House of Lords
Thursday, 12 March 2015.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.
Planning Laws: Basements
My Lords, this Government consider that powers already available to local authorities are sufficient to control the planning and construction processes of basement development. Local authorities in areas affected by basement development can adopt appropriate local plan policies, and many in London have. Some authorities provide guidance on basement development to help householders and, indeed, neighbours understand the process and consents involved.
My Lords, I disagree with the Minister. Does he not agree that there is an epidemic of these basement excavations, extending from Kensington and Westminster to other boroughs? People are highly alarmed at the prospect of such excavations—on flood plains—such that they may damage neighbours’ houses, particularly when they are narrow terraced houses, and neighbours are appalled at the thought that they are going to have a year’s disruption, chaos and unpleasantness while the building work is going on, such that if it were caused by anybody else it would attract an ASBO. Surely the Government ought at least to give local authorities the power to say no in such places—not to say never, but to say no where it would be better for the interests of the local community to say no.
Of course I sympathise that many developments take place which are not just inconvenient but a nuisance to neighbours. The Government have sought to work with local authorities, such as my local authority, Merton. I believe that about 16 local authorities across London have issued supplementary planning guidance or have adapted local policies to look at this issue. There are other things, such as the Environmental Protection Act, the Building Regulations 2010 and the Party Wall etc. Act, which combined we feel provide a basis on which to look at these issues both constructively—excuse the pun—and progressively.
But on this occasion I very much agree with him. Those of us who live in central London know that this basement business has become an absolute epidemic. It is inspiring a great deal of fear and concern in people. Whatever the Minister may say, the fact of the matter seems to be that individuals can embark on these processes, causing great distress to their neighbours, without any come-back from the local authority or anyone else. If I may say so to the Minister, I think that to those of us who live in the middle of London his reply sounds a little Panglossian.
I am glad to hear that my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, are in agreement despite their past rivalries. On this issue, policies are being adopted. For example, Kensington and Chelsea adopted a new policy at the start of this year which is ensuring that “iceberg” developments, which go down further than one storey, can no longer happen and that basements do not exceed 50% of the garden or open plan and do not add more floors beyond implemented planning permission. Kensington and Chelsea has brought in a range of policies and other local authorities are looking at that. It is right that local authorities take forward what they see as best for their area.
My Lords, we know that currently some basements can be built under permitted development rights, which can be removed through an Article 4 direction so that a planning application would be necessary. However, in those circumstances no planning fee can be levied by the local planning authority as a consequence of the work that it has to undertake. That may not be a problem for the richer boroughs, such as Kensington and Chelsea, but it is a real issue for some London boroughs, which have had their planning and regeneration departments decimated by cuts. Is it not time to reconsider that issue of the fee?
Again, as the noble Lord has pointed out, a local authority can make an Article 4 direction. As with all things, we are looking at this area very closely. We are seeing an evolving situation and local authorities are progressing. On the issue of the fee, I note what the noble Lord has said, and I will take that back.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned Kensington and Chelsea. Is he aware that it took that council two years to get its basement policy through the process and finally adopted as part of its local plan? As others have said, this is now becoming a critical problem in parts of London. What can his department do to speed up this process and to give support to local planning authorities, which are trying to resist inappropriate basement extensions?
I say to my noble friend, as I have already said, that we are already working closely with local authorities. Again, the Localism Act provided a further basis for those decisions to be made on a devolved basis, which is exactly what we are seeing.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that my Subterranean Development Bill passed through the House some time ago. At that time, it was determined that there was no need for more primary legislation—only regulation. It was agreed with the officials that they would produce regulations and a report. I am still waiting for that. Can the Minister tell me where that report is?
I pay tribute to my noble friend for his Private Member’s Bill in this respect. He is quite right; my understanding was certainly that guidance has been reviewed since his Bill, particularly on party wall issues. I will take back the issues he raised about not knowing whether the guidance has been issued. Certainly my understanding is that the party wall policy has been reviewed following that Bill.
I share the noble Baroness’s view of the important role of the HSE. Perhaps she is aware that this very week the HSE is carrying out an inspection of basement policies in two key boroughs: Kensington and Chelsea—which has already been mentioned—and Hammersmith and Fulham. The HSE has a very important role to fulfil in ensuring the safety of these developments.
My Lords, in view of the terrible disturbances that such developments have caused to neighbours, is it not time for the Government to look at some statutory compensation scheme for people who live beside them? I declare an interest as somebody who has been sitting in the middle of developments on either side of me for the past eight months and been nearly driven mad. My daughter is about to have a basement dug up next to her. Very little effort is made to enable people who are affected by these developments to have any compensation or redress.
Of course I note with great care what my noble friend has said and will take it back. It is somewhat amusing that these schemes are sometimes referred to as “subterranean development”, which sounds like the sun is shining, but for some neighbours, as I fully acknowledge, that is certainly not the case.
My Lords, as part of a series of employment tribunal reforms, early conciliation was introduced in April 2014. It provides a robust mechanism to resolve employment disputes without the formalities of a courtroom setting. We are closely monitoring the implementation and effectiveness of early conciliation, and initial signs are encouraging. ACAS has already recorded nearly 60,000 employee notifications, with more than 90% of those involved willing to give the service a try.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but there are still instances where people want to take their case to a tribunal but can do so only if they are able to pay a fee of as much as £1,000 to get a hearing. That is quite unacceptable. Do the Government think that if people cannot afford to pay that to get their hearing they should simply put up with the situation as it is and get on with it? I do not think that that is acceptable, and certainly it is not beneficial to the employee. The bad employer may quite like it, but the good employer does not, and an employee who is disabled and generally upset really would like to get a hearing before a tribunal.
My Lords, the point of early conciliation is to encourage claimants not to go to an employment tribunal. Ninety per cent of employees agree with the system and want to work with the conciliation service. Under the new arrangements, 60.5% of cases that went to early conciliation did not proceed to an employment tribunal, and 16.3% of cases were settled. For those who want to go to an employment tribunal, there is a fee remission system based on savings. Broadly, people whose monthly income is below a certain level do not have to pay. Anyone who receives means-tested benefits does not have to pay or gets a reduced fee.
My Lords, the costs involved in going to an employment tribunal are still a deterrent, even taking into account what the Minister said. I ask him to reflect on the fact that, even when you have won your claim at an employment tribunal, the matter does not end there; it depends on the employer paying the award. In a situation where an employer does not pay—I have referred to this previously, including last night—there is a penalty and they are fined, but still no money goes to the successful claimant. Will the Government consider dealing with the costs to a claimant in having to go through the courts to get their award?
My Lords, is not the whole point of having an arbitration system where most claims are settled that those which are not settled are the ones that have to be litigated, because there is no agreement? For there to be a just system, there has to be accessible to that litigant an opportunity to do that. Does the Minister not take the point made by my noble friend Lady Turner that if the fee for so doing is prohibitive, the person with a just claim, where the employers will not settle, has nowhere to go?
I do not accept the noble and learned Baroness’s premise. If the cost of the fees was prohibitive and stopped people going to an employment tribunal, that would be the case, but there are many reasons why people do not go to employment tribunals: the level of fees is not the only one. The fee reduction programme that we have in place is there specifically to allow people of limited means to access employment tribunals, as is their right.
I was going to come to the income level. There is a series of levels. I can give some examples. An applicant who has a partner and two children and a joint income of £1,735 per month will not have to pay anything towards the fee. Another example is an applicant with an average UK couple’s income of £2,700 with two children would have to contribute £480 towards the fee.
My Lords, Alison White was appointed as the independent Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists last September. She has consulted, issued guidance and made good progress on practical arrangements for the register. On 26 February, the Government laid the Registration of Consultant Lobbyists Regulations 2015, which completes the statutory framework for the register. The Government are therefore on course to commence the provisions before the general election.
My Lords, I tabled a Written Question asking what meetings the Treasury had had with the drinks industry prior to the forthcoming Budget. I was given no Answer but told to look on the website. The latest meeting recorded there was in March last year. We now hear from the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists that she expects to have only between 50 and 75 people on her register—because, of course, only consultant lobbyists, not in-house lobbyists, are covered—and that even then they will not be on the register by the election because the process is only starting. Does the Minister share my judgment that the register will be a complete failure because it does not include in-house lobbyists and does not provide transparency and will therefore need a radical overhaul?
My Lords, I do not share that view. From the last four years of dealing with how one implements greater transparency in lobbying, I have learnt that it is impossible to satisfy everyone—indeed, it is very difficult to satisfy anyone. The various associations of professional consultants, lobbyists and others have all in some ways campaigned against it. People have said that MPs and Peers should all be on the register; last week we were told that the Australian system is infinitely inferior to the current British system; et cetera. We are taking a step forward. We have resisted the idea that everyone who lobbies should be on the register, because that would produce a vast register. We are starting by trying to make consultant lobbyists much more transparent about on whose behalf they are lobbying. That is the purpose of the measure.
My Lords, this Government are of course the first to record all lobbying meetings with Ministers, but does my noble friend recall that if any organisation—say, Tesco—has meetings with government, it is very difficult to see how many meetings have taken place? Indeed, if one wanted to analyse that over a year, one would have to look at 108 separate spreadsheets. My noble friend will recall that I was given a specific assurance that that problem would be addressed during the passage of the Transparency and Lobbying Act. Do we now have a register of lobbying, so that we can see where those meetings are taking place? Can he confirm that the process will be improved before Dissolution, so that at least the next Government can have a transparent regime?
My Lords, all of us in the Government are well aware that each three months our meetings are pored over and officials ask us to specify who met us, and on whose behalf if that is not entirely clear. I recognise that that has not been pulled together for all members of the Government and we should perhaps look at finding a programme which will enable us to pull all that together more easily. However, we have made progress. Whoever forms the Government after the election will discover how immensely difficult this area is and will, I suspect, decide to let this legislation bed down for a period before they move on to the next step.
Does the Minister not accept that what he says sounds very much like the situation in the old days when there was a campaign to get a register of interests of Members of Parliament and, indeed, of Members of this House? However, it is always too difficult and it always takes a long time. What we really need now is action. Will the Minister give it to us?
My Lords, this is action—we have forced professional consultants to register. The regulations set out the terms and conditions under which they will have to register and list the companies and interests on whose behalf they are lobbying. I think we all recognise how difficult it is to define lobbying. All of us in this Chamber are lobbied every day, often by people who are paid for the messages they give us or the meetings they have with us. When they represent a clear interest, that is registered in our diaries if we are members of the Government. That is clear. It is the consultant lobbyists on whom we are focusing.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm, however, that this register will not include the in-house lobbyists of, say, tobacco companies? He talks about satisfying everyone. How does the measure satisfy his Liberal Democrat colleagues because it is entirely inconsistent with alleged Liberal Democrat policy?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, tobacco companies and drinks companies clearly have very strong vested interests. However, if Diageo or British American Tobacco went to see a Minister, that would be recorded directly in the Minister’s diary.
I suggest that the next step after two or three years’ operation of this measure will be for the next Government to review how effective this process has been and how many professional lobbyists have registered. There is active resistance to this measure. I have been reading PRNews and various other publications and they all say that the measure is inadequate or unclear. We will see how well the excellent woman who has been appointed to the statutory regulator fulfils her duties. After that, we will consider what we might do to expand our activities in this area. If we were to register every single lobbyist of every single company that lobbies directly for its interests, we would have a vast bureaucracy. That is not something that we should undertake lightly.
My Lords, the Government utterly condemn ISIL’s wanton destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iraq. We are not alone. The United Nations Security Council, the head of UNESCO, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab League have all condemned ISIL’s systematic destruction of historic sites and relics. We will continue to work with Arab states, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to counter ISIL. We recognise the important contributions they are making to the global effort.
I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Does he agree that in destroying these iconic sites in Mesopotamia, ISIS is trying to destroy what are part and parcel of everyone’s civilisation, our common civilisation, with elements imparted into all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and that this is the moment for leaders, both political and religious, in the West and the Middle East to proclaim this together? Does he also agree that those considering joining ISIS from this country, from Britain, should be asked rather sharply to acknowledge that attempts to justify such acts of iconoclastic vandalism are as arrogant and as threadbare as any that could be found for bulldozing Stonehenge?
My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned iconoclasm. It has been an aspect of a number of religions including, sadly, Christianity in the past. When I, from time to time, give tours of Westminster Abbey for charity, I point out to people the various bits of destruction that the Puritans had executed there, as in many other churches around Britain. We are faced with a radical ideology, which has a particularly narrow definition of Islam, in which iconoclasm is part of what it wishes to do.
My Lords, is not the sacking of historic Nimrud, the great Assyrian capital, as mindless as the bulldozing of ancient Hatra, only 100 kilometres away from Mosul? Is it not ironic that the so-called Islamic State, in its gothic ignorance, is bulldozing one of the earliest centres of Arab civilisation? Will Her Majesty’s Government remind the modern-day, latter-day, Arab nations that their cultural heritage is part of the cultural heritage of humankind, which is a matter of concern to us all?
My Lords, it is not entirely easy to communicate with the leadership of ISIL and it is a question of Muslim heritage and pre-Muslim sites which it is concerned about. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, has a great deal of expertise in all this and I also know that for all those engaged in the study of ancient history this is an extremely painful experience. We are doing what we can.
My Lords, is not the bulldozing of the ancient city of Nimrud, the Assyrian city that stands for so much of Mesopotamia’s history, as the noble Lord said, on a par with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Sufi monuments in Mali in 2011? Is not this destruction of the collective memory of humankind that has just been referred to, and the murder by ISIL of so many of the people who live in that part of Iraq and in Syria, what Ban Ki-moon called earlier this week crimes against humanity? Will the noble Lord tell us what will be done to bring those responsible before the International Criminal Court where they may be tried? What is being done to stop the artefacts that have been acquired now being sold on international markets? What is being done to retake the plain of Nineveh?
My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of questions. Part of what is going on is the deliberate destruction of these sites, including by heavy explosives, and part of what is happening is the smuggling of antiquities. They are parallel, rather different, activities. We are working with all our partners in the European Union and through UNESCO to stop that trade, which of course provides a means of financing these radical movements. In the Middle East, there are allegations that some of the antiquities are being sold in Lebanon and Turkey.
My Lords, I agree with everything that has been said across the House and elsewhere in condemnation of these appalling actions. May I, in the interests of the continuity of civilised standards, ask the Minister what he thinks of the way in which Margot Wallström, the Swedish Foreign Minister, was prevented from speaking at the Arab League on the subject of women’s rights?
My Lords, we regret that event, which was part of a long dialogue between advanced countries and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia was deeply unhappy with it. As part of my preparation for this programme, I have just read a very interesting and depressing article on the links between authoritarian government in the Middle East and authoritarian behaviour in families across the Middle East. We are all beginning more and more to understand that raising the status of women is essential to moving towards more enlightened government and better social and economic development.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that because of the Wahhabi doctrine, which the Saudi Arabians promote, they believe in the destruction of historic monuments, even those associated with the life of the Prophet? Will the Government remonstrate with the Saudi Arabians about the practice of destroying sites associated with the Prophet?
My Lords, I am well aware that the strictest form of Salafism believes in the destruction of idols. There is a certain amount in the Old Testament about the destruction of idols, for those of us who remember those particular chapters. Unfortunately, these are part of the most ancient and crabbed versions of different religions. We argue with the Saudis about producing a much more enlightened version of Islam and encouraging that within their own country.
My Lords, if any further proof was needed, the destruction of the remains of ancient Nimrud shows the sheer barbarism of ISIL. By the way, I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the Minister a happy birthday today. We know him to be a very busy and conscientious Minister with many tasks. Will he confirm that there are now no remaining blockages to Britain signing up to the implementation of the Hague convention on the protection of cultural property?
My Lords, the blockage on that has been a matter of finding legislative time. Reading through the preparation for this, it seems to me that this is an ideal Bill for one of us to take through this House if there is not time in the first Session of the next Government. We last considered the question of ratification in 2004. Sadly, no Government since then have found time in their legislative programme.
My Lords, I will have to write to the noble Lord about that. It is a very good question. The complex history of the Middle East and the relationship between different religions in the Middle East is part of what is being destroyed. Those of us who have visited, for example, the Great Mosque in Damascus, which has the tomb of St John the Baptist inside it, will know the extent to which what is happening in the Middle East is sadly destroying its historic diversity. That is something that we certainly need to teach our Muslim British about.
Motion to Agree
My Lords, the present Parliament has seen House of Lords Select Committee activity at a higher level than ever before, including two additional units of committee activity. This increase, including in particular the growth of ad hoc committees and the introduction of post-legislative scrutiny committees, has been popular with Members and has added to the work of your Lordships’ House and its standing in the country. So, too, has been the practice of inviting Members of the House to suggest their own proposals for ad hoc committees. This year, we had 42 proposals by the time of the deadline.
As usual, the Liaison Committee discussed the work of this Session’s ad hoc committees with their respective chairmen. We concluded that the three new ad hoc committees and the post-legislative scrutiny committee on extradition law worked well. The committee recommended maintaining the current high level of committee activity in the first Session of the new Parliament.
We have also made provision to support the work of pre-legislative scrutiny committees in the new Parliament, recognising that the production of draft Bills in the first Session after a general election can—shall we say?—be somewhat unpredictable. There has been one such committee this Session—the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, which has recently reported.
Turning to our recommendations for ad hoc committees in the next Session, we bore in mind our previous agreement in principle that one of the committees chosen each Session should be on an international relations subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, proposed a Select Committee on sexual violence in conflict: the UK and global response. As she highlighted in her proposal, there is a growing recognition that war-zone sexual violence is a key foreign policy and security issue. There is cross-party consensus on the importance of this issue but there has never been a parliamentary committee of either House exploring it in depth. An ad hoc committee on sexual violence in conflict would therefore be breaking new ground, and we recommend the appointment of such a committee in the new Session.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Whitaker, proposed a Select Committee on policy for the built environment—another area where a cross-cutting inquiry is overdue. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, proposed a Select Committee on social mobility, focusing on the transition from school to work. The Liaison Committee thought that such an inquiry would be timely in the light of increasing recognition of social mobility as a key social policy issue. The Liaison Committee recommended the appointment of an ad hoc committee on each of those subjects.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, proposed a post-legislative scrutiny committee on the disability provisions of the Equality Act 2010. This Act is wide-ranging, and the committee agreed with the noble Baroness that limiting the review to disability would help ensure a focused inquiry, allowing it to examine the issues in greater detail within the one Session.
With 42 proposals, inevitably it is not possible to please all Members of the House. However, I am confident that these new committees will deliver as high a quality of report as those which have just reported. In the present Parliament, the House of Lords Select Committee system has gone from strength to strength. Long may this continue. I beg to move.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Liaison Committee and those who have been involved in the negotiations on ensuring that in future Treasury officials and Ministers will appear in front of the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House. Until now, that has not been the case, with the one exception of an economic committee. It is plainly wrong that Ministers and officials should not have appeared before your Lordships’ committee on matters in which the Treasury is clearly involved. Therefore, ensuring that in future we will have the benefit of evidence from Treasury officials and Ministers is a considerable step forward.
My Lords, I welcome the Liaison Committee’s report, even though the committee did not choose any of the six recommendations that I put forward as topics. However, I shall try again next year.
I ask for an assurance from the Chairman of Committees that these ad hoc committees, and indeed all Select Committees, will be adequately resourced—that they get the staff to service them, that they are able to appoint specialist advisers, and that they are able to go from place to place to take evidence and, if necessary, to travel overseas. I served on the ad hoc committee on soft power, ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. However, I felt that we were constantly constrained in our ability to carry out our work. In this House, unlimited funds seem to be made available for works around the House. I understand that those works are necessary but somehow the money seems to be found for ceremonies and all those kinds of things. But when it comes to the essential work and the reason we are here—to scrutinise legislation and to look at different topics—the money gets squeezed. We keep getting messages saying, “No, you can’t do this; no, you can’t do that”. There is no point in having these Select Committees unless they are properly and adequately resourced. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will give us that assurance.
My Lords, perhaps I may express some considerable disappointment that yet again the Liaison Committee has rejected proposals in my name and in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Jopling, for a foreign affairs or an international affairs committee. I express even greater disappointment that the Chairman of Committees should not have thought it necessary to explain why this proposal, which has been put forward on rather a large number of occasions, was rejected. He will be well aware, from last week’s debate on soft power, for example, that there is support for it from all corners of the House. Will he please therefore tell the House what consideration was given to the proposals put forward by these three Members of the House? At least we will then hear some explanation of why this rather luddite approach to this policy is still prevailing.
