty and exploitation.
The Indian Government have made considerable efforts to address this, not least through the right to education Act 2009, and initiatives such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aims for universal access and retention, the bridging of gender and social gaps in education and the enhancement of learning levels. Enrolment, attendance and retention levels have improved, but there are still significant issues around attendance and drop-out rates, particularly among Dalit children. The Human Rights Watch report, “They Say We’re Dirty”: Denying an Education to India’s Marginalized, which was published earlier this year, highlights the number of Dalit children who drop out of education and the persistence of discriminatory practices in the classroom. The report calls for better tracking of pupils and greater efforts to ensure social inclusion.
I will develop that point about non-attendance at school because it plays into the arguments that we are discussing in the context of the Modern Slavery Bill and human trafficking. The economic pressure on marginalised groups gives families little choice but to require their children to work or even in some instances in effect to sell their children. Dalit Freedom Network, a trafficking prevention organisation, estimates that Dalits are 27 times more likely to be trafficked or to be trapped in bonded labour than anyone else in India. The organisation supports 100 schools, providing education to more than 25,000 children, mainly from the Dalit and tribal communities. It estimates that if the children were not in their schools, some 30% to 40% would be trafficked or in bonded labour.
Although enrolment levels have improved in Indian schools, there are still issues around obtaining school places, particularly where there is an insistence on identity documents. Some Dalits have had immense difficulty in getting hold of ID. There is a particular issue around children of Devadasis or Joginis—temple prostitutes—almost all of whom are Dalits. The nature of this practice means that their mothers do not have husbands, so when the school insists on having the name of the child’s father, the children are unable to provide this, and as a result, they are refused places. The authorities also need to focus not simply on enrolment but on retention of every child in school until at least the age of 14. A system to track and monitor children is essential, along with a protocol for identifying those who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.
Although current thinking in development often calls for education in the local language—and I will be interested to hear from the Minister on DfID’s thinking about this—there are particular reasons why Dalit leaders have asked for English-medium education. English is still the language of opportunity in India. It is the language of higher education, government, trade and commerce and the legal system. Why else would children of high-caste families be sent to have private English-medium education? In the district of Banka, Bihar, the Dalit community has constructed a temple for,
“the Goddess English hailing her as a deity of liberation from poverty, ignorance and oppression”.
The goddess stands on a computer monitor, a symbol perhaps of economic advancement. I would be intrigued to hear from the Minister whether this is an approach that we are supporting. I hope it is.
I would also like to talk briefly about Dalits and the freedom of religion and belief. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that it is the right of anyone to hold the religion of their choice. Over the past several hundred years, many Dalits have changed their faith in order to come out of oppression and discrimination based on caste. Ironically, only untouchable Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are considered “scheduled castes” and therefore registered castes with entitlements to state support, such as protective mechanisms under various pieces of legislation and quotas for places at university and for employment in government services. Freedom of religion is a value for society as a whole. It is universally agreed that the internal dimension of a person’s religion or belief should enjoy absolute protection. Have the Government spoken with the new Indian Government about whether they uphold Article 18?
Mahatma Gandhi said,
“Our struggle does not end so long as there is a single human being considered untouchable on account of his birth”.
India is incredible and amazing. It is one of the greatest countries in the world today. What is amazing and incredible is that there could still be untouchability, now, in the 21st century.
My Lords, I am conscious that I stand among people whose knowledge of this subject is far greater and more specific than my own. I will not detain your Lordships long.
The multifaceted nature of India as a country has been well referred to, on both the positive and the negative side. What impresses one about India is that a problem is always a big problem, even if we are talking about a small percentage of the total population. It worries me that the United Nations continues to point the finger at India in terms of its—shall we say—patchy record on poverty, dispossession, injustice and the rest of it, as I read in a report in yesterday’s newspaper. The worry for me is that when the figures are broken down, we see how disproportionately the suffering of all these injustices falls upon those who have few rights and a low place in society.
I am very glad that Mr Modi’s inaugural address has been referred to. As I understand from reading it very quickly, a big emphasis was placed on improving sanitation. The word appears many times. Sanitation of itself is not going to solve the problem. It might cleanse the situations where the scavenging and the rest of it is done, but unless those who do the scavenging have entitlements to good homes, access to education and the possibility of flourishing and developing, that of itself will not do much good. Mr Modi is not the first-high ranking Indian politician to make promises or commitments.
Nor is India without its statutes on the statute book promising progress in this area—the 1989 Act has been referred to. The problem seems to be a lack of will to enforce the legislation that exists. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, suggested that we ask Her Majesty’s Government to put pressure on the Indian authorities to support and perhaps to force those who implement law in India to actually apply the law that exists. I think that would go a long way towards progress in this area.
I began my life not scavenging in the same sense but scavenging on tips, crawling over refuse and picking it up in order that I and my family might survive—not excrement or anything like that, so I cannot say that it is in the same league. I simply know that dignity for me came through the educational path that was opened up for me. I can only hope that in India there will be a real concentration of effort to open these doorways of opportunity to people who are trapped outside the caste system. That is what we have to remember about the Dalits. The problem is not that they are lower caste; it is that they have no caste at all and therefore no position in society. It is the proportion of people in Indian society who suffer in this way that concerns me, as well as the fact that no action seems to be taken to implement legislation that is already on the statute book. I feel that it is legitimate to ask Her Majesty’s Government to put what pressure they can on the Indian Government to look at these areas in order that we might have measurable outcomes in the years to come.
It is very important for us to recognise that the Dalit question is not limited to India. There is a diasporic presence of Dalits in the West—not as much as in the East but at least a significant presence—and the vulnerability of Dalits, as people without caste, to things such as trafficking, slavery, bonded labour and so on is a concern for all of us. Therefore, we should not limit our attention to the Indian Government, but wherever this problem exists, we should address it.
The question of religion has been raised; indeed, three of us here have known religious affiliations. I think the last thing that any of us would want is for us to be heard, as members of the Christian faith, pointing the finger at people of another faith. I do not think that it is a question of faith at all. Certainly, I do not think that the Christian community is free of involvement in the problem that we are discussing, and we should recognise that.
It is a question of caste. We live in a class-ridden society and we are looking at a caste-ridden society. People who are trapped, without the possibility of escaping from what entraps them, are people all of us should stand behind. The equalities that we proclaim here in this country that break people out of being bound by class are the equalities that we should espouse and adumbrate for people, wherever they may be, who seek to break out of the caste system. I can only hope that this short debate will sharpen our minds and strengthen our wills to work for a world where class and caste are a thing of the past.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for initiating this debate on poverty and the caste system in India. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, it is a timely discussion. However, I would like to point out that the theme of the debate is in fact global, because, in one form or another, poverty affects people everywhere. The scale may vary but the poor are poor, whether they are in the back streets of New York or the slums of Mumbai. Furthermore, if we stretch the argument a bit and think of the feudal system that prevails openly or latently, we will find a very rigid class system in many parts of the world. It is unfortunate that the caste system, which originated in India over 2,000 years ago for categorising people according to their vocations, degenerated over the years to become a basis for discrimination.
The despicable stranglehold of caste and poverty now seems to be loosening in India. The fight-back by both the young and the Government appears to be succeeding. The Government have made discrimination due to caste a punishable offence. Young people under 35 make up 65% of India’s 1.25 billion people. They are aspirational, ambitious and determined to achieve. More and more young and educated men and women are working long hours together in offices and they least bother about caste differences. This is happening in larger numbers in urban areas, especially the metros, where they are breaking caste boundaries.
This awareness and financial freedom have encouraged people to break the boundaries around castes. It will take time, but with an increasing number of Dalits and Backwards getting education and special facilities for employment and business, they have begun to occupy high posts and many have done very well as entrepreneurs and have become millionaires. Their ranks are swelling: from Backwards and Dalits, India has had a President, a Speaker, a Chief Justice of India and a Chief Minister. The discriminations are disappearing and there has likewise been a fast decline in poverty.
The policies of the Modi Government have given hope that poverty will be eradicated faster. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has said that he would help the poor to earn, which would lift them out of poverty and give them dignity. The easing of FDI, the development of an economic atmosphere and facilities that encourage investors to come back, and the Make in India programme would create a huge number of jobs. Then the adoption of villages by MPs and the corporate sector, as well as the scheme to provide villages with all the urban facilities, would motivate the rural youth to strive and do well. The CLEAN-India programme would set up toilets in each village. India is within striking distance of ridding itself of the two horrible curses.
As noble Lords can see, I am from India originally. I go there quite often and I can give the Committee a practical example. At the village school where I started my education, there were only 245 students five years ago. Out of them, there were very few girls. My charity refurbished the school, putting in toilets and fresh drinking water. Today, the school is educating 550 students, out of which one-third are girls, so things are moving in the right direction. We need time and I think that, once these two horrible curses are finished, caste and poverty will be history.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this debate. India, as we have heard, is the largest democracy in the world, with a population of over 1.2 billion, and an emerging global power. It became a middle-income country in 2008 and, while it has made incredible progress in recent times in lifting millions out of poverty, the gap between the haves and the have-nots remains huge. Caste, ethnicity and feudalism remain strong drivers of inequality.
Fifteen years ago there were only two dollar billionaires in India; today there are 46. The total net worth of India’s billionaire community has climbed from about 1% of GDP to 12%, yet India spends less than 4% of GDP on the important areas of education and health. More than half of all children drop out of school before the age of 14, and the majority of those are female. Almost 12% of children between five and 15 are identified as child labour and there are about 2.4 million people living with HIV and AIDS. As we have heard, India is still home to one-third of the world’s people living below $1.25—that is 80p—a day and the average income is one-third that of China. The disparity between India’s states is significant, too; eight of them are home to 65% of India’s poor. Poverty reduction in these states remains critical to global success in meeting the MDGs.
In November 2012, the Secretary of State for International Development announced that from that point the UK would approve no new financial grant aid to India. What assessment has been made of the impact of DfID’s efforts to responsibly complete by 2015 all commitments to ongoing projects? Will the Minister update the House on those programmes, which have been focused on the poorest people in India’s low-income states, such as Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the post-2015 framework specifically tackles economic and other inequalities within countries through goals, targets and other mechanisms?
As the debate has highlighted, poverty in India is not just economic; it is also linked to social factors. The Dalit community suffers serious deep abuse and discrimination, as we have heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. As we have also heard, despite positive government action and constitutional safeguards, excluded groups, when attempting to access their rights, often face a serious backlash, human rights violations and increasing atrocities amid a culture of impunity. As this debate has highlighted, it is not just about whether we have the laws; it is about whether those laws are implemented and complied with and whether people who break them can get away with it. I stress that point to the Minister.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, the clock has now started again, so I will be quick. As today’s debate has strongly highlighted, it is not just about stronger laws; it is about implementation and compliance.
As I am talking about laws, I personally am sad that there is still no word on why India cannot rid itself of colonial laws that make homosexuality illegal. I hope that the Government can continue to make representations on that issue.
We have also heard in this debate about the diaspora community in the UK and the close relationship between India as the biggest democracy and the UK as the oldest. That also means that the issues that we have been debating today, particularly caste discrimination, relate to us in this country as well. They exist in this country—hence this House agreeing last year to add caste, as an aspect of race, to the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010.
