House of Lords
Wednesday, 21 January 2015.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
We are seeing a strong, broad-balanced and sustained recovery of the UK labour market. Employment is at an all-time high and the number of vacancies is at a record high. The main out-of-work benefits are at their lowest level since 1990.
My Lords, average earnings up, unemployment down, more people in full-time—yes, full-time—employment since 2008: this is an economic recovery. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that a high-employment, low-inflation economy is the only way for us to dig ourselves out of deficit and that we need to ensure that everybody is enabled to have meaningful employment—not least young people and disabled people?
One of the best things about this recovery in jobs is that they are going to some of the people who in the past have not taken part in these recoveries. That includes the disabled, where there is a strong improvement of 250,000 jobs over the past year with some 3 million now in employment. We are in a really healthy position in reducing long-term unemployment among youngsters.
My Lords, notwithstanding the Government’s election bandwagon rhetoric, what assessment does the Minister make of the changes to employment support for disabled people, in particular those with autism spectrum disorders, in light of the Access to Work review by the Work and Pensions Select Committee?
I hope that noble Lords in the House will agree that I was not using rhetoric but gave the facts and figures. As I have just said, disability employment has improved strongly over the past year with 250,000 more disabled people now in work. The employment rate for disabled people now runs at 46%, up 2.5 percentage points on the year. That is strong improvement for the people who need it.
Given the encouraging increase in the employment figures, will the Minister comment on the disappointing fall of 84,000 in the 16 to 24 age bracket? Can he give any information about regional variations? For example, is the problem worse in rural areas?
My Lords, one of the myths about the improvement in employment is that it is concentrated in the south, particularly in London. The reality is that the bulk of the improvement—75% to 80% of it—has taken place outside London. The youth figures are extremely encouraging, because youth JSA figures are now running at some of the lowest levels we have seen for many years.
On youth unemployment, maybe the Minister could look again at the figures. I welcome any rise in employment, but there are 763,000 young people out of work. Last summer, when the Government scrapped their youth contract wage incentive, youth unemployment started going up straight away and it has now risen for three months in a row. Will the Minister tell the House what he plans to do about it? Maybe it is time for him to look at Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee for young people.
My Lords, the trouble with Labour plans in this area is that they are extraordinarily expensive. The Future Jobs Fund, on which some of them are based, cost 20 times what Work Experience costs—and that produces just as good results. We cannot afford to have these artificial job creation schemes: we want real jobs in the real economy, and I am pleased to say that we now have the highest level of private sector employment that we have ever had.
May I take this opportunity to apologise to noble colleagues on the Labour Benches, because a little while ago, on the subject of unemployment, I suggested that Labour Governments always end office with unemployment higher than when they went in? Is my noble friend aware that, according to the Office for National Statistics, since the war every Labour period of government has indeed ended with more people out of work? Is he further aware that those same statistics show that every Conservative Government have ended their period of office with more people in work? May I apologise to those on the Labour Benches for not having made that point clear enough in the first place?
I speak as somebody who does not regard himself as a politician. Does the Minister not agree with me that discussions like this come very close to what we hear on a Wednesday in another place? Would it not be much more sensible to look very carefully at the statistics we are discussing and, when we talk about employment and unemployment, to look carefully at how much people earn, and at what kind of job security, and what kind of training, they have? Then we could arrive at a sensible discussion that would reflect much better on this noble House.
The noble Lord makes an excellent point. This is a complicated area. We have had some large-scale debates in which we have had some very interesting contributions from all over the House. One of the most important things that the Government are trying to do is restructure the market so that we have sustained genuine employment. One of the most encouraging figures that we have seen is that the number of untrained people who have moved into the middle section of the market has improved quite strongly over the past four years.
All I can say on what is happening in the market in terms of real disposable incomes is that we are now seeing inflation falling below the level of pay increases. In the latest set of figures, regular pay went up by 1.8%, compared to a 1% rise in inflation in the same period. We have seen some extremely encouraging forecasts. I cite the Ernst & Young ITEM Club forecast that real disposable incomes were likely to rise by 3.7% in 2015.
Alcohol: Impact on Accident and Emergency Services
My Lords, the alcohol industry has responsibilities to reduce harm caused by its products. We have challenged the industry to deliver action through the responsibility deal. It is important to recognise that individuals also have responsibility for their behaviour. The Government set the legislative framework, and the United Kingdom has relatively high taxes on alcohol, which are the main way to compensate society for its costs. Our alcohol strategy seeks to prevent and reduce harm from alcohol.
My Lords, I am grateful for the pleasant words from the Minister, but I omitted to pick up on just what action the Government intend to take. Does he share the concern of his new CEO for the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens, that more than 1 million people are now presenting at A&E each year with alcohol problems? Not only that, but they are in the main accompanied by their friends and often family, who swell the numbers and are equally intoxicated. They are creating great difficulties for nurses, doctors and other A&E patients. Many of those people do not come from their home; they come from drinking establishments from which some of them have been ejected. Many of those establishments have personnel there looking after security for the protection of the interests of the drinks industry. If the drinks industry can pay for those people to protect its interests, why cannot it be required to pay to protect the interests of nurses, doctors and other people in A&E who are intimidated by people who are drunk?
My Lords, alcohol-related attendances at A&E are certainly a matter of concern; we fully recognise that. Having said that, there is no evidence to suggest that current pressures in A&E departments are related to trends in alcohol-related attendances. We are taking a range of actions to prevent and reduce harm both nationally and in many local areas. We are certainly not just treating this as a financial issue. This is an issue to do with people’s health, and it is important. The industry is playing its part through the responsibility deal, which is already yielding some encouraging results.
Do the Government accept that currently, the cost to the NHS of these attendances is about £120 per taxpayer for England? The arguments for minimum unit pricing are very strong, given that the attendance range peaks between the ages of 35 and 55 and yet, in that age group, you can drink your whole maximum weekly recommended amount of alcohol for less than £10 with the current pricing system. Minimum unit pricing might bring in more money to cover the cost to the NHS.
My Lords, we are keeping the developing evidence on a minimum unit price under review. It has only ever been part of our alcohol strategy—which, as I said, includes a range of actions. We acknowledge the need to give careful consideration to any possible unintended consequences of MUP, such as its potential to impact on the cost of living, the economic impact of the policy and, importantly, a possible increase in illicit alcohol sales that could ensue.
My Lords, is it necessary to refer to the alcohol industry for measures to alleviate the £21 billion-worth of harm that it causes? Should my noble friend not instead refer to the calculations by the University of Sheffield showing the amount by which alcohol harm can be reduced by increases in taxation?
My Lords, we have taken a strong policy on taxation in recent years, particularly to reduce the availability of cheap, strong alcohol. Since the 2010 general election, duties on spirits have risen by more than 18%, which is well above RPI, and on wine by more than 21%, again well above RPI. We have also introduced a ban on the sale of below-cost alcohol, which should stop the worst cases of cheap and discounted alcohol sales.
My Lords, can I ask the noble Earl about the attitude of the drinks industry? He said that it is responsible but can he confirm that the long delay in the publication of new guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer on safe drinking levels is because she wants to reduce those levels but the drinks industry objects, and the Government have given in to it?
Not at all, my Lords. As I explained the last time the noble Lord asked that question, the reasons were purely technical and nothing to do with a disagreement. The CMO is overseeing a review of the alcohol guidelines so that we can ensure that people make better-informed choices. That is now under way and in its second phase. During the review we will look at any significant new evidence that relates to pregnancy, in particular, to consider whether our advice needs to be updated. We expect to consult on new guidelines by the middle of this year.
My Lords, again, there has been a great deal of progress in alcohol labelling. Independent research published in November showed that just under 80% of bottles and cans of alcohol on shelves now have the correct health labelling: a clear unit content, the CMO’s lower-risk drinking guidelines and a warning about drinking when pregnant. That fulfils an industry-wide responsibility deal pledge.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the drinks industry should bear the cost of treating people with alcohol-related sickness and illness who end up in A&E that is proportionate to their number? For example, it is 80% in some hospitals on a Saturday evening.
My Lords, as I said earlier, there is actually no evidence that the A&E pressures we are now seeing are attributable to trends in alcohol-related attendances, and we have a mechanism through duties on alcohol to compensate society for the harms that alcohol causes.
Tourism and Hospitality
My Lords, the tourism and hospitality industries are major employers in the United Kingdom. In 2013, Deloitte estimated that tourism and hospitality supported 3.1 million jobs, accounting for 9.6% of all jobs. Both the Government and the industry are committed to nurturing growth in tourism through the creation of high-quality jobs, while giving young people every opportunity to forge rewarding and lasting careers in the sectors.
I am grateful to my noble friend. According to the British Hospitality Association, at present there are 158,000 job vacancies in the hospitality sector, at all levels of skills. Given that figure, first, what are the Government doing to encourage the take-up by SMEs of apprenticeships and, secondly, is there not an opportunity here for a major partnership programme between government and industry—between the prisons and the hospitality sector—to provide a training bridge for prisoners, to give them hope and a career opportunity post coming out of prison? That would do something to turn and improve our appalling recidivism rates, in parallel to the Evening Standard’s excellent programme to encourage business start-ups in prisons.
My Lords, SMEs account for 80% of the tourism industry, so it is extremely important that we help SMEs to flourish through things like the deregulation task force. They are a very important part of the sector. The British Hospitality Association is looking to create further employment by the end of this year, with pledges of 60,000 jobs. The work that the Prison Service and, I think, the Clink Charity are undertaking with restaurants at certain prisons that I have heard of has been immensely successful. This is an example of where, in partnership, we can make some real progress.
My Lords, I think that the Government are very clear: where employers are in a position to pay the living wage, we very much encourage it. However, I repeat that a lot of the businesses involved are SMEs and family businesses, and that may not be possible. Still, we very much encourage that, where it is possible, it should be done.
My Lords, I am well aware that many of these employers in the tourism sector are SMEs and have particular difficulties, but the tourism industry is a major part of the British economy. Was the Minister as shocked as I was to see a major hotel chain named and shamed last week as not paying the national minimum wage? Could he advise the House what proportion of those employed in the tourism industry are on the national minimum wage, how many are on the living wage, how many are on zero-hours contracts and what initiative the Government are prepared to take to raise the level of skill and training in the tourism and hospitality sector?
My Lords, the first thing is to say that there are two trail-blazer programmes specifically designed to enhance training in the tourism industry. That is very important. The government apprenticeship schemes and the Tourism Industry Council are working extremely hard at focusing on improving skills. Anyone who does not pay the minimum wage is breaking the law. I do not know the precise breakdown of the figures as to who is paying the living wage but, as I say, we encourage those who are in a position to do so to pay it. Of course, zero-hour contracts are in part a feature of the tourism industry because it is seasonal. Obviously if there is any wrongdoing or abuse it needs to be investigated, but it is a feature of the tourism industry.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have a garden which is open to the public. What is the number of people in East Anglia who are employed in these trades, and does the Minister know what percentage of the population of East Anglia that might be?
My Lords, I am afraid I am not a magician. What I can say is that the countryside is a very important feature of tourism. Some 13.4% of employment in rural areas relates to tourism, and it is 10.4% of all enterprises, so tourism is hugely important in the countryside. In many constituencies, tourism is the most important industry sector, so it is hugely important for the success of the rural economy.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a few years ago—no, actually quite a few years ago—tourism was in my ministerial portfolio? Is he aware that it was my complete favourite because it never asked for money but only brought money into the country—for example, carriage by sea was one of our biggest invisible exports? We did not have any problems about training, as people knew their jobs and did them wholeheartedly, in this country and abroad.
My Lords, I think that we all want to improve the training skills of young people and indeed all people in that sector, and that is something that the sector itself very much welcomes. I agree with my noble friend. The value of tourism in 2013 was £127 billion.
My Lords, a report published recently by the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that some 45,000 small businesses do not have broadband at a high enough speed, while others have very slow speed in connectivity. This is particularly prevalent in rural areas. Could the Minister enlighten us about what is happening to support those groups?
My Lords, across the whole rural sector and, indeed, in some urban areas we definitely need to have advances in the broadband sector. It is essential. It is why the Government, in all the press cuttings in all parts of the country, are looking for improvements in coverage. Work is going on to ensure that we get up to 95% by 2017. I hope we will improve on that. The difficult parts are some very remote areas. We are trying to fund ways in which we can get to those parts of the community where broadband is vital for businesses, farmers and everyone involved in those areas. It is a very important issue.
My Lords, domestically, we have invested heavily in HMRC to ensure that the wealthy pay the tax they owe. We have led efforts through the G20 and the OECD to reform the international tax rules to tackle the issue of multinationals artificially shifting their profits to avoid paying tax. Since 2013, we have been the first G7 country to meet the UN commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development aid.
My Lords, given what the Minister has just said, will the Government give their full support to the Private Member’s Bill on Friday which will ensure that we continue to meet the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNP on development aid into the foreseeable future? Secondly, is it not shameful that the world is still so unequal? We should all be ashamed that the richest 1% have all the wealth and that 99% should have very little. Is it not bad for governance and bad for the future of the world that that should be the case?
My Lords, I can give the noble Lord the absolute assurance that the Government support the Bill that will be debated on Friday. As to global inequality, noble Lords might like to contemplate the fact that to be part of the 1%, the wealth threshold is just over £500,000; so we are all part of the 1%.
My Lords, is it not time that some of our leading charities set about solving the problems they were set up to solve rather than getting involved in financial lobbying and somewhat dubious forecasting? Does my noble friend agree that, looking at what the British Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières do, they are the blue chips of our charities, and perhaps some of our other large charities could follow the example that they have set?
My Lords, the advocacy role of Oxfam and other charities is extremely important. The list of proposals in the report we are debating includes issues such as promoting women’s economic equality and women’s rights. Those goals are shared by all international development charities, which do a very useful job in bringing these important issues to wider public attention.
Does the Minister share my concern that the current division in wealth in our country—where the richest 1% of income getters have 14% of the wealth—repeats a situation that was last reached in 1914? If he does, will he tell the House what policies the Government are pursuing to try to close that gap, and especially what fiscal policies they are pursuing to have a necessary effect on the richest people in our country, whatever their place of origin?
As the noble Lord will know, in terms of wealth, the largest assets held by most people in the UK are housing assets. The Government have taken a number of steps in terms of taxing high-value housing. There is a lively debate about that in terms of the upcoming election. As for income, I remind him that the top 1% is now paying 28% of all income tax receipts, the highest ever level.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the evidence of growing inequality in society reflects the stagnation in social mobility? British society is becoming more and more unequal and polarised, with fewer opportunities for young people, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, to progress in the 21st century than was the case in the previous century. What steps are the Government taking to address that?
My Lords, I make two principal points. The first is that the increased level of employment means that there are now 390,000 fewer children living in workless households, which sets a very important example in those households about their future life prospects. The other point to bear in mind is that there are now record numbers of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, which, as we know, is one of the best ways of ensuring that people get a good, well paid job.
My Lords, does the Minister not know the evidence which indicates that inequality in this country is increasing? The policy of looking after the rich, based on some kind of theory of a trickle-down effect, is not working. How can there be a situation, under this Administration, where the rich are getting wealthier but the average family is £1,600 a year worse off?