My Lords, I warmly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said. I think many of your Lordships are aware, and I am sure that the noble Lord is aware, that the global established order is now unravelling. Vast changes are taking place in foreign policy and in the interests and the promotion of the safeguarding of this country. Your Lordships’ House is full of considerable expertise on these matters, both long-term and short-term. I have heard it suggested that we must not duplicate the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place. I have to say that having been for 10 years the chair of that committee, I have some experience of how it works and I believe that there is no danger of duplication at all. On the contrary, if there was an international affairs committee in your Lordships’ House, it would be able to take up, reinforce and build on the excellent reports that come from that committee. Far from duplicating or getting in the way of it, there would be a very strong case, which I believe is getting stronger by the day, for setting up such a committee. I hope that it will now be considered very carefully.
Regarding correspondence on the establishment of an international affairs committee, perhaps I may add my voice to that of the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Jopling, and my noble friend Lord Hannay, in the representations that have been made again. I draw the attention of the Chairman of Committees to the excellent debate in your Lordships’ House two days ago on the ad hoc committee that looked at soft power. It is indicative that the noble Lord has already said to us that the first of the new ad hoc committees will be on an international issue of huge importance. While that is greatly appreciated—I am grateful to the noble Lord for that—does he not agree with the point made by the noble Lord about the unravelling of the international situation and the unique expertise held here in your Lordships’ House? If there is any justification—more than any other—for the existence of your Lordships’ House, it is this collective, unique expertise that is drawn together. In the area of international affairs, we have an important and unique contribution to make. I hope that, if it is not possible today to make progress on this, the Liaison Committee will look again at this in the new Session.
My Lords, my name was kindly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who is quite right. Let us look at the history of this. For many years, a number of us have been coming into this Chamber and complaining that we did not have a specific committee on foreign affairs similar to the one in another place. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said that he was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for 10 years and I had the pleasure of being a member of that committee down the Corridor for that same 10 years.
As a consequence of the pressure that we have all put on this, it was decided to have an ad hoc committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has said, each year with an element of international attention. If we are to have an ad hoc committee on international affairs every year, why on earth do we not have a permanent committee, with continuous staff, rather than having to appoint an ad hoc committee in each Session?
I am never quite sure who the people who control our affairs are, although I have my suspicions. I have a feeling that the pass has already been sold. We have these annual ad hoc international committees but, for goodness’ sake, let us have a permanent, proper foreign affairs committee in the same way as they have down the Corridor.
My Lords, there has been a chorus for the establishment of a permanent international affairs committee, but does the noble Lord agree that this House adds enormous value to the proceedings and scrutiny of Parliament with the work of its European affairs committee? The House of Lords Select Committee on European affairs is known around the world. It has a wide remit, as witnessed by its recently produced and excellent report on Russia. Can the noble Lord tell the House how many applications the Liaison Committee received for ad hoc committees on international affairs last year? It seems to me that a stand-alone foreign affairs committee would duplicate the work of the House Commons. A permanent committee would perhaps need a wider remit to look at international defence as well as foreign affairs.
My Lords, I served on the Committee on Soft Power, which was so brilliantly chaired by my noble friend, on the understanding that it would be used as a kind of test for whether or not we would go ahead and have a proper committee on foreign affairs, as my noble friend has suggested. In the debate on the committee’s report it was perfectly apparent that our committee was able to range across a whole range of issues to do with international and foreign affairs, and almost everyone in the debate pointed towards the need for an international affairs committee of this kind.
I say to my noble friend that, although it is true that this House has a tremendous reputation for the work done by its European affairs committees, there is a world beyond Europe. One of the points which came out of the report from the Select Committee was how important it was that we engage with that world beyond Europe—not just the Commonwealth but also Asia and the rest. It was clear from listening to the contributions made in that debate that there is fantastic experience in this House which should be put to good use, which will not conflict in any way with the House of Commons.
If the Chairman of Committees is going to say that it is all to do with resources—he is shaking his head. I am glad to see that resources are not a problem. If it is not about resources, what is the point of having a House with this expertise which is not able to look at the issues at a time of huge international tensions and when people around the country are increasingly concerned? I think that the other place would benefit from the expertise and contribution.
I hope the Chairman of Committees will suggest to the Liaison Committee that we should have an early opportunity for this House to decide. My noble friend Lord Jopling asked who is in charge. This House is in charge, and this House should get an opportunity to vote on the issue of whether or not we should have such a committee.
My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, I hope the House will agree with me that the four reports which have been produced this year are of a uniformly outstanding quality. The post-legislation report on the Mental Capacity Act exposed serious problems about its implementation, and I am pleased to say that the Government have taken that on board. The soft power report has already been mentioned, and I thought that the report on the Arctic was, for someone who knows nothing about the subject, quite outstanding. Lastly, the report on affordable childcare was very instructive and will help the future Government, of any kind, to take those matters forward. We must not lose anything of the quality of these reports, because they reflect very highly on your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for a moment. I am a member of the Liaison Committee and it may be that noble Lords will be interested to hear what goes through some of our minds. We are not against the idea of a Select Committee on foreign affairs, but it is a question of whether that would be better in the immediate circumstances than the position that we have at the moment whereby, annually, foreign affairs is given an ad hoc placing. The system has worked well. I am in the middle of reading the debate on soft power which took place the other day, and it was an excellent debate. It is the same each year whenever an ad hoc committee dealing with foreign affairs makes its report. We then have a debate on those matters.
However, we cannot confine debates on foreign affairs to a very small number of people. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has said, this House has a very large number of people with a vast amount of knowledge about these matters. If they are given the opportunity to become one of the very select few to serve on a committee of that nature, and who I understand would then serve for three years on a rotation basis, only they will have the almost exclusive opportunity to carry out investigations and inquiries into issues of foreign affairs. Under the ad hoc procedural arrangements, far more people have the opportunity to engage in debate on these matters. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, wishes to correct me, but I understand that that is the position. All I would say is that there is another side to this. We are not opposed to the idea, but let us give more people an opportunity to become involved in the inquiries that take place on these very sensitive subjects.
Finally, in the event that we have a foreign affairs committee, who will pick the agenda? It will be the foreign affairs committee. Under the ad hoc procedure, we pick the subject: you pick the subject—the House of Lords picks the subject. If they wish, Members can walk into a Lobby and vote against this report, but if they do not wish to do so—
My Lords, we always listen to the acute wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, with great attention, and I love the way that he often intervenes with a contrary view. However, on this occasion I have to say that I think he has missed the point. In the very words he has used about foreign relations, he has got it slightly wrong. We are not talking about foreign relations; we are talking about international relations. We are not talking just about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but about almost every department of state which now has an international interface and is deeply involved in international affairs. That is certainly the case in Europe, where splendid work is done, but increasingly our interests lie outside Europe and in the rising powers of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is not a question of confining these issues to the narrow experts on foreign affairs. At this moment the House is full of experts covering the huge new relationships that this nation has got to develop with almost every other country on earth, and every other interest, if we are to survive and prosper. I think that we should be playing our part in it properly.
My Lords, may I point out that the European Union Committee has an external affairs sub-committee that deals with international matters—most recently in its report on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat?
My Lords, I defer to no one in my respect for the EU Committee, chaired so well by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, but it is very distorting to say that the only discussion of international affairs in a committee of this House should be in a committee devoted to looking at the foreign and security policies of the European Union. I am a believer in the European Union, but like the noble Lord, Lord Howell, I believe that it is very important to look outside the European Union.
I should say that my plea for an international affairs committee of this House, a plea made for the seventh successive year, has not even rated a mention in the report of the Liaison Committee—which merely proves, I suppose, that I am neither great nor good.
My Lords, if I may suggest a reason why the Liaison Committee is not the best body to decide what ad hoc issues are discussed relating to international affairs, it is that those of us who have been on the EU Select Committee and its sub-committees for a number of years—I am sure that this applies to other standing committees—spend a great deal of time on those committees considering what subjects we should look at next. The expertise of those committees is what produces the next subject. With great respect to the Liaison Committee, I do not think that it has that same expertise.
My Lords, perhaps I may deal with a couple of early points, and then get on to what has taken us so much time.
First of all, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his comments. We have worked with the Treasury to make sure that we get a better understanding of the nature of the relationship between the department and our Select Committees. I am more than hopeful that, from now on, we will have a very much more constructive relationship with the Treasury. I think that that will again enhance the quality of our reports.
To the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I say that we are increasing, year on year, the amount of resource that we allocate to Select Committee work. We obviously have to take into account our responsibility for public expenditure, but that is not cramping the work of our Select Committees; I am sure of that. A usual Select Committee inquiry taking place over about a Session costs about a quarter of a million pounds. I think that that is money well spent, but we have to have a proper, reasonable and responsible attitude to the expenditure of individual committees.
I turn now to the matter of international affairs, foreign affairs, or whatever we wish to call it. I think that the present system is working rather well. Let us look at the topics. The most recent topic was on soft power, on which there was a very high-quality report and a high-quality debate. Today, I hope, we will decide to have a Select Committee on sexual violence in war zones. We will be breaking new ground when we do that. It will be the first parliamentary inquiry covering this area. I believe—and I think the House believes—that it is an important area of policy and one that we should examine. I just wonder, in the back of my mind, had we had a permanent Select Committee on foreign affairs, would it have really looked at soft power or at sexual violence in war zones? I leave that for the House to decide.
The Liaison Committee did consider the establishment of a separate Select Committee on foreign affairs as a sessional committee. I believe that the Liaison Committee has now come to a settled view that it would prefer a different approach to international affairs, whereby all Members of the House have the opportunity to put forward a topic for Select Committee inquiry—that we invite everybody to bring forward what they consider to be an important and relevant area on which this House can bring its expertise to bear. That is now the settled view of the Liaison Committee and I believe that it is the right view.
My Lords, the Chairman of Committees is in a bit of a hole, and I ask him not to go on digging. For example, the point that he made about all Members of the House having the right to put forward subjects could perfectly well be fulfilled within the remit of an international affairs committee. All that you need to do in setting up such a committee is to require it to be open to all Members of the House for suggestions as to what subjects should be chosen. It could be done just as well that way as in this way. I do not oppose the choice that the Chairman of Committees has put forward as the international subject for the next Session, but will he please agree to ask the Liaison Committee to consider putting the matter to the House for decision?
The noble Lord offers us the novel suggestion that a permanent sessional committee would canvass the views of all individual Members of the House. I am not aware of any other sessional committee that makes decisions about its future work programme on that basis. Perhaps others would like to try that novel suggestion out first.
There is another reason why the Liaison Committee has come to this view. It is simply that foreign affairs is a fairly heterogeneous area. It is fairly clear that if you are having an inquiry on Ukraine, say, you are more than likely to want to bring in people with expertise and interests that are slightly different from those of people interested in things like sexual violence in war zones. We are able to bring together the best collection of people with expertise in the whole foreign affairs field to deal with particular topics, rather than having a continuing committee of roughly the same sort of people going on for several years. That gives us a much greater opportunity to have variety and novelty and to bring expertise to bear, and that is why we have such high quality and a high reputation for the work of our ad hoc committees.
Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill
Order of Commitment Discharged
My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Control of Horses Bill
Order of Commitment Discharged
My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill
My Lords, with this Motion I should like to thank all those noble Lords who have spoken during the course of the Bill, or otherwise provided support throughout its passage. I extend particular thanks to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, as well as to all parties for their support. In particular, I thank the Bill team for its help.
House of Commons Commission Bill
My Lords, this is a very short and tightly focused Bill, which may not detain the House for too long. The origins of the Bill lie in the announcement of the retirement of the previous Clerk of the House of Commons in April last year and the subsequent competition for his replacement. Your Lordships will be aware that the former clerk was introduced as a Member of this House in January, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. I am sure that we will benefit from his parliamentary experience in the coming years.
As your Lordships may be aware, the process for appointing a new Clerk of the House of Commons was halted in September 2014, following reports that the post was to be offered to a candidate from the Australian Parliament. A Select Committee on House of Commons Governance was established in the other place with a remit to consider the governance of that House, including the future allocation of the responsibilities then exercised by the holder of the combined post of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive. The committee consisted of eight members from across the House of Commons and was chaired by the right honourable Jack Straw. It took a great deal of evidence from Members of that House, from staff, and from leaders in the public and private sectors. I think it is fair to say that at the outset there was a variety of views as to whether the administrative responsibilities of the Chief Executive should continue to be combined with the role of the Clerk of the House as chief constitutional adviser to the Speaker, and how any potential division of responsibilities would work.
The committee established to consider precisely these issues, and which itself represented a cross-section of views, came at the end to a unanimous view when it published its report on 17 December last year. The committee recommended that the two roles be split, with a new post of Director General of the House of Commons, reporting to the Clerk, to have responsibility for the administrative side of the role.
The committee made a number of recommendations relating to the governing structures of the other place, designed to facilitate a more inclusive and joined-up approach to the leadership and governance of that House. The committee’s report was fully debated in the other place on 22 January and a Motion was passed without a vote, agreeing to implement the recommendations in full. Many of these recommendations have already begun to be implemented, including the recruitment of a new Clerk of the House of Commons, which I understand is expected to be completed by the end of this month. The necessary changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons were agreed earlier this week, again without a vote.
A small number of the committee’s recommendations require legislative change, which is why we have this small Bill before us. Legislation is required because the governance of the other place, unlike that of your Lordships’ House, is subject to statute: namely the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, which established that House’s governing body, the House of Commons Commission. The Commission is chaired by the Speaker and currently consists of six members in total, including the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader and three Back-Bench members. It has specific responsibility for staff appointments, remuneration and pensions and otherwise is the ultimate decision-making body for the House of Commons as a whole.
I will briefly set out the content of this short Bill. It has three core provisions, all of which take the form of amendments to the 1978 Act and meet the recommendations of the Governance Committee. Clause 1 increases the number of Back-Bench members of the House of Commons Commission from three to four. That is designed to allow for a wider range of views across the House of Commons to be represented on the commission and to reduce the likelihood of the Government having a majority on the commission.
Clause 1 also provides that two external members and two officials be appointed, taking the overall membership to 11. The appointment of these additional members is designed to provide a wider perspective to support the commission’s work and to improve the quality of governance by providing a closer link between decision-making and implementation. As recommended by the Governance Committee, that will provide some continuity of membership between the commission and the body charged with implementing its decisions: a new Executive Committee, comprising senior officials of the House. This will replace the existing management board.
Clause 1(4) amends Section 1 of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. New subsections (2A) and (2B) provide that the external members—like other members—will be appointed by resolution of the House and that they cannot come from Parliament itself. They must be genuinely external and recruited under fair and open competition.
New subsection (2C) specifies that the official members will be the Clerk and Director General of the House of Commons, when the latter is appointed later this year. The new post of Director General is not otherwise defined in statute, so the Bill provides, in new subsection (2C)(b), for the commission to appoint an alternative official if the post is vacant, the name changes, or the post ceases to exist. This allows the commission the freedom to change the name of the senior post at a future point without recourse to legislative change.
Clause 2 adds to the functions of the House of Commons Commission a specific requirement to set the strategic priorities and objectives for the services provided by the House departments. At present, this function is to some extent assumed by the commission, but it is not explicitly prescribed. In view of the existence of other internal committees in that House—the Finance and Services Committee and the Administration Committee, for example—it is important that roles and responsibilities are clearly set out. The precise way in which the commission carries out this function is not prescribed in the Bill, to allow the commission flexibility to decide the most appropriate way to discharge its responsibilities.
Clause 3 provides for commencement. The schedule makes a number of minor and consequential amendments. I can explain both in more detail at later stages should the House wish me to do so. I will just mention one amendment, in paragraph 6 of the schedule, which will allow the commission greater flexibility as to who will chair its meetings. Currently, this must be the Speaker unless the Speaker is absent. Under the revised Act, it will be possible for the commission to allow another of its members to chair a meeting that the Speaker attends. Again, that is in line with a recommendation of the Governance Committee.
As noble Lords will have gathered from my remarks, this is a modest Bill concerned with the governance of the other place. The Bill was introduced there on 4 February after full consultation with the chair of the Governance Committee and the House of Commons authorities. It was given full, if brief, consideration in that House on 24 February and passed without a vote.
By introducing the Bill, the Government are helping the House of Commons to deliver the improvements to its governance that it has unanimously agreed to. I hope that your Lordships will support the elected Chamber in this aim, and in its endeavour to ensure that these legislative changes can be made without delay to ensure that they can take effect as soon as possible in the new Parliament. I commend the Bill to the House and I beg to move.
My Lords, during my years in the other place I did not serve on the commission but worked very closely with my party’s representative on the commission when I was Chief Whip and shadow leader of the House. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope here, because he not only served with great distinction on the commission but also answered in the Chamber for the commission, which was not always an easy task. My current colleague in the other place, John Thurso, does that as well. He of course has the advantage of having been, I think uniquely, a Member of this place and then having moved downstairs; therefore he is in a very strong position to see how Parliament works as a whole. That will be a theme of my remarks.
I discussed this Bill with my right honourable friend John Thurso earlier this week. It is quite clear, as my noble friend said, that this is a relatively modest measure introducing very sensible improvements. It expands the external expertise available to both the commission and the management of that House, and it modestly increases the Back-Bench contribution. I note what my noble friend has just said, because that modest increase makes it less likely that there will be a majority of government-supporting MPs on the commission, and that, I think, is a healthy sign. It is important that the Bill clearly indicates and maintains the position in order to protect the day-to-day working of Parliament from overmighty interference from the Executive—the Government. The latter remains the servant of the former, not the other way round.
I welcome the proposals in the Bill. As my noble friend said, not only has it received unanimous support from all parties but it has gone through its various stages nem con in the Commons. That, if not unique, is unusual. However, I especially welcome the reasons for its introduction, which are set out in the report of the House of Commons Governance Committee, to which my noble friend referred. It is quite a formidable document but it is important and I hope that other noble Lords will have had the opportunity to read it. If they have not, they may wonder why we are spending even a few minutes on this Bill now. I suggest that it warrants careful reading because it is of considerable significance to this House and to Parliament as a whole. We may be a bicameral Parliament but we are one Parliament, and what happens in one House inevitably impacts on the other. Indeed, our customers or clients—our fellow citizens—constantly bemoan the fact that we do not work better in partnership to hold the Executive to account, and I shall return to that point later.
At a very practical level, the report of the Governance Committee—and therefore, the Bill—has implications for your Lordships’ House. For brevity, I quote from our Library briefing:
“The Committee reported that shared services (services provided to both Houses by one body) ‘already account for nearly half the annual resources spend of each House’ and that there was ‘wide support, in principle’ for extending these further, but what was included would need ‘careful consideration’ ... The Committee supports the ‘development of plans for a single services Department supporting both Houses’ but warned that one House cannot dictate to the other on what should happen”.
I suspect that other Members will share that view. The briefing continues:
“They recommended … Joint meetings of the House of Commons Commission and House Committee (the equivalent body in the House of Lords), at least every six months”.
It is interesting that the governance report goes further by suggesting, at paragraph 128, that maybe those meetings should take place quarterly. That would demonstrate the relevance of the proposal here to Members of your Lordships’ House.
I am a firm advocate of greater co-operation, and more effective integration where this would achieve efficiency savings or improved service. For example, I suspect that there is a long way to go in the catering departments, and it might well improve better understanding of our respective roles if Peers and MPs shared more Library facilities. Indeed, I would be interested to see where the existing shared services currently are. No doubt big sums are invested in the maintenance of the buildings and in obvious areas such as security. Perhaps my noble friend, at a later stage, can obtain a simple breakdown for us.
Meanwhile, the idea that very occasional joint meetings of the commission and our own House Committee are adequate to provide positive guidance and governance for both those existing combined services and for a proper examination of increased areas of joint provision of facilities is clearly laughable. We need a permanent mechanism. I hope that, in due course, those who are in a position to make a recommendation to both Houses will do so to that effect. I did not expect that to be provided in this Bill, which, as Members will know, has been brought forward at speed, as my noble friend said, to meet a particular, urgent need to resolve the challenges that arose last summer with the retirement of the then Clerk to the House of Commons. He is now a most welcome addition to our Benches.
As I look to the House authorities here to explain how this apparent lacuna is being solved, I hope that we will get some response today—if not, at later stages in the consideration of the Bill. I do not know whether other noble Lords have had this said to them, but I am told that there is to be a parallel examination of the governance of our House—presumably after the general election. That is fine, but when will there be a full, joint, cross-House, bicameral review of the way Parliament is run? This is not just a case of saving money. Many Members in both Houses believe that our combined processes and the eventual product of our work is overdue for review and reform.
In the Parliament First booklet, published this week with the encouragement of Mr Speaker, I argued that,
“If this was any other organisation … our product or service would not be rated very highly by our customers, and they would try to go elsewhere”.