I know that this is going slightly beyond the remit of this debate, but it is incredibly relevant. In May 2014, the Government announced that the first of the public consultations outlawing caste-based discrimination had been delayed until autumn this year. We are now nearing the end of autumn; for some of us it is well past the end. I know that it is not necessarily the responsibility of the noble Baroness, but I would be grateful if the Government would let us know when we can expect to see this consultation. How long can it be delayed? That concludes my remarks.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for calling this debate. We all know that this is something he cares passionately about and he has, as ever, introduced the debate with great authority. The noble and right reverend Lord rightly stresses the achievements and potential of India but he also flags the vulnerability of those—especially Dalits—at the very edge of society there despite, as he said, the legislation in place which should protect them. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, we recognise the enormous contribution made by Dr Ambedkar in this regard. We also recognise that laws do not necessarily change societies, as various noble Lords, including the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Alton, pointed out.
We noted that development through good governance was a central plank of Prime Minister Modi’s election campaign. My noble friend Lord Dholakia laid out the Prime Minister’s platform very clearly. After the announcement of the election results, in his acceptance speech to his party, Mr Modi promised a “government for the poor” working for the,
“security of the mothers and sisters, those in the rural areas, oppressed and the deprived”.
In his Independence Day speech in August, to which my noble friend Lord Dholakia also referred, Prime Minister Modi went on to say that there were only two tracks to take the country forward: good governance and development. We welcome the focus he made on ending caste and communal violence in India. Prime Minister Modi has also announced a scheme for financial and insurance services for the poor in India to try to bring them in.
However, in spite of India’s unprecedented levels of economic growth in recent years, significant challenges on poverty reduction remain, as noble Lords have made extremely clear. Statistics on caste discrimination show that these groups, particularly Dalit households, continue to perform worse than others. For example, mortality rates for Dalit children are 50% higher than those for children born in other families. Only one out of three Dalit girls completes five years of schooling compared to half in other communities.
This is not to say that the position of Dalits is static. Shifts in occupational patterns from agricultural wage labour to the non-agricultural sector can be seen and the proportion of the Dalit population owning productive assets has increased. My noble friend Lord Loomba notes the huge progress that he has personally seen. Changes in discriminatory social and cultural norms, such as taboos on eating with Dalits, have been achieved through hard fought struggles by civil society groups committed to promoting equality. Mr Modi has also added more Dalit Ministers and ensured balanced representation for other castes, communities and states.
Mr Modi has also promised a number of other encouraging moves. He promised to stabilise prices and kick-start growth through a focus on infrastructure and investment, focus on labour-intensive sectors, medium, small and micro-enterprises and skills development and to raise education sector expenditure, while focusing on quality vocational and higher education. He also stated that he wants to achieve universal healthcare through an insurance route and promised to create 100 new cities, with a focus on corridors, transport, housing and sanitation—quite a programme, as noble Lords would agree.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, as well as my noble friend Lord Loomba, flagged the link between open defecation and danger, especially for women. Again, it is excellent that Mr Modi has launched the Clean India campaign to ensure that every home and school has a lavatory by 2019. He rightly emphasised the need to have lavatories for women and girls for their safety and well-being. The noble and right reverend Lord highlighted the terrible case of the two Dalit girls and their lack of safety in having to go out to a defecation field.
In India, DfID is deeply committed to ending all forms of marginalisation, as we are everywhere. Like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, we recognise that ending poverty cannot be achieved without tackling issues of social exclusion, gender discrimination and equitable access to entitlements. The position of women has caused concern to many noble Lords, and rightly so. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia noted, in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Modi raised the issues of tackling violence against women and girls and of engaging boys and men to change stubborn social norms that perpetuate violence and discrimination. It is timely to note this today, as it is the second of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, concluding on Wednesday 10 December with International Human Rights Day. Preventing violence against women is a top priority for the UK Government and DfID, and we are leading that campaign to combat violence against women and girls internationally. DfID works with the Government of India and other partners to ensure the delivery of services to all, with sufficient quality, strengthening the voice of marginalised people and promoting better accountability to them.
The noble and right reverend Lord raised a series of questions about technical assistance, the judiciary and the police, survivors of sexual violence and gender more generally. Our Poorest Areas Civil Societies programme aims to break discriminatory practices that prevent access to rights. I saw this in practice in Bhopal, where Dalit women, in particular, were being moved out of manual scavenging, very much encouraged by their children, who saw it as unacceptable. They encouraged their mothers to move into other work as it was opened up for them.
The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, spoke passionately of social norms and inequalities. Those social norms are exactly what DfID seeks to challenge, not least, of course, in relation to women and girls. Tackling inequalities that underlie poverty is precisely what DfID is all about.
The noble and right reverend Lord flagged up the judiciary and the police. DfID and the Indian Government are working together to strengthen accountability so that people are aware of and can claim their full rights. I hope that he is reassured by the work that is happening there.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, spoke about the need to ensure that the law is implemented. One of the things that DfID is working on is ensuring that people, especially those in the Dalit community, know what their legal rights are. We have supported civil society groups to educate Dalits as well as influencing the judiciary and the police. Again, I hope that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is reassured.
In terms of violence against women and girls, noble Lords probably know that we are conducting a widespread approach to this subject, evaluating and researching what works best. I have just come back from a meeting where the South African Medical Research Council is taking forward some of this research. It was very striking to note the differences between the various continents. The type of gender violence that prevails in India is much more focused on intimate partner violence and differs in many ways from that in Africa. We need to understand how best to tackle all these challenges, including the role of alcohol as a catalyst, which seems to be significant in both areas.
Noble Lords rightly emphasised education. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will be extremely familiar with the Odisha girls’ incentive programme, which I think he saw when he visited India. We have been supporting Dalit girls and boys but have especially been trying to ensure that girls attend school through the use of cash scholarships. The programme will be continued by the Government of India. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who wants to make sure that these programmes continue. Cash scholarships are conditional on 75% attendance, and they have proved to be quite transformative in terms of ensuring that girls are in school. They do not just start school; they go all the way through so that they can move on to secondary school.
The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, asked about the justice system. On 31 March the UK high commissioner and a former Chief Justice of India launched two publications on advice to the victims of sexual violence and for those who need support through the criminal justice system. I think that it was the noble Lord who asked about that, but certainly the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, did.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion. We speak out in relation to specific incidents, and we make it clear to Governments that longer-term structural change is required for religious toleration. Perhaps I may come back again to the point that we are continuing our engagement. One of the things we are certainly doing is engaging in terms of LGBT rights. I can vouch for that because when I was in India in March, it was one area that we were very concerned about. I can talk to the noble Lord afterwards about the Supreme Court decision, what happened, and why. We are very concerned that progress should continue to be made in this area.
In terms of what we are doing as we move on from grant aid, which was a small proportion of the contribution to India, although it was not insignificant, we are concentrating on technical support. Over the years, and not least in the time of the Labour Government, I have seen how technical support can transform what the Indian Government can access, particularly in terms of HIV/AIDS. We are working extremely hard to make sure that programmes that we have in place will be taken forward either by state or national Governments. Again, I can vouch for the work going into that.
We all recognise the huge potential of India. All noble Lords have expressed their recognition of this and their hope for the future, but all noble Lords also recognise the challenges that India faces in ensuring that, indeed, no one is left behind. We welcome Prime Minister Modi’s statements and we look forward to our future partnership. It is in no one’s interests for India to be other than a progressive and inclusive society.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure adequate flood defences in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, given the appalling weather that many people experienced at the weekend, this is a more timely debate than I could have anticipated when I submitted the Question some weeks ago. It does, however, bring into sharp focus the need for adequate flood defences throughout the United Kingdom. I do not pretend that I need them in my house, but my cellar was a swimming pool at the weekend. Crucially, to be effective, these controls must be part of a long-term strategic plan that recognises the needs of local communities.
Flood warnings are no longer a rarity. Those red hazard triangles are now a regular feature of our weather forecasts and rising global temperatures mean that we can expect more of the same in the future. Only this month, the National Audit Office warned that,
“climate change means that the weather is becoming more unpredictable, leading to increased risk of severe weather events”.
Indeed, in 2012 the Government’s risk assessment reported that changes in the global climate would significantly increase flood risk for our country. Yet despite this knowledge, they have been responsible for slashing funding for flood protection by nearly £100 million, a real-terms cut of 17%.
In practice, this means that hundreds of flood defence schemes are currently on hold, three-quarters are not being maintained as they should and half are receiving only minimal maintenance. It leaves some places, for example Great Yarmouth, which has the highest number of homes at real risk of flooding, even more vulnerable. The independent Committee on Climate Change, whose adaptation sub-committee is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has made it clear that the current level of government support for managing flooding will result in 80,000 more properties being at significant risk.
Ministers knew that the possibility of flooding during this Parliament was more likely, but still they decided to cut budgets. Unfortunately, last winter, as record levels of rain fell across the UK, we saw exactly the sort of consequences one would expect: around 7,700 homes and 3,200 businesses were affected; 49,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded; and rail, road, air and sea travel was severely disrupted. Some of the worst-affected areas were in the south-west of England, an area I know the Minister knows well, particularly in the county of Somerset, when the River Parrett burst its banks causing havoc to homes and businesses in the nearby towns and villages. The clear-up operation was slow, to say the least, and only after the water subsided did the Government turn their attention to dredging.
When Parliament broke for the Summer Recess, just £403,000 had been paid out to Somerset farmers, and only £2,320 to fishermen in the south-west, from the original £10 million pledged—so much for the Prime Minister’s assertion that “money is no object”. Not only this, but the Somerset Levels flood action plan, which will put necessary flood defences in place, and which is very welcome, continues to be surrounded by uncertainty. The 20-year strategy requires government investment of £100 million, yet only a third of that has been promised. Considering the Environment Agency’s estimate that every pound invested in flood defences saves the country an average of £8 in flood damage, this is deeply troubling and does not seem to make economic sense. When he responds, will the Minister give clear answers on how and where funding has been and will be allocated in the south-west?
Of course, it was not just the south-west that was impacted or that looks set to continue to have problems. In Worcester, an area very close to me, budgets for flood defences have been cut by 33%. Many, including local expert Mary Dhonau,
“don’t know how on earth Worcestershire will cope with this reduction”.
These examples show what happens when you have a blinkered approach to flood defence management. Not only do we need an immediate strategy to protect the 5.2 million homes at risk of flooding, but the nature of the risk demands that we also have a long-term plan. That is what the last Labour Government put in place, and it is exactly what the current Government have scrapped. After the severe floods in 2007, there was a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle flooding as all political parties signed up to the Pitt review and subsequent spending plans. David Cameron has, however, gone back on these commitments. Indeed, he appointed as his Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, whose views on Europe could be described as misguided and on climate change as quite frankly dangerous as, time and again, he questioned its scientific basis. Not only did he reduce domestic funding for climate adaptation by 40%, but he removed preparing for and managing risk from flooding from Defra’s priorities. This is highly significant because it makes it far more difficult to think strategically about issues or to adapt to long-term trends. Those areas that might not be as susceptible to severe flooding at present, but may be in the future, are being exposed. We can already see evidence of this happening, in Stevenage for example.