My Lords, it is simply not true: income inequality has not risen under this Administration. The £1,600 figure—which was immensely dubious even when it was first used three years ago—is now completely outdated by the fact that wages are rising in real terms. The key thing in terms of prosperity and, indeed, income distribution is to increase the number of jobs, to increase the number of well paid jobs. We have increased the number of jobs and vastly increased the number of apprentices. That is the how we are going to enable people from the bottom end of the income scale to do better in the future.
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister referred to the forthcoming Private Member’s Bill to enshrine the 0.7% ODA figure in law. Is he aware that the Economic Affairs Committee of this House produced a unanimous report a short while ago pointing out very clearly and cogently why that would be wholly wrong?
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the poverty gap can never be closed—both in this country and, especially, abroad—until women are freed from subjection, given full education, allowed to work and provided with childcare; until we end warfare in some countries, improve health and make sure that everybody speaks the language of the country in which they live; and until they achieve their full educational potential? These are issues almost greater than this House can tackle.
My Lords, that is a very important point. I pay tribute to the role of the charities in promoting women’s rights, as I said earlier. If we look at countries with very high levels of poverty and civil strife—Pakistan is an obvious example—the proportion of women who are illiterate is still shockingly high.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made a short while ago in the other place by my honourable friend Mr Ellwood. The Statement is as follows.
“As the House will be aware, violence in Sana’a has escalated, with heavy clashes breaking out yesterday between the Houthis and Yemeni security forces. The situation is evolving rapidly, a fragile ceasefire was negotiated by implementation and has been, at best, partial. The Presidential Office and President Hadi’s home are now under Houthi control.
I am deeply concerned about the situation in Yemen. I urge all parties to step back from conflict in Sana’a, Marib and other parts of the country and ensure that a ceasefire holds.
Those who use violence, the threat of violence and abductions to dictate Yemen’s future are undermining the security of all Yemen’s citizens and eroding the political progress made since 2011.
The UK is playing an active role in encouraging all parties to work peacefully together to implement and enforce a ceasefire and return to dialogue within the framework of the GCC Initiative, National Dialogue Outcomes and the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, reached between President Hadi and the Houthi leadership last September.
The PNPA is a framework for peaceful political transition and I call on all parties to work through the cross-party National Authority, effectively a National Assembly, to implement the agreement, including a new constitution.
I spoke to HMA Sana’a yesterday. The British Embassy in Sana’a remains open and all our staff are safe. We are obviously keeping the situation under close and active review. Since March 2011, we have advised against all travel to Yemen”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, the implications of renewed violence in Yemen are far reaching, given that al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has established the country as its base and is using Yemen as a launch pad in its efforts to destabilise Saudi Arabia. Can the Government set out what long-term support is being offered to the Yemeni authorities to help to counter the threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and how that support is likely to be affected by these recent events?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point to the fact that al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has its home in Yemen. We have been working with the Yemeni Government to ensure that we can have a peaceful political transition. We are involved in capacity building now and will continue to do so in future, which involves a new constitution and planned elections. We are also deeply involved with colleagues in DfID in providing humanitarian aid. The humanitarian situation is dire and millions of Yemenis continue to live without food, shelter or water. We have provided more than £173 million from 2011-14 and committed a further £78 million for 2014-15. Chaos breeds a place for terrorists. Our work is to prevent chaos.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the most critical point about this current instability in Yemen is that we need to work to prevent it becoming sectarian, and it has all the hallmarks of being yet another conflict backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran? What conversations have the Government had with the United Nations Special Envoy, Mr Jamal Benomar, regarding an immediate ceasefire, in so far as that can be achieved, so that we can go back to the peace process?
My noble friend is right to draw attention to the fact that it is important that this does not become a sectarian matter. In the past it has been a three-way battle between the three groups of AQAP, the Hadis and the Houthis. It is important that that does not develop into a sectarian matter. We are working closely with the UN on all these matters, and I know that it has been meeting for a discussion of this today. I assure my noble friend that everything is being done by our embassy through the G10 and the Friends of Yemen to ensure that we get back on track with the peace process.
Our key concern must surely be for the safety of the few British nationals who remain in Yemen and, of course, with our own diplomatic staff—and also, of course, for the danger of a boost to al-Qaeda there and in the wider region. Given that the interests of Saudi Arabia are very involved and that it has been intervening at the border in the past, does the Minister see any danger of a wider and possibly military intervention by Saudi Arabia?
As the noble Lord will be readily aware, we are working through the Friends of Yemen with a wide variety of actors to try to get back on track with the peace process. Of course, he is right to point to the security problems in the area. We know that Saudi Arabia is a main actor in trying to protect its own borders. He can be assured that our embassy staff work constantly in negotiations with other countries to ensure that cross-border activity is prevented.
The noble Lord has given me the opportunity, for which I am grateful, to pay great tribute to our ambassador in Sana’a, Jane Marriott, and all those who work with her, along with those who travel out of necessity from the FCO to do work there. We advise others not to travel, but some have to in order to keep us safe.
Could my noble friend illuminate for us, as she usually does, who is on which side in this conflict? I understand that the Houthis are Shiite peoples, which presumably means that they are against ISIS and are backed by Iran. Is that correct? I make one other point. Does not the horrific threat to Japanese citizens by ISIS bring home to us the point that this whole area is not just a western issue, and that we should take constant steps to involve in efforts to keep the peace and sort out the turmoil in these areas the responsible nations—the rising, rich nations of Asia—which are just as much threatened as we are? Are we in close contact with Beijing and Tokyo and the other, rising nations, in solving this problem collectively and globally rather than just as a western issue?
My noble friend is absolutely right. This is a matter for all who want peace throughout the world. Destabilisation in Yemen threatens security in other countries. My noble friend refers to the fact that the Houthis are Shia and my noble friend Lady Falkner was right to point out that it is important that this does not become sectarian. Regardless of religion, AQAP and the Houthis and the Hadis have been combatants against each other. It is important that we work together internationally to prevent further escalation and chaos in Yemen.
My Lords, 48 years ago this month I was first involved in operations in Aden against an outfit called FLOSY, and Yemen has had pretty dodgy situations ever since. I fear that, unfortunately, it is already a sectarian struggle in Yemen; that is part of the problem. However, my question relates to the safety of British people. We were at one stage setting up a coastguard organisation. The links between Yemen and Somalia are huge, with a constant flow of traffic. Are we still running and setting up that coastguard organisation and, if so, how many people do we have in-country doing that?
My Lords, I will refer to the core issue, which is the safety of British citizens. There are very few British citizens registered with us in Yemen and we have good contact with them. Clearly, if they have not registered, we do not know they are there, and that is a rather different matter. I emphasise again that since early 2011 we have advised against all travel to Yemen. Security of the area is a matter of agreement between the main actors there. My focus has to be, as the noble Lord stressed in his question, the safety of British citizens in Yemen. We are monitoring that on an hour-by-hour—if not minute-by-minute—basis. If they cannot contact the British embassy, they may contact any EU embassy and receive the same service.
There are problems in the history of this. The bin Laden family, as is well known, had Saudi connections and lived in Yemen. The Wahhabi doctrines pumped out of Riyadh are what inspired the bin Laden campaign. Will the Minister comment on our relations with the Saudi Arabian regime, which are very active, as we understand it? Can it be ascertained whether the Saudis are still facing two ways on the question of the theological doctrines that they are trying to export to the rest of the Arabian peninsula?
My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that there are discussions in London tomorrow at which the Saudi Arabian Government will be represented. Those discussions will focus on joint action against the spread of terrorism. I think that it would be wrong of me at this stage to posit what the Saudi Arabian position might be and how it might develop. Tomorrow is a vital meeting. We hope that it will set us on a track that will mean we can then more broadly work with the rest of the countries in the United Nations to ensure that more stability returns to such a strife-riven region.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will feel relief at what the Minister has been able to say about the safety of our staff in the embassy. However, in the past, the British embassy and the British ambassador—a different, former ambassador—have been directly targeted. Will the Minister assure us that all non-essential staff have already been able to leave Sana’a? She mentioned the role of the GCC in its efforts to move towards a ceasefire. Can she give us any information about whether the Arab League has made any statements about the current position?
No, I am not in a position to answer the latter question but I will certainly take it up at the earliest opportunity when I leave the Chamber. I will also update the noble Baroness about the Arab League, and I thank her for that point.
With regard to the security of British citizens, all efforts are being made to secure the safety of those who have needed to remain within the embassy at Sana’a. When the ambassador wrote an article last year about her experiences there, she made it very clear to all of us that, in her words:
“The Al Qaeda cell in Yemen is a real threat to the UK’s security. They are the reason you can only take limited liquids on board a plane and why you have to remove your shoes … at security”.
These are brave people doing tough work. If anybody can aid the Yemenis in getting back on to the right track, they will.
National Insurance Contributions Bill
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Criminal Justice and Courts Bill
74C: Clause 29, page 72, line 18, at end insert—
“(6) Subsection (7) applies to an order under this section the effect of which is to bring into force the Secretary of State’s power to provide secure colleges for the detention of any or all of the following—
(a) persons who are male and aged under 15;(b) persons who are female. (7) A statutory instrument containing the order may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(8) The reference in subsection (6) to the Secretary of State’s power to provide secure colleges is to the power under section 43(1)(c) of the Prison Act 1952 (as inserted by section 29 of this Act).”
My Lords, in speaking to this Motion, for the benefit of the House I should say that, with the agreement of Her Majesty’s Opposition, it is proposed that Motions B and C be put together and be debated together.
As to Motion A, we have spent a considerable amount of time debating the Government’s plans for secure colleges and our ambition to improve the education and reoffending outcomes of young people in custody. I am pleased that, since the last time we met to debate these provisions, which deal with who should be accommodated in secure colleges, the House of Commons has accepted a government amendment to the Bill to give Parliament a vote on the matter. I therefore beg to move that this House does not insist on its Amendment 74 and agrees with the Commons in its Amendment 74C, and I hope that noble Lords will welcome the Government’s response.
Before I go into the detail of the amendment, I take this opportunity to thank noble Lords for the quality of their scrutiny during the passage of the Bill. There have been many hours of informed and passionate debate on the important and sensitive issue of how young offenders are detained and the support that they receive to become rehabilitated. As well as those who featured prominently in our debates, there were other noble Lords who brought their expertise to bear on the issues, whether in meetings, of which there were a number, or in correspondence, and I acknowledge their contributions also. The co-operation that we have encountered has led us to find a compromise, which I am hopeful and even—dare I say?—confident will satisfy noble Lords.
As the Secretary of State and my other ministerial colleagues have made clear throughout the passage of the Bill, we do not want to prevent girls and under-15s in future being able to benefit from the pioneering approach and enhanced provision that secure colleges will offer. We recognise that these groups are more vulnerable and require tailored support, but as noble Lords will know, girls and younger boys are already safely accommodated together on the same site as older boys in both secure training centres and secure children’s homes, demonstrating that such an approach can work well. Our plans for the pathfinder secure college to open in 2017 have been carefully developed, in consultation with a number of noble Lords, to provide separate and tailored facilities for younger and more vulnerable children, should they be placed there. Of course, their placement will always be as a result of the intervention of the Youth Justice Board.
We recognise, however, that there remains concern about the accommodation of girls and under-14s in secure colleges. While I am confident that secure colleges will be able to meet the needs of these vulnerable groups and achieve improved outcomes for them, I appreciate that noble Lords are, and were, seeking further safeguards and a clearer role for Parliament. When this House last considered amendments made to the Bill in the other place, I made a commitment that, before girls or under-15s were introduced to the first secure college, the Government would lay a report before Parliament setting out the arrangements for accommodating, safeguarding and rehabilitating these groups. Today, I am able to go further and am seeking to amend the Bill to make the commencement of the power to provide secure colleges for the detention of girls and under-15s subject to a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This will give Parliament a clear role in approving the use of secure colleges to detain these groups and will enable that decision to be informed by learning on how secure colleges are operating. The Government will, of course, fulfil the earlier commitment that I made to produce a report, and this will be laid before Parliament ahead of the debates on the commencement of the power in order to provide further detail on the plans and to inform the debate in both Houses.
I hope noble Lords will feel that their concerns have been recognised by the Government and that our response goes some way towards allaying those concerns. I believe that the amendment before the House represents a practical and common-sense solution that provides Parliament with the safeguards it is seeking, while ensuring that the opportunity remains for girls and under-15s to benefit in future from the enhanced provision that secure colleges will deliver. I therefore ask the House to accept this amendment in lieu of its previous amendment.
My Lords, I am content to agree with Commons Amendment 74C and am most grateful to the Minister not only for the way in which he has presented the Government’s change of heart but for his courtesy in giving me and a number of other noble Lords advance warning, by letter and also in discussion, of what it would contain. I say again how much I, and I am sure many other noble Lords, have appreciated the courtesy and admired the skilled advocacy that he has deployed throughout the passage of this Bill. I do not include the Minister in any criticisms that I make of the secure college proposal, on which he and I may not agree, but which I will continue to oppose as strongly as I am able for as long as it takes. As I have said before, I regard the very idea of building the biggest children’s prison in the western world as a stain on our treasured national reputation for fairness, decency and humanity under the rule of law.
I appreciate that the Minister is under the strict riding instructions from a Lord Chancellor whose jurisprudential credibility has been forensically unpicked by my noble friend Lord Pannick and a Secretary of State for Justice who has wreaked havoc on the ability of the prison and probation services to protect the public. With that track record, noble Lords will appreciate why I pray that that same person never gets his way with his pet plan for the detention of vulnerable and damaged children.
At each stage of the Bill, I have drawn attention to some new development or piece of evidence that adds to the strength of the case against the secure college proposal, and today is no exception. First, last week came the welcome announcement that, thanks mainly to the determined efforts of the Youth Justice Board, there are now fewer than 1,000 children in detention. Does it really make sense to hold one-third of them in one place and plan a repeat with yet more?
Secondly, there have been two significant meetings of the five all-party groups, including the penal affairs group, which I co-chair, which are examining the mental health and emotional well-being needs of children and young people under the skilled leadership of the chairman of the children’s group, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, with a view to producing a report. In the first meeting, in addition to a number of primary and secondary school children with mental health and emotional well-being problems, we heard from Professor Colleen McLaughlin of Sussex University of her detailed research into the best ways of supporting children with such problems in schools. Everything she said and subsequently sent me to read is diametrically opposite to the Secretary of State’s contention about his secure college. She makes it abundantly clear that children with such problems can make no educational progress until their health and well-being problems are assessed and tackled, the selection and employment of suitable staff being absolutely crucial to success.
Thirdly, we heard from the Department of Health’s children and young people’s mental health and well-being task force, the formation of which I welcomed at Third Reading. It will soon publish a report on what it has learnt so far about vulnerable groups, among which it includes those in the youth justice system. It confirms that, although it has met with Ministry of Justice officials to discuss general principles and knew about the secure college proposal, it has never been consulted about it. Already it has identified lack of co-ordination between government departments as a key problem area. In one of seven pilots, the Black Country community commissioning groups and child and adolescent mental health services are scoping, mapping and analysing the prevention of large numbers of Black Country children being placed out of area, which presumably includes the secure college, the Black Country being in its catchment area.