The absence of any such alternative should not make us complacent. Again, in the report of the Governance Committee, there is an extremely important statement at paragraph 118:
“Bicameral Parliaments are based upon a belief that a constructive tension and dialogue between the two Houses should result in a better quality of legislation and of the other key functions of a Parliament than is possible in unicameral systems.”
The paragraph that follows explains and enlarges on that point. It is extremely important.
A few years ago there was much talk of joined-up government. I believe it is time that we had joined-up Parliament. The two Houses are not in competition. We need to be better, in co-operation, at holding the Government of the day to account. Our relationship is not one of rivals; the only beneficiaries of that would be an overmighty bureaucracy.
In a small but significant way this Bill and the forthcoming parallel exercise in your Lordships’ House offer an unusual opportunity to improve the quality of the service that we offer together to our fellow citizens. I wish the Bill a speedy passage.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the clarity with which he has introduced the House of Commons Commission Bill. This is a short, uncontroversial Bill that, in essence, is a matter for the Commons and we are glad to support it. I pay tribute to the House of Commons Governance Committee, which was quoted extensively by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. It was chaired by my right honourable friend Jack Straw, and it did an excellent job that led to this small Bill, which will have a real impact on the good governance of the Commons.
This comes at a crucial time when Parliament is about to make a hugely important decision about the restoration and renewal of this glorious building, safeguarding it for future generations. We must never forget, in taking these decisions or in our daily work, that Parliament belongs not to the parliamentarians but to the people of this country. As my honourable friend Angela Eagle said:
“We must … future-proof our institution—not only our building, but our Parliament—to ensure that the transparency of what we do and our accessibility … continue to be among the best”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/1/15; col. 422.]
The governance of both the Commons and the Lords is critical as Parliament evolves to meet the needs of people and our democratic system in the 21st century. The Commons Commission and the House Committee in your Lordships’ House have a crucial role in providing leadership relating to restoration and renewal, as well as the governance of our Parliament. We support the Bill, which implements key recommendations from the report of the Governance Committee that require legislative action. They will lead to sensible and timely changes that will increase the professionalism and effectiveness of the Commons. But of course, these are matters for the Commons and its Members. They must make the decisions that relate to their House, just as we must make the decisions that relate to this House.
However, as one Parliament, the decisions of each House in this sphere have implications for the other. As the Minister said, this Bill changes the remit and membership of the commission, which will include the new director-general of the House of Commons. His or her role will bring changes to the management and governance structure in the Commons, which in due course could have implications for our own House.
Notwithstanding the fact that we have a House of Commons and a House of Lords, each with its own purpose, traditions and identities, we are part of one Parliament. While the integrity of each House must be retained, there is so much more that we could and should be doing together in order to ensure efficiency and savings from the public purse. I recognise that there are already some shared services which work well, for example, IT services and security, and I am very supportive of the new joint procurement service.
We on these Benches are always keen to see how we can keep your Lordships’ House as efficient and effective as possible. Just in the past few months, an internal report was published by a working group of members of my own group looking at the internal structure and management of this House. The excellent report produced by the group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, agreed:
“The Clerk and domestic Committees should be charged with developing greater collaboration with their equivalents in the Commons. Wherever possible, joint departments should be established”.
I am pleased that following the report of the Straw committee and deliberations within our own House, a review has now been established by the Clerk of the Parliaments to look at this issue.
I firmly believe that at a time of austerity, when we as parliamentarians are encouraging government departments and local councils to work together more and share services, we in Parliament should be taking the lead. Yes, we have two distinct Houses, but we have one Parliament and the crucial decisions that have to be taken in respect of restoration and renewal, followed by the delivery of the project, could be the impetus for great changes with regard to the management of the building.
The House of Commons Governance Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, encourages,
“the two Houses to begin the process of drawing up a phased medium term programme towards a single bicameral services department supporting the primary parliamentary purposes of each of the two Houses”.
Personally I am very much in favour of such a programme but at each step of the way there must be strong emphasis on the need to retain the integrity of each House, and appropriate service agreements must ensure that the will and needs of the Lords is not subsumed by the Commons in any way. Where change is concerned, I am proud to say that, despite our older profile, we have often been the modernising House, prepared to do things differently and adapt to the times. For example, we led the way with the televising of Parliament, opening up our proceedings to the wider world when desire for transparency had not become the demand that it rightfully is today.
I return to the matter of governance rather than management and warmly welcome the agreement that there should be regular meetings between the commission and the House Committee. By the time of the first meeting, which is already scheduled, the membership and remit of the commission will have changed as a consequence of the legislation before us and we will have embarked on a review of the governance structure of our own House thanks to the establishment of the Leader’s Group by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. I warmly welcome this initiative. The current structure is opaque and I believe not fit for purpose in a 21st century legislature in which our citizens rightly demand transparency and accountability.
The Leader's Committee will naturally consider the purpose and function of the House Committee. I note that Clause 2 states:
“The Commission must from time to time set strategic priorities and objectives in connection with services provided by the House Departments”.
This seems to me to be extremely important and something which we already strive to do in the House Committee but I believe that changes are necessary to ensure that its priorities and objectives are truly strategic and benchmarked, and can be properly measured by, for example, key performance indicators. As we celebrate our history and traditions, too often we forget that we are a large organisation working in the 21st Century and we must adjust accordingly.
On these Benches we are looking forward to a constitutional convention, as proposed by my right honourable friend Ed Miliband MP, which will consider the future of your Lordship’s House, not as too often in the past in isolation but as part of the wider constitutional changes that are taking place in our country. The deliberations will no longer take place behind closed doors in Whitehall and be the preserve of politicians but will be extended to the people of this country. The constitution of this country belongs not to one or many political parties but to our citizens, so the process must be inclusive. This will undoubtedly bring about profound change but in the mean time we have to ensure that the governance of our House, the management of our services and the restoration and renewal of our magnificent building are carried out in the most open, efficient and effective way.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this brief debate. In reading through the Commons debates on this subject, I was struck by the extent to which the maintenance, restoration and refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster hangs over a great deal of what we are concerned with when we talk about efficient governance, management and co-ordination between the two Houses.
We have not discussed refurbishment sufficiently openly in our House. Those of us who have been down to the basement will know just how severe some of the problems of the Palace of Westminster are. Perhaps that is something on which whoever finds themselves concerned with the governance of this House after the election will wish to promote active discussion. I recognise that we have our own Leader’s Group, which will discuss a number of these issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked for a full bicameral review of the workings of Parliament. I am not sure that either the House of Commons or the House of Lords is quite ready for that. I have been struck in government by something I had deeply suspected in opposition—namely, that Commons Ministers take some time to understand the role of the House of Lords because nobody has ever really told them about it until they lose their first vote in the Lords, at which point they begin to understand that we cannot be entirely ignored.
As the noble Baroness said, we have made some progress in working more closely together and I am sure that we will continue down that road. Indeed, the whole issue of refurbishment will force us to move a lot further down that road. The other day I was interviewed about the future of the parliamentary archives, which is part of this set of issues. Some very large issues are raised there about the future of this entire estate and how we set in train a whole set of new decisions for the next 50 years or more.
We have recognised that the governance of the Commons is, with this Bill, moving forward in a useful and constructive manner, and that we will in turn discuss our own structures of governance in the Leader’s Group. I hope I may take this as a welcome by the House for this very modest Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Money Advice Service
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank those who have signed up to speak in this debate. We may be few in number but I know that this will be a high-quality debate. I declare my interest as the retiring chair of the charity StepChange and as a commissioner on the Financial Inclusion Commission, which reported yesterday. I commend its report as a much needed opportunity for all parties to refocus on the issue of financial inclusion, which is an egregious block on too many of our citizens fully participating in society.
When I applied for this QSD some considerable time ago, I was reasonably confident that the Farnish report would have been published by now. However, it is a case of being in “Hamlet” without the prince, or perhaps one of these dark Nordic noir detective stories— while I do not watch them, I do have the jersey. Where is the Farnish review? Can the Minister tell us what is happening and whether this Government will, in fact, ever publish the report? As I am sure he is aware, there have been rumours of many prospective publication dates, each of which has subsequently passed without action. Indeed, the Minister himself told me last week that it would definitely be available for this debate. All this is very surprising, given that it is supposed to be an independent report, and we know that the Government received the report before the end of 2014, in line with the published terms of reference. So why the delay?
Given the role that the MAS has until now assumed for itself, this delay is bad for the sectors with which it interacts such as the free debt advice sector. As I hope the Government realise, it is particularly bad for the board and staff of the Money Advice Service itself. Why should well meaning, hard-working and committed people endure prolonged uncertainty over the future of their organisation and their jobs? It is already evident that the organisation is thoroughly demoralised and in danger of haemorrhaging staff. This is not a good situation and it must be resolved in short order. The hold-up has already delayed publication of the MAS’s business plan for the financial year 2015-16, which starts in about three weeks’ time, and the next steps on its UK financial capability strategy. This can be in nobody’s interest.
It is worth recalling that the review was prompted by the Treasury Select Committee in the other place. Its report has been included in the Library’s helpful briefing note for this debate. In publishing its report of December 2013, it said:
“The Money Advice Service is not currently fit for purpose. It is far from clear that it has adopted the right strategy or even that it is performing its correct role. In finalising this report, the Committee considered carefully whether to recommend that the MAS be scrapped completely … The review must assess whether the MAS should continue to exist and, if so, how it can overcome the serious problems laid bare in this report. Its findings should be available for scrutiny by the Treasury Committee and others by the summer of 2014. Only then can a credible, informed decision on the future of the MAS be made”.
The committee set quite a high hurdle. Presumably the committee may also have views on the delay that has occurred since that report.
I assume that in the real world what will happen is that, after the Budget, the Treasury will formally respond to the Treasury Select Committee report, basing its comments on the Farnish review and submissions from the MAS, FCA and perhaps others, and that is when we will see the report. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm this. Whatever happens, there is now little time left in this Parliament for the Treasury Select Committee to give proper consideration to this issue and we may have to accept that it will drag into the next Parliament. This does not seem appropriate.
Turning to the review itself, I have high hopes for the report. I hope that Christine Farnish, who is well respected in the sector, has not been constrained about answering the fundamental questions raised by the Treasury Select Committee about the very existence of the Money Advice Service. If she recommends that MAS should survive, I hope that she will set out clearly what its role should be in both the money and debt advice spaces.
In my view, for what it is worth, I can see a place for the retention of a slimmed-down Money Advice Service but only if its role changes. It should not set out to do what others are doing better. As I have consistently argued in this House, it should complement but not duplicate the work of charities and not-for-profit agencies which work so effectively in providing debt solutions and money advice. Secondly, MAS cannot and should not be a quasi-regulatory body, as only one body can do that—the Financial Conduct Authority, which is already having a significant impact on this sector. No group can be expected to operate to two regulators and that would not be sustainable. Albeit in a slimmed-down form, MAS could be given a new role—perhaps a strategic functionality focusing on creating and influencing financial services policy and as a consumer champion, complementing and supporting the excellent work already done by the FCA’s consumer panel.
In the rest of my contribution I simply wish to set out what all of us in this sector should do to develop a new policy on problem debt. We need to recognise that personal debt has a macroeconomic impact. Recent research carried out by StepChange has shown that problem debt imposes significant costs on our economy —it estimates about £8.3 billion per annum—most of which comes from job loss and low productivity from people struggling with their debts. It also includes the costs of rehousing people, mental health costs, the costs of relationship breakdown and other matters. These are real and effective drags on the proper work that could be done to grow the economy and restore it to full health. Action needs to be taken.
We also need to do more than just recognise the problem. Savings are a recurrent issue with people who have problem debt. New research that my charity carried out recently showed that about 500,000 households would have been able to avoid problem debt if they had had £1,000 saved. Low-income households, in particular, would see their chances of falling into debt reduced if they could put aside rainy-day savings. Low-income families are not saving because the incentives contained in the main savings policies are not relevant to them, based as they are on tax relief. They do not mean much if you do not pay much or any tax. It is also hard for people with tight incomes to make positive choices to save when they have more immediate concerns, such as putting food on the table.
We need to improve credit products available to low-income families so that they do not rely on high-cost forms of credit such as payday loans. People need to be able to spread the costs of high-cost items such as boilers, fridges and school uniforms, and they need products that are not going to hurt them. There is a real problem developing in the rent-to-buy market, an issue touched on in recent debates in this House. We need to think harder about what will provide the low-interest forms of borrowing that are necessary to avoid that.
People with unmanageable debt are not feckless, and need support if they are going to seek advice and commit to working out a resolution of their problems. My charity is calling for statutory protection against interest, charges, collection charges and enforcement action when people get structured help to repay their debts. This approach is modelled on the excellent Scottish system, the debt arrangement scheme, which is an obvious, low-cost, high-impact solution that gives people control, rewards responsibility, saves creditors the cost of pursuit and collection and gets them a predictable rate of repayment.
Fourthly, we need to ensure that insolvency solutions are fit for purpose. The consumer credit market has changed dramatically in the almost 30 years since the principal parts of our insolvency system were introduced. As the credit market has changed, so too has the nature of problem debt in the UK and the profile of people who find themselves in difficulty. However, our insolvency options have been updated only in piecemeal ways, leaving gaps in protection and coverage, prohibitive fees and a lack of flexibility around changing circumstances.
Finally, debt advice is underfunded across the UK. There are probably around 3 million people who need it, barely half of whom are getting it. We think that there is a need to go back and make an ambitious but realistic call on all businesses that create problem debt but currently do not make fair contributions. Debt advice on its own is not enough. We need to ensure that those who have decided to seek debt advice are quickly and efficiently offered solutions that will get them into a situation in which they can pay off their debts and be allowed to rebuild their relationship with credit. Ideally—it is something that we aim to do—that process should educate them so that they can manage their finances better in future.
The Farnish report is an important step in the progress we need to make on reshaping the money advice and debt solutions that should be available as we move forward in the 21st century. I have tried to outline some thoughts about what should happen next but, of course, one essential first step might be to have a proper debate about the report, when it is eventually published. “Hamlet” without a prince is not much of a play, and one could not even put on one’s jersey to watch a noir thriller with no plot resolution. I cast the noble Lord, Lord Newby, in a key role in this small masque and look forward to hearing how the story will end.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on his appointment as a financial inclusion commissioner. I must also declare an interest, as it is my pleasure to serve as president of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline. Some of the trust’s excellent work is funded, directly or indirectly, by the Money Advice Service.
As a strong supporter of free debt advice, I have been awaiting the outcome of the Farnish review with great interest and I, too, would welcome some clarity from the Minister on when the review and the Government’s response will be published. We might have had a much longer speakers list for the debate today if the review had already been in the public domain, and I regret that this is not the case.
It would be surprising if the review did not make a strong case for free debt advice and the benefits that it brings to debtors, creditors and society as a whole. This free advice is currently available through a whole range of channels. National Debtline and Business Debtline offer telephone and online advice, as does StepChange. An excellent face-to-face service is also available from local citizens advice bureaux and other locally based charities. The case for the value of free debt advice is clear—and “free”, of course, is the operative word here.
There is of course a large commercial debt management industry that charges for debt advice and debt management services. The bottom line is that these fee-charging companies are charging their clients high fees for a service that is available free from debt charities, which can be trusted to give the best, independent advice for each individual case. I hope that the Farnish review not only makes the case for independent, free advice but places this in the context of the need to promote free services over and above those of the fee-paying debt management companies to which all too many consumers currently turn.
The Money Advice Service also plays an important role in the co-ordination of debt advice, and I hope that the Farnish review will make the case that more consumers would benefit from telephone and online advice. I would certainly welcome this shift, but I must emphasise that this would not be to detract from the work of face-to-face advisers: far from it. A shift towards telephone and online advice would, in my view, help to preserve face-to-face advice for those who really need it.
While there is a useful role for the Money Advice Service to play in that level of co-ordination in the debt advice sector, we should also recognise the close partnership working that is already under way, in particular between the Money Advice Trust, Citizens Advice and StepChange. This partnership working increasingly extends to other organisations outside the debt advice space in recognition of the need for these services to be available to people in financial difficulty at the point of need in a wide range of venues and situations.
The Money Advice Trust, for example, is currently working with the Church of England to develop a resource to help parishioners raise awareness of free debt advice in their communities and to signpost these services where appropriate. We have also embarked upon an innovative partnership with Turn2us to link online debt and benefits advice through its “My Money Steps” tool, and we are exploring the potential for working more closely with food banks to make sure that people in financial difficulty receive the advice they need. We need to encourage the development of these new ways of working, and further innovations in this sector.
Money Advice Service research in 2013 showed that 8.8 million people in the UK are over-indebted. More recent trends show that consumer credit lending is expanding significantly, and the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the UK’s household debt to income ratio, which as I understand it is an aggregate measure of how much debt households have taken on relative to their incomes, is set to rise from 146% to 184% by 2020. This is significantly higher than its pre-crisis peak of 169% in 2008.
Furthermore, while expectations of a rise in interest rates continue to recede further into the future, we must none the less consider the impact on households with mortgages when it does eventually occur. Indeed, research last year by the Money Advice Trust and the Building Societies Association showed that 27% of mortgage payers are likely to fall into financial difficulty when interest rates rise. Many will fall into unmanageable debt as a result. Taking all these factors into account, it is clear that demand for debt advice is likely to rise in the future.
Noble Lords will be aware that the question of the appropriate level and allocation of the Money Advice Service’s budget is a central issue that the review has sought to address. The level of expenditure on some areas of the service’s work has of course met with controversy in the past. But if savings in some areas are to be made as a result of the review, I would strongly urge that consideration be given to a corresponding increase in the funding that is available to the service, but specifically for commissioning free debt advice services. Given the clear indications of future rising demand that I have described, an increase in funding for front-line free debt advice services would be a very welcome outcome of the review.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for initiating this timely and important debate on a subject which is affecting all parts of society, sometimes with devastating social effects. While the Farnish review has yet to be published, there is no doubt that attitudes to finance and debt in the UK are a matter of real concern. It is not always easy to get precise data on what exactly is going on, but there is evidence that levels of personal debt are continuing to rise, with reports this January of new consumer debt climbing to heights that have not been reached for nearly seven years. The £1.25 billion net increase in unsecured borrowing seen in November 2014 was the third month out of five when consumers had taken on more than £1 billion of new debt.
Over recent decades, many people have come to presume that it is normal to live with debt, in some cases with considerable levels of debt. Anecdotal reports from Citizens Advice centres and other organisations working in debt advice describe the terrible problems caused for some individuals and their families. This is a profound societal change, which has developed over a number of years under different Governments and could lead us into very serious problems in the future if the trends cannot be reversed.
The problems of indebtedness are clearly too deeply rooted to be swept away by the very welcome improvements in the UK’s economy over recent months. However, it is important to keep a close eye on these trends and the extent of the rise in personal debt, not just because of those individuals I have already mentioned but because it could possibly threaten financial stability in our economy. I wonder whether the Minister could tell us what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the rising levels of personal debt and, in particular, whether they have any views about the level at which such personal debt could threaten the economy? At what point does that become something of significance for everyone?
If we are to achieve sustained attitudinal change towards personal debt we need to work in the coalitions that my noble colleagues have already spoken about, made up of government, the third sector and civil society institutions. A key part of this partnership must be to improve the availability, quality and consistency of debt advice in this country. For this reason, the Church of England is keen to support the work of the Money Advice Service and other debt organisations. We are concerned that the Money Advice Service should target its work and its resources be deployed as effectively as possible. With the demand for debt advice expected to double over the next five years, the challenges facing the sector are huge.
Locally, many churches are actively involved in helping people affected by debt. There are 270 debt centres affiliated to Christians Against Poverty; I have recently been closely in touch with one of them in Christ Church in Ware, in Hertfordshire. About 140 church-based centres are supported by Community Money Advice. Another church in my diocese, in Bedford, runs Money Advice at St Andrew’s, a free, confidential service financed by church members and used by a large number of people. Many other churches provide informal help to those who are struggling with their finances.
Nationally, the Archbishop’s task group is promoting the use of responsible credit and saving to ensure that there are real alternatives to payday loans and other forms of high-cost credit that push many people into problem debt. We are also very pleased to be working with the Money Advice Trust, to which my noble friend Lady Coussins has just referred, the charity that runs National Debtline, to develop a debt awareness and signposting resource. This will better enable congregation members and volunteers to raise awareness of free debt advice and help those in financial difficulty get the advice and support that they need.
As well as helping those struggling under the burden of debt, we need to work to move our society away from the current situation in which indebtedness is increasingly seen as the norm. We need to find ways of changing attitudes to credit and saving for the long term. I therefore want to focus my remaining remarks on financial education, which is equally important but still an underfunded element of the Money Advice Service’s financial capability strategy. I welcome the strategy’s emphasis on improving the financial capability of children and young people, and agree with its recommendation that the Government should consider the case for adding financial education to the primary school curriculum in England.