This is an area that is not generally prone to flooding, but Hertfordshire County Council has reduced gully and highway maintenance. In September this year, when Stevenage suffered heavy rains, three areas in the town were badly flooded and residents are still out of their homes. To add to their problems, the complexity of the system means that those who are affected do not know who is accountable at a time when, as I am sure the Minister agrees, clarity is paramount. Thanks to a government approach gone wrong, short-sightedness has led to nothing more than pain.
I am sure that in the Minister’s response he will refer to the additional £270 million of funding. However, it was not additional funding. Even after you add it to the total spending on flood defence and management, areas such as the south-west, Great Yarmouth and Worcester were still left short. The point is that the money was allocated after the flooding took place and, as the National Audit Office so succinctly put it:
“As a rule, our experience is that ad hoc emergency spending is less good value than sustained maintenance”.
We know that when you invest, it works. It serves for the long term. A few years ago there were terrible floods in Gloucester and the electricity station was in danger. My Government invested and, despite mighty rains, the station and the surrounding houses, which used to be flooded, have since been safe. We are in danger of going backwards. The next Labour Government will reprioritise long-term preventive spending that will reduce flood risk, as well as establish an independent national infrastructure commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, including flood defences. This not only recognises the threat that climate change poses to communities across the country, it also puts people at its core.
If we invest, if we engage, if we support, not only can we save money in the long term, we can also ensure that people can live safe in the knowledge that their homes and families are protected. Surely that is the most important role that any Government can play.
My Lords, I declare an interest as I have recently taken on a chairmanship at Buckthorn Partners, a partnership which identifies and seeks to make investments in the mining, oil and gas services and water industries. Our main objective is to invest in clean and used water technologies with applications in the Middle East, for example in desalination-driven markets and in countries facing drought and water shortages, such as Saudi Arabia. This may seem a far cry from the subject of our debate—flood defences—and it is, as we have made no investments in the UK water industry and certainly not in flood protection. However, I adhere strongly to the principle that if there might be construed to be any doubt over a declaration of interest, then declare, declare, declare.
This week sees the culmination of a series of events reflecting on the 25 years since water privatisation, the original Bill for which I was ministerially responsible during its parliamentary stage in another place. There are good reasons for celebration. Both parties have subsequently worked closely together to ensure that one of the principal objectives of the Bill, that of ensuring that the water companies gained access to long-term capital markets to make the substantial necessary investments required of the sector, was achieved. The separation of functions in the industry between the National Rivers Authority and the industry recognised the need to ensure that the gamekeeper did not have the opportunity to turn poacher. Emphasis was placed on the equally important requirement for long-term investment in flood defences. Subsequently, with increasing rather than decreasing all-party consensus as the ideological divide over the original privatisation dissipated, a great deal of further work has been undertaken by Governments of both political complexions.
On the question of adequate flood defences, I would argue that the issue is not how much investment is made, but how effective that investment is. Only this year, the hard work of my noble friend the Minister paid off when the House recognised and acted upon the fact that water resources were under significant pressure in parts of the United Kingdom and water supply constraints were predicted to spread in the future. The need to secure future investment was realised and the importance of resisting considerable upward pressure on water bills recognised. In all aspects of the water industry, the key issue is the quality of investment programmes and this is nowhere more so than in flood defences and measures to combat coastal erosion. In that context, my noble friend Lord Deben has done outstanding work on the protection and strengthening of coastal defences, particularly on the east coast. The Minister has achieved his aim of delivering more resilient water supplies and, in the context of water management and flood protection, a new flood insurance scheme for domestic properties and a new duty for the regulator to focus on the long-term resilience of water supplies.
Consumers, with their concerns echoing in the press, simply and effectively amplified by dramatic photography, cannot understand why we apparently move from damaging floods and excess rain to drought orders in a matter of months. They rightly look to Government to provide adequate investment in flood defences, a strategy to conserve water in the summer months, and a national plan of reservoir management to safeguard this most required commodity for our survival. One reason why the Minister needed to make progress on the Water Bill a year ago was to give time to establish a new insurance scheme for those in areas of high flood risk to secure affordable insurance cover. That progress is being made on the introduction of Flood Re is to the significant credit of the Minister and his team. I would be grateful if he could update noble Lords on the precise level of progress being made.
The scale of the problem was not only one for the much publicised Somerset Levels and the countryside. It is important to place on record the impact of the 2013-14 floods here in our capital city. As cited in the evidence from London councils at the time, floods can clearly devastate the economy of our high streets, many of which contain SMEs and charity shops. They are affected by damage not just to property but also to stock, and it can take a long time to recover. The flood hazard and risk maps published by the Environment Agency just under a year ago show that more than 166,000 non-residential properties are at risk of flooding in the Thames area, nearly 76,000 of which are in London.
The broader challenge is to ensure we have coherent policies in place to cope with the inevitable effects if we do not address the need for adequate flood defences, and so I would ask the Minister to consider the following points when he comes to answer this debate. How far have the recommendations of the Pitt review, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, been implemented, and in particular progress on flood forecasting? How prepared are we for future floods and how effective does he estimate our current level of flood defences to be? Will he give an update on his assessment of the effectiveness and life expectancy of the Thames Barrier? Have we increased the number of specialist flood rescue teams on standby, as promised, and whether the record levels of capital investment in projects on his watch are, in his view, effective and adequately audited for their effectiveness?
I conclude by picking up on the important subject of the Somerset Levels raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. The Levels pose a unique challenge and I ask the Minister to give due consideration to introducing a new legislative framework for the area. I have long believed that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Authority, formed under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, in which I declare an interest having taken the Bill through another place, has been an important example of a special statutory authority managing an area and thus affording a level of co-operation and protection similar to a national park. I believe it may be an appropriate model for the Somerset Levels and I would ask Ministers to give it due consideration in the future.
I conclude with the observation that the key to avoiding widespread damage to property from flooding is co-operation between the agencies, effective investment and flood prevention and asset resilience through regular and sustained maintenance, and investment in our flood defence assets and watercourses. Such measures are always preferable to clean-ups. I hope the Minister will be able to throw more light on the important issues raised in this debate and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, on having secured this timely opportunity, as we head into winter, for parliamentary consideration of the level of adequate flood defences throughout the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, for securing this debate. Flooding and its long-term effects is a subject dear to my heart and one from which the local community in Somerset has not fully recovered following last year’s appalling weather, which has been referred to by other noble Lords. Everyone saw on their television screens the effects on the communities of the Somerset Levels and surrounding villages. Night after night, week after week, we saw images of homes flooded and of people cut off from schools, shops, jobs and communities.
We saw the sterling work of the fire brigade and their boats in rescuing and ferrying people to and from their homes to safety. We witnessed innumerable visits from dignitaries, high-ranking officials, party leaders and others as they went on fact-finding missions, offered words of sympathy and promised metaphorical jam tomorrow. Government and local councils, submerged—forgive the pun—by the welter of publicity surrounding them, announced initiative after initiative in response to the call to do something. Sadly, this then became part of the problem and not necessarily the solution.
There was money from Defra, the DCLG, the Environment Agency, LEPs, county councils, district councils and others, some of which was targeted at flood alleviation and relief, and some at mitigating the financial impact on residents and businesses. While this was welcomed and well intentioned, it was confusing because residents especially were not sure which fund they were supposed to apply to for relief and sometimes they did not qualify for one fund but did for another. It was all very confusing at a time of great stress. I hope that in future there will be greater clarity.
In Somerset, all the agencies worked together and produced a flood action plan. I do not share the misgivings and pessimism of the noble Baroness about that. This was published in February 2014, having been given a very tight timetable by central government. This was an extensive piece of work and covered both soft and hard measures to secure alleviation of the effects of flooding. This area of Somerset is never going to be entirely free from flooding. It is a given by the very nature of the area. However, mitigation is key.
There were six objectives in the flood action plan: reduce the frequency, depth and duration of flooding; maintain access for communities and businesses; increase resilience to flooding for families, agriculture, businesses, communities and wildlife; make the most of the special characteristics of the Somerset Levels and moors; ensure strategic transport connectivity, both within Somerset and through the county to the south-west peninsula; and promote business confidence and growth. This was a very big ask after such devastation. However, work has continued and the progress update in September showed that much had been achieved against targets and more work should be completed shortly.
The first eight kilometres of the Tone and Parrett rivers have now been dredged by the Environment Agency—a long overdue measure—and the capacity of the King’s Sedgemoor Drain is to be increased. Somerset County Council will undertake appropriate roadworks to allow the river Sowy channel to be widened and will install locking gates on roads that regularly flood to prevent drivers becoming stranded. The construction of a barrier or sluice at Bridgwater will be speeded up, with the objective of achieving delivery by 2024. That sounds a long way off but it is a big project.
The newly established Somerset rivers board will have greater control and responsibility for work to maintain and improve water management on the Levels and moors. This is a key step forward. It is essential that those on the ground who know the area and have done so for many years are the ones who should take control and ownership of what happens. Only then will we see sustainable solutions coming forward.
Community resilience will also be important in future years. In Moorland, hundreds of volunteers from all over the country arrived to assist local residents. Such were their numbers, they completely overwhelmed local agencies. At the time, there was no system in place for dealing with the numbers and no structures to ensure that their time and energy were used to best effect. The Somerset Emergency Volunteers, under the auspices of the South Somerset Association for Voluntary and Community Action and in conjunction with local district councils, came to the rescue. Everyone in the area owes a great debt of gratitude both to the volunteers who arrived in such numbers to help and to the SSVCA for organising that help so efficiently.
Last Monday evening, South Somerset District Council held a flooding reassurance meeting for all those who had been affected. More than 100 people turned up. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the Environment Agency team and its illustrations, which clearly and simply explained how the water on the Levels and moors was managed and where the key trigger points were for operating pumps and sluices, to prevent widespread flooding beyond the system’s originally designed capacity. All this is good news, but it will not solve the problem by a long way.
In his Statement in the other place on 6 March this year, the Secretary of State reported that 7,000 properties across England had been flooded during the winter. On 30 October, in answer to a Written Question, the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded that £3.2 billion would have been spent on flood defences over the course of this Parliament, compared to £2.7 billion over the previous five years, and that since 2010, the level of protection had been improved to more than 165,000 households. It seems as though the problem is being given a high priority, but I worry that the money available will be put into hard construction solutions, instead of softer measures, such as dredging. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on how this money will be allocated and spent.
My Lords, the Moses Room is an appropriate room for this debate: maybe we should just part the waters. Seriously, as money is short while the dangers of flooding and water mismanagement are rising, rather than going for more and more expensive government infrastructure projects, commercial solutions, more research and lengthy reports, Her Majesty’s Government would do well to turn to already tried and tested, successful community methods of river and water control. There are very simple measures that can be taken now and do not cost a lot of money. They are not high-tech interventions, but they improve the catchment capacity by working with the community on simple measures.
There are several case studies in which solutions to flooding were achieved at low cost. There are many other flood-risk areas where such measures would equally apply. I compliment the Government on the work that has already been done, but there seems to be a great opportunity of implementing these measures more through local communities at low cost. In the village of Belford, in Northumberland, the Government estimated a £2 million cost of preventing the village from flooding using high-level engineering solutions. The actual cost of building a local, simple intervention in the landscape was less than £150,000 and the village now has the lowest incidence of flooding in its history. Moreover, last year at Holnicote in Somerset, the National Trust spent just £160,000 building such a community intervention, using natural flood management from the source of the river right down to the sea. The Environment Agency says that this protected £30 million of assets from the consequences of flooding last year.