Noble Lords may remember that, both on Report and at Third Reading, I asked the Minister to have the secure college proposal referred to the Prime Minister because it appeared to be contrary to the Government’s announced social justice strategy. I also wrote to the Prime Minister after Third Reading asking him to reconsider the secure college proposal in the light of the evidence, eventually receiving a reply that had clearly been drafted in the Ministry of Justice because it contained exactly the same phrases as those used in letters by the Minister. After our vote on 9 December I wrote to him again, once more asking him to look at the confliction between experts and the Secretary of State, quoting in particular the lessons from Clayfields House secure children’s home with its 18% reconviction rate. The Prime Minister replied on 13 January, hoping that I was reassured that the relevant evidence that he listed had been considered. Let me briefly explain why I am not.
First, he said that the Ministry of Justice’s careful analysis reveals no conclusive evidence that the effectiveness of custodial institutions is linked to their size. This saddens me, because it confirms that not a blind bit of notice has been taken of my making the link in many inspections and other reports when I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, nor those of my successors who have done the same, including in some particularly damning reports last year. More worryingly, it shows that neither has any notice been taken of the link being made by numerous experts and practitioners in this country and elsewhere.
Secondly, the Prime Minister said that the needs and characteristics of young people in custody have been closely considered in developing proposals for secure colleges and particularly in designing and planning the pathfinder. Quite apart from noting what experts have said about the lack of consideration of mental health and emotional well-being, far from using a purpose built site, everyone knows that the Secretary of State’s pathfinder has merely been designed and planned to fit into a site for which he already had planning permission for a totally different type of institution. I wonder why we have not heard of this alleged consideration during the passage of the Bill.
I sincerely hope that whenever the educational contracts are let, anyone bidding will be required to confirm that they have taken into account all the available evidence and catered for appropriate staffing to meet the mental health and emotional well-being needs as well as the custodial needs of the cohort of damaged and vulnerable children whom the Secretary of State proposes to send to his secure college. Because he refuses to release the criteria against which these bids will be judged, assuming that there any, or to give any idea of the regime that bidders are expected to provide should their bid win, we shall never know in what way the Secretary of State has taken into account any of the considerations quoted. When has anyone, let alone a Secretary of State, launched a bidding process for a government contract about which so little is known and where that which is known runs so counter to all available advice? Because bids are unlikely to be judged before the election, I hope that that marks the end of the affair.
Commons Amendment 74C effectively rescues boys under 15 and girls. Noble Lords will not be surprised that, while I agree with that, I regret that the Motion is not about the shameful secure college proposal. I hope that proposal will never come to fruition. It is inappropriate, unproven, undeliverable and plain wrong.
My Lords, I share many of the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. However, the fact that the there is to be a report and a draft statutory instrument does go a long way towards meeting many of the concerns over which I pressed my noble friend on the Front Bench at the last stage. I record my warm thanks to him for moving as far as he can, or the Government will allow, in this particular direction.
My Lords, the Minister will not be surprised that I share the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I shall make only a couple of points, because I think that he has set out the arguments clearly. I thank the Minister for listening to us with care. I wish that he could use his considerable advocacy skills to go back to those who are pressing this and to discuss whether the evidence that we have put forward points to alternative secure provision.
In my time, I have been responsible for accommodating the most difficult children, so I am not someone who denies the need for secure provision of some kind. At the moment we are in total conflict with the work being done by local government—I say this as a vice-president of the Local Government Association—where departments are working really hard with the Youth Justice Board to ensure that young people are accommodated as near to their families as possible. A young person from the south of England who goes to Leicestershire has little likelihood of being able to make any proper contact with his or her family, should that be the plan. I accept that some young people are better separated from their families, but they are the minority. Most young people do better if they have contact with their families, even when their families are difficult.
This geographical spread is going to make it difficult for local authorities to meet their targets in relation to the best care in the interests of these children. It will stand in the way of their officers providing continuity of care that will take these young people into employment and that will make sure that there is family therapy when needed. All these services are local. Having maybe three smaller units that accommodate young people would be of real benefit.
I know that this is difficult, but I would just ask the Minister to go back and suggest that we look at this issue again. It is not that we do not want to look at secure provision, but the proposal for a prison of this size for children is looked on with great disbelief by colleagues whom I talk to internationally. It would be a disgrace to childcare in this country were this to go forward.
Having erupted with virtually no notice into the final stage of the Bill in this House, I repeat the apology that I made to my noble friend after that for your Lordships to hear it. I have not changed my view of the proposals, but I very warmly welcome the wise concession that my noble friend has extracted from the Secretary of State and the department that this will be reviewed again before it becomes law. If it is to come to us again, I would ask your Lordships to study the issue in as much detail as they can and to read the debates which have already taken place on it.
I realise that, in addressing my noble friend, I am technically addressing the Secretary of State and the cohort of civil servants who are advising him. It is they who need to be persuaded that the enlightened and successful way of treating young people in these difficulties is along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and not according to the rather ancient, I am afraid, guidelines against which I remember struggling when I was a Minister the department back in the 1980s. I am most grateful for this concession, which I think gives the House an opportunity to be extremely effective in the next Parliament if this proposal recurs.
My Lords, I will just indicate, first, that I am very much in agreement with those who have praised the Minister on the concession that he has obtained and, secondly, that I am very much in favour of, and support, the words of caution that have been said on the desirability of reconsidering this proposal.
My Lords, as we have already heard this afternoon, widespread concern over the proposal to include under-15s—I think the Minister inadvertently referred to under-14s in his opening—and girls in secure colleges has been voiced repeatedly in debates in this House during the Bill’s troubled passage through the legislative process. I will not rehearse the arguments again, save in one important respect. The numbers involved are small, which, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, implies that of necessity the group will contain members coming from even greater distances than the majority of young people who will be housed at Glen Parva—which, it will be recalled, will contain about one-third of the national number of children in detention and will already therefore, on present plans, cover a large geographical area. Thus girls and under-15s—the most vulnerable groups—will be even further from the homes and communities to which they will return.
As we have heard, the Government have at last conceded—no doubt thanks to the eloquent advocacy of the Minister, who does listen carefully to debates in your Lordships’ House—that a final decision will be taken on the basis of the affirmative resolution procedure. So far as it goes, that is of course welcome, although we have to recognise that it does not go very far, since such resolutions cannot be amended. Will the Minister at least accept that there should be separate resolutions for each of the two categories—girls in general and those under the age of 15? That would possibly allow separate decisions to be made in the light of evidence at that time, if it was thought to be necessary, rather than treating both in exactly the same way.
The parliamentary procedure that has now been laid down, after the concession for which we are grateful, will follow consultations. I asked a number of questions about the nature of the intended consultations in the debate of 9 December, to which the Minister in his reply—in fairness, he was replying to many things—made no reference. Therefore, I am constrained to repeat some of those questions.
I asked which organisations or experts supported the proposals, and whether the Government had considered the approaches of the United States and Spain in dealing with these groups, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, repeatedly referred. I asked whether the consultation would take place before the construction of the units that would house these groups, as I feared that if it did not, the process would be seen as something of a sham. I asked who would be consulted, apart from the three bodies cited: the Youth Justice Board, the Inspectorate of Prisons—whose chief inspector, now unfortunately heading for the exit, has criticised the concept—and Ofsted, presumably on curricular matters. I mentioned as possible consultees the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Prison Reform Trust, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, the Howard League and the eight national women’s organisations which collectively raised concerns about girl offenders.
I also cited the British Medical Association, which published a report on young offenders entitled Young Lives Behind Bars, local authorities, in the light of the fact that children’s services and perhaps other departments would have a clear interest and a responsibility in this area, and the probation service—or perhaps I should say probation services, as what was a single service is now somewhat fragmented. If there is to be meaningful consultation on this important and controversial programme as it goes forward, it should surely extend to such bodies as these. Perhaps the Minister could indicate the Government’s response.
Another matter which must be raised is the Government’s declared intention to press ahead with entering into a contract for this project within weeks of a general election that may lead to a new Government whose hands could therefore be tied in advance. Given that opposition and serious misgivings are widely shared in your Lordships’ House and well beyond—debates have repeatedly confirmed that they are by no means confined to the Labour Benches in this House or the Commons—it would surely be wrong to pre-empt an alternative approach. If it is the Government’s intention to proceed to a letter contract before the election, what, apart from the Lord Chancellor’s impatience, would be the justification for that unseemly haste?
Having said that, I repeat that the Minister deserves the thanks of the House and, more importantly, of those who are engaged in looking after young people, for the concession that has been made, and I hope that, in operation, it will allow due consideration of any difficulties that may be perceived by those with whom consultations will take place before any statutory instrument is laid.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contribution to this short debate, echoing to a considerable degree the concerns that were reflected in previous debates. I do not seek to diminish their value, but I hope that I will be forgiven for not replying in full detail to all the points made, for example, by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. His concern and opposition to the Bill has been thoroughly exposed and well articulated. He knows that the Government do not accept his criticisms but of course respect his expertise in this matter.
I am grateful for the acknowledgment that the Government have listened to the concerns expressed both in and outside the House. Although it has not been made explicit today, in previous debates there has been an acknowledgment that the Government’s proposed reforms, however much some noble Lords think that they are misconceived, stem at least in part—we would say centrally—from our aspirations for educating and rehabilitating young people in custody. With 68% of young people who leave custody going on to reoffend within one year, doing nothing is simply not an option. The secure colleges reflect the Government’s vision for transforming youth custody.
Concerns have been expressed today, as in previous debates, about the geographical issue: effectively, that young people may find themselves a long way from home, which may be contrary to their interests. Noble Lords will aware that the YJB operates an assisted visits scheme in the existing youth custody estate which contributes towards travel and subsistence costs for families and carers visiting a young person in custody. The scheme also covers childcare and modest accommodation costs where required. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, conceded that not all families want to remain in very close contact with the young people, but, where they do, this has enabled and should continue to enable there to be contact.
We also anticipate that the operators of secure colleges will utilise a range of technological solutions that will allow young people to contact their families more easily. These will be supplementary to, not in place of, the proposed entitlement of one visit per week. We expect providers to forward innovative solutions that address the individual needs of young people in secure colleges, including a visits scheme that enables young people to remain in close contact with their families or carers. In designing the secure college pathfinder, we have considered how we could facilitate visits for young people, and the site has numerous flexible areas where the operator could choose to accommodate visits. Details of the visits scheme, including a booking system and any incentives, will be developed with the secure college operator in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, repeated questions that he had asked previously about who would be consulted. The position is that I am not from the Dispatch Box going to commit a future Secretary of State to consult any specific body, but the noble Lord has given the House and any future Secretary of State a useful list of those who might be consulted. I can see that any Government coming before the House seeking approval, through affirmative resolution, would be well advised to consult widely and to provide evidence of that consultation to Parliament.
Apart from the report which I have undertaken on behalf of the Government to provide to Parliament, there will be a report from Ofsted and the Inspectorate of Prisons. However, I bear in mind the advice that the noble Lord has effectively given to any Secretary of State that a number of people could usefully contribute to the consultation—and, no doubt, those who have different views from a putative Government will seek consultation and advice from those bodies and bring before the House their views.
The Government are not guilty of unseemly haste. They have been enthusiastic about continuing to press forward with secure colleges and intend to begin the process of building before the general election. The question that I think lay underneath the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was whether this was a sensible way to proceed given that a Government not of the current complexion might conceivably not proceed to build secure colleges—indeed, it was said in the House of Commons that the Labour Party, if it was in power, would not do so. The question is what would happen.
Ministry of Justice officials are committed to providing value for money for the taxpayer, which includes ensuring appropriate termination rights in contracts, and the costs attached to terminating a contract, should that happen, would vary depending on when the contract was signed and how far the construction had progressed. The standard termination provision for these types of industry-standard contracts will be included within the commencement agreement. These provisions will represent a reasonable and balanced position for the Ministry of Justice in relation to such contracts and will meet the standards set out in Managing Public Money. The Treasury is considering the pathfinders business case, and this is very much in line with the Government’s process and project timelines. A decision will be made shortly.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, also asked whether the Government would bring forward separate statutory instruments in relation to under-15s—not under-14s; I am sorry that I inadvertently referred to under-14s—or to girls. I anticipated that there might be some questions in that regard. The position is that it is probably unlikely that any Government would decide to bring forward such a proposal at the same time—in which case, there would be two separate statutory instruments. However, if it is was prudent and wise to consider whether there was a proper case for addressing under-15s and girls at the same time, on that assumption I do not think that we would bring in separate statutory instruments because it would be perfectly open for Parliament to view them as a whole. That said, I will bear in mind what the noble Lord said and, while not giving any commitment to that effect, I can see that there could conceivably be different arguments that pertain to those different groups. So I respond in that way—I hope positively, but not giving any commitment on behalf of the Government.
I hope that that is a sufficient response to the debate, and that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will forgive me if I do not go into the merits of the scheme as a whole, having regard to the responses I have given to various debates in the House and the various meetings that we had with him and other concerned Peers. In those circumstances, I ask noble Lords to join me in accepting the government amendment in lieu of their previous Amendment 74.
102C: Clause 64, page 65, line 3, at end insert—
“(2B) The court may disregard the requirements in subsection (2A)(a) and (b) if it considers that it is appropriate to do so for reasons of exceptional public interest.
(2C) If the court grants relief or makes an award in reliance on subsection (2B), the court must certify that the condition in subsection (2B) is satisfied.””
102D: Clause 64, page 65, line 13, at end insert—
“(3D) The court may disregard the requirement in subsection (3C) if it considers that it is appropriate to do so for reasons of exceptional public interest.
(3E) If the court grants leave in reliance on subsection (3D), the court must certify that the condition in subsection (3D) is satisfied.””
102E: Clause 64, page 65, line 21, for “section 31(2A)” substitute “subsections (2A) and (2B) of section 31”
102F: Clause 64, page 65, line 22, for “applies” substitute “apply”
102G: Clause 64, page 65, line 23, for “it applies” substitute “they apply”
102H: Clause 64, page 65, line 25, at end insert—
“(5B) If the tribunal grants relief in reliance on section 31(2B) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 as applied by subsection (5A), the tribunal must certify that the condition in section 31(2B) as so applied is satisfied.””
102I: Clause 64, page 65, line 40, at end insert—
“(3E) The tribunal may disregard the requirement in subsection (3D) if it considers that it is appropriate to do so for reasons of exceptional public interest.
(3F) If the tribunal grants permission in reliance on subsection (3E), the tribunal must certify that the condition in subsection (3E) is satisfied.””
102J: Clause 64, page 65, line 42, for “section 31(2A)” substitute “subsections (2A) and (2B) of section 31”
102K: Clause 64, page 65, line 43, for “applies” substitute “apply”
102L: Clause 64, page 65, line 44, for “it applies” substitute “they apply”
102M: Clause 64, page 65, line 46, at end insert—
“(6B) If the tribunal makes an award in reliance on section 31(2B) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 as applied by subsection (6A), the tribunal must certify that the condition in section 31(2B) as so applied is satisfied.””