Young people today grow up in an increasingly complex world, requiring them to make difficult choices that will often have a significant impact on their future. They live in a culture that is heavily influenced by consumerism, and even very young children are being targeted by commercial companies because of their “pester power” and very real spending power. Online shopping, mobile phone contracts, tuition fees and the accessibility of credit cards mean that many young people are making financial decisions and are exposed to debt at a very young age. Millions of children are directly affected by overindebtedness as their parents struggle to keep up with their bills and credit commitments. Teaching our young people financial responsibility is vital.
At the same time, evidence from national and international surveys shows that the younger generation has lower levels of financial capability than their parents. If we are to enable future generations of young people to manage their finances well, children must be given high-quality financial education in school so that they can make informed choices and take responsibility for their actions. Sadly, that imperative is not yet adequately reflected in our education system. Although 94% of teachers and 79% of parents think that it is important for young children to learn about money and financial matters at school, only about one-third of primary schools teach financial education, and only 5% of parents think that young people are leaving school with the financial skills and knowledge that they need to manage their finances.
That is why the Church of England is working with the Personal Finance Education Group, now part of Young Enterprise, to establish an effective national financial education programme for primary schools centred on school-based savings clubs. Building on the evidence set out in the financial capability strategy and elsewhere, we want to give children the opportunity to learn about money at a much younger age, focusing on developing good attitudes and habits towards money, including practical experience of managing their own money. We want to involve parents and the wider community in children’s financial education, so that positive messages about money are being reinforced from a range of different sources. We are very grateful to this Government for funding the pilot of the LifeSavers programme, starting in Bradford, Nottinghamshire and south-east London, and we hope that it will be the beginning of a stronger and long-term commitment to financial education in this country.
Finally, one practical thing that we can do is to encourage take-up of credit unions. I am glad that the St Albans credit union, of which I am a member, not only helps many adults who need advice and help but pays regular visits to one of our local schools to encourage saving. I hope that we can find ways to build on such partnerships to increase financial literacy and responsibility. To that end, the review by the Money Advice Service is vital to ensure that we are doing all that we can to improve the situation for both this generation and those to come.
My Lords, the Minister replying to this debate and I share a common problem: the report has not been published. The difference between us is that it is his Government’s fault that we are debating a report that we anticipated would have been published long since. As my noble friend Lord Stevenson said in introducing the debate, the report looks as though it will join the long list of challenges that will await the May election and will be passed on to the next Administration—a role we will, of course, fulfil with enthusiasm.
The other difficulty in dealing with the report is that comments made on it vary considerably. It is clear that some consider that the Money Advice Service has an important role to play in the significant area of dealing with personal debt and that its performance passes muster. However, there are indications of failure elsewhere which have led to the calamitous situation of the collapse of morale in the organisation. There are even suggestions that the staff may be cut by as much as one half and the budget reduced by nearly 40%.
This is a grim situation to confront an organisation that clearly has a role to play. The Treasury Select Committee, which also was dealing with partial information before the report was published, said in a forthright manner that it did not consider the Money Advice Service fit for purpose. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is consternation all round on the role that the organisation should play in the future, if at all.
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Stevenson for having identified and highlighted this issue against a background where, as the right reverend Prelate, joined by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, emphasised, personal debt is a major issue for our society. We are approaching the record levels of personal debt that preceded the great crash. One would have thought that the Government might address themselves to a report that has significant things to say about an agency that is meant to help people in these circumstances, yet they have merely rendered its future uncertain.
Therefore, I hope that the Minister will today be able to give some reassurances. One matter on which we would certainly want some reassurance from the Administration is the clear criticism in the report of the service’s potential role in relation to pensions advice. That issue will imminently be upon us in substantial numbers. People who are at the age at which they can take decisions about cashing in elements of their pension for a cash pot will need dispassionate, objective advice. The MAS would almost certainly be a body to which some would look, yet there are references to its lack of capacity for handling advice in this area.
We need these issues cleared up. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, that this debate would have had a very long list of speakers today if we had had the report before us and were able to consider in full how we expect people to be advised and how institutions will respond in giving dispassionate, accurate advice to so many of our people in need. As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, the church, among other organisations, is acutely aware of the pressure of debt. That pressure is shown in the recourse that people have to food banks. The right reverend Prelate came very close to home when he mentioned Christ Church in Ware, as I live only four miles away from the church and know the excellent work that it does in this area.
However, we all recognise that such levels of support do not necessarily provide 100% coverage—far from it. All those organisations have limited resources, so we want the fullest contribution from those who have the requisite level of expertise and we want the Government to insist on priority for this area. As my noble friend Lord Stevenson made abundantly clear—I do not need to repeat many of the points he made—the Government’s delay and hesitation over the publication of the report, far from tackling the issue, merely creates uncertainty where we need certainty for a rather desperate public.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for raising this important issue. As outgoing chair of StepChange, he is particularly well placed to do that. As part of my preparation for today’s debate, I looked at the StepChange website and was very impressed at the ease with which I would be able to use it if I needed debt advice. However, I am also very aware, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, pointed out, that many people want face-to-face advice. I will turn later to telephone and online advice. The work that Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Trust do in terms of debt advice is most impressive.
The review that is the subject of today’s debate was established by the Government to ensure that consumers’ needs were being adequately met. It was charged with two things: first, assessing how effectively and efficiently the Money Advice Service is meeting the need for consumer education and advice; and, secondly, recommending any changes to MAS’s role, approach and delivery models that would enable it better to meet this need. The review was led by Christine Farnish and I would like to take this opportunity to thank her and her team for all of their efforts.
The review explores how MAS can improve the quality, reach and cost effectiveness of the debt advice it funds. It also raises important questions about how MAS ensures consumers have access to good quality and trustworthy tools and information to help them manage their money and understand financial products, including with regard to the strategic role that MAS should seek to play in influencing others who provide information and advice to consumers.
As the noble Lord pointed out, the Government have received the report and are currently considering it. They have decided, sensibly I think, that they will publish their response when they publish the report. They are well along the way to being able to do that, although I am sorry that they were unable to do it in time for today. They will publish the report and their response in the coming weeks.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about the Government’s response more generally to the TSC report but HMT has already responded to this report in the form of a letter from the former FST, Sajid Javid, which was published. This response accepted the central recommendation, which was to undertake an independent review. The noble Lord also raised the spectre of the review recommending the abolition of MAS. The Government asked Christine Farnish to look at how MAS could improve its work rather than whether it should be abolished. The Government believe that MAS has important ongoing functions to play in helping individuals improve their financial confidence and resilience.
On the broad approach which the Government have taken in this area, we believe that everyone, regardless of circumstance, should have access to money and debt advice. That is crucial because helping individuals to improve their financial confidence and resilience also gives wider social and economic benefits and helps to ensure that retail financial markets are well functioning and competitive.
MAS was set up to give people the support they need to manage their money well. Since 2012, it has also had a statutory responsibility for co-ordinating the provision of debt advice. It is now the largest single funder of free debt advice in the UK and has made significant progress in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of debt advice since being given these responsibilities by government. Giving MAS statutory responsibility for debt advice, funding and co-ordination has put the funding arrangements for free debt advice on a far more sustainable footing. From the coming financial year, this funding base will expand to include firms authorised by the FCA for consumer credit activities, including payday lenders. The Government are keen to see the funding base broaden further to reflect that debt problems are caused by a number of factors, including falling behind on bills as well as falling behind on repayments.
In ensuring debt advice is able to reach as many people as possible, the Government recognise the importance of consumers being able to access advice through the most appropriate channel, be it online, face-to-face or by telephone. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised an interesting point in this respect. From the Government’s point of view, the more that people can access debt advice and, indeed, advice more generally, online and by phone is welcome for two reasons. First, it is easier for them because there is more flexibility about how they do it, and secondly, it is better for the Government in many ways because people accessing advice online is much more cost-effective. If everybody were doing that instead of needing face-to-face advice, it would save the Government a lot of money, which they are always keen to do. Having looked at the website, the challenge is that there will be many people who have pretty chaotic financial circumstances and will need face-to-face advice to get to the end point. We are offering three strands of advice—online, telephone and face-to-face—on pension flexibility that we are about to introduce and it will be interesting to see how that breaks down. There we are giving people an equal opportunity to use any of those strands and that might help inform how we look at providing debt advice and other forms of advice. One of the challenges we have at the moment is trying to work out what that split is going to be, but until we start, we do not know.
The Government also believe it is essential that the right options and incentives are available to consumers to encourage them to deal with their debts. For example, the Government share the interest in the idea of giving consumers in debt repayment plans a breathing space from interest and charges and are actively considering what further steps might be taken in this area.
As well as being able and encouraged to access free debt advice, consumers must have the assurance that the organisation and advisers they engage with are operating to the highest standards. That is why we agreed with not-for-profit debt advisers that they should be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and be held to the same conduct standards as for debt management firms in order to maintain the confidence of clients. However, the Government have also ensured that the new FCA regulatory regime subjects not-for-profit debt advice providers to proportionate regulatory burdens, including placing them in the lower cost limited permission regime, to encourage the supply of free debt advice that meets consumers’ needs.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised the importance of encouraging people to have rainy-day savings. I agree with him on that. One of the challenges is to ensure that a range of products is easily available for people, particularly those on low incomes. We are seeing two big developments. One is credit unions. We are now in the happy position of there being almost a bidding war between the political parties about how many more million members they want credit unions to have by 2020, which is very healthy for credit unions. Credit unions are expanding and, more importantly, are expanding the range of products they have available, not least so that young people who want to be able to do the maximum number of financial transactions online or on their phone will increasingly be able to do that via credit unions. Secondly, the main banks’ agreement last December about a basic bank account with more features than was previously the case is another helpful way to get more people into a position where it is easier for them to save.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the right reverend Prelate raised the big issue of the appropriate level of debt. They share a concern that personal debt is now rising to pre-crisis levels or going beyond it. What we have seen, as the right reverend Prelate said, is a complete change in attitude towards debt from that of my parents’ generation, who grew up in an environment where the Great Depression meant that people were in severe financial difficulties because there was not always a very effective state safety net and there was therefore a huge incentive for people on modest means to save modest amounts for a rainy day—and they did. That incentive has gone, to a certain extent. My children and their friends have a completely different view of debt from the one I have, and a very, very different view from that of my parents. How we strike a balance is a big challenge.
Working in schools is definitely very important, as the right reverend Prelate said. This Government have introduced financial literacy into the secondary curriculum but, as he says, primary schools are potentially—and actually—more important. That is why the work that is just starting, such as LifeSavers, is very important. It is also important not just that we get credit unions into schools but that we encourage building societies and banks to go into schools and get children saving at a young age. If you get them saving in a structured way at a very young age, they are much more likely to save later on.
I am out of time. This is a very important issue. The report and the Government’s response will be published shortly. We will have the opportunity to debate it then. In the mean time, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue today.
Young Care Leavers
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am deeply gratified by the level of interest your Lordships and other colleagues have shown in this subject—gratified but not surprised as I know that there are many tireless campaigners for vulnerable children on all the Benches of this House. As the last days of this Parliament rush by, it is important to pause and reflect on some of its major achievements. The “staying put” clauses in the Children and Families Act 2014 represent a seismic shift in provision for care leavers by allowing them to stay with their foster parents until the age of 21.
Previously there was no guarantee that young people studying hard for their A-levels or battling to hold down an apprenticeship or their first job would be able to stay with supportive foster parents. The strong bonds of affection that had formed through the rollercoaster ride of the teenage years would hold no sway if a local authority was not minded—or able—to be flexible. Now, however, the importance of these relationships, where they exist, is enshrined in legislation, with the effect, as the Department for Education has affirmed, of ensuring that some care leavers experience the stability and security of family life enjoyed by their peers into early adulthood.
I believe that in this area we are seeing the early and promising signs of what Dr Samantha Callan, an associate director at the Centre for Social Justice, refers to as the “relational turn” in UK social policy. Encouragingly, this emphasis on relationships is an area of cross-party consensus that goes wide and deep, and crosses national borders. Scotland has led on the importance of children’s nurture in the early years and, of great relevance to this debate, Northern Ireland has much to teach us about how some authorities ensure that adults with whom care leavers have some good history are drafted in as their official personal advisers. In England, however, a system operates where young people are allocated a complete stranger, whose case load can be as high as 49 young people, undermining any chance of a meaningful relationship.
I ask the Minister to note that the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, has gone on record as saying that local authority personnel may not fulfil this role as well as non-local authority personnel, and to reflect on how, more fundamentally, it is deeply questionable whether introducing a new professional into a young person’s life shortly before they leave care is the most sensible approach.
I am slightly jumping ahead of myself, because my purpose in securing this debate is to draw attention to those care leavers who have not had placement stability and are ineligible for staying put. Perhaps they came into care very late and were adamant that they did not want foster parents because they felt deeply loyal to their birth families. We heard this week that the police are being called into homes where young people are out of control. The safety of the whole family may mean that they are taken into care but, if they wholly reject the idea of a “substitute” family placement, fostering will be inappropriate.
Staying put is not available to the 9% of looked-after children who are in residential children’s homes, yet almost two-thirds of them have clinically significant mental health difficulties. For that reason, if for no other, we simply cannot continue to show those young people the door at 18. It is encouraging that funding from the innovation programme has been secured to test a model of staying put for those in residential care in North Yorkshire, under its No Wrong Door project. It is crucial that the urgency behind the initiative is not lost. One swallow does not make a summer, and one pilot does not mean that we have embedded the ability of young people to stay until they are ready to fly the nest. But even if staying put were further extended it would not help many of the most vulnerable care leavers, many of whom see themselves as “tough” and “independent” due to poor attachments. They may long to leave the system even if they are not ready, especially if they feel that it has let them down. For these young people, we must think more creatively.
From my own experience as a councillor in Bradford, I know just how important it is to take a whole-person approach to this issue, asking not just what children in care need to survive but what they need to thrive in adult life. I am talking whole-person and whole-government. The Care Leaver Strategy driven by the Social Justice Cabinet Committee has brought departments such as the DWP and BIS to the table to add their contribution, but more must be done.
The recent report from the Centre for Social Justice, Finding Their Feet, powerfully illustrates how relationships are utterly pivotal for a successful transition to adulthood for care leavers, and how policy can be built on that insight. Three-quarters of the care leavers that it surveyed said that they had struggled with loneliness after leaving care. That is undoubtedly what lies behind so many of the dreadful statistics. If you do not have someone to turn to for help with bills, you may end up in debt and even be evicted. If you are in an abusive relationship and there is no one to confirm that, yes, the way you are being treated is wholly unacceptable and help you make a safe exit, it can be incredibly hard to escape. This is a very real problem. Barn and Mantovani’s research shows that the impact of rejection and poor-quality relationships with carers can mean that,
“distinguishing between a loving relationship and a sexual relationship can be difficult”,
for children in care and care leavers. They are heartbreakingly susceptible to sexual exploitation, as many cases around the country have shown.
There are examples of innovative practice initiated by individuals in support of young care leavers. The pilot scheme by my noble friend Lord Freud through CSV which offers grandparent-style mentors to teenagers is a useful contribution in the field.
Another major issue that I would like to flag up for this debate is the centrality of employment for care leavers to be able to reach their potential. Specifically, they are unable to benefit from the investment that this Government have put into apprenticeships because, without family support, they cannot afford to take them up. Wages can be as low as £2.73 an hour. Moreover, while the Department for Education gives bursaries of £2,000 for higher education, there is no comparable support for care leavers taking up apprenticeships, sending the signal that the education path is the only one valued by government. I ask the Minister to take back to the department the idea of bursaries for such apprenticeships. If 10% of care leavers took them up, it would cost a modest £1.8 million.
Local government should also help, but the Centre for Social Justice found that almost two-thirds of local authorities do not provide specific additional financial support for care leavers taking up an apprenticeship. In Bradford we established a scheme to ensure that care leavers were incentivised to take up a traineeship or apprenticeship by topping up their income to £100 and giving them a bus pass if they were working full time. They also get a £10 training incentive. The aim is to ensure that they have £50 of disposable income and are financially better off in work than being NEET and wholly dependent on the state.
The imbalance in support for apprentices brings me to a final theme. It will be no surprise to the House that, as a former chair of the LGA, I am in favour of localism. Where the system works well, councillors are able to take on a direct responsibility as corporate parents and drive improvement. However, in this area there is enormous inconsistency across local authorities. For example, in terms of the number of children who go missing from care every year and for how long, a freedom of information request showed that last year more than 250 were missing for more than a month.
Ofsted has introduced more comprehensive integrated inspections of children’s services, but I suggest that improvement would follow also from more comprehensive data collection so that we know what is happening on the ground. Examples of new data to be collected would be long-term unemployment of care leavers and placement moves. Following on from adoption scorecards, corporate parenting scorecards, which we could introduce, would ensure that conscientious councillors were equipped to drive improvement in their local authorities, and those not pulling their weight would have nowhere to hide.
In conclusion, I reiterate my concern for care leavers’ mental health. The Times has just launched a campaign to highlight the crisis in children’s and young people’s mental health and the subject is rapidly rising up the political agenda. Preventing poor mental health is tightly bound up with ensuring that children grow up with consistent and loving relationships, even when their parents have not been able to provide them. Preserving instead of discarding these when children leave the formal care system has to be a priority.
My Lords, first, I declare my interests as an ambassador for Action for Children and as chair of a charity called Changing Lives, which works with adults and some children with complex needs.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton—I nearly called her “my noble friend” because she is a friend. I knew her when she was leader in Bradford and leader of the LGA. She has raised a very important topic. As Back-Benchers, we have a very short time to contribute, so I shall not say as much as I would have liked to say about the overall care system.
The staying put arrangements, which the Children’s Minister introduced at the end of the Bill’s passage last year, are very important and welcome. However, even if they were able to be fully implemented, they would not solve all the problems for care leavers. The LGA briefing and the Ofsted report this week, to mention but a couple of sources, demonstrate clearly that all is not well with social care for children and young people, and that there is an enormous stretch on the funding for young people and children in care.
Because there is so little time, I want to concentrate on the most vulnerable. I start by reminding the House of a report that recently came out from LankellyChase, called Hard Edges: Mapping Severe and Multiple Disadvantage—England. In my view, that report is an absolutely imperative read for all Ministers. It shows a huge overlap between the offender, substance misuser and homeless populations. That is not rocket science, but the report maps it extremely well.
As children, these people all experienced trauma, neglect, poverty, family breakdown and disrupted education; as adults, many suffer alarming levels of loneliness, isolation, unemployment, poverty and mental ill health. This is what happens to the most vulnerable children whom we are talking about today—the ones who leave care early at 16 or 17, go back home for a while, usually a very short period, and then try to find their way, and those who experienced multiple moves in care. We all know that there are too many in the care system for whom there is breakdown after breakdown. When we looked at adoption, we were meeting young people who had been through 14 or 15 placements in a year. Many of those are young people who enter the care system as teenagers. Vulnerable young people are also likely to be those placed in residential care, precisely because fostering will have broken down or they are not seen as suitable to place with a family. This group is inevitably the most vulnerable and too many of the awful reports about young people this year relate to them.
The research from Action for Children, Too Much, Too Young, confirmed that it is the most vulnerable who experience the most instability after care. For example, I know that Durham County Council, my own local authority, has what Ofsted and others regard as a good system for care leavers and for keeping hold of them. I also know, from my chairing of Changing Lives, that we found two young people who had left care and ended up in the direct access hostel. As those of your Lordships involved in the world of the homeless know, such a hostel is the most difficult and brutal end of homeless care. It is for people who are coming out of prison or have been living on the streets, or who are not ready to have independent living or even main hostel living. Those young people ended up there because the placements that they had been found by the local authority broke down. They were therefore with the most inappropriate groups of people and learning not very good lessons, even though we are doing our very best in that hostel. They were not in the right place but had drifted there because their post-care situation had broken down. They also end up being the most costly people for our society.
We can and must do better. There must be a much more coherent and co-ordinated system for all children who have been in the care system. The current arrangements must be seen as the first step, but only the first step. The most vulnerable are simply not covered, mainly because they are not in foster care at the age of 18. The next Government have to have a look at the whole system. They will have to link it to other work, such as that on troubled families, and ensure that much more work with families takes place while children are in care. That was the main recommendation I gave to the Department for Education and the Prime Minister when I did my review of care as Social Exclusion Minister.
Other European countries work much more with the families while the children are in care. Here, we do nothing, so if the children go back and have links back home, nobody is working with the family to ensure that the children and young people have the right support when they leave care. We can and must do better.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on securing this important debate. The seismic shift to which she referred is being recognised as a critical intervention, contributing to the life chances and well-being of children who have experienced some or all of their life in care. When a state has to step in and take on the role of parent for a child, it is a sign that something has gone badly wrong and needs to be put right.