Preventable soil-compaction events—due to basic lack of understanding or responsibility—could be averted at minimal cost by liaising with landowners on keeping their topsoil fertile and uncompacted. Runoff from grazed watershed has been shown to be 30% greater than that from ungrazed watershed. In the cases where this has worked, community action by farmers, land managers, the Environment Agency, local government and residents has led to very simple measures being taken, such as buffer strips, bunds and other soil retention techniques. These have slowed the flow sufficiently to protect downstream areas from serious flooding events and retained the fertile topsoil in the area, rather than washing it away into the sea downstream.
In 2011, Defra commissioned a study on 25 catchment management solutions such as these. The findings proved that catchment-based planning was successful and viable financially. Its recommendations included the following:
“Recognising that the costs of the Catchment Based Approach are low compared to the benefits generated, there is a compelling case for the wider adoption of the approach in England … Catchment groups should be allowed to develop their objectives and approach based on the needs of the catchment, the support available from the catchment stakeholders and local circumstances … This should not be prescriptive but allow local governance and activities to reflect local issues”.
However, it also spoke of the problem of funding. It went on to say that there are also a number of barriers, particularly through,
“confusion over available funding streams and timescales”.
There is a mismatch between the work that needs to happen and the current streams of funding.
This is not a top-down approach requiring huge funding and planning; these are small, simple, community-led initiatives with local and national government as equal partners. It is a lot less expensive and could even be self-funding in the long run. As in other areas of our ineffective banking system, while channels exist to put money into expensive technology and heavy solutions to flooding, there are only fragmented streams of funding to support these inexpensive natural measures. It is imperative that channels are created to allow local authority funding for these simple measures. This requires work at two levels: bringing the community together and building the needed interventions along the catchment area. We need more engagement from large landowners and land managers. The Government need to begin to approve, across the nation, the availability of local funds to experts and the community in restoring the catchments with simple measures, so preventing major flood events.
This is not either/or; it can occur alongside the bigger measures and will show the Government to be effective in a very short time in turning around the bleak prospect that we face this winter. The rapid and good growth in this country of social enterprises and the creation of impact bonds, developed by Sir Ronald Cohen, could be an excellent mechanism here. We could look at starting an impact bond programme where the community itself is able to invest in the long-term benefits of such measures for its area, and this would become self-funding.
Is the Minister prepared, with appropriate members of the government team, to meet those who have been working on such successful low-cost methods, cutting across disciplines and bringing unlikely departments together to achieve community-led results? I would be happy to play a part in facilitating that.
My Lords, although the noble Baroness’s Question asks about the Government’s plans for adequate flood defences in the UK, I hope that she will allow me to turn my attention to the situation in my part of Wales, for which the Welsh Government have responsibility—although, of course, they are restricted by the Barnett settlement in the amount of funding that they receive from the UK Government. I am sure that the Minister takes an active interest in flood defences throughout the UK, including Wales.
I shall give some explanation of my interest in this debate. My interest, like that of many noble Lords, comes from where I live. I live in north Wales in the Conwy Valley, through which the Conwy river flows. The river has its source in Lake Conwy, in the area surrounded by the Migneint and Berwyn mountains, and flows into the sea at Conwy. The river and its name, as noble Lords can no doubt imagine, sometimes dominate our lives.
The small town in which I live, Llanrwst, sits at one of the narrowest points of the river and has an almost iconic status within Wales as the town that is always affected by floods. Year after year, newspaper and television reports have shown the damage to properties and the devastation to the lives of some of our inhabitants. Comparatively recent floods in 2004 and 2005, where there were three flood events within two years, left over 60 properties flooded, some of which flooded twice in a matter of days, leaving householders unable to sell their properties or arrange future insurance cover.
I am among the first to criticise the Welsh Government for their failures but I am also among the first to praise them when the occasion allows, and this is such an occasion. The work begun by the then Environment Minister for Wales, Jane Davidson, and Environment Agency Wales, is now beginning to come to fruition and, hopefully, the residents of our town can have more confidence in being able to withstand the powers of future floods. I offer these descriptions as examples of actions that Governments can take.
Over the intervening years since 2005, the Welsh Government have put schemes in place to alleviate the floods. Although they are designated as flood alleviation schemes, they can also be described as providing flood defences for the town. A £3.2 million major engineering scheme—85% funded by the Welsh Government, with the remaining 15% funded by Conwy County Borough Council—saw tunnelling work carried out under our streets and the construction of a massive culvert. Flood gates now automatically open when the floodwater rises. The water is stored under our streets until the river level begins to drop and the gates again open to allow the water to flow back into the river. One of the characteristics of the River Conwy is that it is tidal from its mouth at the Irish Sea to about two or three miles north at Llanrwst. When a high tide is coming up river and meets the torrential floodwaters making their way down from the mountains, our town becomes the pinchpoint.
The Conwy Valley is primarily rural and one of our major industries is agriculture. Over the years, flood banks have been constructed alongside the river, leaving the rich soil of the flood plains to be grazed, or cultivated by farmers. This added to our problems, narrowing the river channel and increasing the pressure of both flood and tidal waters and increasing the speed with which they met.
In a further £7 million scheme, funded by European objective 1 funding, a Welsh Government block grant and Environment Agency Wales’s flood defence budget, other steps have been taken to deal with the problem. In very sensitive talks with local agricultural representatives and farmers, agreement, with compensation, was reached to reduce the height of the flood banks, allowing 450 acres of low-lying land to be flooded and allowing the flood plains to do the work that they should have been doing over the years. Further flood banks were then constructed at the next village down river, Trefriw, in order to protect homes there. Perhaps I should add here a comment and warning that flood defences in one particular location can have a knock-on effect on other locations further down river.
All these measures have proved successful and following the latest flood event in the valley in January 2013, when 95 millimetres of rain fell in two days and the volume of water was equal to that of 2005, a spokesperson for Environment Agency Wales said:
“Homes in Llanrwst and Trefriw were protected as a result of the flood scheme completed in 2010 … We have seen unprecedented levels of rainfall in 2012 and it is testament to this initiative and the hard work of our officers that the defences held up to safeguard properties in Llanrwst and Trefriw“.
In another part of the £7 million scheme, Dutchdam and Bauer demountable defences were selected and purchased to protect the most vulnerable properties, if all the other measures fail. These barriers can be erected quickly, which is essential for use in an area where the river rises quickly and where there can be a relatively short warning period. Mercifully, there has been no need for these barriers yet, but, as others who live close to rivers will testify, one can never be certain.
Work has recently been completed to protect a further 42 properties close to one of the small tributaries which flows through the town and is liable to flood estates as the water backs up and tries to join the fast-flowing and more powerful River Conwy. This scheme, again funded by the Welsh Government and following a plan developed by Conwy County Borough Council, aims to increase the capacity of the existing watercourse by raising flood walls, realigning and increasing the size of culvert inlets and replacing trash screens.
Those of us who live in close proximity to water have a healthy regard for its power, force and unpredictability and would never be foolish enough to say that such schemes are guaranteed to make flooding a thing of the past. We all understand that each river and each incident of flooding has its own characteristics and a solution achieved in one location will not necessarily apply to another location, but our experience in the Conwy Valley shows that innovative thinking and creative engineering can make a difference.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Royall for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for what has been an interesting, informative and timely debate. I thank all noble Lords for the breadth of their comments, which have reflected what an important issue this is, not just in terms of its impact on everyday lives but also for the infrastructure of the country. Flooding is something that, as a wet and crowded island, we have experienced probably since we first inhabited this land, but the facts of climate change are such that we now know that we are going to be exposed to changes in weather patterns that mean that this will be a growing threat into the future. In that context, we need leadership from Government and a long-term strategy.
I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out and reiterating the fact that that is exactly what a Labour Government would implement. Our record in this area is strong, as has been mentioned. In 2008, in reaction to the severe flooding that we saw then, the Pitt review took a comprehensive look at the problem and came forward with 92 recommendations. Unfortunately, even today not one of those recommendations has been put in place and the Government have apparently abandoned any process for updating on progress towards their implementation. Will the Minister give us an update on the position? That echoes a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. Exactly how are we doing on the Pitt recommendations, which were comprehensive and at the time enjoyed the support of all parties?
The sad fact is that under this Government, as with so many things, we have seen a complete undermining of common sense by people who simply do not seem able to grasp the bigger picture of what is affecting our country. In the interests of short-term cost savings, flood defence budgets have been slashed. As has been pointed out, the real-terms budget for the Environment Agency has been cut by 17%. A small increase was granted—I am sure that the Minister will refer to it—but that was merely to fix damaged infrastructure. The budget then returned back to a lower level and is set to remain static until 2021. That simply does not demonstrate the leadership that we need and does not reflect the reality that flooding is a pressing problem that needs a long-term vision.
As my noble friend Lady Royall pointed out, it is not at all surprising that we are in this position. Let us remember that we had in Owen Paterson a climate sceptic leading the department responsible for this area. As has been mentioned, he removed from the department’s list of strategic priorities the preparation and response to flood risk. Will the Minister respond to the question of whether that has been reinserted back into the department’s strategy? Has the new Secretary of State, Liz Truss, put this back on to her department’s top priority list? It should certainly be there because not only does flooding have a direct impact on people’s lives and valuables—it is a hugely destructive and traumatic event—but it also has an impact on our economy and on our farming. Defra should certainly have flooding as one of its priorities, and I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Stone for pointing out the link between flood prevention and land management. Not only can proper land management mitigate and help to prevent flood and run-off, which is becoming an increasing problem, it also helps us to protect our soils. Soil is a valuable resource but it is being eroded. Satellite photographs taken after a major flooding event show a brown stream of soil that has been washed away from the land and is making its way to the sea. That is the loss of a valuable asset, and I do not believe that this Government, as in so many other things, have the full picture and a strategic overview of how serious this issue is for our country.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right to raise the issue of the Flood Re proposals that the Government brought forward, and again I am sure that the Minister will mention them. There have been many exemptions to the new scheme, though, and I would like an update from the Minister on how it is progressing. In his estimation, how many houses remain outside that important protective measure, which enables people to have access to insurance?
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, also raised the issue of the Thames Barrier. This is important, not only in terms of how well it protects London. It was a massive infrastructure project, commissioned by Lady Thatcher in the knowledge that climate change was going to be an issue. What are the current Government doing to assess the need for upgrades to the barrier, which is being used far more frequently than was ever imagined? Will they show the same kind of vision and leadership in understanding what they need to do to protect the country?
One aspect of prevention is not building on flood plains. Since 2009, an additional 4,000 new homes have been built on flood plains. Could the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that Environment Agency advice is adhered to and that, in our rush to build houses, we are not exposing people to more risks by building on flood plains?
My final point is about local authorities and their ability to respond. I understand that, since 2011, local authorities have been obliged to produce strategies and plans but only a small percentage have actually done so. I suspect that this is because they have been subject to huge pressures from central government budget cuts. Exactly what percentage of local authorities have submitted a plan for flood management? What are the Government doing to ensure that more of them respond and put plans in place?