My Lords, as I indicated, Motion B and Motion C will be debated together for the convenience of the House.
These clauses have been the centre of much highly intelligent debate in this House. I am grateful for the scrutiny and valuable insight that noble Lords have given to the Bill, though I firmly hope that today will mark the end of that process for this particular Bill. Our amendments draw on those debates and the many other discussions that have taken place in less formal settings. The general arguments around these clauses are well rehearsed, and I do not intend to detain your Lordships unnecessarily by going over old ground. Instead, I will focus on the Government’s specific amendments, turning first to Clause 64.
Our ambition for this clause is relatively modest: it is simply to limit the time and resources spent on judicial reviews brought on grounds highly unlikely to make a substantial difference to the outcome for the applicant. However, we accept that there have been and are concerns that, exceptionally, even these types of case could engage crucial issues which should be heard by the courts. That is why we have tabled an amendment that permits the court to grant permission or a remedy where it considers that reasons of exceptional public interest mean that that is appropriate.
I accept that “exceptional public interest” is an unusual formulation, and I will limit myself to two observations on this that, I trust, will give noble Lords the comfort they might require as to how it will operate. First, a high degree of public interest specific to the case is required for the exception to be met. We think that that is a fair compromise in the light of my second observation: we have purposely not defined the term “exceptional public interest”, meaning that the judiciary will apply the term in practice to the facts at hand. For fear of appearing to seek to fetter that discretion, I will forbear from setting out further detail on how the Government would wish to see the term applied in future.
I simply add this: in one regard it could be said that it is always in the public interest for a government body, local authority or anybody amenable to judicial review to follow to the letter the law. One can see the force of that argument.
However, that, in a sense, is what public law is all about. It could also be said that simply saying that something is in the public interest is almost tautologous, when we are dealing with a public law remedy. Hence the requirement that there must be “exceptional public interest”—although, as I have said, we think that is a matter for the judges to decide. It will also be for the judges to decide first whether, on the facts of the case, the “highly likely” threshold has been met, and secondly, in appropriate cases, whether there are reasons of “exceptional public interest” which none the less make it appropriate to grant permission or a remedy.
In the Government’s view, the clause does not put judges into decision-makers’ shoes, any more than the existing common law test of “inevitability” does. Both require a judge to have an appreciation of the relationship between the purported breach and the outcome, and I am confident that the clause would not cause judges to consider issues inappropriate to the role that they perform. The Government therefore believe that the clause and the amendments in lieu strike the correct balance between according the judiciary appropriate discretion for exceptional cases and conferring a duty to refuse permission or remedies where it is right to do so.
I come now to the final outstanding issue, which concerns the provision of financial information on an application for permission for judicial review. Our intention with this clause is to ensure that those who fund and control judicial reviews do not avoid the appropriate costs liability arising from their actions. Few can argue with that, and we believe we have brought forward proportionate and sensible provisions to meet that aim.
Again, we have listened to concerns raised about this provision, particularly on the potential for a chilling effect on small contributors. In our previous debate we tabled an amendment requiring that the court and tribunal procedure rules that implement the clause include a minimum threshold for contributions, so that those who contribute an amount below that threshold need not be identified in the information provided to the court. However, on the day of the debate I was unable to give noble Lords the comfort they required over where and how the threshold would be set. To summarise: the reasonable point was made that there is a world of difference between a threshold set at, say, £50 and one set at £1,000 or at some higher level. I still believe it would be inappropriate to decide on a figure without due consideration.
That is why we have taken the somewhat unusual step of tabling the same amendment as we did in December. But today I can give the House much more comfort as to how we will approach setting the threshold. As the Lord Chancellor did in the other place, I can commit to a public consultation, which we will approach with a suggested figure of £1,500 in mind. We are also minded additionally to test a figure of 5% of the available funds. In the Government’s present view, this approach will ensure that the protection desired for smaller contributors will be provided without allowing those with a larger financial stake and who control litigation to avoid their due level of risk. Additionally, I am happy to make clear that this approach has the virtue of not excluding the procedure rule committees, who will ultimately decide the level of the threshold when making the rules.
I would also like to take the opportunity to clarify a further matter. This is the question of whether the clauses would force a judge to refuse permission to an otherwise meritorious judicial review for reason of lack of funds. I am happy to reassure the House that the clauses emphatically do not do that. The clauses contain no requirement for an applicant to have a certain level of funding. Similarly, the clauses do not change the law governing the circumstances in which it will be appropriate for judges to make costs awards. That remains a matter for judicial discretion, as it always has been.
I hope that I have dispelled many of the concerns regarding these reforms, and reassured your Lordships that these provisions are a sensible and proportionate means of dealing with a mischief that we intend to tackle, without undermining the discretion that should properly rest with judges. I therefore ask the House to support the government amendments.
My Lords, I am very pleased that the Government have given way on the issue of principle in Motion B and have indicated that the identity of those contributing up to £1,500 funding for a judicial review will not need to be disclosed. The Minister said that our earlier debates on these issues had been highly intelligent. Without, I hope, debasing the currency, I want to make some observations.
The issue of principle is that the courts will now retain a power to hear a judicial review even if it is said that the alleged defect would not have made a difference in the individual’s case. I would have preferred the concession to be drafted in more generous language than an exceptional public interest, but concession it is. As the Lord Chancellor said in the House of Commons on 13 January at col. 811, and as the Minister confirmed this afternoon, it will be for the judges to decide how and when that test should apply. Indeed it will.
In applying the criterion, I am sure that the courts will have very much in mind Mr Grayling’s explanation of the purpose of the clause. He said that it is designed to prevent judicial reviews being heard when they are,
“based on relatively minor procedural defects in a process of consultation … That is what these proposals are all about”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/1/15; col. 812.]
I am confident that the courts will have careful regard to those explanations by the Lord Chancellor and that if the judicial review is not concerned with minor procedural defects but with allegations of systematic or deliberate wrongdoing, or errors of law in the interpretation of statutes which have a general effect, the discretion will be exercised so that the case is heard in the traditional way, as it should be.
In applying the clause, I would also expect the courts to pay close regard to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, then Lord Chief Justice, who I am delighted to see in his place today, said in R v Offen, 2001, 1 Weekly Law Reports 253. In the Court of Appeal, the noble and learned Lord was considering Section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which requires courts to impose an automatic life sentence on a person convicted of a second serious crime,
“unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances”.
At paragraph 79 of his judgment, Lord Woolf said that the meaning of “exceptional” depended on the statutory purpose, and where the statutory mischief did not exist, the case was indeed exceptional.
Applying that approach, as I am sure that the courts will do in the present context, the judges will be able to say—and I hope that they will—that the statutory purpose here is the very limited one identified by Mr Grayling of striking out judicial reviews which raised what he describes as “relatively minor procedural defects”.
Other cases, particularly those raising allegations of substantial errors of law or of systematic wrongdoing are outside the legislative aim and are therefore, on the approach of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, exceptional. They can be heard in the normal way. For those reasons, I am confident that we have arrived at a tolerable result at the end of this saga.
We have arrived at a sensible solution because, and only because, this House was prepared twice to disagree with the House of Commons. It should be noted that the concern about Mr Grayling’s proposals was expressed across this House. My amendments were supported by a very large majority of Cross Benchers who voted; they were signed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. The amendments were supported by the Labour Benches, led on this occasion by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, with his customary wit and fire; he signed the original amendments. There was a very substantial rebellion in support of retaining judicial discretion from the Liberal Democrat Benches; the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, also signed the original amendments. Also of importance on the Floor of the House and behind the scenes, there was substantial support from noble Lords on the Conservative Benches who are wise and experienced, and respectful of the value of the rule of law, with some forceful speeches in support of retaining judicial discretion, in particular from the noble Lord, Lord Deben. I am very grateful for all that support.
I express particular thanks to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who has assisted the House by the force and clarity—indeed, the good humour—of his advocacy as the acceptable face of the Lord Chancellor’s department at all stages of the Bill. I know that he has worked tirelessly and successfully behind the scenes to arrive at a compromise which can be agreed by the Lord Chancellor and by noble Lords concerned about this clause. That is a remarkable achievement.
I should add one further observation and I do so with regret, but it needs to be said. I regret that on 13 January, when the House of Commons considered this matter for the final time, a Lord Chancellor again expressed comments that display an astonishing lack of understanding about the role of judicial review—one of the cornerstones of the rule of law. Judicial review does not, as Mr Grayling complained at col. 819, involve public bodies being “blackmailed”. He also suggested,
“severe doubts about whether secondary legislation should be subject to judicial review”.
These doubts appear to have no basis whatever other than the fact that the courts have, on a number of occasions in the last year, held that regulations made by the Lord Chancellor were outside the scope of his statutory powers.
Furthermore, judicial review is not, as the Lord Chancellor again suggested,
“now overtly used by campaign groups and third parties to seek to disrupt the process of government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/1/15; cols. 819-20.]
Such comments make no sensible contribution to the debate. They demean the office of Lord Chancellor because they disrespect and undermine the vital role of judicial review in ensuring that the business of government is conducted lawfully.
However inconvenient and embarrassing it is to Mr Grayling to have his decisions repeatedly ruled to be unlawful by our courts, however much he may resent the delays and costs of government illegality being exposed in court and however much he may prefer to focus on the identity of the claimant rather than the substance of their legal complaint, it remains the vital role of judicial review in this country to hold Ministers and civil servants to account in public, not for the merits of their decisions but for their compliance with the law of the land as stated by Parliament. The discipline of the law plays a vital role in promoting the high standards of administration in this country that we are in danger of taking for granted. It helps to concentrate—and rightly so—the mind of a Minister or civil servant taking a decision whose legality he or she will be answerable for in public before an independent judge.
Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee said recently, in its excellent report on the office of Lord Chancellor, that the Lord Chancellor should have,
“a clear understanding of his or her duties in relation to the rule of law and a willingness to speak up for that principle in dealings with ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister”.
Every time this Lord Chancellor addresses judicial review, he contradicts that essential guidance. I am very pleased that this House has performed its role in requiring the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor to think again, and in securing acceptable compromises that will enable judicial review to continue to perform its valuable and essential functions.
I would like to comment on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. He said that this has been something of a saga. It has indeed been a saga, albeit, as I think he would agree, a highly intelligent and rationally argued one on all sides. The reason it has been a saga is that there is a real issue here: on the one hand we value the role of judicial review, which, as he rightly says, is a protection for the citizen against illegal and wrong actions by the Government, and it is important that that is kept in place, but on the other hand, unfortunately, in recent years an abuse of judicial review has crept in in many areas. We have heard at some length the sort of examples where that has taken place. To give one example, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, had tremendous difficulties with the introduction of the academy programme when he was Minister for Education in the previous Government, because of the judicial reviews that were brought in against that particular idea, and it took him some years for that all to be sorted out.
At the moment these problems are concerned not so much with education or issues of that kind but with development. Many schemes up and down the country to provide more houses, roads, commercial opportunities, schools and hospitals are held up by judicial reviews that are usually—indeed, very often—almost without merit and are brought forward on tiny issues of procedure. These judicial reviews are used as a weapon of delay, which is something that any Government, Labour, Conservative or coalition, should be concerned about.
There has been an issue of getting the right balance between on the one hand protecting the legitimate and longstanding use of judicial review, and on the other avoiding this abuse of judicial review, particularly using it as a weapon of delay for infrastructure development. This is an important issue, so important that not only are the Government concerned about it but the Opposition are using their day tomorrow to talk about the need for more infrastructure development. It is a common cause for all Governments, frankly, that we get infrastructure development—I am sorry that that is such an ugly phrase, but the House knows what I mean—going with some speed, because we are falling behind. We are 24th in the world league for infrastructure development, whereas we are fifth in the economic league, so we are well behind where we should be in terms of building roads, houses and all the rest of it, and we need to move that on. The truth is that judicial review has sometimes been used in a very unfortunate way to delay that sort of development.
My noble friend has had the difficult task of getting some sort of balance into this debate, and that it why it has taken some time for this House and the other House to reach a conclusion. A conclusion has, I hope, now been reached, and that reflects good will on all sides of the House. I hope that what has been achieved will be of value and do some good. When we pass legislation in the House, we unfortunately never know exactly what effect it will have, but I hope this will have some effect and I therefore pray that the effort that has gone into it on all sides of the House and at the other end of the corridor will be of good value.
I also share the hope expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Horam, that what has been achieved will be worth while. However, I am bound to say that my view originally was that these proposals to restrict the court’s powers in relation to judicial review were unnecessary and misplaced. On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Horam, I should point out that these amendments would not have assisted in any way whatever. What has assisted is the fact that the courts, aware that there are problems in some areas of judicial review, and of their own motion, put in place a specialist way of dealing with the questions of development to which the noble Lord referred. That is quite independent of these amendments. None the less, the changes that have been achieved to the original proposals enable me, like the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to accept that this can be accepted, although with reluctance.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in his customary forensic and formidable critique of the decisions made, and the manner in which they are made, by the Lord Chancellor. As we have heard, the House has secured an amendment to the “highly likely” test. The courts will be able to allow a case to be brought or to grant relief where they deem there is an exceptional public interest, notwithstanding that it would be highly likely that the defect in procedure would not have affected the outcome.
It is, however, somewhat unclear what is meant by “exceptional public interest”. The Richard III case attracted more public interest than any judicial review case that I can recall, and certainly more interest from the Lord Chancellor, who constantly relies on that one case to justify his assault on judicial review. Would such exceptional interest have allowed the court to deal with that case if it had been demonstrated that it would have failed the “highly likely” test? If not, will the Minister give us some examples, given that the courts are now directed that they must strike down a claim unless such exceptional public interest exists? Further, if judicial discretion remains, it would surely have been better not to substitute “must” for “may” in the injunction to apply the test contained in the amendment.
The final government amendment deals with financial information to be supplied by those contributing to the funding of judicial review applications; and again under pressure from this House, and again, no doubt, with the advice of the Minister, the Government have moved, in this case to promising a consultation on the limits beyond which disclosure would be required. That is, of course, welcome, although it is not clear whether Parliament will have an opportunity to debate the outcome of such a consultation before the rule committee makes its decisions. Perhaps the Minister will give me an indication about that.
I have always acknowledged the need to get behind the facade which can be erected via a shell company or other device, such as was used in the Richard III case, partisan supporter of that much maligned monarch though I am, but it is a pity that the Government have not sought to consult on how to do that, rather than come forward with what originally certainly looked like a device which could have a chilling effect on genuine supporters of a claim for review. Nevertheless the change embodied in the amendment, as far as it goes, is welcome.
It has been striking, as this Bill has gone through both Houses, how little support it has attracted from government Back-Benchers in either Chamber, with the notable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Horam. In the last round of ping-pong in the Commons three Conservative lawyers—Geoffrey Cox QC; the former and widely lamented Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, and the former Solicitor-General, Sir Edward Garnier—all voiced stringent criticisms. We are, however, where we are, and thanks to deliberations in this House, and, I suspect, to the wise counsels of the Minister, it is a better place than we might have been. I only hope that after the general election we will have, whoever forms the next Government, a Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice who, if not judicial, will at least be judicious.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for his observations about the rule of law and its importance. I find no difficulty in agreeing with his critique of the rule of law, its role and its importance, and judicial review as a part of that.