For the children and young people who are able to remain with their foster parents past the age of 18, it demonstrates that, after all they have been through, there are people who wish to continue giving them the support and care that all young people deserve. They can, at last, benefit from a degree of continuity and stability that has been previously lacking. However, all the positives relating to “staying put” alert us to the predicament of children without the possibility of having that kind of stability, security and continuity beyond the age of 18.
Unsurprisingly, many care leavers feel abandoned, experience poor relationships and have low expectations of themselves and others. Coupled with the onset of adolescence and the sense of abandonment and trauma —and often with mental health issues as well— the circumstances are ripe for some care leavers to fall through the net and into the criminal justice system. Looked-after children and care leavers are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. The user-led organisation the Care Leavers’ Association has been working on this issue. I am grateful to it for providing me with a preview of a report on the subject that will be published later this year.
According to official figures, the offending rates of looked-after children in England are now just over four times those of all other children. More than 40% of men under the age of 21 in the criminal justice system have spent time in care, while 61% of girls in the 15 to 18 age group in custody have spent time in care. The experience of care is also suggested as a factor in reoffending rates, with those who have been in care potentially more likely to be reconvicted in the year following release from prison. The Care Leavers’ Association is concerned by this disproportionality. Although the figures are relatively low overall, the negative impact on the children concerned, and the risk of them becoming serial offenders, is unacceptable.
Research suggests that the risk of offending is greatest for these young people if, first, they are inappropriately criminalised due to challenging behaviour; secondly, they enter the care system during adolescence and the transition to adulthood; and thirdly, they experience instability in relationships and lack appropriate professional support. The premise underpinning staying put is clear: create and maintain stability and life chances will be dramatically improved. I have heard it said, “Once a care leaver, always a care leaver”. It is an experience that stays throughout the life course, but it does not have to be the kind of burden that prevents people achieving their full potential.
An important element in processing the experience of being in care is reclaiming a sense of identity and ownership of your life and your life story. To be able to come to terms with the nature of that experience is a vital part of the healing process. There should be appropriate support available to that adult, of whatever age, when she or he is ready to engage with their care records. Such records can be life-affirming and address some of the feelings of guilt and misunderstanding so often experienced. One care leaver, who was in custody when he applied for his care records, said after reading them through, “It feels like I have taken ownership of a period of my life that is fundamental to who I am today. Dealing with the past, embracing what positives I can, and putting to bed the residues that followed me through life … has had a very positive impact on my ability to make positive choices”.
We have made some progress in recognising the role that care records, appropriately handled, can play, but we still have some way to go to ensure that local authorities fully understand the impact a negative experience of receiving files can have. The access to records campaign is working with DfE officials to get the message about the refreshed guidance on this matter out to local authority and other professionals in the field.
However, policies and regulatory guidance is one thing, effective implementation is another. One care leaver interviewed by the CLA said, “I got a letter … I’m not getting any leaving care support because I’ve just turned 21, but I never even knew I had any”. All of those who have experienced some or all of their childhood and adolescence in care deserve our focused attention and support. We know, or at least have a good idea, of what some of the problems are and yet we do not seem to be making enough headway quickly enough in finding and implementing effective solutions.
Of course there are financial realities and the Local Government Association has drawn attention to the impact on funds for fostering that the current incarnation of staying put has had on its resources—I have a good deal of sympathy with it—but we have to do something to offer all those who have experienced care continuity, security and the conditions in which they can thrive, and that needs to be paid for. Are we really going to say, especially to those who do not at present have the opportunity to stay put, “Tough luck. We have no money to spare. You will just have to cope as best you can”?
I hope the Minister will be able to offer those young people and those who work with and for them a positive statement about the ambitions of the state for its looked-after children and care leavers.
My Lords, I, too, express gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for bringing this matter to our attention. It is abundantly clear to us all that people in care are among the most vulnerable and at-risk members of our society. At no point in their lives are that vulnerability and risk more acutely felt than when transitioning to independent adult living.
I declare an interest as a former chair of the Children’s Society and as a member of the Good Childhood inquiry published in 2009. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Layard, who played such a key part in that inquiry, in his place today. I remember evidence given to the inquiry by a young person who explained that the moment of leaving care, inadequately prepared and unsupported, marked the start of a long, lonely journey into crime and abuse from which it later took several years to recover.
The behavioural, emotional, social and learning difficulties faced by this group of young people are well documented and already well rehearsed in this debate. These youngsters are three times more likely to run away than other young people and an estimated 10,000 of them go missing each year. Project workers from the Children’s Society report children telling them that they are being pushed towards making a decision to move into semi-independent living arrangements when they often feel quite unready for it.
This is surely why, at an early stage, half-way planning which addresses young people’s emotional development and focuses on the needs which young people have articulated is vital. In particular, this planning needs to attend, as others have said, to relationships and to focus on supporting young people to develop friendships and networks, as well as address relationships with siblings and family. Further, there is a clear need for support in developing practical housekeeping skills, applying for benefits and so on.
Above all, these young people need support in feeling empowered to have a voice into the key decision-making processes that affect their lives. The evidence is clear that where children have participated in and understood the decisions affecting their future, they are much more likely to co-operate with their implementation. It would be helpful, therefore, to know whether the Minister agrees that Ofsted inspections of local authority provision should include a review of the availability of independent advocacy services for young people in this area.
I wish to touch briefly, as others have done, on some of the most vulnerable groups within the 16-plus population. Disabled young people who are looked after are often the most disadvantaged in accessing information and making choices at transition. This is sometimes aggravated by lack of contact with friends and families and vulnerability to abuse. Further, unaccompanied and separated migrant children regularly experience barriers to appropriate accommodation and adequate support and rehabilitation services. Many of these are placed in unsupervised placements, often because they do not have documentation or their age is disputed. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be a much greater focus on adolescents in these high-risk categories, both in training for professionals and in Ofsted inspections?
Finally, research has consistently found that the health, including and perhaps especially mental health, and well-being of young people leaving care is poorer than that of young people in the population as a whole. That is why they are almost twice as likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol or to report other mental health difficulties, and that is why young people, when consulted, wanted to be able to leave care when they were ready and to have a chance to stay in care beyond the age of 18 if they did not feel prepared to live on their own. As has become clear in this debate, that is the crux of the matter. We know that transitioning to adulthood is challenging and demanding for all young people today, but how much more so for care leavers, for all the reasons so clearly stated in this debate? I hope that the Minister can assure the House that she is determined to keep a focus on their special needs in the days ahead.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Eaton on securing this debate. I am particularly pleased—she has made my heart sing today—that she highlighted the importance of securing employment in the transition to adulthood for care leavers. As former chief executive of Tomorrow’s People, I know just how crucial work can be for getting a life on track. Employment provides financial security as well as confidence, a sense of purpose and direction, daily structure, and the chance to widen social networks in a way that claiming benefits is simply unable to do. It is therefore shocking that, in England, at least 38% of 19 to 21 year-old care leavers are NEET—not in education, employment and training. In fact, this is probably a gross underestimate since, by the time they reach the age of 21, local authorities have no information on one-quarter of care leavers, who are not counted in the figure.
The Government have taken measures to increase the educational attainment of children in care. They include the pupil premium of £1,900 per looked-after child, and the rollout of the virtual school head role across the country. However, it is important that this focus on education is not disconnected from the goal of ensuring young people secure employment when they leave care. In fact, one of the key objectives of our education system must be to help young people to make an effective transition from education and care to the world of work.
The difficulties begin early. A simple lack of knowledge of the world of work limits young people's career options. The only adults with whom some children in care come into contact are those who are paid to look after them, limiting their range of role models. As a result, those who aim high often say that they want to be a social worker or a teacher—excellent in themselves, but not suitable for all. Low aspirations, sometimes born of rejection, can be devastating and, sadly, this can be reinforced by the low expectations that some professionals can have of children in care.
Even if young people have aspirations and the knowledge to act on them, significant barriers to care leavers securing employment can remain due to poor “soft skills”, including self-management, team-working abilities and communication. These have to be developed while growing up; otherwise, young people struggle to find employment. Charities such as the Drive Forward Foundation report that those who have grown up in care are often severely lacking in these abilities, with highly negative results. That is where programmes such as ThinkForward, which is delivered in partnership with Impetus, the Private Equity Foundation, and Tomorrow's People in Tower Hamlets, Islington and Hackney can be absolutely transformative. They provide highly trained coaches, offering stable one-to-one support through challenges at home and school for young people identified at the age of 14 as at risk of becoming NEET. Many of those young people are children in care. Each pupil has their own action plan and the coach will broker work opportunities for them. In 2013, some 95% of the young people who had been supported by this programme and their coaches successfully made the transition into post-16 education, employment or training.
I am absolutely convinced that the model of ThinkForward coaches is particularly valuable for children in care. The coaches stick with the young person through any other instabilities such as school moves and changes of career. They build up a relationship with the young person and can nurture and push them to achieve in a way that no one else has ever done before. This is currently being piloted in east London using money from the DWP Innovation Fund. I would think that I had died and gone to heaven if every young person had access to this opportunity. So I will ask the Minister again whether she will find a way to get business, the community and the voluntary sector together with the Government to find a way of putting a financial package together that would enable young people to have this experience. By tracking the outcomes, I hope that we will be able to make the case for all young people in care to be given this help.
Responsible parents do all they can to help young people prepare for work and nurture their ambition. The corporate parent should do no less.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for initiating this debate. I declare an interest as a trustee of the charity Coram, part of whose activities is Coram Voice, which does a great deal with the young people we are talking about today. I would also like to apologise in advance for my voice. This morning her ladyship advised me to stay put, but I ignored her advice and I hope that I was correct in doing so.
I congratulate the coalition on bringing the legislation in last year. This is something that Cross-Benchers do not necessarily do very often, but it is a remarkably progressive piece of legislation, and thanks are due where they are deserved. It was never going to be easy to implement either quickly or seamlessly because there are so many moving parts, so it is extraordinarily difficult for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. It is easy to focus instinctively on what seems not to be working rather than to notice what is.
I have three brief questions that I would like to ask the Minister. First, can the Government please take action to identify those local authorities which are essentially in the top decile for performance and outcomes, and to try to codify, disseminate and spread that information as quickly as possible? The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, mentioned the scorecards approach. It may sound rather businesslike, but it works. If you measure things that will stop a lot of discussion because facts tend to bring talking about what might be to a fairly rapid halt. Facts help, and we are talking about young people here, not units of production.
Secondly, on 30 October last year the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, replied to a Question for Written Answer tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, about children in residential care. At that point the Minister said that the department was thinking about what should be done in the area. Can the Minister please update us on what the Government feel about the practicality of introducing a legal duty on local authorities that would require them to extend “staying put” to residential care? If this is not viewed as practical, what alternatives are under consideration?
Thirdly, if a young person has complex needs resulting from disability or mental health problems, he or she needs to be assessed by adult social care or psychiatric services. Statutory guidance states that this should be done well before his or her 18th birthday. In practice, these assessments are often considerably delayed, which directly impacts on adequate staying-put provision being made. Is the Minister aware of this problem, and what is her assessment of the situation? If it is recognised as a problem, what can be done to resolve it?
I have a final observation. More and more young adults—including my three children, otherwise known as cost centres 1, 2 and 3—are still living at home in their 20s. An awful lot of young people in this rather challenging economic environment are doing exactly the same, trying to puzzle out how to reach even the first rung on the housing ladder. How very fortunate they are, even if many do not realise it, that they have a home and family to go back to every evening. If it feels difficult for them, what on earth must it feel like for a young person leaving care and hoping that their future will not be defined and limited by their past?
My Lords, like others, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has done the House a service in securing this debate at this time. Although it focuses specifically on leaving care, there has barely been a week or month in the last couple of years when the problems that are being experienced by young people in care have not been in the headlines, and some of those headlines have made very worrying reading.
Stable relationships with reliable adults are absolutely pivotal for a good transition out of care and into adult life. That, in part, is why we introduced the Going the Extra Mile scheme in Northern Ireland, which has allowed young people in education, employment and training to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21. That scheme was introduced before the staying-put scheme was even piloted in England. As a result, 28% of 19 year-old care leavers in Northern Ireland are now living with their former foster carers.
The absence of meaningful role models for many young people, especially males, means that many are left at the mercy of paramilitary elements and criminal gangs. Sadly, as in other regions, our mental health situation is not improving.
Nevertheless, for the reasons that we have already heard, living with former foster carers is not the right option for all young people. In these cases, local authorities—or in Northern Ireland, the health and social care trusts—have the duty to provide a personal adviser. That should be the fail-safe mechanism to ensure that there is always someone young people can turn to for support. I should point out that, in Northern Ireland, our health and social care services are integrated, so that social services and health work under trusts and are not the responsibility of local authorities.
As the House of Commons Education Select Committee highlighted last year, it must sometimes be better for local authorities to appoint someone with whom the young person already has an established relationship as a personal adviser. Under regulations, it is possible for a young person’s personal adviser to be someone whom they already know, rather than introducing a new professional into their life. However, I am informed by the Centre for Social Justice that this rarely, if ever, happens in England. Here, again, I think that Northern Ireland has been ahead of the curve. Under our system, some young people are appointed what is known as a “person-specific” personal adviser; an individual the young person chooses to be their personal adviser, allowing a relationship to continue. A huge range of individuals have been employed as PSPAs. They might, for example, be a former foster carer, a family member, an independent advocate, a classroom assistant, a youth worker or even a boxing instructor. It is particularly relevant to the debate around appropriate provision for children in residential care who cannot stay put that the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, which is currently using the approach most extensively, has used a number of residential care workers as PSPAs. This has worked very well as they have a deep understanding of and commitment to the young person and bring skills and expertise to the role.
One of the crucial advantages of the PSPA role is that it allows the trusts to stay in touch with young people with whom they would otherwise have lost contact, the consequence of which is that they cannot access financial support. In England, by the age of 19, 11% of care leavers are not in meaningful contact with their local authority or are no longer receiving services. Some of these young people are the most vulnerable; they have had a poor experience of care and therefore reject yet another new professional coming into their life. Our newspapers are full these days of the consequences of the failure of that system.
Such young people therefore benefit enormously from the appointment of a PSPA. Where the PSPA function has been used well, very few young people have lost touch with their trust. That is not to say the system has been without a hiccup. Human resources in some trusts have been highly reluctant to create contracts for each PSPA. As a result, coverage is patchy. I know that the trusts are coming back to look at how the function can be used more extensively, and I urge them to do so.
I also urge the Department for Education to take a proactive stance on this issue for England. The most basic provision DfE could make would be to introduce easy-to-use model contracts to hire PSPAs, which has proved so crucial to getting the model off the ground in Northern Ireland. In fact, I urge the DfE and local authorities to talk to our commissioners and trusts in Northern Ireland to learn from the benefits of the system and the challenges that we have confronted, particularly with regard to the human relations issues. It would be a travesty if, due to technical issues, we lost the opportunity to provide meaningful support beyond 18 for some of the most vulnerable care leavers of all, who at the greatest point of vulnerability in their lives, can fall prey to gangsters and evildoers of all kinds and squander the opportunity to enjoy a fulfilling and productive life.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Eaton for securing this debate about how well we look after our most vulnerable care leavers. As she pointed out, if one is not eligible for staying put, it means that one has not had the benefit of a stable foster placement to stay put in.
She also mentioned how often young people who are leaving care lack the indispensable ingredient we all need to live meaningful lives: safe, stable and nurturing relationships. Loss of family relationships can leave a very big hole in someone’s life, and I will focus my remarks on how the corporate parent can ensure that that hole is filled with people and opportunities that will do young people good and help them avoid repeating the cycle of disadvantage they were often born into.
As I have said before in this Chamber, for a child to surface, somebody somewhere needs to be crazy about them. Without ongoing input from adults and others who genuinely care about them, young people will seek security and comfort elsewhere. For example, early sexual experiences, which are often deeply regretted, can lead to young women being entangled in abusive relationships, often with much older men, as well as early pregnancy.
However, good relationships rarely happen as a result of serendipity in this cohort. Care and leaving-care services have to be incredibly proactive. I will describe two major areas where progress should and must be made. First, our care system seems to find it particularly hard to keep siblings together: 95% of those in residential children’s homes are separated from a sibling, as are 71% of looked-after children overall. Yet, where there is a good relationship, siblings can be extremely important in providing mutual support, especially as one or more is leaving care. Indeed, older siblings may want and be able to take on a quasi-parental role. Included in the corporate parenting scorecard mentioned by my noble Friend, Lady Eaton there could be data on the number of sibling separations and the stated reason for each one, thereby highlighting good and poor practice. Even if siblings have to be separated, meaningful sibling contact should be included in care plans by default.
Secondly, respect for sibling relationships has to be part of a much wider prioritisation of existing relationships, especially with reliable extended family members who are rarely completely absent even when a child has had to be removed from their parents. Connections from a young person’s pre-care life are vital. They root that person in their family history when, too frequently, they feel severed from it, with profound implications for their sense of identity—who they are and where they have come from.
We are just beginning to hear in this country about the astonishingly successful family finding and engagement model in the United States. It is based on the fact that, as well as their blood connections with their extended family, care leavers greatly value the supportive and nurturing relationships that they have developed with adults, such as teachers, youth workers or the parents of friends, while in care, even if they have lost touch. Every such relationship is a potential opportunity for a connection that could be lifelong.
In the USA, practitioners have developed methods to draw on this resource and intentionally build a network of support which will become particularly valuable as young people begin to prepare for leaving care. Family finding and engagement looks for at least 40 adults to whom the young person feels connected in a positive way, as well as family members with whom the young person may have had little or no previous contact. Typically out of this number, one or more adults will emerge who is reliable, genuinely interested in and able to engage with the young person, even if they have come from the most dysfunctional of families.
In California’s Orange County family finding project, 97 per cent of the young people involved were able to increase contact with family members. This means having somewhere to spend Christmas Day or to go for Sunday lunch. Most young people take these options for granted, yet they create that all-important sense of belonging, which can, for example, alleviate poor mental health or help prevent it from developing in the first place. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has said in respect of family finding that the idea deserves urgent attention and the resources and focus to implement such an approach.
A raft of UK pilots would be an excellent candidate for support from a future Department for Education innovation fund. As others have already said, this Government can take pride in the fostering and adoption reforms that they have driven through in the worst of financial times. We have been well served by both Edward Timpson, the incumbent Minister for Children, and Tim Loughton before him. However, it is my strong hope that, whoever is in that role after the forthcoming election, the reforming zeal does not abate but is energised by the urgency of this task.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, who always speaks so passionately and humanely about the need to support and strengthen vulnerable families. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for calling this important debate. I believe that what she said is true. She quoted Samantha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice, an institution which does such important work in this area, who said that we have reached a relational turn in policy. I certainly hope so. Staying put, which the Government introduced in the then Children and Families Bill, and the new quality standards for children’s homes, which really focus on the importance of relationships for children in children’s homes, are both signs that we are moving in that happy direction.
I welcome my noble friend Lord Russell’s speech. This is the first time he has spoken since retaking his seat in the House of Lords. I welcome his constructive, lucid and humane speech, and hope that we will hear from him on many more occasions.
There is a huge cost to the taxpayer in failing to get these transitions right. It is arguable that local authorities are spending large sums from their budgets to protect the budgets of health, criminal justice and welfare departments. Is the Minister thinking about how this unfairness can be addressed? I welcome the Government’s strategy for care leavers. Local authorities have not been adequately funded to provide staying put. Scotland has provided more money per child and has staged introduction. Will the Minister look at additional funding to local authorities to fund staying put? I apologise for not giving her notice of that question.
Over many years, I have heard young people in care repeat how important relationships are to them. My experience of working with young people has also persuaded me of the importance to them of reliable, respectful, enduring and benign relationships. Indeed, it seems to me that the ability to make and keep relationships is the cornerstone of good emotional well-being and mental health. However, the early experience of many young people in care often makes it hard to make and keep such relationships, as has already been said. When these relationships are established, they should be cherished, and it was good to hear how that is happening in Northern Ireland.
I recently met a 40 year-old woman who still receives a card from her social worker each Christmas. I spoke to a man who told me that his 80 year-old mother is giving a party for the former residents of the children’s home that she used to manage to celebrate her birthday. I heard from a broadcaster that he still sees his social worker for tea. I suggest that one aspect of providing a good transition from care is allowing good relationships to be sustained through that transition. However, for that to happen, residential staff need to be equipped to manage their relationships with these young people. There are many experienced managers and staff who would know their way through this minefield.