This issue does not just affect the UK; the impact of climate change knows no boundaries. There is a misperception by many on the government Benches that climate change is somehow going to be a net benefit—that it will all be fine and we will all just grow wine in Kent. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, and the noble Viscount Lord Ridley, certainly gives that impression. I hope that the Minister is not at all seduced by that logic. There will be some benefits but there will also be very significant and serious disbenefits and risks, and we must take action. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, was right: this is a very fitting place to have this debate. Unlike in Moses’ case, though, this is not an act of God; we are generating a man-made problem of environmental risk. The Government have not shown themselves capable of responding to the risk of climate change on any level, and I am sad to say that this is reflected in their response to flooding. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the very pertinent questions posed this evening.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for securing the debate today and giving us the opportunity to discuss flood defences in England. As has been amply explained today, flooding can have devastating impacts on communities, and recovery can be a long and distressing process for those affected. Flood defence is therefore something in which we all have a significant interest. That is why we are investing £3.2 billion in flood and coastal erosion risk management over the course of this Parliament. That money helps the Environment Agency to manage its £24 billion flood defence asset base and continue to invest in new and improved defences each year.
After the winter storms last year, when our defences took a considerable battering, we made available an additional £270 million to repair, restore and maintain critical defences. The Environment Agency and other risk management authorities have undertaken a considerable amount of work since then to ensure that we are ready for the winter ahead. Repairs to damaged flood defences are on track and no communities will be at greater risk than last year going into this winter. Despite the exceptional weather last winter, it is important to remember that our defences protected about 1.4 million properties and more than 250,000 hectares of farmland.
We are spending £170 million on maintenance this year alone, but this is only part of the answer. It allows us to continue protecting those who are currently protected, but capital investment in new or improved defences means that we can reduce flood risk overall. This year, 54 new flood defence projects will begin construction. When complete, they will protect more than 42,000 households. From April next year we will be making record levels of investment through an unprecedented long-term six-year capital commitment, so I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, on the need for long-term plans.
We will be spending £2.3 billion on capital investment in improving defences right up to 2021. We will be publishing our long-term investment programme of flood defence improvement projects with the Autumn Statement. This programme will help to secure significant savings through new ways of working made possible by the scale, certainty and length of the capital commitment. These savings, which I am confident will far exceed our 15% target, will be boosted by substantial contributions from other sources. In addition to the total number of properties that we are currently protecting, the programme will also help us to reduce the risk of flooding to an additional 300,000 households by March 2021. This is on top of the 165,000 homes whose protection has been improved over the course of this spending review.
In addition to government funding, through our partnership funding approach we are on course to bring in up to £140 million of extra funding between 2011 and 2015. This approach allows greater transparency, increases certainty and allows local communities to influence what happens in their local areas. It has also meant that significantly more schemes are going ahead than would have been possible under the old approach.
I turn now to some of the points raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, drew attention to the NAO report. We do not recognise the assessment that she portrays. The Environment Agency’s own target is to have 97% of its assets in high-consequence systems in the required condition. As the NAO report states, until 2013-14 the agency exceeded its targets. As I said earlier, defences took a pounding over the past winter. However, a national assessment after the damage showed that 94% were still in target condition, and we have provided the Environment Agency with all the funding needed to return its assets to target condition as soon as possible. Good progress is being made, and we will soon be announcing when the Environment Agency expects to get back to target condition.
The noble Baroness also raised a point suggesting a requirement for £8 of benefit for every £1 spent. I should make it absolutely clear that we do not insist on £8 of benefit for every £1 spent; eight to one is the average anticipated benefit that we expect to gain from our overall capital investment in flood and erosion risk management over the current spending period. It is an important measure of the overall value for money that we get in return for taxpayer investment in flood defence, but it has no bearing on funding for individual projects.
The noble Baroness and my noble friend Lady Bakewell referred to Somerset. Indeed, as my noble friend said, in response to the flooding in Somerset this year we worked with local partners to develop an action plan to manage the risk of flooding there. The plan is wide-ranging. It covers flood risk management projects, farming and land management interventions, transport infrastructure, planning and community resilience issues. We have committed £20.5 million to support the delivery of the action plan. As my noble friend said, the dredging of eight kilometres of the rivers Parrett and Tone was completed to schedule by the end of October. I echo my noble friend’s tribute to the volunteers who worked so tirelessly and offered their services free of charge, and to those farmers from elsewhere in the country who so generously sent feed and other supplies to help out in the farming community. It was a wonderful demonstration of the generosity of our country.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Worthington, commented on the approach taken to climate change. We prioritise the need to adapt to our changing climate across government and well beyond. We will of course look to learn any lessons from the recent extreme weather events. Longer-term impacts, including climate change, are fully taken into account in the Environment Agency’s decision-making processes on flood risk management. Shortly it will publish its updated long-term investment scenarios, which will take full account of climate change in its consideration of longer-term financial sustainability.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan asked about progress with regard to Flood Re. I can tell him that it is on schedule to be established by July next year. After a period of testing, and once the appropriate authorisation is in place, households at high risk of flooding will be guaranteed access to full flood insurance. Insurers have agreed meanwhile to continue to abide by the statement of principles, which ensures continued access to flood insurance until Flood Re is fully operational.
My noble friend asked about progress on the Pitt review, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington. The vast majority of the Pitt review’s recommendations have been implemented. We are committed to implementing the remaining four recommendations at the earliest opportunity. Progress on one or two of them has been affected by the need to settle complex issues raised by stakeholders. However, noble Lords may rest assured that those are receiving full attention.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, asked about the Thames Barrier. I agree that it is vital, which is why I have gone to inspect it. The Environment Agency’s latest studies indicate that if the sea level continues to rise in line with the most likely climate change scenario, the Thames Barrier will continue to provide its design standard of service until around 2070.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, called for more local involvement in action. I agree with him. That is the basis for the partnership funding concept, which stems from recommendations in the Pitt review. The aim of this approach is to give local areas a bigger say in what action is taken to protect them, in return for more local contributions towards the benefits delivered. It provides more transparency over funding levels from Government for each and every potential investment, creates space for local and private contributions to come forward to help to pay for the significant benefits to land, property, infrastructure and other assets realised when defences are built, and focuses government support on areas most at risk and people in the most deprived parts of the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, raised another issue, in response to which I will say that Defra is sponsoring three demonstration projects to assess more thoroughly the impacts that land management might make on local flood risk. These are all partnership projects between Government and other entities: Pickering in North Yorkshire, led by the Forestry Commission; Holnicote in Somerset, led by the National Trust, to which the noble Lord referred; and the River Derwent in Derbyshire, led by the Environment Agency and a national park.
The noble Lord also commented on the catchment-based approach. Our evaluation shows that there is potential for the catchment-based approach to support flood and coastal erosion risk management, but the degree to which we use those partnerships for that purpose is something that we are still exploring with them or with the relevant risk management authorities. I agree with the noble Lord that it is not all about hard solutions; he made a point about soft solutions being appropriate in some cases. I have no argument with that; finding the appropriate solution is the important thing. I am of course happy to meet him, as he suggested.
My noble friend Lady Humphreys drew our attention to what happened and is happening in Wales. She knows that I am not responsible for what goes on there, but we are all grateful for her interesting and informative contribution.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, and my noble friend Lady Bakewell both made comments about fragmented sources of funding. It is fair to say that a number of schemes were put in place specifically following the past winter in order to help affected families, businesses and communities to recover from the flooding. In some cases, these schemes were tightly targeted, such as schemes to help farmers or fishermen, or for local authorities to repair damaged roads. The Government will reflect on the lessons from their recovery efforts, and I am sure that the points made by noble Lords will be taken into account as we do that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, asked whether flood protection is a strategic priority for my new Secretary of State. I confirm to her that it is: it is right up there.
We must plan ahead effectively and invest where it will provide the most benefit in protecting people and property from flooding. We are looking at what further flood defences are needed in future, and updated long-term scenarios will be published later this year. These scenarios will take full account of climate change in consideration of longer-term financial sustainability.
NHS: Health Improvements
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what impact the National Health Service innovation and research strategies have had on health improvement.
My Lords, I declare my interests as Professor of Surgery at University College London, chairman of University College London Partners and UK Business Ambassador for Healthcare and Life Sciences.
It is a great privilege to open a debate on the subject of innovation in the NHS since I believe that at no time in the history of the NHS has innovation been so much at the centre of policy and thinking as it is now—for example, the life sciences strategy announced by the Prime Minister in December 2011, the subsequent Innovation, Health and Wealth report that focused on developing academic health science networks, the creation of academic health science centres, building on the record of the previous Government or, indeed, for the first time in the history of the NHS, including in a Bill the obligation for the Secretary of State, NHS England and clinical commissioning groups to promote research in the NHS.
The environment for research and innovation is at an all-time high. This is particularly important because it is well recognised that from establishing a therapeutic innovation or technical innovation that could improve healthcare, it takes some 17 years for it to be fully embraced and embedded in a healthcare system. This remains a shocking statistic throughout the world given that many of these innovations have the capacity to impact clinical outcomes profoundly, in many cases by reducing mortality and burden for patients.
But beyond the importance with regard to health gain that innovation can provide to the NHS, it is well recognised that many innovations, such as improved ways of delivering the practice of healthcare, can have a profound impact on the utilisation of healthcare resources. We are uniquely positioned in this country to have a life sciences and healthcare ecosystem given our unique National Health Service, our extraordinary universities, some of the leading biomedical research institutions in the world and our small and medium-sized enterprise sector around healthcare and the life sciences. This ecosystem has led to the development of a life sciences industry in this country which is second only to financial services in its importance to the economy, employing some 170,000 people, providing around £52 billion to the economy, and with 5,000 enterprises. This achievement is reflected in the success of our healthcare and life sciences research. A nation with about 1% of the world’s population provides 12% of the annual cited published output in the biomedical sciences globally. We have a huge investment, be it through government and the charitable sectors—and, of course, from industry research and development—in our universities and health service. Every pound of that investment provides a return of 39 pence per annum in perpetuity, which is a quite remarkable contribution to our economy.
There is much that we must do to ensure that this commitment to innovation in the NHS is sustained. At the time of the one-year review following the original publication of the Innovation, Health and Wealth strategy, it was agreed that there would be a sunset review of some 60 organisations involved in innovation and improvement in the NHS. That is a very important commitment to satisfy all involved, particularly the taxpayer, that the commitment to innovation was funded and directed in the most appropriate fashion to deliver tangible results in terms of both health gain and wealth creation for society more broadly. In October, in another place, the noble Earl’s ministerial colleague George Freeman answered a Question where he indicated that that sunset review had been undertaken with regard to what was described as the fragmented landscape for innovation organisations in the NHS, but it was not proposed to publish it. That is a little disappointing because the insights from that important review of the innovation landscape and the many organisations contributing to it could help those organisations that are going to remain in the innovation space in the NHS to better understand the successes and failures of those who have been there previously and organise themselves in the most efficient fashion to deliver the vitally important health gains that innovation can provide to our healthcare system. Can the Minister comment a bit on the sunset review and, in particular, whether there might be some opportunity for those organisations that remain in the innovation landscape to learn from its findings?