There is perhaps one area where I would not wholly agree with him, and that is in his submission in relation to “exceptional”. I say submission because, as he will appreciate, those looking for clarification on what “exceptional public interest” may mean, pursuant to the rule in Pepper v Hart, might be interested in what was said in debates. They might have their attention drawn by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, or indeed by some other counsel, to what he himself said in the course of the debate. I do not think that that is quite within Pepper v Hart. He referred, for example, to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said in one particular case. I think that different judges have used the word exceptional to mean different things in different contexts. I see the noble and learned Lord nodding. I simply say that “exceptional public interest” will depend on its context, and we are content to leave it to the judges to decide what it means. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, did his best to tempt me into giving examples—even trailing the Richard III case, which he said was a classic case in which the public were interested. The public can be exceptionally interested in something without it being a matter of exceptional public interest. I trust that judges will be able to make that distinction.
As for the rule committee, it is, as noble Lords will know, separate from the Lord Chancellor, who has been much maligned in the course of this debate. It will decide what is appropriate on the basis, I hope, of a wide consultation on the issues. No doubt it will bear in mind, among other things, observations that have been made during the course of this debate. I am grateful for all the contributions to the many debates that we have had.
No, I will not give that undertaking. The rule committee will have the basis for consultation and the basis of the debate and it will be subject to the usual parliamentary procedure, meaning that each House will have the option to vote against—so to that extent. That is perhaps an answer.
The debate has been of a very high quality. Indeed, I pay tribute, as other noble Lords have, to the scrutiny that the Bill generally—not just the matters that we are dealing with today—has received from every quarter of the House. There have been different fields of expertise brought to good effect in the course of the consideration of the Bill by your Lordships’ House. There have been a considerable number of amendments to the Bill in many different areas. Today, and in the course of the most recent debates, we have focused on the modification of the reforms of judicial review and in relation to parliamentary oversight of under-15s and girls in secure colleges—and, indeed, on the secure college rules, which will now be subject to an affirmative resolution. However, there have been other important amendments, such as the new offence of revenge pornography; the custody arrangement for 17 year-olds; various provisions to clamp down on dishonest personal injury claims; and extending reporting restrictions to young people, to name but a few.
Her Majesty’s Opposition, for the most part through the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, have provided thorough and sometimes fierce scrutiny, peppered with literary allusions and no little humour. I thank all those who have assisted in contributing to what has been a very much improved Bill, which is greatly to the credit of the House, but I hope that the House will forgive me if most of all I pay tribute to the Bill team, the officials and lawyers who have worked on this complex Bill. They have done so at considerable pace, grappling with complex issues with great skill and good humour. With those words, I beg the House to support the Government’s amendments.
Moved by Lord Faulks
That this House do not insist on its Amendments 103 to 106 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 106E and 106F.
106E: Clause 65, page 66, line 21, at end insert—
“(3AA) Rules of court under subsection (3)(b) that specify information identifying those who are, or are likely to be, sources of financial support must provide that only a person whose financial support (whether direct or indirect) exceeds, or is likely to exceed, a level set out in the rules has to be identified.
This subsection does not apply to rules that specify information described in subsection (3A)(b).””
106F: Clause 65, page 66, line 43, at end insert—
“(3AA) Tribunal Procedure Rules under subsection (3)(b) that specify information identifying those who are, or are likely to be, sources of financial support must provide that only a person whose financial support (whether direct or indirect) exceeds, or is likely to exceed, a level set out in the rules has to be identified.
This subsection does not apply to rules that specify information described in subsection (3A)(b).””
Broadcast General Election Debates (Communications Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in December 2013, the Communications Committee decided to write a short report on broadcast general election debates, which was published the following May. We anticipated that in the run-up to the general election, which we knew was to be held in May this year, it was a topic likely to be controversial and of interest. Even if about nothing else, we have been proved right about that.
We were of the view that the topic was surrounded by misunderstanding, so it would be helpful to the House and more widely to clarify a number of things. We also concluded that it was not an appropriate topic on which to seek a response from the Government, as it is essentially a controversial party-political matter and hence none of the Government’s direct business. As a result, we made this expressly clear.
Secondly, we recognised that, whatever the shortcomings of the present legal and regulatory framework, it would not be changed before the May general election, so while we have made a number of somewhat generalised comments about aspects of debates of this kind, I am not proposing to consider them further this afternoon. They belong to the post-general election political world, and on another occasion.
Thirdly, we do not directly make any recommendations about what might or might not happen over the next few weeks. While, perhaps counterintuitively, there may be a better case for debating this topic in your Lordships’ House rather than the other place, at the end of the day what happens will be determined by the broadcasters, the political parties and the contemporary titans of the political scene.
Finally, I record my thanks to all the members and staff of the House who worked on this report, and in particular Professor Richard Tait, our special adviser.
In this forum, I do not think it is necessary for me to point out that the leaders’ debates in the previous general election campaign were a first in this country, albeit they are long established elsewhere and hence not such a noteworthy element of elections as they were here in Britain in 2010. For example, they have been a feature of United States elections for more than 50 years and are an accepted phenomenon in many democratic countries. Nor do I think it very useful to spend time working out why they have taken so long to be accepted here, save that to comment that in 2010 all the stars came together and so there were three leaders’ debates on ITV, Sky and BBC, in addition to other debates, wider election coverage and party political broadcasts. As a generalisation, it seems clear that they were appreciated by the voting public and achieved very considerable viewing figures, both in absolute terms and in comparison with other electoral programmes.
Evidence was given to us that the debates might dominate the campaign and/or make it too presidential. Certainly, these aspects need consideration. However, last time, it should be recalled, they were a novelty, which invariably attracts attention, but they did not crowd out the rest of the campaign and should not be allowed to do so in the future. They are merely part of the general election campaign and not its entirety, although obviously the public profile of different aspects of any election campaign depends to a great extent on how it resonates with the electorate.
It is clear that broadcasts appear to have added to viewers’ understanding of the issues; to have energised younger voters in particular and helped them to make up their minds; and to have engendered discussion more widely. On top of this, they generate considerable further debate in social media. In the 2010 election, voter turnout increased by some 4% from that in 2005. While there is obviously no direct statistical correlation between the two, it would be surprising if there had not been some connection. Finally, post-2010 general election polling, given to us as evidence, suggests that the public expects them to take place again this year.
I turn from the debates in 2010 to the context of possible debates in the coming weeks. There are two important points from which any discussion must start. First, they are governed by the general law and rules which determine impartiality and, in particular, impartiality in the context of a general election. Secondly, they are television programmes just like any other.
I turn now to the legal and regulatory framework. The only political programmes that have any special legal status are party political broadcasts, which to many seem rather old-style these days. The detail of the rules governing them is set within the framework of the Broadcasters’ Liaison Group under the rules of Ofcom and the BBC Trust. All other political programmes must comply with general rules relating to impartiality and the straightforward rules for the general election.
The entire grid of general election programming falls within this wider framework—not only debates between aspirant Prime Ministers but also other party leaders, senior party figures and all other permutations of programming covering political issues. Furthermore, appropriate coverage and balance are required for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in addition to the United Kingdom as a whole.
It should be noted that Ofcom has recently issued a consultation, which closes, I understand, on 5 February, about who might be the “major parties”. Such an endorsement, if given, accords the right to at least two party political broadcasts and ensures that their campaign is given what is known as due weight. It has nothing per se to do with any leaders or prime ministerial debates. The BBC, which has a separate but similar—although not identical—system of governance, works somewhat similarly in this respect. We explain the details of this in chapter 3 of our report.
The second important point to remember, as I have already mentioned, is that any debates are programmes like any others. Disregarding any public service broadcasting considerations, much of the original impetus for having the debates in this country was that TV producers thought that they would make good television. From this it flows that nobody can be compelled to participate, even though it does not seem automatically to follow that the absence of any party will veto a debate, so long as coverage across the wider piece is not partial. However, it is worth noting that the evidence we received suggests that the public expect some debates in some form in this general election. They do not, of course, have to be the same as they were in 2010. Provisional ideas from the four broadcasters involved this time—BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4—have suggested a different configuration in response to the current political landscape. However, I do not think that the House needs me to draw to its attention that those ideas have not received universal endorsement.
We have also made a number of suggestions which we feel may enhance their impact on society as a whole and improve their relevance and assimilability. However, again, that is for those who are actually involved.
As I have already pointed out, the 2010 debates engendered a lot of interest over social media, and five years on this is unlikely to be diminished. This secondary consequence, if I may call it that, may well be supplemented in the general election by additional, specially commissioned streamed material, which will of course not be subject at all to the rules on political impartiality.
In parallel to that, general election programming in general provides a whole range of educational and similar possibilities for public service broadcasters and others wishing to add to their range of offerings to the public in the digital space. From this, it follows that broadcasting cover of a general election is not merely a matter of traditional television; rather, it is a much more multifaceted application of a whole range of media tools available today to communicate perhaps the most important date in the democratic calendar, its importance and the issues involved.
As I spelled out in my opening remarks, the Communications Committee, in its report, was not trying to lecture anyone about whether there should or should not be leaders’ debates and, if there are, what form they should take, although it concluded that the evidence it received about a year ago suggested that there might not be electoral benefit for a party walking away. However, that is for the parties and their leaders and not for us.
Rather, as discussion of this topic becomes noisier, we hope and believe that we have laid out the law, rules and context of that discussion, which we hope will clarify matters not only for those engaged in the discussions and arguments but also for all the rest of us who are onlookers, not participants, and for those who will be casting their votes on 7 May. If comments and criticisms at this stage are based on misunderstandings and/or ignorance, their value is diminished and the public are misled.
To conclude, I suspect that a lot will be said, written and, I dare say, litigated about this topic in the next few weeks. When the committee concluded this report, we felt that such an eventuality was highly probable. We have not been disappointed. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord. He was chair of the Communications Committee and he played a large part in stimulating us to adopt this as a topic for investigation. I think that he was absolutely right to do so. It turned out to be one of the most interesting things that we have done in that committee.
I should like to set the context a little. We are of course in a situation of declining turnouts in elections—I will say a bit more about that in a minute—with the notable exception of the Scottish referendum. It bucked all the trends, and at some other point it may be worth thinking about why that was the case. Another part of the background is that there are fewer public meetings. I remember when there were massive public meetings. We filled Wandsworth town hall to hear Jim Callaghan when he was Prime Minister, and all that added to the sense that an election was coming up and there was a sense of excitement. However, some of that has now gone.
Perhaps I may refer to something that a friend of mine, Chris Mullin, the former MP for Sunderland, said at a book festival in Keswick in the Lake District. He was talking about his remarkable diary, which is good reading for everybody. He is a friend of mine, so I can plug his book quite happily. He was asked by a member of the audience in the theatre in Keswick, “Is the day of the political meeting over?”. He said, “No, it has been transmogrified into the book festival”. He said—I am more or less quoting him—“When I was MP for Sunderland, I had a job to get six people to come to a public meeting. Here, in this packed audience, there are over 200 of them paying £9 a head”. Book festivals are thriving but politics and political debate are not.
Therefore, having looked at the question of the party leaders’ debates, I assumed, along with most members of the committee, that they would happen. Indeed, we said in our report—this was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood—that we thought it would be a pretty poor show if any party leader who had been offered a place in the debates were to climb down and not take part, as he would be seen to be running away. Somehow implicit was our belief that these debates would take place. I should say that the book festival analogy is not that close; I just wanted to mention it as an example of something that is increasing in interest in terms of political debate.
Those leaders’ debates were absolutely compelling. Of course, we all had to stop canvassing during the election to watch them, so they had an effect on local activity. I thought that, by any standards—and this was the evidence that the committee got—the 2010 debates were a success. They worked well; they added something to British politics and campaigning and they were very revealing—as were the debates in Scotland more recently. Of course, as the report shows, they particularly appealed to young, first-time voters, who watched in large numbers. They admitted that the debates had sometimes persuaded or influenced them into thinking hard about policies, and had possibly even helped them to make their decision on how to vote.
Certainly, the majority of people who listened to the debates said that they had a better understanding of the issues, that they learned something and that the debates overall had influenced them to vote. Indeed, many of them watched the whole of the debate; they did not just switch on for 10 minutes and then switch off, as one might expect if politicians are held in such low repute, as they say—but that is a subject for another debate.
I will refer to some of the figures on turnout that are in the report. In 1992, the general election turnout was nearly 78%. By 2001, it was down to 59%; in 2005, it went up to 61%; and in 2010, it went up to 65%. Of course, one cannot attribute the improvement in 2010 to the broadcasts as simply as that: it may be that it was going to be a closer election and therefore there was more interest in it. However, I would have thought that the debates were helpful. As I said, most of the viewers stuck with them right through the period of the broadcast, which was quite long.
It has been said that the debates are helping to make our election campaigns more presidential—some would say too presidential. They would probably have become that willy-nilly, just because of the way the media operates, and so on. It would probably be a pity if we got too presidential, but there is nothing we can do about that. It is also clear that the debates on television tended to dominate the campaign—so much so that some other aspects of the campaign, for example the party leaders’ press conferences, got much less attention. All eyes were on the debates and the media wrote about them, so the emphasis switched a bit. That has happened, but that is not an argument against having the debates.
We did not feel that it was appropriate for us—as the noble Lord said—to specify who should take part in debates in the future. There was, of course, a formula that was used in the past, which was that it should be only party leaders who had a realistic prospect of becoming Prime Minister. I am not sure that that applied last time: with all due respect to the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg was not on his way to becoming Prime Minister. We probably felt that that was too limited an approach.
However, how does one then draw the line in a different direction? If it is done on opinion polls, they go up and down; if it is done on the European elections, they always have a slightly eccentric outcome in terms of who wins. They are more a protest vote in Britain than anything else, so they do not give us too good an indication. Certainly, I assume that Ofcom has taken an amalgam of all these things—an amalgam of Members of the House of the Commons, of parties that secured good support in elections and of opinion polls—so it is a bit of a hit-or-miss system. It was a lot easier when there were just two big parties. It would be very undemocratic to wish that we were back in the two-party system, but these things were clearly easier when we had just two parties.
During the European Union elections, there were two debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. They were not quite party leaders’ debates, but they were an interesting extra. I am not personally sure what conclusions one should draw from them: it is difficult to know, but they were interesting. What they show, of course, is that a minor party gets more of a boost than a major party. That is to say, the protest party gets a wonderful platform, and that has a distorting effect on the way the public see it, because if they are going to make Nigel Farage equal to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Labour Party, that puts him in a much better position. There is, therefore, a downside to this, but equally it would be pretty undemocratic to say that only the leaders of parties with a significant number of seats in the Commons should be allowed to take part. So there is a problem.
In our report we considered whether, if one leader withdraws, the debates should go ahead. We thought that no one would want to do that because of the stigma that would be attached to it, as I said earlier.