I suggest that the minimal qualification requirements of one A-level for staff and one year of higher education for the managers, together with the lack of a requirement that their work be supervised by an appropriately experienced mental health professional, militates against staff maintaining their relationships with their young people. Research found that 90% of staff in Denmark’s children’s homes and 50% in Germany’s had a degree-level qualification. While their staff are more qualified, they manage less troubled children. Half of looked-after children on the continent are cared for in residential homes; in this country the figure is 9%, so ours have far higher levels of need.
When the noble Lord, Lord Warner, took evidence for his report on the staffing of children’s homes in the 1990s, the expert evidence given to him showed that an ongoing relationship with a mental health professional was the norm on the continent with regard to children’s homes. Yet even today we do not know how many homes have such supervision in this country, and an expert recently told me that half our homes might be without it.
The new quality standards for children’s homes certainly go some way to meeting these concerns. I am very pleased that they thoroughly recognise the need to support young people’s relationships. They state that the managers and staff,
“are provided with supervision and support to manage and understand their own feelings and responses to the emotions and behaviours presented by children, and to help children to do the same”.
However, in the current financial climate, with child and adolescent mental health services in the state that they are in, it is very doubtful that staff will consistently receive the clinical—I underline “clinical”—supervision that they need. I ask whether the Minister might be prepared to meet me and perhaps other Members of your Lordships’ House, with officials from the Department of Health and the Department for Education, in the very short time left before the end of this Parliament to discuss the supervision by mental health professionals of staff in children’s homes. We have heard the figures on the level of mental health disorders in children’s homes. I also draw the attention of the Minister and the House to the excellent coverage in today’s Times of CAMHS and the manifesto for change published there. I commend the manifesto to your Lordships.
I remember a care leaver, Paul Connolly, who came from a terrible children’s home. There was a boxing club nearby and the boxers became his mentors. He now writes books and teaches physical education. There are some wonderful stories here if we can just do the right thing.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for tabling the Question and giving us all the space to have a long, hard look at what is really happening to young care leavers today. As many noble Lords have said, it is not a happy story, but I add my acknowledgement of the progress that has been made. It was your Lordships’ House, including many people around this Room today, who, in conjunction with a number of the children’s charities, finally persuaded the Government to accept the amendment to the then Children and Families Bill to enable young people to stay in foster care to the age of 21. Although that is welcome, it highlights the continuing injustice that young people in other forms of residential care do not have the same rights to stay put until 21. I hope that the Minister agrees that it will be only a short period before that anomaly is corrected. I also acknowledge that this Government, as with the previous Government and a wide range of charities, have taken a number of well intentioned steps to make it easier for those leaving care, and we have heard some inspirational examples and stories that illustrate that today.
However, sadly that progress has not been good enough. The recent cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls in Rotherham and Oxford, many in the care system, are just the tip of the iceberg. We all know that that is just one element of continuing neglect, but our failures are wider and deeper than that. To begin with, it is not acceptable that young people in care have such poor educational outcomes. Around 70,000 children are in the care system, and only 15% get more than five A* to C grades at GCSE. In fact, the attainment gap between them and their peers has widened since 2008. Can the Minister indicate what more is being done in the department to close that gap? When it comes to higher education, the figures are even more stark, with only 6% of care leavers studying at that level compared to 33% of their peers. Young people can access a number of forms of help when they get to university. However, those layers of support are increasingly in decline as the institutional budgets are squeezed. Perhaps the Minister could clarify what is being done to promote and guarantee that additional support for young people entering higher education.
Meanwhile, of course, the latest employment figures give even more cause for concern, as a number of noble Lords have referred to. They show that around 34% of care leavers aged 19 or over are not in education, employment or training. That is twice the average of their peers. Care leavers in employment—even those in apprenticeships—have their cases closed by children’s services at 21, rather than at 25 as is the case for those in education. Does the Minister think that it would be helpful if those entitlements were equalised? Perhaps the harshest indictment of our failure is the statistics which show, for example, that 70% of sex workers and 24% of the adult prison population have been in care. Over 20% are identified as having problematic drug use.
A key challenge underlining all that is the lack of suitable accommodation when young people leave care. The Commons Education Select Committee last year published a devastating critique of the system, which found young people aged 16 or 17 years old being placed in bed and breakfast, sometimes for extended periods. Quite rightly, it described the experience as threatening and frightening. Surely the time has come to put a deadline on local authorities using bed and breakfast for that purpose. For others, the transfer to independent living can take the form of a hard-to-let council flat where they can be prey to exploitation and abuse. The Barnardo’s report On My Own highlights vulnerable young people struggling with living alone and facing eviction, sofa surfing or sleeping rough after a breakdown in their accommodation. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should have a longer-term responsibility to provide safe accommodation, perhaps building on schemes such as the impressive Foyer movement, which combines accommodation with work and training?
Finally, as I think all noble Lords have stressed, it is crucial that we address the lack of consistent emotional support for young people moving into independence. The arguments are well made in Action for Children’s report, Too Much, Too Young, which identifies that young people living on their own for the first time often suffer from depression, anxiety and loneliness. They are desperate for some kind of continuity and support from a trusted adult. However, as we have heard, all too often they find that their personal adviser or independent advocate is a stranger who does not really know them or how to motivate them.
We would not expect our own children to fend for themselves at 16, and we would not refuse them the right to return home at 21 or even 25 when things go wrong, so why do we not treat care leavers on an equal basis? Not only should that be our responsibility as a corporate parent, but it would give a much better launch pad for those children to have fulfilled and productive lives. Surely that is an investment worth making.
My Lords, I am delighted that we have had an opportunity to consider the difficulties faced by young care leavers and to discuss what more could be done to help them as they move into adult life. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Eaton for securing this debate and to all noble Lords for their wide-ranging and eloquent contributions, which reflect the expertise in this area in your Lordships’ House.
The Government are firmly committed to improving the lives of care leavers. We have demonstrated that commitment by putting in place a series of measures since 2010 which mean that young people leaving care are now receiving more help than ever before. In 2013, we published the first cross-government Care Leaver Strategy, which set out our expectations on a range of measures, including: care leavers’ access to education, training and employment opportunities; help to access appropriate benefits and health support; and extra support for care leavers who, unfortunately, have ended up in the criminal justice system.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Armstrong, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, all referred to young people in the care system ending up in the criminal justice system. The Department for Education has worked closely with the Ministry of Justice in developing a care leaver strategy, and the MoJ has issued guidance to staff in the probation and prison services, as well as appointing a new care leaver’s champion, Teresa Clarke, the governor at HMP and young offender institution Swinfen Hall. Therefore that is very much on the Government’s radar.
The strategy also reflected a number of important changes to the level of support that care leavers are entitled to from their local authority. Those included: support from a personal adviser up to age 21, or 25 if the care leaver is already in education or returning to it—I will say something more on that in a minute; bursaries for those participating in further or higher education; access to a leaving care grant to help meet the costs of moving to independent living; and making it easier for care leavers to get access to their social care records. The vast majority of local authorities have signed up to delivering the Care Leavers’ Charter, which underlines their commitment to delivering those important changes. My noble friend Lady Eaton referred to the struggles with loneliness, as did other noble Lords.
The Government have delivered on the promises we made in the strategy to improve the lives of care leavers. First, and most notably, with the support of your Lordships’ House through noble Lords’ scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill, we have introduced the staying-put duty, which has allowed thousands of children in foster placements to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about that, and he brings great expertise to that area. The Government are providing local authorities with £44.4 million over three years to support the implementation of that new duty; again, I was asked about funding for that. Our evidence shows that in the first year alone, around 25% of the young people who are now entitled to remain with their foster carer have chosen to do so.
Secondly, we have worked closely with Ofsted in supporting its development of a new and strengthened inspection framework, which includes a far greater focus on care leavers’ services than the old model. That will provide a better opportunity both to monitor and to scrutinise the quality and range of provision within individual local authorities, but will also support and promote the sharing of best practice. I note the right reverend Prelate’s words about Ofsted and how important it is to review what it inspects and make quite sure that that is the best it can be.
Care leavers’ access to financial support is another important issue. The Government amended their transition to adulthood guidance in May 2014 to encourage local authorities to provide at least £2,000 as a setting-up-home allowance for care leavers. We have strengthened statutory guidance for local authorities supporting care leavers aged 21 to 24 who wish to return to education or training, making it clear that local authorities should support care leavers to overcome barriers that might prevent them returning to education or training, up to age 25. We have also established bursaries for care leavers who are in further and higher education, and introduced the Junior ISA, which has provided £200 of start-up funding for more than 54,000 children in care, who can access the money after their 18th birthday.
As part of our commitment to improving services for this group of young people, we have funded a number of projects designed to stimulate new and innovative approaches to supporting care leavers; for example, we have funded the Care Leavers’ Foundation to run the New Belongings project. Care leavers played a central role in the project by helping to identify issues and barriers and to find solutions. The project was initially confined to nine local authorities but I am pleased to say that only last week we announced an increased award to the project, which will allow the first wave of local authorities to focus on care leavers with greater needs, extend the approach into another group of authorities, and develop a gold standard of service planning and delivery for care leavers so that other areas can benefit.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked whether there were examples of good practice and the sharing of good practice. I, too, welcome him on his return to your Lordships’ House. I am very glad that he ignored her Ladyship’s advice—on this one occasion, obviously— and brought his expertise to this debate. My noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott also referred to the need to ensure that care leavers have the very best possible opportunities. I pay tribute to all the work she has done with Tomorrow’s People for this group of young people.
On a similar theme, the Government have provided financial support to Catch22 to deliver the From Care2Work programme, which helps care leavers get a foot in the door, with some of our major employers, such as Marriott Hotels, providing work experience, apprenticeships and employment opportunities for care leavers. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady Eaton spoke about this. The programme has placed more than 700 care leavers into employment, including 175 apprenticeships.
While the Government are proud of their record over the past five years of improving support for care leavers, I assure your Lordships that we are by no means complacent and that we recognise there is more to do. Mental health was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Farmer. Given the traumas that many children in care have suffered earlier in their lives, it is not surprising that mental health is a big issue for many care leavers. The Government are taking steps to ensure that they receive the right support and treatment.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, spoke about Northern Ireland’s integrated system. Here, in July 2014, the Minister of State for Care and Support, Norman Lamb, announced a children and young people’s mental health and well-being task force, which brings together experts on children and young people’s mental health and those with knowledge of wider system transformation from across health, education and social care. The task force is considering what changes and improvements are needed to improve outcomes for children and young people with mental health difficulties, and includes a particular focus on the needs of vulnerable groups, such as those who have been in care.
Staying put has received a broad welcome from your Lordships. The actual cost of introducing it will depend on a range of factors that are difficult to predict, including the proportion of eligible children who choose to remain with their foster carers, and the length of time for which they remain in the staying-put arrangement. It is too early to make a judgment that the level of funding is insufficient but we will, of course, continue to monitor the take-up of staying put and will review the level of funding in light of its implementation.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Jones, referred to the wish to extend staying put to those in residential care. Indeed, we fully recognise that young people who have been placed in care in residential settings would like the same degree of certainty and security as they move into adult life as those who have lived with foster carers. However, it is important that we understand what works about the current staying-put arrangements for foster care before we launch into a new set of arrangements. It is also important to remember that those in residential care face a very different set of challenges and so the solutions will need to be very different. However, as part of our exploration of this area, we commissioned the National Children’s Bureau to carry out scoping work to help us to identify options for extending staying put to residential care.
My noble friend Lord Farmer and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to innovative ways of delivering children’s social care. Through the innovation programme we have recently announced just over £2 million of funding to the No Wrong Door hub model in North Yorkshire, which puts individual relationships back at the heart of the residential care system, and where staff may otherwise have had to cut ties with care leavers, they can now be extended beyond the age of 18. That model will provide a consistent relationship with one dedicated worker, who will stick with the young person wherever they move in the system. Young people will be able to rely on the people they trust to stand by them.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, helpfully highlighted some of the good practice that is happening in Northern Ireland in relation to personal advisers. We are keen to learn from arrangements that are working and hope that DfE officials will follow up this point in their contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned accommodation issues. The Government are committed to ensuring that young people are always placed in safe and suitable accommodation. We have strengthened statutory guidance to say that local authorities should only place 16 to 17 year-old care leavers in emergency placements, such as bread and breakfast, for no more than two working days. Again, we are working closely to improve that situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked a number of questions which I need to write to him about. He mentioned the complex needs of young people. Our statutory guidance makes clear that the assessment needs of young people should be identified as early as possible. Local authorities are expected, through the pathway plan process, to identify and plan the support that young people with complex needs require. The DfE publishes comprehensive data on both the outcomes of children in care and the types of placements they are in, mindful always of what is in the child’s best interests.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to access to social care records. She, of course, has a great deal of experience in this area. We recognise how important it is for care leavers to have access to information about the circumstances that led to their being taken into care and to understand the decisions that were taken while they were in care. The Department for Education has updated its guidance on transition to adults to be clearer about the principles and processes that should be in place when requests for care records are made.
My noble friend Lord Farmer referred to siblings and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to the importance of relationships, as did other noble Lords. We agree that siblings should be placed together whenever possible. However, key to that ambition is having sufficient foster carers who are able to meet the needs of children who are harder to place, and that will include brothers and sisters.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, brings great experience and extensive knowledge to the issues we are debating. On his point about clinical supervision, with children’s homes employing a qualified professional working in the field of mental health, we would certainly expect them to be provided with relevant clinical supervision. However, we do not currently believe it would be appropriate to make it a requirement for all staff working in a children’s home. I note his request for a meeting but, because of the timing, that may need to be for the next Parliament. However, we shall certainly keep it under review.
My noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott again hoped that I would be able to answer her prayers by guaranteeing a coach for every young care leaver. Would that I had such a magic wand. However, I am quite sure that, given her persuasive powers, we will get closer to finding ways of delivering that so that children learn the soft as well as the harder skills as they make the transition into adult life.
I apologise that I have not had time to answer some questions but I shall write to noble Lords on them. This has been an interesting and stimulating debate on a highly important issue. Children in care often have a difficult start in life. Unlike most of us, they do not have their parents to support and encourage them, so it is crucial that the state does as much to support their needs as possible. It is principally a matter for local authorities but the Government must also play their part. We have made a good start and I thank noble Lords for acknowledging the part that we have played. We took over good practice from the previous Administration because this is a cross-party issue. We all wish to make the best decisions for groups of vulnerable children. I again thank my noble friend Lady Eaton for securing the debate and all those who have taken part. We look forward to continuing cross-party work to ensure the best possible start to adult life for all young care leavers.
Dresden Bombing: 70th Anniversary
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, as the Minister knows, for some months I have been encouraging the Government to engage in an appropriate way with the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. I should say at the outset how grateful I am for the graciousness of the Minister’s responses to me on several occasions. I also express my appreciation to David Lidington, Minister of State for European issues and NATO, for the serious consideration that he gave to my approaches; and to Sir Simon McDonald, the British ambassador to Germany, for the fine words of the statement that he released on 13 February, the day of the anniversary.
I have been clear throughout that my intention has not been to enter the continuing debate over the moral propriety or military value of the bombing of Dresden. Without denying the seriousness of such questions, my focus has been on the words and gestures that may help to heal the wound of history which the events of 13 and 14 February 1945 represent and thus to take our two countries, which have travelled so far already along the long road to lasting reconciliation, a few more steps along the way. In my own mind this debate serves the same purpose, focused as it is on the 70th anniversary commemoration rather than the bombing itself. I would like to make four comments that arise from my own participation in the commemoration.
The first is on the hospitality of the city of Dresden to the many visitors who came from across Europe to join in the commemoration, and the dignity with which the events were conducted. The bombing of Dresden, with its scale of destruction and death, touches many nerves—many of them still exposed in Germany and elsewhere, including here in the UK. The mayor, Oberbürgermeisterin Helma Orosz, navigated the city through the commemoration with great skill. She was determined that it should reflect the city’s key values of,
“openness to the world and tolerance”,
values which she knows only too well are regularly under threat and need to be guarded vigilantly. The mayor’s call to the people of Dresden to form a circle of peace around the old city to stand against the far right’s demonstrations has become a regular and moving feature of the annual commemorations. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government may take this opportunity to congratulate Mayor Orosz and her colleagues on their resolve to lead the commemoration in ways that served the purposes of peace and reconciliation.
The second area of my comments is the value to those purposes of British guests sharing in the remembrance of the suffering of the country that was once our enemy and on which we, in the dreadful storms of war, rained death. As I know from Coventry’s commemoration of its own bombing, the participation of such representatives in the pain of remembrance forges deeper solidarity in our common humanity and brings about a transformation of relationships. It is important for our own country not only to participate respectfully in the remembrance of the allied raids that brought death to up to 25,000 people and injury to thousands more but to look into the faces of the survivors, who were then children. For example, Eberhard Renner, who was 12 at the time, tells us that the sight of the,
“charred corpse of one woman … on a pavement”,
lying with wedding ring on her outstretched hand gleaming in the sun, “still haunts me today”. To stand with a city that experienced such extremes of suffering is to be reminded of the hell into which Europe descended, and galvanized to work for peace in places that are today spiralling deeper into the madness of war.
The healing effect of well chosen words and generous gestures over a number of years was proven by Dresden’s decision to award its prestigious peace prize to His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. I am sure that noble Lords and the Government will want to congratulate both His Royal Highness on his award and the city of Dresden on generously granting it, in this of all years, to a senior representative of the UK. Our country was ably represented by the Duke of Kent, by the British ambassador, by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the Lord Mayor of Coventry and, I am proud to say, by many other Coventrians. I understand that, for reasons of protocol, Her Majesty’s Government were not represented in person. May I therefore ask the Minister whether the Government will consider other ways that they might relate to the city of Dresden? One such appropriate occasion would be the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche in October this year.
The third area worthy of comment is the address of President Gauck, which was a remarkable reflection on what makes for good remembrance—the sort of remembrance that leads to learning and better ways of living for the future. In his speech in the Frauenkirche, he showed that good remembrance is honest: the “murderous war”, he said, began with Germany. Good remembrance is disciplined: it refuses, he argued, to “instrumentalise remembrance” either to “relativise German guilt” for,
“National Socialist crimes against humanity”,
or, on the other side, to coldly justify Dresden’s destruction as punishment for that guilt. Good remembrance, the President explained, is empathetic, honouring all who suffered as a consequence of war. It is healing, freeing people from self-pity and victimhood. I would be glad to know whether the Government agree with these principles of good remembrance.
This leads me to my final area of comment, which is the contrasting approach to remembrance displayed by a section—only a section, I should say—of the British press, which elicited comments from sections of the British public that were far from disciplined, empathetic or healing. The catalyst to these comments were the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury who, shortly before President Gauck spoke, said,
“as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow”.
It would have been not only an abnegation of spiritual responsibility to have failed on such an occasion to express regret and sorrow at the loss of so many lives, but an abandonment of human decency. His was not a judgment on the moral or military efficacy of the hard decisions that were taken in the heat of war when its end was not necessarily determined; nor was it any denial of the extraordinary bravery of the British and American airmen caught up in the conflict, with so many of them dying courageously for our freedom during the course of the war. It was a simple statement of compassion and sympathy, without which the commemorations would have been incomplete.
I have described the bombing of Dresden as a “wound of history”. The reaction to the most reverend Primate’s words in some quarters proved to me that it remains an open wound in our own land, as well as, of course, among some in Germany. I hope that this debate and the response of the Minister may help to heal that which still hurts here as well as there. I hope that it will also be an occasion to celebrate the length of the road towards reconciliation that has already been travelled by our nations. I hope that we will be ready to proclaim afresh to the world that the story of our nations over the last 70 years proves that peace is possible and that friendship is better than enmity.
My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for the lead he has given in this great campaign to make sure that we remember correctly the horrors of that night of bombing in Dresden in 1945. He has taken a lead and given us an example of how the church, given its legitimate interest in matters of international peace and reconciliation, has such an important role to play. I also thank the Minister for coming today. We all know she has a very hectic schedule, which she fulfils with great skill. It is good of her to come today to reply to this debate.
I am a very proud patron of the Dresden Trust as well as a great lover of Germany. I first went to Germany as a penniless student in 1958 and worked in various very mundane and badly paid occupations. I was deeply impressed by the spectacular return of Germany to being a wonderful example of a democratic and, indeed, economically extremely successful country, which has maintained its moderate attitude in all respects. Eccentric extremists do not get a very good time in Germany, and we should all rejoice about that. Yet again, they have a grand coalition there. That might not be a good example for the general election period, but I will avoid that subject.
As a patron of the Dresden Trust, I am very proud of our commemorative book, which gives all the details, and of the leadership of our royal patron the Duke of Kent, who has spent a lot of time on this. I remember that on one occasion we were watching the preparations for building the orb and cross on the top of the dome of the Frauenkirche, the church of Our Lady, which we paid for. It was done by a young goldsmith in the City of London whose father was, I think, involved in the bombing—it was an extraordinary aspect of coincidental history. The Duke was assailed by elderly people, mostly ladies for obvious reasons but also elderly gentlemen, saying “Thank you very much for coming” and “We appreciate it”.