Much has been made, quite rightly, of the NHS Five Year Forward View, announced by the chief executive of NHS England on 20 November. It is an exciting document that addresses the question of innovation. One interesting conclusion is that the Government remain committed to innovation in the NHS. It is not entirely clear how that forward view sits with the commitments previously made and, in particular, the work of the Innovation, Health and Wealth Implementation Board in NHS England. This is an important issue, because co-ordination of the different strategies and commitments in the innovation space in the NHS is vitally important. How will that co-ordination be achieved in the future? It was not entirely clear from the NHS Five Year Forward View how that would be achieved. Will be it through an ongoing responsibility for the Innovation, Health and Wealth Implementation Board? What role will the academic health science networks, created as a part of that original review, play in the forward view with regard to innovation in the NHS over the next five years?
There was also the important announcement just last week, again by the noble Earl’s ministerial colleague George Freeman, with regard to the innovative medicines and medical tech review, which proposes to determine how we can better develop medicines that will have a big impact on patient outcome more rapidly in our country and provide additional funding to drive forward a more efficient process for the development and evaluation of innovative medicines and technologies. How will that strategy sit with regard to the already established structures of the academic health science networks, which are there to drive a collaboration between healthcare organisations, universities and the independent commercial sector in terms of the life sciences and biomedical research?
There is a very important obligation for government to lead on a culture change with regard to innovation. There is no question that mechanisms and organisations have been established to drive forward the NHS innovation agenda. There is also a need to focus on the culture in NHS institutions both in the community and in the hospital sector to ensure that the provision of innovative therapies is at the heart of clinical practice for all healthcare professionals. I wonder what approach Her Majesty’s Government propose to take towards ensuring that there is a cultural transformation in the adoption of innovative strategies in terms of pace and scale both within individual institutions and across health economies. There is also an important question about regulation, because it can impede research and innovation and the adoption of innovative strategies. We saw this, for instance, with regard to the European clinical trials directive, which had a devastating effect on clinical research output. A revised directive is to be adopted but there are concerns that that may not be done by the 2016 proposed deadline. Is the Minister able to provide some further information on that?
Lastly, there is a real concern in the biomedical research community about the proposed European data protection regulation that will replace the current directive. As originally drafted by the Commission it seemed a sensible approach to data protection but, as amended by the European Parliament, it presents a real threat to the conduct of major research programmes that have a profound impact on the delivery of healthcare, particularly the 100,000 Genomes Project, the UK Biobank and the conduct of cancer registries. These are all at the heart not only of the research effort that is a fundamental part of our nation’s strategy, but also of the delivery of healthcare. Can the Minister comment on where the negotiations are to ensure that the detrimental aspects of this data protection regulation will not apply to our country?
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate. I suppose that I am the only person here who can declare to be an unqualified amateur, but the word “amateur” means someone who loves his subject. When I was brought up, I was surrounded by four doctors in various parts of the family. I took the view that I could never be ill, because you were not allowed to be ill at that time, and that one should get on with life, but I learnt about the problem of the co-operation between the public sector, as it is called, and the private sector.
I go back to when I was quite a small chap in the 1950s. My father said, “You must learn to play golf. There’s some golf going on at the Liphook golf course”. I went down there, and there was a chap called Douglas Bader, who did not have any legs. Bobby Locke from South Africa was there, and I had never picked up a golf club at all, but Douglas was very kind to me—he showed me his legs. He took one off and waved it at me.
I forgot that partnership is what one looks at, and perhaps the greatest prosthetic partnership between medicine and commerce was Professor John Charnley back in the early 1980s. He was an orthopaedic surgeon who, together with Charles Thackray of Leeds, set up the first artificial hip replacement. In parallel, there was Uncle Archie, as I call him—Archie McIndoe, who had a very attractive wife. He was a New Zealander who came to London in 1930, could not get any work and so worked as a clinical assistant for plastic surgery at Barts. Then he was appointed as consultant to the RAF in plastic surgery, leading to the Blond MacIndoe Research Foundation at East Grinstead. As your Lordships will recall, the patients there were Hurricane and Spitfire pilots who were badly burnt. That was the start, a long time ago, of the co-operation in technology that led to the experience in skin grafts on patients who were known as “guinea pigs”. I believe that there was a smart club you could join if you had suffered, that was called the Guinea Pig Club.
I move forward now to Camp Bastion and the technology that has been developed over that period of time. There have been some very interesting developments. In the research world, we must accept that the Government and the NHS have to co-operate with the private sector. Out there, there is a private sector that is very willing to co-operate on all sorts of developments.
For many years I was a banker. Mainly because I had previously worked in a research company whose office was just above a pump in Broadwick Street that had polluted the whole of London, I got involved in water and sewage projects. In the context of hospital diseases, which were mentioned earlier, there was a company up in the north-east called Henry Cooke, which was on a river belonging to another company—I will not name it—which it did not really want. It made paper that was particularly suitable for the health service. It meant that you could put an instrument in a paper bag and then shove it in to be sterilised at a later date. It was steam-sterilisable paper, which was one form of technology. Over a long period there have been other developments in this field that make me think.
For a while, through an accident of no reason at all with a client, I became a director of Terme di Porretta, the oldest spa company in the world. Ovid wrote of our springs, “From these springs cometh forth life”. We had a problem in Bath: there was an amoeba in the water there, which meant that people could not bathe anymore. Needless to say, one word to the Italians and the whole team decided to come to London, explain that they had created the middle of Bath and put forward new proposals for drilling and things of that sort.
That led me to wonder about the impact of waterborne diseases—C. difficile and the others. I was director of a construction company. We built several hospitals. Suddenly, after having built one hospital and put in all the water systems so that people washed their hands, the NHS decided to change the rules and that you should use some form of chemicals or other things, so the water was not used. The water backed up, and we suddenly had one of the first examples of legionnaires’ disease. These are the sorts of problems that I have had in my life, but with waterborne diseases it becomes quite important. Because of the sewage thing, I ended up in the sewage business, building sewers. I got gippy tummy in Cairo and we then built sewers there, but that is another long story.
The point that I am trying to make is that co-operation with the private sector is very willingly there. In the research field, when you look at the amount of drugs that we are developing, we are a pretty successful nation. I congratulate my noble friend on what he has done.
I will not move on to the worrying business of adult stem cells, except for a brief moment. I found to my surprise that I was involved in this field with a professor from Germany who had looked at the application of stem cells for heart treatment. That was a worry. While he was a German, the Swiss were involved and they needed the support of the Vatican. So after a meeting with the Pope, the Pope shook hands and said that autologous stem cells could effectively be used for the regeneration of hearts. In this area, you look at what happens when people go out to try to buy hearts for regeneration where adult stem cells of different sorts, whether they be autologous or allogeneic, can do an awful lot of work. This is a development area that is very important.
The point is that the private sector can work very closely with government. My favourite exercise of all was when I first met the Da Vinci machine. That is a machine that I brought into the Library and everyone had a look and said, “What does it do?”, and I said, “You’d better find out from Lord Kakkar”.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, on securing this important debate on a key issue that is essential if the NHS is to be in the forefront of health improvement in the next few years. The noble Lord focused on the larger strategic picture, but I want to focus more on the impact on the patient and the citizen. The title of the debate refers to both innovation and research. I want first to talk about where innovation and research are providing improvement in treatment and in health, particularly the benefits of the new academic health science networks, which use pure and applied research to create very strong links between hospitals, commercial organisations and universities. These regional bodies are providing a country-wide system to deliver innovation.
I declare an interest as an arthritis patient; I am grateful to Arthritis Research UK for a briefing that it sent me. It has joined with the Medical Research Council to fund the Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work. Led by Southampton University, this centre seeks to find ways to reduce the impact of conditions that affect muscles, bones, and joints on the ability of people who work: people like me. At present, musculoskeletal conditions are the biggest cause of workdays lost through illness, with 30.6 million days lost a year. The cost to the economy is significant. For people with rheumatoid arthritis, seven out of 10 are unable to work because of the condition within 10 years of diagnosis. So research that is both scientific and applied can not only make a significant improvement to the individual and their condition, but can also reduce NHS costs and offer the chance of their returning to work and taking an active part in our economy again.
In another example of research innovation, Arthritis Research UK has joined with the Medical Research Council and other medical research charities to invest £230 million in a clinical research infrastructure initiative. This initiative will involve 23 key projects at centres across the country, and will use state-of-the-art technologies to find out how differences in the cellular and molecular make-up of people affect how they respond to disease and to treatment. It will take us forward on personalised treatment as that develops over the next few years.
Innovation does not automatically mean clinical research. The Scottish Health Informatics Programme is a good example, which we in England would do well to emulate. In a report to the APPG on Medical Research, a case study points out that SHIP is a Scotland-wide collaboration between the NHS and Scottish universities which analyses and links patient records. Although currently a developing resource, data linkage has also been used in a number of health studies in Scotland, using anonymous linked clinical diabetes and cancer data to show that patients using synthetic insulin were at no greater risk of developing cancer than those using traditional insulin.
That should be contrasted with some of the very practical problems of not linking data, where each hospital has its own patient number and does not allow data to be transferred between hospitals as a matter of course. A patient who has to have regular blood tests before treatment may have their test carried out at a GP surgery; it is then sent to the local district hospital, which will e-mail the result back to the GP, who often has to sign it off before the patient or the other hospital is allowed to know the result. The patient has to speak to the receptionist, sometimes to the GP as well, and the receptionist again when they go in to collect the blood test result. Because in this example the patient’s treatment is at a regional hospital, not their district hospital, they then have to text their consultant with the result to ensure that the treatment can actually be carried out. If the results are delayed for any reason, when they arrive at their regional hospital treatment may be delayed while a further blood test is carried out, and there is then a backlog of patients seeking treatment. All this is because the NHS cannot allow the transmission by e-mail of formal results. I am told that it is to do with data protection but if the Scottish system can make it work, surely the NHS can as well. Will my noble friend the Minister indicate whether England and Wales will follow the example of the Scottish Health Informatics Programme and solve what seems to me to be a straightforward and simple problem rather than the intractable and expensive problem that it has become?
There is another important area of innovation that provides significant health and well-being improvements, and that is the involvement of the citizen and patient in understanding their own disease and treatment. The National Institute for Health Research launched its “OK to ask” campaign on International Clinical Trials Day in 2013. More than 150 NHS hospital trusts took part and 80% of respondents who were followed up said that it had definitely helped to raise awareness of the importance of clinical research. The National Cancer Patient Experience Surveys of 2012 and 2013 show that only one in three cancer patients is having a conversation with their doctor about research. There is a good body of evidence to show that patients who talk to their clinicians and understand their illness and the treatments that are available—or even not available—are less likely to suffer from depression.
I have one anecdote from 10 years ago—I apologise for the aged anecdote. When I was the deputy chair of the East of England Development Agency, we did some work with the Williams Formula 1 team. As its social responsibility action, the team that changed tyres in the pits was working closely with the Great Ormond Street Hospital operating theatre teams to work out how they might be able to improve their performance to speed up operations. Both Great Ormond Street and Williams have found it extremely useful because Williams learnt something from it as well. That is an unusual form of innovation—actually, I think it is good lateral thinking—but it works very well in other ways. I know that many people involved in the Williams thing now sell that expertise for management teams to work better as teams in the future.