I am interested in the formula that has been touted a bit that there should be one debate between the two main leaders, one between the two main parties plus the Liberal Democrats, and a wider debate which would include four parties, or possibly five if the Greens are to be included. I believe in democracy and that there should be one debate at least in which some of the smaller parties can have their say. On the other hand, I am concerned that if there are to be five parties to the debate, would that not, as it were, lessen the tension? Would it not get the main party leaders off the hook because all these people will be having their say and somehow the tension that we have seen in previous leaders’ debates—and we certainly saw in Scotland—would disappear? So if the leaders of the big parties do not want to be under pressure, it might be easier if more parties were there—which may be why David Cameron has said that he wants the Green Party there. I would like to see a mix of participation, some debates with two or three parties represented and some with more. That would be a better way of doing it than simply staying with one formula that would fit them all.
I will make two further comments. The people who moderate the debates are important. We do not necessarily want only white men of a certain age doing this: there should be a mix of gender and ethnicity in the moderators of these debates. That would help to project the debates in a better way and stop them being seen simply as part of the Westminster circle.
In our report, we refer to the possibility that broadcasters could use the debates as a way of reaching out to the public and getting them involved. They could use the debates as a peg for wider public involvement. I am not quite sure how that could be done but it certainly has support, and I would like to see it happen. Assuming that the debates go ahead, I would like to see the broadcasters use them as a basis for education, outreach work and so on, so that they are a part of a wider effort in the community. That would be a good thing.
Our report is a good one. I will be disappointed if the debates do not go ahead and I hope that four parties will take part—and I would not mind if the Greens took part as well.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my fellow committee member, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I thank my noble friend Lord Inglewood for his measured introductory speech and his excellent chairmanship of the committee. I cannot guarantee that I will be quite as measured in my comments on the report.
The committee said last April that it feared that the jockeying for position among the parties could result in the failure of the debates to reach our screens. Sadly, it was right. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood have both said, the debates were a valuable addition to the last general election campaign and to our democratic process. The debates reached some 15 million viewers, a far greater number than the individual interviews with leaders which had average viewing figures of 9.4 million.
The link with turnout is not proven but clearly turnout was up on the previous 2005 general election. As the YouGov polls show, there is a strong appetite, particularly among young people, for the debates to take place again. Most of the public expect the debates to take place and, to say the least, it would be sad if the 2010 general election ended up as the exception rather than the rule.
However, we now see that the Prime Minister is reluctant to trust the objective mechanisms by which Ofcom and the broadcasters determine who should take part. As my noble friend has said, the committee’s report took care to explain the regulatory framework. A vital component and the important starting point for determining the participants in the debates—but not the format, of course—is Ofcom’s determination of major party status. This is, as he also explained, required by the broadcasting code created by the Communications Act 2003. There are slightly separate processes by which the BBC does the same. It is flexible. Ofcom now reviews major party status more frequently. The latest consultation document is dated 8 January 2015. Ofcom’s determination is not, as the committee agreed in its report, purely based on vote share or opinion polling, but in my view, and indeed in the committee’s view, the consultation document is admirably clear and objective. Being a major party does not necessarily mean absolute equality of treatment.
The committee gave this process a clean bill of health. The objective of both the BBC and Ofcom is to achieve due impartiality in election coverage, and Ofcom’s consultation proposals achieve this.
Mr Cameron, however, is attempting to argue with Ofcom’s judgment by saying that he will debate only if the Green Party, which has not been determined to be a major party, is included. It would be sad if the Prime Minister, in his desire to gain party advantage, put a barrier in the way of further development of this valuable aspect of the general election and of the electorate’s ability to connect and to engage with the general election campaign. The debates are a powerful tool in helping the electorate to make up their mind who to support, particularly for young and first-time voters. Apart from setting conditions about who should participate, it is also noticeable that the Prime Minister alone among the leaders has criticised the timing of the debates at the previous election. Surely having an election campaign of 25 rather than 17 days with the debates spread across those days answers this criticism.
Just as important as the committee’s analysis of existing practices were its recommendations about future debates, using lessons from the US in particular. Both the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend referred to improved voter information linked to the debates, better communication of the process and principles involved in setting up the debates, and a dedicated online portal associated with the debates. All of these would be welcome.
Furthermore, we considered whether there should be more voter participation in supplementary questions and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned, more diversity in the presenter team with, say, a mixed panel. I hope that the broadcasters will take on board all these recommendations. I also hope that despite what has been said so far the Prime Minister does not pursue narrow party advantage by refusing to allow these debates to take place. I suspect that if he does, the electorate will be unforgiving. In those circumstances, I hope that the broadcasters, subject of course to the impartiality rules, would consider an empty chair strategy.
My Lords, I join those thanking my noble friend Lord Inglewood and his committee for what has turned out to be a prescient and relevant contribution to the debate. This debate this afternoon is an unusual event in that it is a debate about a public debate about debates. Possibly this is a first. There are an awful lot of claims made for leaders’ debates—a new phenomenon in this country—about voters’ rights, democratic rights and so on. Perhaps I might recall a little history. It was mentioned earlier that the first televised leader debates were in 1960. These were the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates which some would say that Nixon lost because he had not had a shave. That is a piece of historical anecdotal evidence. What people have forgotten is that three elections went by subsequently where there were no leaders’ debates. It was not until 1976 that President Ford agreed to debate with Jimmy Carter and lost after making what was probably one of the first significant gaffes in what is now a cornerstone of all electoral campaigns, the opening of the gaffe season—“spot the gaffe”. We are in for quite a few weeks of that to come.
Despite the fact that there were three presidential elections in the United States without a leaders’ debate, I did not notice any damage to the American democratic way of life and the way of their political life. Yes, leaders’ debates are interesting, and are nice to have, but they are not absolutely essential to the democratic processes in this country.
I was interested to read Charles Moore in the Telegraph on Saturday. For those on the Benches opposite who perhaps did not quite get through their Guardian and make it to the Telegraph on Saturday, he addressed this question of context:
“The real question is, what makes us think that the demands of the broadcasters are the same as the rights of the voters? These debates are not, as Paddy Ashdown imagines, prescribed by some ‘independent’ body: Ofcom can do no more than modify what others propose”.
I will ensure that Mr Moore reads Hansard as quickly as possible to correct that. I am grateful. He went on to write:
“The essentials of our democracy are the House of Commons, the constituency and the ballot box, not the media. Obviously politicians should speak to voters and the voters should speak to politicians. The media help this happen. But beware when a medium tries to hijack this process … In elections, the telly news increasingly could not be bothered to go round the country reporting speeches and examining the sheer variety of voters’ concerns. It preferred to confect a daily agenda involving a ‘gaffe’ by one party or another”.
“In a general election that returns 650 people to Parliament, no leaders’ debate is in any sense necessary”.
I agree with him in that respect. A debate may be desirable, watchable—sometimes—and certainly something that, in the word used in the report, the public “expect” to see. However, there is a big difference between expecting to see something and having the right to have it produced on your behalf.
As to the empty chair issue, I put myself in the position that I have been in, in past existences, as editor-in-chief of various networks. If I was asked, in the event that a senior member of one of the leading parties in a debate was, for some principled reason, not prepared to attend, whether we would put in an empty chair, I would regard that, without having to consult m’learned friends, as a breach of the statutory obligations on impartiality. In my view, it is unquestionably, editorially, a political statement. Reading a principled statement from the absent party explaining why it did not wish to take part seems to me to cover the point. I agree with most people, who would say that no individual leader of any party should have the right to veto a debate, but an empty chair is a step much too far.
In conclusion, I can only quote the words of Sam Chisholm, an old friend of mine, who was one of the architects of the success of the Sky enterprise. I was going in to discuss some deal with him, when he patted me on the head and said, “Michael, in every negotiation, there is a difficult conversation, and we are about to have it”. He then boxed my ears for half an hour, explaining why he could not do the deal that I wanted him to do.
We are at the early stages of some very difficult negotiations. A huge amount is at risk here, and I can understand perfectly well the Prime Minister’s point of view about the fairness of including the Greens. The simple way through this is not for the other parties to try to ascribe motives to the PM but for them to try to explain to the public, in a democratic fashion, why they believe the Greens should be excluded. If they will drop their principled objections, we can get on, and the public can have the debate they expect to have.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on securing this debate at such an apposite time. I also thank him for his excellent chairmanship of the Communications Committee, on which I served, which produced this important report into broadcast general election debates.
Our wide-ranging report, published a year before the 2015 general election, was conducted in a much cooler climate, where the advantages and possible disadvantages could be weighed up. We found that the broadcast general election debates helped to energise and engage the public in the electoral process, with the most striking impact being on the young and relatively disengaged. Now the climate has become more heated and who will participate in these proposed TV debates is a subject for endless speculation in the media and in Parliament.
As our report stated,
“we are persuaded that they served the public interest by increasing engagement with the electoral process and perhaps contributed to a higher voter turnout”.
At a time of apparent public alienation from mainstream political activity, any effort to re-engage the electorate must be of value to a parliamentary democracy. Turnout among 18 to 25 year-olds increased by seven percentage points in 2010, which was three points higher than the average increase in turnout compared with 2005. My party recently revealed that one million voters have disappeared from the electoral register and we know from the Electoral Commission that there are an estimated 7.5 million eligible voters who are not registered. I would argue that any means by which more people become interested in the outcome of the next general election and take the opportunity to register to vote by 20 April will be a good thing for society, and television debates could have a valuable role to play.
Our report highlighted the public’s expectation that the debates should happen again. But we warned:
“The road to broadcast general election debates in 2015 is unlikely to be smooth. Experience from 2010 suggests that there will be disputes and these will be hottest on the question of participation: who is invited by the broadcasters to debate?”.
This is the key to our report. The debates are first and foremost television programmes, and as such it is up to the broadcasters to invite participants. It is not up to politicians to decide whether the debates should happen.
Today’s debate is an opportunity calmly to assess the pros and cons of broadcast general election debates and to look at the factors that need to be taken into account. We can leave the name-calling to others. The 2010 debates took place within a framework of codes, statements and guidelines which constituted the legal and regulatory framework and ensured that all political parties were given due weight across the patchwork of coverage laid on by the broadcasters during an election period. Televised debates took place not only between the leaders in the running to become Prime Minister, but also between the leaders of the main parties in the devolved nations, in the midst of which there was a whole range of other programming in which smaller UK-wide parties also gained coverage. As in the run-up to the 2010 debates, there is much misunderstanding as to how participants are decided, as other noble Lords have made clear. However, it is not a matter for politicians to decide.
The key point I wish to make is that more than 22 million people watched these debates in 2010 and, although the jury may still be out on whether voting intentions were changed by them, it cannot be denied that people were better informed having watched them. That is not to say that the format and presentations were perfect and cannot be improved upon, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said. Indeed, we made strong suggestions to the broadcasters to consider the balance of gender and ethnic diversity among the moderators and to make more of the opportunity to inform voters and encourage the public to be interested in the electoral process. Although we did not support the US system of an independent commission on debates—the CPD—we found a number of very positive lessons to be learnt from the way in which the commission approaches its work around the debates, including a whole range of activities related to voter information and encouraging the public to be interested in the electoral process. As its chief executive Janet Brown told the inquiry, the CPD’s objective,
“around the debates is to try to use them as vehicles not only to educate voters about the candidates, the parties and the issues but particularly to get young people involved in understanding why this matters”.
Of course, there is no compulsion for politicians to appear even if they rashly determine to withstand public expectations, now made even more compelling by the debates having taken place in 2010, but it is worth noting that our report finds that it would be far from certain that this would necessarily mean that the debates could not proceed while remaining compliant with the broadcasters’ legal and regulatory obligations. As the report said:
“We only note that we cannot suppose that the political parties will deem it is in their best interests to find out by withdrawing, against a backdrop of wide public support and manifest expectation that the debates do take place again”.
The questions of whether the debates will go ahead and who will participate are, I suggest, awaited with almost the same anticipation as the results of the 2015 election itself.
My Lords, I thank the Communications Select Committee for its excellent report. I note that the committee was at pains to stress that these are not recommendations for government, given that government has no say in the matter. It appears that some people in government need this to be clarified, so I welcome the fact that we have this debate.
For me, this debate is all about whether you believe in open debate and greater democratic engagement. It is a simple test. We speak so often in the world of politics about wanting to open up politics to a wider audience. The TV debates are a great opportunity for that and the evidence in the report is clear.
There are some parts of the current proposals from broadcasters about TV debates that my own party would prefer to change. For instance, in our view, it would be extraordinary for David Cameron and Ed Miliband to debate the past five years without Nick Clegg being there to talk about this period of government. But for Liberal Democrats the priority is to make sure that the TV debates happen. That is not because we speculate about who will win or who will lose in them; it is because the evidence is compelling that the debates last time engaged people in politics in a way that had not happened before.
For instance, at the time, 87% of people discussed the debate with someone else. We have already heard from other noble Lords about the average viewing figures. It is also argued that they increased voter turnout, although I appreciate that that is a harder argument to make, and seven out of 10 people want them to happen again. As the committee’s report makes clear, the TV debates are a major improvement in our democratic process and it would be a serious setback for them not to be repeated.
For me, the engagement of young voters, described today by others, alone is the reason. The majority of young voters said that they had become more interested in the campaign because of the debates. This is democratic gold and we should not throw it away. If the debates were part of the reason—and I appreciate that I speculate—for the 7% increase in the number of young voters in 2010, it is the duty of everyone here who believes in engagement in politics to ensure that those debates happen again.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked earlier about canvassing. I was out canvassing the night after the first debate. It is not normally a welcome knock on the door—other noble Lords who have done it will recognise that—but I remember clearly knocking on one door where six young people were renting, one of whom was a teacher, and they were literally calling each other to the door to come and talk to me about politics. It was not “Cleggmania”; it was just to ask me questions in a follow-up to the debate. We want that kind of vibrant engagement, and TV debates generate it in a way that I am not sure that other vehicles do.
So now all eyes are on the broadcasters and the question is: do they have the ability to use an empty chair or podium? The broadcasters rightly take their guidance from Ofcom, which has given guidelines about who should be entitled to major-party coverage. The BBC’s director-general, the noble Lord, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, described the possibility of an empty chair as a “very interesting” development.
I got as far as reading the Guardian and therefore am going to quote from it. Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC News, wrote in an article in that paper last week:
“The BBC guidelines do not specifically cover a national leaders’ debate, but the principles they set out argue not just that they can wheel out the empty chair but that they should. On general output, BBC published editorial policy is that one reluctant participant cannot stop an item: ‘The refusal of an individual or an organisation to make a contribution should not be allowed to act as a veto on the appearance of other contributors”’.
I hope that the broadcasters, and in particular the BBC, will feel able to pay attention to those words. For the BBC, I hope that that will happen without it being threatened over the future of the charter review.
I wonder if there may be some lack of distinction in the generic use of the term “empty chair”. Is that a generic term used to describe someone who does not show up rather than the graphic realisation of a set with, let us say, three of four chairs occupied and one not occupied? There may be a distinction between the guidelines and a casual use of the term “empty chair”, which denotes something more generic.