Reconciliation with Germany—and the reconciliation of France and Germany is a very important subject which gives me great pride as I live in France as well—has been a matter of great joy. We rejoice in having a German lady, Eveline, as the chairman of the Dresden Trust. She attended on 13 February, as did the right reverend Prelate, as he said. She is now developing the Dresden Trust’s new plans, including avenues of trees and commemorative benches in the parks and so on in Dresden so that people can make a further contribution to the reconciliation and friendship that is so important to us all.
I was quite disturbed by the reflection that there was a tendency after the Second World War to be nasty about the German population as well as about the horrible Government they had in the Third Reich—one of the nastiest regimes in European history which ended in tears, murder and mayhem for all. We did not do that with Iraq, and I was very impressed by that. When Saddam Hussein, apparently a brutal dictator, was running Iraq, we did not blame the Iraqi people; we criticised him. When the war was on, we lamented the severe loss of life—which will eventually come out in the Chilcot report when it is published—in Iraq as a result of that war, a war which my party, the Liberal Democrats, proudly refused to support. Like a million and half people in London, we marched against that war.
In Germany, the case was different. I know that it was a massive world war with a lot of suffering on all sides, so there are reasons and excuses for that, but none the less we should not single out a population for the terrible behaviour of what was, in effect, in the Third Reich a criminal regime. If you disagreed with that regime, you could easily be killed. Most people would not do that, but a lot of Germans also suffered in the Third Reich. They lost their lives as a result of opposing that regime. There were many brave people who sheltered Jews, for example, which was a capital offence, and there have been films ever since on that subject.
More recently, on a joyous occasion rather than a sombre one, there was the amazing spectacle of the football World Cup held in Germany. Germany came third; it was rather dignified to ensure that they were not too successful. It was a wonderful occasion because a lot of British people went there for the first time. Germany has never promoted itself as holiday country in Britain, which is a great mistake. Particularly in the south, the weather is very good in the summer. The British were interviewed when they came back, or sometimes there, too, and they said what amazing pubs Germany had and that when you asked the police for directions they answered in fluent English. The German capacity for learning other languages is now renowned.
We must remember that the city centre was not a military zone at all. That myth developed after the war because some people in Britain felt guilty about what had happened right at the end of the war when Germany was on its knees anyway. The military targets on the outskirts of Dresden were ignored while that most beautiful of cities—the fabulous and historical “Florence of the North”—was attacked right in the centre, with huge loss of life. I suppose that it can be compared only with the awful example of the Hamburg firestorm. Of course we lament and regret the tragic loss of life of the bomber crews. Even worse than the British losses, which were very severe indeed, were the American losses because of the daylight bombing raids, which were even more hazardous. All these things are part of the city’s memorial and they fit together as people come together now.
I am thinking of the Queen’s visit to Ireland and the reconciliation that took place there; that is now the name of the game everywhere. It is a moving and remarkable thing which has to be built on in the future so that we can maintain peace. There are some people who even now are saying what I think are the wrong things about Ukraine, which is a difficult subject to grasp. They are talking about quasi-military responses, but we now live in a world where the West, along with other parts of the world, must give a lead in the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of war. We must make sure that the Geneva conventions and all the additions to them really outlaw war, because that is the way for the world to prosper. That is one of the important lessons of the example of the reconciliation and the friendship that developed in Dresden. As a patron of the Dresden Trust I have visited around 10 times, including making some tedious speeches about which they were very polite and applauded at the end.
I mention also the remarkable gastronomy of Dresden that is becoming legendary again, including the hotel ships on the famous and wonderful river Elbe because there is not enough accommodation in the town, although new hotels are now being built. The Hilton hotel just by the Church of Our Lady, the Frauenkirche, in the centre of Dresden, is a meeting place for German, British and American people to come together. Indeed, Allied POWs were in the area when the bombings took place and many of them took a very dim view of the campaign—as, indeed, did Harold Nicolson when he said that what happened on those terrible nights was manifestly not something that could be justified militarily.
We also thank the series of ambassadors who have come from Germany to represent their country here. They have been people of outstanding quality. I pay tribute to the present ambassador, Peter Ammon, who had served previously in Washington DC. Friendships are being created between two countries which are very similar in attitude; indeed, the psyche of the personalities of their citizens are very similar. There is a great meeting of minds, and Germany is now a popular country in the minds of British people, and that is a great achievement.
I thank my noble friend the right reverend Prelate, if I may refer to him in that way, for the lead he has given on this subject, and all the people in Coventry of English and German origin for the great reconciliation that has taken place between the two cities. It is an object lesson for the future, which is what it is all about. It must be developed further.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate, which was opened so movingly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. There could be no more appropriate person to bring this great issue before us. There are many noble Lords who cannot be present in the Chamber today who will read this debate in Hansard with great interest.
I should like to begin by commenting briefly on the views of Winston Churchill. According to Jock Colville, his private secretary, Churchill was not consulted about the attack on Dresden. It was not felt necessary, Colville recalled, because it was in accord with the general policy of bombing German towns massively so as to shatter German morale. But after it was over and the extent of death and devastation had become clear, Churchill was deeply troubled. More than a month later, on 28 March 1945, he recorded his feelings in a private minute which he sent to the chiefs of staff committee marked “top secret”:
“The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battlezone … rather than mere acts of terror and wanton destruction”.
Churchill was persuaded by the chiefs of staff to tone down the rough terms of his minute, as they described them, before it was circulated more widely. The cardinal feature of bombing policy as explained by the Government to the country at large was that it had as its aim the destruction of industries and transport services in large German cities, not the terrorising or slaughter of the civilian population. But there was a gap between the formal intention of policy and what actually happened.
Churchill would have been aware of the serious queries about the reality of bombing policy raised by a number of prominent churchmen. His Secretary of State for Air, Archie Sinclair, had told him about his difficulty in satisfying the inquiries of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and other significant religious leaders inclined towards the moral condemnation of the bombing offensive. Solemn warnings were heard in your Lordships’ House in February 1944, a year before the attack on Dresden, from Bishop George Bell of Chichester. Bishop Bell pointed out:
“What we do in war—which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time—affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period”.—[Official Report, 9/2/1944; col. 746.]
He foresaw Dresden’s fate a year before it was engulfed so tragically in firestorms.
None of this diminishes or detracts from our debt to all those who served our country in the RAF during the war. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his moving address in Dresden last month, of which my noble friend Lord Dykes and the right reverend Prelate made mention, we must never forget the terrible losses of the heroic crews of Bomber Command. Almost half were killed during the war, carrying out difficult, demanding and exhausting duties in the cause of freedom. Courage is the greatest of all human virtues, said Churchill, because all other virtues depend on it. The courage of our airmen played a vital part in securing the peace that western Europe has enjoyed for 70 years. That brings me to the present day and the recent 70th anniversary commemoration of the bombing of Dresden.
The theme of these annual commemorations is one of reconciliation, as the right reverend Prelate so rightly stressed, a theme reinforced by the presence in Dresden on these occasions of representatives of bombed cities outside Germany, notably Coventry, as well as solemn remembrance of all victims of war and persecution. The city of Dresden achieved particular prominence and its destruction particular notoriety because of its status as one of the greatest centres of European civilisation, represented in its architecture, music, art and scientific and intellectual life. That is why, after German unification, the determination to rebuild the city met with an international response. The response from the United Kingdom involved the founding, in 1993, of the Dresden Trust, a charity whose representatives are present at the annual commemorations of the city’s destruction. My noble friend Lord Dykes, who has played so prominent a part in the trust, has described its magnificent work.
The trust continues to fulfil its mission of furthering reconciliation between Britain and Dresden through educational, cultural and other initiatives. One of the most interesting and important of these, which has a profound impact on the lives of individuals, demonstrates living reconciliation through personal contacts between young people in Saxony and Britain. The Dresden Scholars’ Scheme, founded in 2000, by David Woodhead, a personal friend and former colleague in the world of education, has enabled about 300 boys and girls from schools in Saxony to attend British independent schools thanks to scholarships provided by these schools. They come in gratifying numbers, usually for a full school year. Some choose to stay longer in the schools, and some even opt to go on to British universities. Their appreciation of the opportunities that the Dresden Scholars’ Scheme provides is heartfelt and never fails to highlight the making of lasting friendships. One, typical of many, wrote that he,
“very much enjoyed every single day and it enabled me not only to get to know quite a different way of life but also to meet some really good friends. This was all made possible by the Dresden Scholars’ Scheme and therefore I would like to thank you for this opportunity which I hope lots of students will use in the future”.
A few weeks ago, the headmaster of Brighton College drew attention to what he called,
“a sub-culture of anti-German feeling among young people in Britain”,
having heard on a visit to Berlin, as he put it,
“young Brits chanting pathetically that we had won the war. Young Germans looked on in some disbelief … Seventy years on from the end of the Second World War, they have moved on. Too many in Britain have not”.
He blamed, in part, the excessive emphasis on just 12 years of German history in our school curriculum and the neglect of centuries of positive Anglo-German relations and Germany’s contribution to European culture, of which members of the British-German Association, whose tie I am wearing today, were particularly conscious last year, which marked the 300th anniversary of the succession of the Elector of Hanover to the British Throne—the first monarch to be crowned King of Great Britain as a result of the Act of Union seven years earlier.
Dresden’s place in wartime history is surely fixed—immutably so. Dresden represents profound tragedy which, in this 70th anniversary year, stirs deep feelings of sorrow and will continue to do so in the years ahead. At the same time, we must never forget our enduring gratitude to all those who took to the air over four long years and carried out the decisions of RAF commanders to help rid the world of the evil of Nazi tyranny.
Dresden also represents hope—the hope created by the wonderful story of post-war reconciliation and rebuilding. How we need the hope of Dresden in our hearts as we contemplate the tragic condition of parts of our world today and as my noble friend, who will be replying to this debate, and her colleagues in government wrestle with the terrible international problems to which our contemporary tragedies give rise.
“to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”.
Shelley’s famous words convey perhaps the greatest of all the lessons of Dresden.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for enabling us to consider the 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing of Dresden. I say at the outset that I thought the commemorations were sensitive in their handling and appropriate in tone. They reflected a common set of values between Dresden and Coventry today and, through those cities, between Germany and the United Kingdom.
I think everyone recognises that the bombing of Dresden was a terrible event and that it did not shorten the war. Those two conclusions seem today to be self-evident, but new generations need to understand what happened, which is why we have to keep discussing it. It is very important that the twinning relationships that exist between our country and Germany, in particular between Dresden and Coventry, continue those discussions. However, we should beware the application of too much hindsight to what was happening in the early weeks of 1945. At the end of January 1945, two weeks before the bombing of Dresden, the Russians had entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, revealing its horrors to the world. In the west, allied troops were still trying to cross the Rhine and the Ruhr. Even though it was clear that Germany would lose the war, it was unclear how long it might take and how many allied troops would lose their lives in the process. There was, therefore, an understandable desire to push Nazi Germany closer to collapse as quickly as possible.
Dresden lay in the centre of the land area that Nazi Germany controlled. It had a significant productive capacity, a munitions centre—not that large, but it had one—and it was a major communications centre, with a railway system that could funnel troops to the Eastern Front. It was inevitably, therefore, a target, even though the people in Dresden thought that they were not because of their cultural heritage.
Dresden, as we know, had been left unprotected. All its defensive guns had been moved east on the railway system that it was at the centre of. The bombing on 13 and 14 February 1945 left 13 square miles of destruction, and 25,000 people were killed. Some 200 factories were damaged and, although there was serious damage to goods and marshalling yards, it was only in April that further bombing destroyed the railway system fully.
Because so much damage was done to the cultural heart of Dresden, as we have heard in this debate, it is clear that no real distinction was made at the planning stage between, on the one hand, civilians and their homes and Dresden’s civic and religious buildings, and, on the other hand, industrial and communications installations. For that reason, and given the impossibility of precision bombing in World War II, the destruction of so much of central Dresden must have been understood and accepted in advance. We have to remember that fact and that decision. As we heard in the quotations from my noble friend Lord Lexden, that issue came to the fore in the days after the bombing of Dresden. That is why the remembrance that takes place each year between Dresden and Coventry remains so important.
We can argue, and some do, that we were simply responding to what Nazi Germany had done to us. The problem with that argument is that we were fighting for a set of values that would not target innocent people and destroy buildings for the sake of it. Such destruction is what happened in Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed 40 times from November 1940. On 14 November 1940, over 500 German planes bombed the city, including the new use of incendiary bombs. It is difficult to conclude anything other than that the Luftwaffe was trying to destroy Coventry and its people. Some 500 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on Coventry and 30,000 incendiary bombs. Over 550 people were killed. This was, at that time in World War II, a new level of attempted destruction. The Germans in fact created their own word for any town or city receiving a similar level of destruction. They said that that town or city was coventriert—coventrated.
My father was an auxiliary fireman during the worst of the attacks on Coventry. Teaching by day in Bromsgrove, he was in Coventry at night. I recall as a child his talking about it occasionally at mealtimes. I realise now that he missed out a great deal of the detail to spare us some of the things that he must have seen.
I think we all would conclude that war is a terrible thing. As we have heard, 55,000 aircrew in Bomber Command lost their lives in World War II. In the months from September 1940 to March 1941, the Luftwaffe bombers launched many raids across Britain, including on Liverpool, Portsmouth and Glasgow, killing over 40,000 British civilians; 14,000 were killed in the London blitz, and London was attacked on 57 separate nights.
In the immediate post-war period, many town and city twinning initiatives were put in place, as I referred to earlier. Most have lasted well. One that has lasted well is that between Dresden and Coventry to remember, through such a twinning relationship, a conflict that had such terrible consequences. I pay my own tribute to the work of the Dresden Trust, which has done so much to help the recent truly impressive restoration work in Dresden. The twinning of the Frauenkirche with Coventry Cathedral symbolises a lasting rejection of Nazi ideology and a love of peace, democracy, tolerance and friendship between peoples. We should thank the people of Coventry and Dresden for the leadership that they show us.
My Lords, looking around the Chamber, I do not believe that there is anyone else who was in their 20s at the time of the bombing of Dresden. I certainly was, and I was serving as a driver in the Air Force. I remember very well that there was a great deal of criticism at the time of the bombing of Dresden, which I understood. However, the majority of us felt very strongly that the war would come to an end sooner—and I think we were proved right. I support the commemoration; it is an extremely good idea.
My Lords, this has been a remarkable debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is respected around the House as an expert on Europe generally but particularly on Germany. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is a distinguished historian and constitutionalist who is always worth listening to. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in a remarkable speech, taught me a great deal about what happened in the last months of the war. It is always a delight to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, and I have to confess that I wish she had spoken for a little longer about her experience. Of course, we have not yet had the pleasure of hearing from the Minister.
I reserve special praise for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, not just for securing this debate but for his fantastic efforts to bring the people of Dresden and Coventry closer together. They are two great cities which suffered terribly in World War 2 but have since recovered, and are now essential parts of a new Europe that has for the most part rejected the wars of the past. I have had the pleasure of speaking to the right reverend Prelate about this passion of his. He has taught himself German, although I think he is too modest to tell that to the House. Obviously, he has made numerous visits to Dresden, and campaigned endlessly for closer ties and, of course, the proper recognition that took place on the 70th anniversary a month or so ago. The House should be proud of what he has done.
I have to confess that my knowledge of Dresden is sorely lacking. I have never visited that marvellous city and I am now resolved to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, talked about Dresden being called the “Florence of the North”—the expression I read about was “Florence of the Elbe”—and that is a pretty good recommendation for any city. From television and photographs, it clearly is magnificent and beautiful, and, of course, is again the capital of a major Land in a peaceful and united Germany.
The right reverend Prelate drew attention to, and I have followed, the unhappy news of Monday night’s demonstrations by the anti-immigrant, seemingly far-right, group, organised under the name “PEGIDA”. By any standards it is depressing to see this in any country and, in particular, in Germany. But it is hard not to be impressed, even cheered, by the resolute condemnation of these very unwelcome rallies by leading politicians in the country, including the Chancellor herself. I, too, admire those who turn out, no doubt week after week, to express peacefully their disgust at this campaign.
As we have heard, Dresden and Coventry will forever be twinned, not just formally as they were more than 50 years ago in 1959 but because of the common suffering that both cities and their populations endured 70 or more years ago. I may not know Dresden, but I know Coventry pretty well. I live 15 miles away and visit it often. Perhaps I may just mention that I am extremely proud of being patron of the Coventry Law Centre, which around the country is widely known as possibly the best law centre in the whole of the United Kingdom. I want to make the point that it continues to be funded by Coventry City Council under political control of all kinds over the last number of years.
Like Dresden, Coventry miraculously recovered and grew following the destruction of the centre of the city and, indeed, the city as a whole, and the large number of deaths that we have heard about. Anyone who has been to Coventry and seen the ruins of the bombed cathedral is both shocked and moved by it, and by its proximity to the wonderful post-war cathedral. It is an extraordinary symbol. Close to the cathedrals, right in the city centre, is the university, where young people of all cultures, races and nations throng together peacefully. Of course, Coventry also has much poverty and a number of the manufacturing companies that made it so successful have now gone, although some remain along with other new forms of employment. However, the city and the city council do not forget the marginalised.
Surely, one of the major lessons that the renewal of Coventry and Dresden teach us is that we must never again let our continent descend into war. In all the arguments that rage around the European Union, it seems to me that one crucial point is sometimes drowned out these days. Simply put, it is that however powerful or weak the economic arguments may be, the central principle underpinning a closer, more united Europe—this has been the case ever since the end of the Second World War—is that never again should blood be spilt or countries destroyed in Europe. Dresden and Coventry are, and will remain, symbols of reconciliation and hope.
My Lords, in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry on securing this debate and thanking all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, I take the opportunity to commend the work of the Dresden Trust, of which the right reverend Prelate is an active member, as is my noble friend Lord Dykes. I also pay tribute to the work of the trust’s royal patron, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Kent, whose own significant contribution has done so much to foster reconciliation between the United Kingdom and Germany.
Today’s debate falls, of course, amid a series of important anniversaries as we approach the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of hostilities in the Second World War, marking the end of a devastating chapter of European history. I share the moving and thoughtful comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, calling on us all to note recent events in European history, and stressing that Europe must never again descend into war.
From the moment the war ended, a new path opened: a path towards reconciliation, not conflict; friendship, not enmity; and shared values, not bitter division. This path to reconciliation led to the twinning of Dresden and Coventry in 1959. Britain and Germany are now close allies, of course, with a relationship that has never been better. The upcoming state visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Germany in June is a powerful symbol of the value we place on that relationship.
These anniversaries take on even greater significance when we consider that they may be our final opportunities to remember our past with those who witnessed the events at the time. In that spirit, I was grateful to hear from my noble friend Lady Sharples about her contemporary memories and her support for reconciliation.
As noble Lords have outlined so movingly, aerial bombardment of British and German cities during the Second World War caused destruction and loss of life on an immense scale. Cities from Leipzig to London and Hamburg to Bristol suffered terrible damage, but it is the magnitude of the devastation to Coventry and Dresden that gives our remembrance particular resonance. My noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Shipley reminded us of the historical context in which the devastation of Coventry and Dresden took place. My noble friends Lord Dykes and Lord Shipley reminded us eloquently of the rationale behind and the need for remembrance.
It is difficult for those who have grown up in a Europe of peace and prosperity to comprehend the scale of the suffering or the legacy it left. Nevertheless, we have a solemn duty to pass our remembrance and our reflection on to the younger generation to ensure that these terrible events are neither forgotten nor repeated. It is right that we show our recognition of all those who survived such horrific nights in cities such as Dresden and Coventry as a consequence of the struggle to rid Europe of the forces of National Socialism.
The right reverend Prelate asked whether the Government might consider their approach to the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche, which takes place in October this year. We have not taken any decision on this matter but I will certainly take his remarks into consideration when we do so.
My noble friend Lord Lexden referred in particular to the role of British airmen. It is important that we all recognise the contribution of the young men of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom died, and the heroic sacrifice they made to liberate Germany and Europe from the Nazi regime.
It is also right that such an important anniversary should be marked by the United Kingdom in an appropriate way. That is why, at the invitation of Mayor Orosz of Dresden, His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent joined others, including the federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, in the Frauenkirche on 13 February to commemorate this sombre event in the city’s history. As a member of the Dresden Trust, His Royal Highness is a much respected figure in Dresden for the tireless work he has undertaken in support of reconciliation over the past 20 years. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, I recognise the resolve of Mayor Orosz and her colleagues to lead the commemoration in ways that served the purposes of peace and reconciliation.