We have had some good cases this evening to show that the benefit of innovation is much wider than we imagine. Not only do Parliament and government have a key role to play but so does the citizen and patient. We need to ensure that innovation and research is at the heart of the NHS as it faces the challenges of the 21st century.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, for introducing this important debate. I will focus my remarks on innovation in the primary care setting.
The report Creating Change: Innovation, Health and Wealth One Year On, published in December 2012, makes two references to community. The first was the procurement community and the second was the research community, and therein, I suggest, is the fundamental problem.
If you look at how primary care is being run in developing countries, you will find a clue to what works and what is cost-effective. They do not send in professional teams at great expense to change the behaviour of patients. They invest in informal networks, particularly among women, because that is how you get the key programmes running at the front edge. In this country we seem determined to professionalise everything. Instead of creating relationships, networks and local gossip, we churn out papers and reports.
I have made these opening remarks because my conversations with the senior consultant at Barts and the London, who is responsible for working on our national diabetes crisis, tells me that his department is already overwhelmed by the scale of the health problem and that the only real solution to it lies in the community.
An impending epidemic of diabetes faces this country. It has already arrived in east London. It is not because people are ill but because they have unhealthy lifestyles. To address this challenge we genuinely need everyone working together in the local community: the school, the health centre, the pharmacy, businesses, the voluntary sector and local parents. This is where innovation is needed, yet we turn to the procurement community and research community. The message for patients is, “Health is not something I own; it is something that professionals do to me”.
At the moment there are lots of projects that try to join up service delivery and connect with the community, but the delivery of actual programmes affected does not change very much because often the professionals say that they cannot afford the overhead of the meetings needed to discuss the programmes, so people revert to type. Thus innovation and change become stifled. We need people collaborating on practical projects—“learning by doing”—but doing things in a significantly different way.
Let me share a practical example of what I mean. I declare an interest as the director of the St Paul’s Way Transformation Project. Seven years ago I was asked to intervene in a group of deprived housing estates in Tower Hamlets by the then CEO of Tower Hamlets council, Christine Gilbert, and the CEO of the local health service. A young man had been murdered and another set on fire, and there was serious concern across the public sector and beyond. Despite the many years of successive Governments talking about joined-up thinking and the need for integration, I found a failing secondary school with 1,000 pupils, the GP practice next door injecting 11,000 patients with dead vaccines stored in a cheap domestic fridge, and the excellent pharmacist across the road, a respected member of the community, being ignored by public bodies. Everybody was operating in silos and basic human relationships between the key leaders in health and education were not in place. No one was investing in any joined-up thinking, let alone action, and little innovation was taking place.
Six years later, by bringing the key leaders together and building relationships between them, we have a rather different situation. The new, recently opened £40 million school, to which only 35 families applied five years ago and which was one of the bottom 10 schools in the country, had 1,200 families apply this year. Six months ago Ofsted rated the school outstanding in every regard. Across the road from the school, the local social housing company has built a new £16 million health centre, with the agreement of the then PCT, in a campus development. The plan is that this will open shortly with a team of new GPs, working alongside a diabetes DNA research laboratory run by the school and Queen Mary University of London. The students at the school will be researching the causes of diabetes in the 11,000 patients, many of whom are extended family members.
The first phase of 500 new mixed-tenure homes has been built, alongside a new community services centre. Support from JPMorgan Chase, just a few hundred metres to the south, is now enabling pupils at the school to start their own businesses. Our patron Professor Brian Cox and I have just run a very successful third science summer school, addressing the issue, “You are what you eat”. This year the science summer school brought together 30 schools in east London.
How did we do it in six years? At its core, it was about establishing relationships between the key leaders responsible for the local health service, education and housing and getting them to communicate with resident leaders and to be entrepreneurial. The result is a piece of innovation that is now generating further innovations in health, education and housing. We are all learning by doing things together. This is where innovation and integration start. None of these individual activities alone will solve the diabetes crisis in east London but, by combining our shared efforts and resources over a period of time, we will change behaviour patterns and patients will start to see themselves as responsible for their own health.
Innovative, integrated programmes like this are the exception rather than the rule. Why is this? Negotiations on securing the integrated health centre that I mentioned have dragged on for seven years, through one NHS structure after another. Jeremy Hunt helpfully assured me in the summer that we were nearly there, yet minutes before I came into this Committee I was unexpectedly phoned by the chairman of the housing company that is bearing all of the costs and was told that she, a very experienced businesswoman, had had enough—today, yet again, another group of civil servants asked to renegotiate the lease.
Bernadette Conroy is a former colleague of the noble Lord, Lord Green, and a senior person who used to work at HSBC. She has now given the NHS 24 hours to come up with a decision rather than prevarication, or she will walk away and this opportunity at the frontier of health innovation will fall. I ask if the Minister can help. We have been on the case for seven years and we are all becoming exasperated.
Innovation in the health service is a very challenging business. When you are operating at a new frontier, you need friends and leadership that grasps the opportunity when it arrives. The opportunity for innovation in health has now arrived at St Paul’s Way in Tower Hamlets. I ask for a helping hand from the NHS.
My Lords, every year my respect and affection for your Lordships’ House grows. That is largely because of occasions such as this, expertly secured for us tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, when your Lordships can hear the voices of great leaders and pioneers in medical science.
I should like to pay a tribute to my noble friend the Minister and his team at the Department of Health for the work that he has undertaken with the Chief Medical Officer and the NHS medical director to take forward an agenda of innovation and to try to advance in the NHS a culture of innovation, as the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, described it. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, for the interest that she has taken in the innovation agenda and her scholarship, which I appreciate enormously.
Perhaps your Lordships share with me and many others in the medical world a sense of anticipation at the appointment of George Freeman as the Minister for Innovation in another place. It is often said of politicians that they will say anything to be elected. In the case of George Freeman, it really is the case that here is a man for whom the pursuit of genomics, the Cancer Drugs Fund, early access to medicine, more transparency and more disclosure have been his life’s work. It is rather a marvellous moment now that he has become a Minister, as I hope noble Lords agree.
I am a late arrival in the world of medical innovation. I will borrow the family credo of the former Leader of your Lordships’ House, Lord Salisbury—“late but in earnest”. I am certainly late and I am certainly in earnest. I will tell you why. Perhaps I am reflecting something that was said by my noble friend Lord Selsdon early in his remarks. To me, the medical innovators are true heroes. Isaiah Berlin addressed his considerable mind to the question of whether such persons as heroes can ever really be said to exist. He defined a hero as an individual who, acting alone or almost single-handed, makes what seems highly improbable in fact happen. It means a flat refusal to accept the status quo—a determined conviction that an individual can change the world by an act of will.
By Berlin’s definition, we have before us two examples of such people. The first is the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, himself, whose Thrombosis Research Institute is dedicated to the study of a disease which is responsible for 95% of fatal heart attacks and 92% of fatal strokes. His institute, of which Prince Philip is the royal patron, aims to develop novel therapies to prevent long-term disablement and early death. Secondly, we have the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg. The noble Lord recently brought together at his alma mater, the Royal College of Physicians, two of the great medical innovation institutions in the world. He hosted the launch, by the Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York and the Weizmann Institute in Tel Aviv, of a visionary collaboration, combining the long-standing track records of both institutions for breakthrough science. This new partnership unites Weizmann’s basis scientists with MSK’s clinical practitioners—a combination long considered impossible between two completely opposite cultures—to try to speed up the process “from bench to bedside”.
These noble Lords inspired me, so here is a question: what inspired them? Perhaps it was the night of Saturday 25 May 1940 when something took place, at the Dunn School at Oxford, which the New York Times called,
“perhaps the most exciting tale of science since the apple dropped on Newton’s head”.
Until then, there had apparently been many ways to measure a human body in distress: pulse rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, body weight, white cell count, red cell count and so on. Then one man decided to concentrate on only one measure: body temperature. I have here the lab notes of Dr Florey that night, and I thank one of today’s other great innovators, Professor Alistair Buchan, the Dean of Medical Sciences at Oxford, for letting me see them.
At 11 am, Florey injected eight white mice with virulent streptococci, known to be fatal to a mouse of average weight. At noon, mice 1 and 2 were given an injection of 5 millilitres of penicillin solution. Mice 3 and 4 received injections of 10 millilitres. The other four were controls and received none. Further injections of penicillin followed through the day. As this great event unfolded, just before midnight Florey wrote in the lab notebook that all four mice with penicillin were apparently well, but the controls were certainly not. He wrote that one mouse got up and staggered about for a few seconds, then fell down, twitched once or twice and was dead. Others were “seedy”. His colleague, Heatley, made a cross sign in red ink to mark the death. By 1.30 am on 26 May, the four protected mice had napped and awoken, but two more controls had died, noted by two more red crosses. At 3.28 am, Heatley noticed that the last control moved about drunkenly. With each respiration it lifted its head and opened its mouth widely. Respiration became slower, the animal twitched and died.
One of the mice that received a single shot of penicillin lived two days, the other six. Of those that received five shots, one lived 13 days, the other indefinitely. What no one realised at the time is how little penicillin it actually took to save the mice that received it. However late the hour, the result was clear and its implications so breathtaking that Heatley was overcome with “relief, joy, happiness”. He got on his bicycle and began his ride home, the first light of day already in the sky. He had, as he later wrote,
“just witnessed the world change”.
At 11 am on Sunday 26 May, Florey, Chain and Heatley returned to the lab for a pre-arranged meeting. “It looks quite promising”, Florey said, although even he could not maintain that sober view for long. In the end he said, “It looks like a miracle”.
Here is a real miracle. At exactly the same time that morning—26 May 1940—a miracle of another sort took place, to rescue hundreds of thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers, trapped in northern France along the coast by Dunkirk. Dr Florey became Sir Howard Florey and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. We conclude from this that God works in mysterious ways.
My Lords, it is about two years since I last stood in for the Opposition Front Bench, so I reckon that I have been forgiven for my previous appearance. It is a pleasure to speak after what has been a fascinating debate, and of course I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, for introducing it in his usual erudite manner. If anyone is an expert in innovation, he is. I declare my interest as a scientific adviser to the Association of Medical Research Charities.
The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, is surely correct in asking the question in the title of this debate about what impact innovation has had on the NHS. Of course, we need to know much more about how helpful all the innovations that we are introducing into medical practice really are, but it is easier said than done. It is rather like trying to measure the productivity of services like nursing or medicine. Economists tell me that it is easy to measure the productivity of material goods, but what do you measure in services? Is it the number of patients seen, the number cured, patient satisfaction or other intangibles? It is not straightforward. Furthermore, we may know that something works under the carefully controlled conditions of a clinical trial, but we do not know how effective it might be in the hurly-burly of clinical practice. It may take many years before an innovative treatment is widely taken up. Even when it is, it may take a long time before we see its impact on a reasonably representative number of patients. So, although it is essential that we try our best to trace the relationship between innovation and improved care, it is not straightforward. Despite those difficulties, it is clear that the UK is really pretty good at innovation and we are doing well from advances in medicine. We are all living longer than ever before, gaining about two years of life expectancy for every 10 years that go by, and at least half of that improvement has been shown to be due to advances in medical treatment. So we must be doing something right.