Having, in a general election, witnessed an empty chair because Simon Hughes was running late, I completely recognise the physical embodiment of that. By the way, we should always make sure that Simon Hughes is at least an hour early because he will be late and there will be an empty chair. Yes, of course I recognise what the noble Lord described, but Roger Mosey was very clear in his article that this should be used as a means to explain that you cannot veto.
The suggestions in the committee’s report about engagement through social media and websites are welcome. I share its view and hope that broadcasters will make full use of some of the recommendations. While on the subject, in 2010 the media—both print and broadcast—did themselves a bit of a disservice. Having won a great victory in engaging the voter, they then spent disproportionate broadcast time and attention on the somewhat glorified and over-spun “spin room”. I recognise that it is always a temptation for journalists to write and broadcast about themselves, thus emphasising to the viewer just how excluded they are—so I would like broadcasters to consider not overblowing that next time.
What is the block on opening up democracy and having leaders’ debates? Sadly, it appears to be one person, who believes that he can veto or dictate democracy. It is not for any one politician to try and dictate the terms of the debates. We all know that each political party will inevitably seek to serve its own interests. That is why we have a regulatory body in Ofcom to make decisions as to who is a major political party. It is not a decision for David Cameron to make as to which of the minority parties are at the debate. This is, after all, a Prime Minister whose record on the environment was left by the wayside along with the modernisation of the Conservative Party. His actions over the past week lead me to only one possible conclusion: that he is doing everything he possibly can to avoid these debates. That is in the face of all the evidence about voter engagement. It is a very cynical use of the green movement—as cynical as strapping a harness on a husky and heading to the Arctic. Anyone who cares about open and democratic debate should see it for the campaigning tactic that it is—and voters deserve better.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his very interesting and reflective speech, raised the question of whether the large, public political meeting was at an end. Certainly, I have been at a few very large public political meetings in my time. I remember as a cub reporter on the Financial Times going to Kelvin Hall in Glasgow and Alec Douglas-Home, no less, being able to fill the entire hall with outflow on top of that. It was an astonishing occasion, full of good Glaswegian and Scottish politics. Further on, I remember, as a political activist, the Hillhead campaign of Roy Jenkins, who was able to fill several halls, one after the other, with very large numbers of people. I always remember Roy Jenkins on those occasions speaking to the people of Glasgow as though he were addressing the Reform Club. I think they took this as a compliment, because he was not speaking down to them. One trick he used in his speeches was that there was always one word that nobody else could understand. In this case, I remember, it was “periphrastic”; I shall leave that with you, just to mull over.
More recently, in Scotland during the referendum debate, there were huge meetings. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has had huge meetings since that debate finished. Clearly—I am glad about this—the old-style public political meeting is not at an end. In the coming general election, it will depend on the interest shown, which I think will be profound, because the result is so uncertain. So there will be many important political meetings. None the less, over the past few years the broadcast element of the debates has become more important.
I congratulate the committee on its report. I am now a member of that committee but I was not a member at the time, so I can say in all frankness that the report is very well reasoned and logical. Its conclusion about public debates on TV is extremely simple, and I shall quote it as saying that,
“it must be recognised that the decision about who is invited to participate in television programmes will have to continue to be one that is consistent with the legal and regulatory framework around broadcasting”.
That is the nub of the matter; that is what has to happen. But how do we fill in that excellent statement of principle by the committee? It was filled in by Ric Bailey of the BBC, who in his evidence to the committee said that,
“the best way to make a judgment about these things is to look at how real people vote in real elections. Our starting point would be the last general election, but we would also look at subsequent elections. We would also look at any other evidence that might be relevant to setting out the political context. That might include a consistent, robust trend in opinion polling. All of those things we will take into account and, just as we do with any other election and any other coverage, we would make an editorial judgment based on that. That is something that we do at each and every election”.
That fleshes out the position very clearly.
However, if we look at the forthcoming general election in the light of the principles stated and the conclusions of the committee, and what Ric Bailey said about how the broadcasters would interpret those, the position is pellucidly clear. There are two parties: one, the Conservative Party, has the Prime Minister at its head; the other has the leader of the Opposition. Between them they have the majority of seats in the other place—about 250 to 300 each, or whatever—and they both have around 30% or so in the opinion polls. One or other of them will provide the Prime Minister after the election. If I may pursue my Glaswegian analogy, those two parties are the “old firm”, as it were—the Rangers and Celtic—of this discussion.
At a second level there is UKIP, which currently has 15% in the opinion polls and two Members of Parliament. It used to have no Members of Parliament, but two got in recently in by-elections. There are also the Liberal Democrats, who are part of the coalition, and have 56 seats. They now rate about 7% to 8% in current opinion polls. And there are the Greens, who have one seat, and 11% in the opinion polls. In terms of activists, the two major parties have about 170,000, in the case of the Labour Party, and about 150,000, in the case of the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens have between 40,000 and 50,000 activists and members. So there is clearly a second tier of parties, which are there and should therefore be considered.
The obvious conclusion is that we need two debates. All five parties—the two major parties, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens—should take part in the first debate. Then there should be a second debate in which Ed Miliband and David Cameron take part, as the only two people who are likely to become Prime Minister. If you want a third debate—I recognise that there are several elements among the broadcasters: Sky and Channel 4 as well as ITV and BBC—you could certainly have a debate between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his shadow opponent, Ed Balls.
It seems to me that the situation is utterly clear. You must have two or three debates. Five parties have to contribute and, in the final analysis, you must have a debate between the two people one of whom will become Prime Minister after the next general election.
As I said, I thought that the committee’s report was rational and logical. Raising the debate to an even higher level—I hope—I remind the House that Plato said that we reach correct decisions if we allow reason to triumph over emotion. I hope that reason will prevail in this context.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for this opportunity to discuss the informative and well judged report of your Lordships’ Communications Committee, which he summarised so well in introducing the debate. I declare a past interest in election broadcasting, having been in or around the ITV side of negotiations in eight general elections from 1970, when Harold Wilson lost to Ted Heath, through to 1997, when John Major lost to Tony Blair. Alas, there were no leadership debates in all that time and no agreement either in 2001 or 2005.
In my view, the explanation for the lack of agreement has never really changed. No party ahead in the opinion polls would risk its leader saying the wrong thing or performing poorly before polling day. The risk always outweighed the possible reward. Westminster veterans also recalled the alarming precedent of the 1960 televised debate in America, of which the noble Lord, Lord Grade, reminded us: Richard Nixon looking shifty and sweaty on screen and John F Kennedy going on to be elected President by the narrowest of margins. Television, with its close-up intimacy, was seen to encourage emotional responses that campaign managers could not predict or control.
Party managers here in Britain also argued that we do not elect presidents. We vote for MPs whose parties appoint their leaders, who may then become Prime Minister. Broadcasters should note the Communications Committee’s recommendation that in the context of televised leaders’ debates, they have a role to play in helping the British public to understand that they are not electing a president.
Today, the concern of established political parties might be the fear that charismatic celebrities with sweeping assertions and simple solutions will have a popular appeal that cannot easily be countered in the soundbite format of a multiparty debate on prime time television. Of course, that impact can now be amplified online by the explosion of social media.
The counterargument is that millions of citizens no longer register to vote and, with turnout in long-term decline, leaders must make better use of television and new media to reconnect with voters—as the leaders’ debates did in 2010, with good audiences and a pretty positive response.
I welcome the recommendation of the Communications Committee that stated:
“We encourage the broadcasters, in particular the PSBs”—
public sector broadcasters—
“mindful of their obligations and public purposes, to take very seriously the opportunities to develop activities around the debates to provide voter information and stimulate the public to be interested in the electoral process more generally”.
On traditional television channels—even ratings-conscious commercial channels such as ITV—general election programming frequently took priority over selling airtime to advertisers. Indeed, public service broadcasters have never given up on their efforts to make election coverage both serious and popular.
Finally, after a very long wait, we got a televised leaders’ debate in the general election of 2010, thanks to Prime Minister Gordon Brown breaking with precedent and agreeing to participate. The 2010 negotiations with broadcasters were still sensitive, and the agreement on the format was very detailed, with no fewer than 76 rules. These rules are still useful for 2015. The Communications Committee recommends that broadcasters should continue to oversee and produce the election debates, and I agree.
The regulator, Ofcom, is also clear that, although it gives guidance on which parties it judges are best qualified for inclusion in debates, the final decision on structure and participants remains with the broadcasters. As noble Lords will be aware, on recent electoral results and polling figures Ofcom judged that UKIP was now a major party but did not accept that the Green Party was yet a major player.
The broadcasters—BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and, this time, Sky—have proposed three general election debates. The first is to be between Conservative and Labour; the second will include the Liberal Democrats; and the third will also include UKIP. However, as we have heard, the Prime Minister has said that he will not participate in any debates if the Green Party is excluded. The political rationale seems quite clear. Including right-wing UKIP in the third debate would allow Nigel Farage to attract votes from the Conservatives, so also including the left-wing Greens would balance things up, since they are more likely to attract votes from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Back in 2010, it was David Cameron who was demanding a leaders’ debate and accusing Prime Minister Brown of dithering and being a bottler. Now, as Prime Minister, it is Mr Cameron who is being accused of being the bottler—but it seems unlikely that broadcasters will press on without the Prime Minister, or replace him with a chair or even a long statement. So what happens now? I read that ITV is open to including the Greens. With the proposed exclusion of the Green Party having boosted its opinion poll ratings, other broadcasters might also come to see its inclusion as fair play.
For the broadcasters, the change in format could be pretty minor. Instead of having first two, then three and then four leaders answering questions, there would by the end be five. If that leaves too little time per leader, running times can simply be extended for the last debate. That seems the easiest option for the broadcasters; the format is, after all, for them to decide. They could reasonably assume that giving the Green leader Natalie Bennett her 15 minutes of fame is unlikely to lead to a walkout by Messrs Miliband, Clegg and Farage. On the other hand, if these leaders agree to debates that include the Greens but Mr Cameron finds another reason to refuse to debate, he risks being seen as the dithering bottler of the 2015 general election. That will not go down too well with an already pretty cynical electorate. I therefore think and hope that the debates will happen.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for holding this debate on this important topic. I wish to detain the House only briefly, with just a few direct points.
When I was 23 years old, I was selected to run for Parliament for the first time. I was not remotely ready to be a Member of Parliament. I seemed to my prospective constituents to be what I undoubtedly was: preposterously young and immature. I still have a letter from the citizens advice bureau after one of my campaign visits. It said:
“Dear Mr Finkelstein. It was very nice to meet you. And your mother”.
This much I did know, however. If you want to make yourself look good, you should challenge your opponent to a debate so it was the first thing I did. He either agreed to it and awarded you a status as his equal or avoided it, so you could accuse him of running scared. This much I knew, but Ken Livingstone knew more. He accepted my invitation but held the debate at the Kilburn Irish Centre. I was not elected Member of Parliament for Brent East. I therefore come to this debate as a pragmatist, aware of why people call for debates and of what makes them turn out well or badly. The thinking of my old as well as noble friend Lady Grender is entirely clear to me.
With this in mind, here is my attitude. First, on the whole and taking one thing with another, I would rather have an election debate between the leaders than not. Should anyone question their value, the report to which the noble Lord directs our attention makes the case admirably. Secondly, while I realise that the House of Lords is often a machine for the discovery of hitherto unknown constitutional principles, the holding of leadership debates is not such a principle. We had almost a century of elections since the universal franchise without television debates. The party that believes they are in its interest suddenly discovers that they are vital to democracy then forgets this point again, or the other way round.
I notice, for instance, that my friend Alastair Campbell has been attacking the Prime Minister over what he wrongly asserts is a refusal to debate. He says that if Mr Cameron was confident then he would debate, and the principle involved means that the broadcasters should go ahead with an empty chair. Yet here is Alastair’s diary from 3 March 1997:
“We went back to Islington and on the way TB suddenly said he didn’t think it was really in our interests to have a television debate. Bizarrely Gordon, Peter and I had all come to pretty much the same conclusion over the weekend. GB felt Major was now seen as the underdog and therefore a TV debate was likely to help them. Our general view was that whilst we could see it would be good for TV, we were not convinced it would be good for politics. TB said can you imagine how ghastly the build up would be? It’s really all balls that it would improve democratic debate”.
I gently note the contrast between this and Alastair’s position now. I gently view many remarks about the imperative of the debate in the same way.
Thirdly, there is a way of reconciling the desirability of debates with inevitable and necessary political pragmatism, which everyone in this House shares when it suits them—a way of doing it sensibly and doing it right. That is to hold the debates on a fair basis that does not obviously favour any one party. There should be at least two debates: the first between the two serious candidates for Prime Minister, and the second between all the parties with a serious chance of securing seats at the election. This is an arrangement that all the party leaders would agree to and that would not favour any one of them. There would be no cause for an empty chair because a fair offer to debate had been made on a basis that everyone could agree to. It could allow the debates to go ahead—which, on the whole, I am mildly in favour of—but if not, then not.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for introducing this timely debate, and all the noble Lords on the Select Committee for producing this excellent report. As Harold Wilson was fond of saying, a week is a long time in politics, and to some the events of five years ago will seem like an age. In the light of recent events, I am sure I am not alone in being grateful to the committee for casting some light on this topic.
This report, particularly the evidence scrutinised by the committee, provides an excellent description of both the regulatory environment and the political background to the negotiations that led to the 2010 leader debates. I hope that understanding better how we got the debates agreed in 2010 will help the process this year. The thrust of the committee’s recommendations reflect, as we have heard in this debate, the public’s view that broadcast general election debates should take place during future campaigns. From the evidence to the committee, the format by which these debates were negotiated before the last general election was thorough and businesslike, and delivered an outcome that was beneficial to our democracy. If we could do it then, I see no need to change the process now. Then, as now, the broadcasters’ approach to negotiation and production displayed great professionalism and impartiality.
As the committee rightly says, the negotiators should ensure that the format evolves to maintain or increase the levels of voter engagement. However, this must be balanced against such changes jeopardising the debates’ taking place. The 2010 debates provided an unprecedented opportunity for voters to see the party leaders debate the critical issues facing our country, and were watched by more than 20 million people. As the report highlights, they were not without their critics, but there is no doubt that they had an impact on the public engaging more with the electoral process and, as we have heard, it is possible that they contributed to a higher voter turnout. As my noble friend Lord Dubs illustrated, turnout was noticeably higher than in 2001 and 2005; in 2005, the turnout was 61.4% and in 2010 it had risen to 65.4%.
What the debates did was generate debate. They generated debate in homes and offices throughout the country. For people like me, who were knocking on the doors in key seats after each debate, the impact was obvious. People wanted to talk, and it was about what they had seen and heard the leaders say rather than about what they had read in the newspaper.
It is interesting that this debate is talking about impartiality. In the past 100 years, most general elections have been reported in newspapers that have displayed very little impartiality and have taken a very partisan approach to politics. Fortunately, most people who read newspapers do not necessarily follow the editorial tone of the owners.