I am also particularly grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his participation in the service of remembrance, as well as to the members of the Dresden Trust, not least the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, for providing such an appropriately strong presence from the United Kingdom at the commemoration in Dresden. Through the presence of His Royal Highness, the most reverend Primate and Her Majesty’s ambassador to Berlin, the UK played a prominent role in the commemoration—one that was greatly welcomed and appreciated by our German hosts.
The relationships we have formed with our former adversaries enable us to join together and remember all the victims of war while commemorating specific events. This was underlined by President Gauck on 13 February when he said that,
“we will never forget the victims of German warfare, even as we remember here and now the German victims”.
In answer to the right reverend Prelate, we agree with President Gauck’s principles of good remembrance. I recall that, having had the opportunity to hear him at an earlier occasion when I visited Dresden and the Frauenkirche—and, separately, Coventry—those were the very thoughts that underpinned my own reflections.
It is right that former adversaries and their descendants continue to work with each other to remember the suffering caused by war and to learn from the past. We will see the same spirit of remembrance and reconciliation as we approach the commemorations of VE Day and VJ Day later this year. I return to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bach: we must never again let ourselves descend into war against our colleagues across western Europe. It is in that spirit that I hope we will inspire all those alive today and in the future to work to end conflict around the world. This House takes its duties very seriously. In its debates in recent months when it has observed some of the disturbing events in countries close to Russia, I know that this House has reflected carefully on what war really means and what we need to do to avoid it, and then to remember what it causes.
UK Response to the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa
My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement given in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. The Statement is as follows.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.
First, I would like to refer the House to yesterday’s statement from Public Health England which confirmed that a military healthcare worker has tested positive and is being flown back, and will shortly be in the Royal Free Hospital in London. Our thoughts are with her and her family at this time. We are also assessing four other military healthcare workers who had been in close contact with the patient. This is a purely precautionary move.
Our Armed Forces, our health workers, our diplomatic and my development staff are risking their lives to help Sierra Leone defeat this terrible disease and stop it spreading beyond west Africa. It is vitally important that we do that. Halting the rise of the disease in west Africa is by far the most effective way of preventing Ebola infecting people in the United Kingdom, and we are indebted to those United Kingdom personnel for their efforts. Their commitment and their bravery have been outstanding.
As my right honourable friend the Member for South West Surrey has said previously, the UK remains well placed to respond to this threat. The Chief Medical Officer confirms that the risk to the United Kingdom remains low. An enormous amount of work has gone into making sure we are prepared in the United Kingdom now and in the future. The NHS has world-leading infection control procedures, and we have put in place robust screening and monitoring arrangements to detect and isolate cases at home.
A few weeks ago I returned from my third visit to Sierra Leone in five months. In that time there have been significant improvements. The number of cases per week has reduced from well over 500 in November to less than 60 now. Our strategy is working, and President Koroma and others have thanked the United Kingdom Government and the United Kingdom public for their critical and unwavering support.
I am extremely proud that Britain’s support means there are now enough Ebola beds, testing labs, trained burial teams and an effective command and control structure to track down the disease across Sierra Leone and stop it spreading further. The challenge now is to get to zero cases as quickly as possible. That is not going to be easy. We are looking at months, not weeks, till the end of this crisis, but we have the right people and the right plan in place to deal with this. The United Kingdom will continue to provide critical support to this response, particularly in the health sector, where we will help Sierra Leone tackle future disease outbreaks. We will hold our nerve and stay the course. This ongoing package of support will now bring our total commitment to this response and the country’s early recovery to £427 million.
The United Kingdom response will change as we transition into the next phase. After six months on station, RFA “Argus” will sail as previously planned by the end of this month, having provided critical support to military and civilian volunteers on the ground. We will maintain the healthcare capabilities she has provided through continued United Kingdom military support at an enhanced MoD clinic in Freetown. Her helicopter capabilities will be replaced by commercial providers. Military personnel will also continue to play an important role at the dedicated Kerry Town Ebola treatment facility for healthcare workers and in supporting our Sierra Leonean partners with command and control to respond to district level outbreaks.
Although the last planned deployment of NHS staff is due to end this month, we are mindful of further spikes in the case load. To this end we have arranged for an NHS standby team to be on call to deploy within 48 hours. Throughout this response the co-operation of the NHS, the NHS trusts and Public Health England has been tremendous, both in Sierra Leone and at home. Over 150 NHS staff have so far been deployed to fight Ebola. That is testament to the superb flexibility of its staff at all levels. Our support through Public Health England on labs will continue, as testing capacity is vital to the continued effort.
We are also planning for recovery. The Ebola crisis has disrupted markets and access to food and other essentials for many families. It has put an enormous strain on the country’s healthcare system and it has caused a generation of children to miss nearly a year of school. For too many children, the Ebola crisis has resulted in a breakdown of family and community protection systems. Over 9,000 children are registered as having lost one or both parents in this crisis. They are vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation.
Continued leadership from the Governments in the region will be crucial to maintain the momentum. I welcome President Koroma’s leadership and clear message that there can be no half-victories. We will work with the Government of Sierra Leone to reopen schools and hospitals safely, and ensure that those most at risk of stigma, including orphans, have the support that they need.
Throughout the response, we have received critical support from international partners to help us staff treatment centres and labs across the country. I was in Brussels last week to ensure that the international community remains engaged—first to defeat Ebola, and then to help Sierra Leone and the countries of the region back on to a path to sustainable recovery.
The international community must also learn lessons from this outbreak and, together with the Governments of the affected countries, build a more resilient system for the future. We must do everything that we can to ensure that a crisis of this nature never happens again.
In conclusion, the United Kingdom did not stand on the sidelines when Sierra Leone needed us, and our strategy has saved thousands of lives and protected millions more around the world. This response, though far from over, has shown the very best of what the United Kingdom can do overseas. I am incredibly proud of the way that we have stepped up to this challenge, and delivered in the toughest of circumstances. And so I am pleased to confirm that Her Majesty has agreed to honour this tremendous effort with the striking of a medal. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. My thoughts today, and I believe those of all noble Lords, will be with the military healthcare worker who has tested positive for Ebola, wishing her a speedy recovery as she returns to Britain. Our thoughts go also to her family and friends at this stressful time. I understand from the discussion in the other place that the four other personnel who may have come into contact are also being flown home, and we wish them well, too.
As a nation, we can be incredibly proud of the dedication and bravery of the British troops, health workers and charity workers who have travelled to west Africa to tackle Ebola. We on this side continue to support the Government’s efforts to tackle Ebola and get to zero cases as soon as possible. This outbreak has seen 24,000 reported cases and nearly 10,000 deaths. As the Minister said, over 20,000 children are now orphans—vulnerable, traumatised and often stigmatised. However, Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser to DfID, said:
“There is a high chance that when we look back on this epidemic more people who did not have Ebola will have died as a result of the Ebola epidemic”.
The Government rightly identify defeating Ebola as quickly as possible as the most important step in giving Sierra Leone the best chance of successful reconstruction and development in the long term. It is also right to be planning for that long term now. It is imperative that, once the immediate crisis is over, the eyes of the world do not turn away from that region. In December, the International Development Committee of the other place recommended that DfID convene a global conference in early 2015 to agree a common plan for post-crisis reconstruction in the region. What progress has been made on this recommendation? Also, what is the Minister’s assessment of how well prepared for Ebola the neighbouring countries are? What plans does DfID have to scale up work in Guinea, which today threatens to compromise progress in Sierra Leone and Liberia?
The outbreak has shown the limitations of the global community’s approach to healthcare in developing countries—and, as the Minister said, it has triggered a huge debate on reform of the WHO and whether it is fit for purpose. Will the Minister tell the House what practical steps the department has taken in pressing for a review of the international approach to health emergencies, incorporating the function, structure and funding of the WHO and the role and expectations of major donors? It is the view of the International Development Committee that DfID should not wait until its 2015 multilateral aid review to do this; it believes—in my view, quite rightly—that the urgency of the situation warrants immediate action.
This crisis underscores the importance of investing in a strong system of research and development for global health. As Justine Greening said:
“The development of new technologies is vital if we are to improve the health of the poorest people through better treatment and prevention”.
Will the Minister commit to prioritising within DfID, and promoting among other key donors, the need properly to fund and support research and development for global health? In the development of vaccines and therapeutic drugs, we have a broken market. The cost of bringing forward a drug or vaccine and taking it through the necessary regulatory process means that pharmaceutical companies prefer to focus on diseases in affluent markets rather than diseases such as Ebola and TB which affect the poorest and most vulnerable. Will the Minister support within government the recommendation from the HIV/AIDS APPG that the UK commissions an economic paper to contrast the total costs of developing and purchasing medical tools using the current R&D model with the costs of a delinked model?
The best way to protect against disease is to build a resilient, government-controlled and government-funded health service. Will the Minister tell the House how much bilateral funding the UK will give to support the health sectors of Sierra Leone and Liberia next year to rebuild community trust?
There is a consensus that the global community failed to respond adequately to this outbreak. We need to learn the lessons and ensure that we are better prepared. Does the Minister accept that this reinforces the case for universal healthcare systems, free at the point of access, and that we should use this language in a stand-alone health goal in the forthcoming UN negotiations on the SDGs? Building robust, fair and accessible health systems is ultimately a political decision. Does the Minister agree that we must work with leaders in developing countries and help them generate adequate funding themselves as well as from donors to build better health systems that ensure that no one is left behind?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his general support and for the bilateral approach that we adopt on these occasions.
I shall first update the House on the position of the healthcare worker who is now back in the United Kingdom. Indeed, I think that by now she is in the Royal Free Hospital. Our thoughts are with her and her family and friends. On that flight, there were two other healthcare workers who, I think, are also in the Royal Free Hospital as a precautionary measure. There are two other health workers who are being monitored in Sierra Leone as a precautionary measure, and they may be flown back to the United Kingdom. That is, as I understand it, the current position, and our thoughts are very much with them and their families and friends.
The noble Lord spoke about the need to ensure that the healthcare system in Sierra Leone recovers on the other side of this crisis. Work is under way to ensure that that happens. He referred to loss of life from things other than Ebola, which is the case. We are approaching the rainy season, when malaria will be a threat. Measles vaccination is also vital as are maternity care and so on. There has been loss of life from many other causes, which is why the period of recovery—on the other side of this dreadful disease—is important. It remains the aim to get to zero and that is clearly the right approach, but the other side of this is a recovery phase for the health service and education. Of the £100 million increase in the budget figures—there was mention of £427 million; it is actually up from £325 million —half will be spent on the recovery phase, so that will be going into the healthcare and education sectors to meet the other health problems and emergencies that the noble Lord quite rightly referred to.
The noble Lord also raised the issue of vaccines and the healthcare measures taken via the private sector. Work is under way via GlaxoSmithKline, which has been trialling a vaccine in Liberia. That is going well and trials will be started in Sierra Leone. To that, the Government have committed, I believe, £2 million, which has not been drawn down as yet. As I said, the overall position is one of steady progress. I will not call it a problem—of course, we want zero cases—but the fewer cases there are, the more difficult it becomes in a sense to trial the vaccine on patients. As the noble Lord said, vaccines and trials are clearly important.
The noble Lord spoke of the importance of a universal healthcare system and I certainly agree with that. It is something that we are very focused on. As I think the Statement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place made clear, our commitment will go on beyond the point where the cases are down to zero. It is a continuing commitment.
Regarding the other two states that the noble Lord mentioned, Liberia has chiefly been getting United States support and Guinea French support. For historical reasons perhaps and reasons of inextricable ties with Sierra Leone, our support has been focused on Sierra Leone, but success is dependent on getting support across all the countries. We are seeking to do that both through collaboration with our partner countries in those two states and through the WHO.
The noble Lord will be aware that the Prime Minister, at the G20 in Brisbane in November last year, spoke about how important it was that we have an early mechanism through the World Health Organization for dealing with health emergencies and being on the front foot. The WHO accepted that in its January meeting and it will carry that forward. We will be watching and continuing to press to make sure that we have that early response because, as the noble Lord rightly identified, it is key to dealing with this sort of crisis.
My Lords, first, I express the concerns from these Benches for the welfare of the young military healthcare worker who is now in the Royal Free Hospital. Our thoughts, too, are of course with her family at this time.
We commend the dedication, the skill and the bravery of the UK Armed Forces personnel who have been in Sierra Leone and of course the NHS volunteers who have accompanied them. We also commend the work of the Save the Children organisation and other funds in caring for more than 9,000 orphan children, protecting them from neglect, abuse and exploitation.
The recent renewed outbreak of Ebola cases around Freetown is a clear warning that this crisis is far from over. Does my noble friend agree that much more needs to be done to tackle the root of the problem, which is generally accepted to be the almost non-existent primary healthcare in the very remote and inaccessible mountainous forest region on the Guinea/Sierra Leone border? To put this in perspective, the border is a transient thing through the middle of forests and over mountains. The people who live in the remote villages there do not necessarily recognise the border; they recognise their neighbours, who may be living, by definition, in a different country. The people living in these very remote and relatively primitive villages rely almost entirely on traditional healers when they fall ill. This is a group of people, by the way, who have suffered a tremendous number of casualties in their attempts to help their fellow villagers.
What action is the United Kingdom taking to assist our French counterparts, who, as the Minister pointed out, have taken some responsibility to work with the Guinean authorities to try to tackle the problem? They are faced, as are the Guineans, with the task of containing Ebola in extreme circumstances almost beyond imagination. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind words in relation to the United Kingdom public sector workers, both in defence and the National Health Service. They are a matter of great pride for the Government and the whole country. He is right, there are a substantial number of volunteers in Sierra Leone who have gone out from the United Kingdom—more than 130 since the crisis started—and many more are on the public register indicating a willingness to help and to serve there. It is remarkable. We should be proud of this; it is totally humbling.
As the noble Lord said, we must not become complacent about the situation. It is true that it is improving but there will be spikes along the way. We must work hard at reducing the number of cases to zero.
The noble Lord referred to the root of the problem. It is true, again, as he has indicated, that healthcare, particularly in the rural parts of Sierra Leone, is not what one would want and clearly has to be addressed. Ironically, there had been considerable improvements in the healthcare system in Sierra Leone over the decade prior to this outbreak. Life expectancy had increased quite massively, maternity care was better and so on. We must get back that momentum, go beyond it and work with our partners in other countries, as he indicated.
The noble Lord also referred to old practices, which is certainly true in healthcare and true in burials, which have been a particular problem. It is a matter that we have had to address because many of the deaths have stemmed from unacceptable practices in relation to burials.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the countries affected by Ebola need to be educated not to eat bush meat, such as that of fruit bats? Should there not be better sewerage works and clean water in the towns and villages? I am pleased to hear that religious leaders seem to have got together over Ebola, which must be a good thing.
Prevention of such terrible infections must surely be the priority in the long term. I congratulate the specialised team at the Royal Free Hospital on its work and send it and its patients our best wishes.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. Clearly, education is vital. As I indicated through the Statement, traditional education has been at a standstill for most children for a year but learning materials and mobile libraries have helped to stem some of the problems. Teachers, meanwhile, have been tasked with ensuring that messages go out about safe practices, health, sanitation and so on. I hope that will help. I thank the noble Baroness for her constructive comments.
My Lords, we should acknowledge that all military and civilian healthcare workers and volunteers who have travelled to Sierra Leone to work in healthcare during the Ebola crisis know that, despite all the precautions, they are placing themselves at risk. That should be acknowledged and I pay tribute to their bravery and the work that they do.
Does the Minister recall that previously—I think it was towards the end of last year—when healthcare workers returned home from Sierra Leone, they complained that the checks that were undertaken on arrival were inadequate and could have placed them and others at risk? It was not that the identified checks that should have taken place were wrong but that protocols were not followed at the time. For example, they were advised that they could travel home by public transport but then not travel on public transport for the next month. That is clearly inadequate and I hope that the Government have had the opportunity to review those protocols. Can the Minister update the House on the arrangements that have been made for healthcare workers and volunteers who return home to ensure that they are properly checked and treated appropriately?
I thank the noble Baroness for her comments and totally agree with her points about bravery, as I have indicated. On screening passengers arriving from affected countries, she will know that the regular direct service between Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom has been suspended sine die, which I am sure is appropriate. We have enhanced the screening in place at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester airports, and at the St Pancras Eurostar service, where the vast majority of people travelling from affected areas arrive. No screening procedure will be able to identify 100% of the people arriving, but we are confident that the measures we have come close to that, and we obviously keep them under review.
My Lords, we obviously all join the Minister in hoping for the recovery of the healthcare worker and in his tribute to everyone from the UK working in Sierra Leone, who work in some danger to their own health. But is not the crucial part of the Statement that he has just made the aspiration to build a more resilient health system for the future? Are there not too many health systems in Africa that are simply not fit for purpose and which do not serve the public in those countries adequately? This week, we made a very important decision on development aid, on an all-party basis, but I wonder whether the next step should not be to devote even more resources in that development budget to improving healthcare around the world, particularly in these countries. Is that a message that he can take back to the department?
My Lords, my noble friend is correct. Clearly, the most immediate aim is to ensure that we get the number of cases down to zero. That is in sight, although it will take months not weeks. Beyond that, the aim is to build a resilient healthcare system for the future in Sierra Leone. There is the personal commitment of the Secretary of State to that and an ongoing commitment from the Government to Sierra Leone. Beyond that, I very much hope that this can be an object lesson for the future in how to achieve that in Africa and, indeed, globally. I will certainly take that message back. It is something we should all cherish and aim for.
My Lords, I, too, endorse the comments from Peers across the Chamber in support of UK emergency health workers and our Armed Forces, who, in the face of the challenging incidence of this preventable condition, are supporting the health service in Guinea and Sierra Leone. However, to some extent, this pales into insignificance compared to the pressure on the local health workers in these countries. I follow on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and strongly endorse my noble friend Lord Fowler, in asking about the recommendation in the eighth report of the International Development Committee in another place of a spring conference to consider putting a legacy in place. The Government’s response was that they were going to take part actively in the conference scheduled for last week by the EU, the African Union and the United Nations Secretary-General on forward planning and legacy. If my noble friend cannot update the House today on the conclusions of that conference, will he be able to present an update to the Library of the House so that all Members can be clear as to what the legacy and the UK’s leadership role will be in the future?
First, my noble friend is absolutely right to pay tribute, too, to the local health workers from Sierra Leone, who obviously face the same dangers and are working tirelessly, as are our own public servants, to deal with this tragic emergency. I shall update noble Lords on the position on the spring conference. At the Brussels conference, which was referred to in the Statement, the Secretary of State again ensured that the international message is going out loud and clear. The World Health Organization has its annual meeting in May, which is another crucial date for making sure that the forward planning for dealing with such situations in future is in place. Further to that, I will respond in writing to the specific question that my noble friend asked and ensure that a copy is placed in the Library.
My Lords, the Royal Free is my local hospital so I am absolutely sure that people will be receiving the best possible care and attention. I am rather proud that my local hospital is providing this service. I want to ask the Minister about building the resilience of local communities in Sierra Leone and to mention in particular and pay credit to an organisation called Restless Development. It specifically recruits young people on the ground to work in their local communities and has been doing it for some time. When the Ebola epidemic happened in Sierra Leone it called together its volunteers. It now has more than 1,700 young people working on the ground in Sierra Leone in more than 7,000 communities. Their job is to work with those communities to trigger those communities to react to protect themselves and to do so within their own resources. I commend the work of Restless Development and I hope that the British Government will continue their support for it, which has allowed it to do this very good work.
I thank the noble Baroness very much indeed for those comments about the work of local communities, which is clearly key to ensuring that the proper messages go out. We are focusing work, through local communities, on getting messages out about appropriate healthcare, sanitation and so on, but also on trying to alter attitudes to some of the stigma that is associated with orphans and people who have lost close relatives and so on, who will have been in touch with people who have had Ebola. That is a massive challenge too.
I thank the noble Baroness for her comments about Restless Development. I will make sure that the Secretary of State is well aware of her views and the information that she has imparted about the good work that it does. I hope that that can continue. It is important that we work within the local communities on the health messages and messages about burials, as well as ensuring that we have local faith leaders fully onboard to make sure that we get these cases down to zero, which is the Government’s main—indeed, immediate —aim.
My noble friend should be aware that Glaxo-Wellcome has been working on a vaccine in Liberia. There is some progress on the first phase of those trials. As I understand it, it is going into another phase. For the moment that work has been focused in Liberia, but it is now moving into Sierra Leone. There is some progress, but clearly more work needs to be done. The Government have committed £2 million to that project so we are watching that development very closely. Clearly, a vaccine is a breakthrough that we all would welcome massively. There is early progress, but still a long way to go.
House adjourned at 4.02 pm.