When I look back—if noble Lords will forgive me for looking back—at what medical practice was like when I started as a young doctor more than 50 years ago, the transformations have been remarkable. In 1957, there were few effective treatments for cardiovascular disease. Heart attacks had a high mortality rate. There was no angioplasty or bypass surgery. There was nothing for childhood leukaemia—uniformly fatal then, but now mostly cured. Hip replacement surgery was hazardous and rarely successful; that was before John Charnley, who the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, mentioned. There were no knee replacements or cochlear implants and there was no organ transplantation. I remember going round the wards and seeing rows of polio victims lying immobile in iron lungs. Thankfully, all that has gone.
Medical innovation has been a constant during my lifetime, and patients are infinitely better off, even in the absence of a good system for monitoring its impact. Now we are on the cusp of an even more dramatic change in medical care, with remarkable advances in genomics, digital health and regenerative medicine, and the UK is at the forefront in most of these fields. As the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, said, the Government, to their credit, are supportive in a number of ways. They set the scene with their Innovation, Health and Wealth report a couple of years ago. The NIHR, under Dame Sally Davies’s direction, is producing results, not least through its very successful academic health science networks and centres, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, emphasised. The various innovation initiatives are also very helpful. The recent rationalisation of ethical approval processes and regulation by the HRA is bearing fruit, and the moves now afoot to reduce the time taken for regulatory approval by the MHRA and the EMA are very welcome. They should help bring much needed drugs to market more quickly for patients and, at the same time, encourage the pharmaceutical industry to invest.
Of course, not everything in the garden is rosy. For example, there are still things to be done by NHS England to speed up its approval of drugs for rare diseases. The recent report from Genetic Alliance UK found that there are no fewer than eight committees involved in assessing these innovative drugs and no fewer than 11 stages to be gone through before approval. Clearly that cannot be right. Perhaps most important is the thorny problem of the woefully slow dissemination into clinical practice of all the fruits of our excellence in innovation. This resonates very much with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. It is here that the Government need to focus much more effort. The barriers to spread and to practice are multiple and well known. They include not simply a medical profession that is not always eager to accept change—although there is some of that, particularly in general practice, where pressures to provide the service are high and distracting—and a lack of tools and expertise to be able to take up innovation. Even more importantly, there is a lack of continuity at trust chief executive level, where few stay in post longer than two years. Introducing change and innovation in a hospital takes years of planning and the winning of hearts and minds not only in the hospital but in the community, but managers are too often taken up with immediate fire-fighting pressures and only just begin to think about the longer term before they are moved on.
Then there are the funding issues that bedevil the introduction of new treatments. CCGs and trusts are too often reluctant to fund new drugs because of costs. This is especially true of the high-cost so-called personalised medicines that are being developed to treat smaller and smaller subgroups of patients. None of this is helped, of course, by the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Cancer Drugs Fund or the continuation of funding for the academic health science networks. Some clarity there would be helpful.
The UK does extraordinarily well at innovation and has a health service in which a million patients are seen every 36 hours, and they are patients that we have in our care for the whole of their lives. What a marvellous opportunity that provides to innovate for the good of everyone. However, if we are to take full advantage of these wonderful resources, we must place much more emphasis on overcoming the multiple barriers to dissemination that are getting in the way. I hope that the noble Earl will comment on how the Government will address them and the many other issues raised by other noble Lords.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, for having tabled this debate, and all noble Lords who have spoken with passion and insight on these very important matters, and from a rich variety of perspectives.
Our ambition is for the people of this nation to live as well as possible for as long as possible. However, trends show that we can expect ill health in many of our later years, health inequalities persist, and the cost of ill health is increasing. The Government are clear that the National Health Service innovation and research are critical for addressing these challenges and I welcome this opportunity to discuss the impact of our strategies.
In the Five Year Forward View, NHS England and its partners commit to driving improvements in health through developing, testing and spreading innovation across the health system. This encompasses a wide range of activity and is part of the response to NHS commitments in the mandate to support research and innovation. The NHS has a unique position as a population-focused comprehensive health service, so we are building on this to facilitate more cost-effective randomised control trials as well as observational studies to support initial research.
We are setting up real-world innovation test bed sites linked to academic health science networks and centres. In these test beds, combinatorial approaches can bring together innovations where the benefit of combinations could be greater than the sum of their parts. That principle of integrated working in health was well illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, in the context of which he spoke. I will be happy to look into the latest developments in Tower Hamlets and write to him.
A core plank of the health service’s approach to innovation will be improving the connectedness of information and data, providing whole data sets that enable the effect of new innovations to be tracked and assessed across all parts of the health system. I listened with great attention to my noble friend Lady Brinton. I agree that unlocking the value of data is a key challenge in improving health outcomes. As she will know, it is a thorny issue but there are exciting developments; for example, Manchester AHSN is exploring how to connect the NHS data across its whole region.
As a result, we anticipate broader adoption of innovations such as the Airedale telecare service, which I visited last week. This has transformed care provision for care home residents where it has been deployed, reducing the number of disruptive visits to hospital by more than half, and cutting the need for hospital admission by 35%.
The Five Year Forward View builds on the progress made under Innovation Health and Wealth, published in 2011. As a result of this work, innovation has a much higher profile within the NHS than it did, relationships with industry are stronger, and we are starting to see very encouraging signs of improvement in the uptake and utility of innovation. Since the publication of Innovation Health and Wealth, the NICE Implementation Collaborative has been established to provide practical solutions to overcome barriers to adoption of NICE-approved innovations. NHS England has launched Innovation Exchange and Innovation Connect, two key platforms to enhance the development and spread of innovation. Medical technology briefings have been introduced to provide the NHS with guidance on emerging medical technologies, and Innovation Challenge Prizes are now celebrating the groundbreaking innovations developed in the NHS and delivering better health outcomes for patients.
Not only that but in 2013 England became the first country in the world to implement a universal system of academic health science networks, AHSNs. These act as system integrators, linking all parts of the health landscape, including every commissioner and provider of health services in their geography, with industry and academia. Through their work to build a culture of partnership and collaboration and to drive adoption of innovation into practice, AHSNs help to improve the health of their local populations. As the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, is no doubt aware, University College London Partners AHSN has taken major strides forward in the fight to prevent strokes. A preventive strategy is being introduced across the whole UCL Partners region, which could prevent 700 strokes each year and save more than 200 lives. This project is supporting primary care to improve the management and detection of people with atrial fibrillation and increase the number of people on appropriate anticoagulation medicines. Early work over a six-month period in one borough, Camden, has resulted in 131 more people with atrial fibrillation now taking appropriate anticoagulation drugs. Using the learning from this work, they have an opportunity to roll out similar interventions across a further 19 boroughs in the partnership.
I have referred to some of the things addressing the concerns that the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, raised about the dissemination of innovation. There is also another innovation. The Department of Health is working very closely with NHS England and other key stakeholders to develop the innovation scorecard in order to make it a more useful tool in helping the NHS to understand and address unjustified variation in the spread and adoption of innovative new treatments. It is designed to help users—clinicians, patients, commissioning groups, government and other stakeholders—to understand and monitor the uptake of innovations in the NHS. In doing so, the innovation scorecard should ultimately be used to promote an equitable spread of clinically effective, cost-effective innovations at an appropriately rapid pace, and to encourage the decommissioning of outmoded practice where appropriate. This will help to ensure that innovations have the greatest impact in driving better health outcomes.
In NHS research, our achievements over the past five years are also extensive. Recruitment to trials and studies through the NIHR clinical research network has increased by over 30%. There were more than 600,000 participants in 2013-14; more than 99% of trusts were involved. Recruitment to commercial studies has increased by 26% in just one year, including 35 first global patients.
Following the landmark report by the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2011, we have established the Health Research Authority and awarded £4.5 million for delivery of a unified approval process and we are driving forward financial consequences for poor performance against the 70-day benchmark for recruiting the first patient to a trial. In five years, NIHR revenue spend has increased from £851 million to £987 million which demonstrates our commitment to NHS research even in the prevailing economic climate. In addition, the Health and Social Care Act is a milestone, creating unprecedented powers and duties at all levels to promote research. By the end of this year, NHS England will share a plan with the Department of Health for delivery of its research objective.
In the past, public health research has been neglected, and I particularly want to mention how the NIHR has brought about a step change in building the evidence base to drive health improvement. Fulfilling a commitment in our public health White Paper, we have established the NIHR School for Public Health Research. The NIHR public health research programme is looking at issues as diverse as air pollution, traffic accidents and binge drinking. To help to increase research capability in this field, the NIHR is funding a wide range of fellowships.
The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, expressed concern about amendments to the proposed EU general data protection regulation, which could prevent health research involving personal data from taking place. Many of these concerns centre on amendments to the proposed regulation that have been agreed by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. The Government’s view is that the ability of researchers to process personal data in the way that they are legitimately able to do at present must be preserved. We remain attentive to the concerns raised and will continue to engage with representatives of the research community about the processing of personal data for medical research purposes under the proposed regulation.
As noble Lords know, work on the Medical Innovation Bill is ongoing. This Bill, introduced to your Lordships’ House by my noble friend Lord Saatchi, sets out a series of steps that doctors can choose to take when innovating. This is to give them confidence they have acted responsibly, with the intention of reducing doctors’ fears about claims in clinical negligence. The Government are pleased that the amendments that my noble friend tabled to help ensure patient safety were accepted by your Lordships’ House in Committee on 24 October. The Bill will now proceed to Report.
I cannot in the time available do justice to all the questions that have been asked; I shall, of course, write in relation to those questions that I have not had time to answer. I will, however, address as many as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, asked about the follow-on from Innovation Health and Wealth and my honourable friend George Freeman’s review. NHS England has stated its intention to increase alignment between different supporting organisations for innovation, which will take account of the work and governance of Innovation Health and Wealth as well as the issue of the innovation culture in the NHS. As regards the Five Year Forward View and the medtech review, the review announced by George Freeman will look at the whole pathway for new treatments from bench to bedside, and these two must closely dovetail, as I am sure is clear to all. Of course, the AHSNs have a key role to play in that connection.
My noble friend Lady Brinton spoke about arthritis research and, in particular, patient participation in research. NIHR investment in musculoskeletal disease research has increased from £15.5 million in 2009-10 to £25.6 million in 2013-14. In May this year, the NIHR published Promoting a ‘Research Active’ Nation. It set out a new programme of work to encourage greater public engagement and participation in research.
I will have to write to the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, on the sunset review to which he referred. My noble friend Lord Selsdon spoke about the potential of stem cells. He will, I am sure, be interested to know that the Government have an extensive agenda to seize the potential of stem cells for new groundbreaking treatments, and are working in close partnership with industry in this field. I am afraid that time is against me, and while I would like to respond to further questions from the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, I hope he will forgive me if I pen him a letter about those.
In conclusion, I have outlined some of the major steps that we are taking through our strategies for NHS innovation and research. These are already impacting positively on the health of the population and, I am convinced, hold the promise of health outcomes as good as any in the world.
Committee adjourned at 9.09 pm.