My noble friend Lord Dubs referred to political meetings and canvassing. We have heard this in the debate. I strongly believe—this is perhaps something else we should consider in terms of political engagement—that knocking on people’s doors and having a conversation is not an activity we should restrict to elections. Engaging with the electorate is something political parties and political activists should be doing outside general elections. That may also need to be reflected in what the broadcasters consider.
As we have heard, the debates also generated large audiences, which have not been seen for an election in modern times. They had not only noticeably higher average ratings than programmes such as “Question Time” and “Newsnight”, but unlike those programmes, people stayed watching. They saw the whole programme. They did not turn the TV off.
Another small point put in evidence to the committee was that the debates took place across the country, and I think this created real local pride. This should continue. We should avoid our politics being seen as simply focused on London SW1.
Coming together in 2010, the political parties may have had different motives for agreeing to the debates, but one thing was clear: they were enthusiastically endorsed by all those who took part, including David Cameron. As general secretary of the Labour Party at the time, I was very conscious that we could not afford to run campaigns in the way that we had done in the past. Resources were tight, and in quite a few elections we faced a press that was uniformly hostile to the party. It therefore made sense to make our case directly to the British people. We did that on the doorstep, but it was really important that we used the debates in that way to put the case. Like the committee, I recognise that the way in which the debates are currently set up provides important safeguards which ensure that all political parties are given due weight in broadcast election coverage.
The foresight of this House’s committee is to recognise that we cannot take for granted that debates will take place in future. A whole range of obstacles could stand in their way. As we know from recent events, chief among them is, of course, the risk that one of the political parties decides to withdraw. For all the reasons set out in the committee’s report, I believe it would be a major setback to our democratic processes if these debates were not repeated in 2015 because of one politician’s unwillingness to participate. The decision as to who should take part in the televised debates should not be in the hands of any party leader, each of whom inevitably has their own political interests to defend. As my noble friend Lady Healy said, it must be a decision independently and objectively arrived at. The broadcasters, who have strict obligations of political impartiality under the BBC charter and their Ofcom licences, have together made such an objective determination. As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, highlighted in his introduction, this clear requirement on broadcasters to report elections with due impartiality also requires them to give “due weight” to the coverage of the “major parties” during election periods.
It is up to the broadcasters who to invite and they have decided to invite only the major parties as defined by Ofcom.
We have heard in the course of this debate that ITV might be reconsidering its position in respect of the Greens. Given the noble Lord’s principled stand that it is for the broadcasters to invite parties to participate, if the broadcasters came to the Opposition and said that the Greens were going to take part, is that something that he could accept?
Ed Miliband has made it absolutely clear that if the broadcasters decide to invite the Greens, that is up to them, but he will participate in the debate. The principle that we are trying to establish is that it is not for Ed Miliband or for David Cameron to say, “This is how it must be”. If we are going to defend the broadcasters’ right to produce their own TV programmes independently, and do it in a way that is impartial in respect of their obligations, then it is not for Ed Miliband or David Cameron to say that they must have this and they must not have that.
I want to be clear that it is not for Ofcom either to decide who to invite, but I can understand why the broadcasters would want to adopt an objective procedure, such as that used for setting the minimum number of party election broadcasts. It is a recognised process and it ensures objectivity. However, I, too, agree with the committee’s view that we should not adopt the suggestion that eligibility to participate in televised debates should be based on an established vote share threshold or solely on opinion polling. The process that Ofcom has adopted and that it is now consulting on is a very good one and takes into account a range of factors.
I do not see, either, the need for the creation of a debates commission, which, if it does not have the buy-in of the parties or the broadcasters, will make it more likely that debates will not happen. Instead, it is better if the decision about who is invited to participate in television programmes continues to be one for the broadcasters, consistent with their legal and regulatory framework.
As we heard in the debate, and from members of the committee, there is uncertainty about whether a decision by one of the political parties to withdraw would necessarily mean that the debates could not proceed and still remain compliant with the broadcasters’ respective obligations. My party’s view is that if the broadcasters choose to invite major leaders such as Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and David Cameron to a debate and one of them decides not to show up, they can decide to go ahead without that leader. They can empty-chair him. We have heard arguments in this debate about impartiality and due weight. Every day on the “Today” programme I hear somebody say, “We did invite this person, but they decided not to participate”. It is common in broadcasting.
I end with the point that, as Ed Miliband has made clear, if the broadcasters want to invite someone else, that is up to them. All Ed Miliband wants is to get these debates on and, like the committee, so do I.
My Lords, I am pleased to wind up for the Government in this debate and very much welcome the opportunity for this House to discuss the Communications Committee’s detailed consideration of the broadcast general election debates. The Government are grateful for the committee’s report and its clearly thought-out findings. I thank the committee and its members, including my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Inglewood for bringing the committee’s good work to the attention of the House in this debate.
The reports of the committee, and our consideration of them, are becoming a staple of House of Lords business, with one report last week and another this—and quite right, too. This report, published in May 2014, almost a year before the forthcoming election, gives consideration to the growing prominence of televised election debates by reviewing the impact of the broadcast debates in 2010; examining the regulatory context for these and future debates; and looking at proposals for change. I should say in passing that the debates also went out on the radio. I remember listening to the first one in 2010 on the radio, travelling through mid-Wales, and enjoying it—intermittently, as noble Lords will appreciate, because of the nature of the terrain heading back to Cardiff.
The report does not contain recommendations to government, since its subject is not the Government’s direct responsibility, but it provides the House with a valuable reference document, setting out the legal and regulatory framework around broadcast general election debates, with key contributions and evidence from broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky. As my noble friend Lord Finkelstein rightly said, there is no constitutional principle that the debates should take place. If I may say so in the context of his contribution, Brent East’s loss is certainly the gain of your Lordships’ House—as I am sure noble Lords would join his mother in saying.
My noble friend Lord Grade and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, referred to the earlier experience in the United States of the first presidential debate in 1960. My noble friend Lord Grade referred to the fact that it did not happen at every presidential election thereafter, which is quite true. Other countries that have had broadcast debates, such as Canada, Australia and Germany, have also not had them for every election; it has been somewhat intermittent, differing from country to country. So experience is clearly built upon.
The first ever broadcast general election debates in the United Kingdom took place in April 2010 and were televised in successive weeks by broadcasters ITV, Sky News and the BBC, as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 5 Live. The first ever debate, on ITV1, attracted an audience of 9.4 million viewers between 8.30 pm 10 pm—a 37% share of the total TV audience over that period, beating Coronation Street and EastEnders to become the most watched programme of that day. The average viewing figures for successive debates were 4 million for Sky and 8.1 million for the BBC, meaning that the total of the three audiences was above 22 million. In the case of the BBC and ITV, these impressive viewing figures achieved much higher audience figures than typical BBC current affairs programmes.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the importance of the debates, given the changing nature of election campaigns and contests and the relative death of the public meeting over a period of time—although my noble friend Lord Horam rightly referred to the experience in Scotland, which shows that that is not necessarily the case. Clearly, you only have to look across the Atlantic to the 2008 presidential campaign and the number of people that President Obama could pack into an arena to see that there is nothing inevitable about the death of the public meeting, although admittedly the election background there is somewhat different from our own.
Perhaps most significantly, evidence referenced in the report illustrates that the broadcast debates served to increase engagement with young people—many noble Lords referred to that point—with many first-time voters energised by the debates. For example, as many as 55% of the 18 to 24 year-olds said that, as a result of having seen the first debate, they had become more interested in the campaign; 74% of them considered that they had learnt something about the parties’ policies from the debates; 50% of this demographic, along with 51% of 25 to 39 year-olds, said that the debates had helped them to make up their minds how to vote; and 92% of younger voters said that they had talked about the debates with others. The committee also received evidence from Channel 4 that among 18 to 24 year-olds, television still remained more popular than newspapers and online for the consumption of news.
These figures provide clear evidence that there is a public appetite for the broadcast general election debates and, as highlighted in the report, there is a high level of public perception that broadcast debates will happen again in 2015. These points were referred to by my noble friend Lady Grender among others. The committee was persuaded by this evidence that the broadcast general election debates served the public interest by increasing public engagement with the electoral process, and recommended that they should take place during future campaigns.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the relative ease of the agreement in 2010. I think that it was relative; certainly concerns were expressed by some political parties. I think I am right in saying that Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens all raised concerns. The relative fragmentation of the party system since will make agreement more difficult, as I think noble Lords would accept.
However, an important area of consideration for this report is the regulatory context of the broadcast debates and how this could come to have an impact on participation. Due accuracy and impartiality remain at the heart of licensed broadcasting services and under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom—the United Kingdom’s independent communications regulator and competition authority—is required to set standards for programmes on television and radio that exist in the form of the broadcasting code.
The broadcasting code applies to all broadcasters licensed by Ofcom but not to the BBC, where oversight of the output falls to the BBC Trust as the sole regulator for impartiality and accuracy. However, both regulators apply broadly similar standards. In the case of the BBC there is a set of editorial guidelines and election guidelines to ensure impartiality and accuracy, while under the broadcasting code there are specific rules that apply during election periods and which include the requirement for broadcasters to ensure that their coverage is duly impartial and gives due weight to major parties.
Ofcom also sets rules to require the allocation of party election broadcasts through its list of major parties. The list reflects the fact that some political parties have a significant level of electoral support, and a number of elected representatives, across a range of elections within the United Kingdom or the devolved nations. Reading the report, I was reminded that I had taken part in a general election debate in Wales, although I was not a candidate for the election. In fact, three of the four people participating in the debate were not candidates. So clearly there is a different position for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in relation to their general elections—and quite right, too.
The Ofcom list of major parties is important because rules on party political and referendum broadcasts, and certain parts of the broadcasting code, impose obligations on licensed broadcasters by reference to the major parties on the list. In determining the composition of the list, Ofcom looks at evidence of past electoral support and evidence of current support as demonstrated by opinion poll data—although there is nothing scientific, I think, in this process. More information on the analytical framework that Ofcom uses to assess the evidence of past electoral and current support can be found in its consultation regarding the composition of the list of major parties that was published on 8 January this year.
Designation of a party as major political party does not of itself—this point was made by many noble Lords—entitle that party to a right to participate in an election debate or limit the debate to the major parties that are set out on the list. That is a matter for the broadcasters, although no doubt they will pay due attention to the list. This consultation is published in advance of the general election taking place in May 2015 and the English local and mayoral elections taking place on the same day, and it closes on Thursday, 5 February 2015.
Following the consultation, Ofcom will obviously consider carefully any comments and views received before publishing a statement by, as I understand it, early March 2015, and, if appropriate, any revised list of major parties. This will permit the broadcasters and political parties to plan ahead, aware of Ofcom’s decision on the list of major parties, for the May 2015 elections.
It is important to note that, while Ofcom has an important role in the regulatory framework under which broadcasters must produce television programmes during election periods, it does not determine the structure, format and style of any possible TV leaders’ election debates. The decision on which leaders are represented in any broadcast debate is an editorial matter for broadcasters in agreement with the political parties taking part.
The requirement of “due impartiality” means that broadcasters must always strive to achieve a balanced presentation of a range of points of view on matters of political or industrial controversy and relating to current public policy. However, within the statutory framework set up by Parliament, it is the responsibility of the broadcasters to make judgments about individual programme content. This is also recognised within the committee’s report, which highlights that the decision on who is invited to participate in televised debates will continue to be one that is consistent with the legal and regulatory framework around broadcasting.
Having set out the regulatory context, the report looks at proposals for changes to the debates, including the case for a body to oversee and produce broadcast election debates independently of the broadcasters. However, it determines that there are no compelling arguments for the introduction of such a body. This is a view that is widely held.
The report concludes by making a number of informative recommendations for reforms if the debates are to take place in 2015 and beyond. These recommendations, aimed largely at the broadcasters, include the proposal to establish a single online portal or hub for the debates to ensure their easy discoverability alongside other election resources, as well as a recommendation to ensure that the format evolves as necessary to maintain or increase voter engagement. This, too, seems popular.
A significant observation by the committee, and an important recommendation from the report, was that the broadcasters should exercise their editorial judgment to reflect the committee’s concern about the lack of diversity, in both gender and ethnicity, in relation to the debate moderators in the 2010 debates, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The Government encourage the media and creative industries to continue to take proactive steps to change and improve diversity right across their sectors. In broadcasting, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and BSkyB have all set out a number of actions and some challenging targets for increasing ethnicity on and off screen. While the Government believe that it is for the media industry itself, including broadcasters, producers, media organisations and others, to take the lead and promote equality among its employees, we ensure that broadcasters in particular are subject to a strong legal framework designed to promote gender balance. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is also playing a part in raising the profile of the issue. Ministers have chaired a series of round-table discussions with leaders in the broadcast, film and performing arts industries to discuss what more they can do to tackle it.
The committee’s report serves as an important and valuable document, setting out the legal and regulatory framework around broadcast general election debates and making a number of very useful recommendations to broadcasters ahead of future potential debates. Once again, I thank the committee for its good work and contributions and for producing this insightful report into an important part of our political life.
Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may point out that he touched, almost inadvertently, on a rather important point. In mid-Wales, it is quite hard to catch political broadcasts or, indeed, anything else on the radio because of the terrain. The Minister cannot do much about that this evening, but I thought he might like to reassure your Lordships’ House that the sheer beauty of the terrain in mid-Wales more than made up for the damage it inflicted on his listening on his car journey.
My Lords, it was not at all inadvertent. I had the great privilege of representing Mid and West Wales for 12 years in the National Assembly for Wales and I was unable then to do a great deal to improve reception. I can probably do even less now. However, the point is extremely well made about what a beautiful area it is, as the noble Lord knows very well. I hope that something can be done to improve reception for people in that area on all sorts of radio.
My Lords, I would like to thank all those who have taken part in the debate, both those who have been members of the Communications Committee and those who have not, for the general reception which they have accorded to it. I add as a proviso that this is the last time that I will speak in my capacity as the “ancien chairman” of the Communications Committee.
I was particularly pleased that a number of the illustrations used came from outside the M25. It is important that, in considering these topics, we think of the country as a whole, by which I mean the United Kingdom as a whole. I was especially glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, refer to the Keswick Words by the Water Literary Festival. My natural modesty almost forbids me, but the rules of procedure mean that I should declare an interest. I am speaking on a panel there at the next festival quite soon.
If you think about it in military terms, we are in a period in which the political parties are now engaged in a war in order to win the democratic mandate to run this country for the next five years. The battle that is decisive is to be fought on 7 May. We are now in a period of skirmishing where the various parties are—if I can change the analogy—like dogs before a dog fight, looking at each other, growling, snarling and seeing what they think is going to be the best move for them. Of course, that is where we are in the context of the general election debates.
I was talking to our excellent special adviser quite recently, who said that he thought that one of the important consequences of the report—this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Bourne—was that the discussion of this topic in the media by the commentariat is a great deal better informed and more precise and accurate than it has been on previous occasions. I would like to think that this report may have contributed to that. He also made a telling comment, which was that no one has yet walked away. We are at the period where the dogs are looking at each and circling around each other. The important point to remember about this topic is that, while it may be only a short time until the formal general election campaign gets under way, there is still a long way to go.
House adjourned at 6.38 pm.