House of Lords
Wednesday, 18 March 2015.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Winchester.
Access to Justice
My Lords, the Government have noted the Theos report. We carefully considered the matters raised in it, including access to justice, when developing our policy on legal aid reform. The Government have already committed to a review of the impact of the LASPO Act three to five years after implementation. Even after reform, our legal aid system will remain one of the most expensive in the world at £1.5 billion per year.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that response and for the underlining of that commitment to an assessment of the effects of the legal aid reforms. I wonder if I might ask the Minister, if necessary, to pass on to colleagues a particular request to look at the impact of those reforms in relation to tenants in both the public and the private rented sectors, with particular reference to access to remedy in relation to things like the disrepair of homes, tenancy deposit schemes and other questions of tenancy rights. I declare an interest as the chair of the charity Housing Justice.
My Lords, is it not clear that the principle of equal access to justice is held sacred across the political parties as well as across the churches? Is it not equally evident, however, and curiously, that it is a principle not cherished in the bosom of the Lord Chancellor, the very person who we would expect to be the high priest of justice? The Minister knows the present Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, well. Will he share with the House any insight he may have as to why the Lord Chancellor is a heretic in regard to this article of faith?
The Lord Chancellor is well aware of his obligations, as he told the Constitution Committee. He has had to ensure that so far as possible there is access to justice while at the same time having to cope with the deficit that was left behind by the party opposite. I can assure the noble Lord that the Lord Chancellor remains committed to access to justice, as do all his Ministers.
My Lords, the Minister is right to draw attention to the report, which is about access to justice. Does he not agree that it is a negation of democracy if justice is available only to those who can afford it? Will he therefore establish a system of monitoring so that we can see the impact of such policies, particularly on poor and disadvantaged communities in our country, and more importantly, the impact they will have on the rest of the criminal justice system and the Prison Service?
My Lords, I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to see last week’s report by the Justice Committee of the House of Commons, which criticised the LASPO Act in very strong terms indeed, particularly on the issue of exceptional funding. I do not think it is going too far to say that it suggested that, despite the promise that exceptional funding would be a way in which those who could not get legal aid any longer would be able to get legal aid in exceptional cases, there have actually been a tiny number of cases. It criticised the Government for their response as far as that is concerned. Does the Minister agree and what are the Government going to do about the fact that more than 325,000 people per year who used to be able to get legal help when they needed it no longer can because of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act?
My Lords, the exceptional funding provisions in the LASPO Act were very specifically drawn to deal with potential violations of EU law or of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are satisfied that the Act is performing as Parliament passed it, although it is true that there have been fewer applications than we expected. We have done our best to make it easy for those people who think they come within the terms to make an application and have afforded the possibility of a preliminary view being offered by the Legal Aid Agency. The answer to the noble Lord’s other point is that some people are not getting legal aid who were previously. We have tried to concentrate on those at the bottom of society who need it most.
Obviously, I cannot give any undertakings for any future Government. I think the noble and learned Baroness may be referring to the problems that quite often occur with litigants in person. She will know that even before the LASPO Act 66% of people on average were unrepresented in private law cases. We understand that this can cause difficulties, but we congratulate the court staff, the judges and the Government on their ingenuity in dealing with these difficulties.
Does my noble friend not agree that those campaigning against the Government’s reforms of legal aid and arguing for better access to justice would have more credibility if they also argued for reducing the costs of the legal system and of the courts and the fees which are charged by barristers and other lawyers?
I am grateful for what my noble friend says. He may notice that the endorsement on the Theos paper from a former High Court judge says that all barristers should give a tithe of their time and services. I am sure that is not just restricted to Christian barristers and solicitors.
I will certainly not do that calculation at the Dispatch Box, but I think I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, which is that those systems where the judges are more involved—more inquisitorial as opposed to adversarial—may cost more. None the less, we generally believe that our legal aid costs—as is quite right, because we value access to justice—are more expensive than anything which is remotely comparable elsewhere.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recognise that with the cutbacks in legal aid and fewer solicitors being willing to do it a greater burden rests on the citizens advice bureaux and law centres? Will he contemplate affording them more resources in order to meet the unmet need?
My noble friend is right. We have in fact given £107 million via the transition fund; that was last year. We remain concerned that justice should be provided by whatever means and we acknowledge the contribution of the Low commission in identifying different ways of providing help other than by the rather expensive and cumbersome method that is sometimes used.
Ministerial Visits: Travel Costs
I am grateful to the Minister for that. He says that ministerial visits are very important. Perhaps he can help me with one such visit, on 30 January, by Claire Perry, the Rail Minister, to Hastings to attend a rail summit, as they called it, to promote the extension of the high-speed Javelin service from Ashford to Hastings. Apparently a special train was put on from Ashford to pick up other PPCs along the route, which, in my estimate, probably cost £50,000. The whole event was covered in Conservative Party posters and I do not imagine that anybody who was not a member of the party was there. Can he explain whether it is part of the ministerial duty to go canvassing like this? If it was paid for by the Department for Transport in whole or part, how will the Conservative Party reimburse it?
My Lords, I am not, of course, aware of the incident to which the noble Lord refers. There are well established practices, which, as far as I am aware, have not changed under this Government, for dividing between ministerial roles and political activities that Ministers may undertake while visiting particular constituencies. Paragraph 10.14 of my 2010 copy of the Ministerial Code says:
“Where a visit is a mix of political and official engagements, it is important that the department and the Party each meet a proper proportion of the actual cost”.
Is it not the case, now that we have a fixed-term Parliament, that Ministers and departments know the date of the election? It is a piece of cake to fix all the ministerial visits to coincide with that timetable, which did not exist before the fixed-term Parliament legislation. I know from personal experience how the departments watched things as we got close to the end of a five-year Parliament, but in a four-year Parliament, when the date of the election was not known, those rules did not apply. So is it not the case that, with a fixed-term Parliament, it is easier to manipulate government visits for party-political purposes?
My Lords, I think ministerial visits that include some party-political role have taken place in all the years of any Parliament. Every time I drive past the Humber Bridge, I am reminded that previous Labour Governments have on occasions used quite substantial gifts of public expenditure to influence the outcome of elections in particular constituencies.
My Lords, there are proprieties and the propriety and ethics team within the Cabinet Office monitors them. Labour Members of this House may be interested to know that there have been a number of complaints by Liberal Democrat MPs about Conservative Ministers visiting their constituencies without prior notice, and at least one from a Conservative MP about a Liberal Democrat Minister visiting her constituency. I am glad to see that some Conservatives are nervous about things like that.
My Lords, I want to talk about proprieties because we understand that the Lib Dem part of the coalition is to give its own separate response to the Budget—presumably, in effect, its manifesto. Can the Minister confirm to the House that no Civil Service time, resources or modelling have been employed to produce this party-political statement? Can he clarify whether the effect of this separate statement means that the Lib Dems do or do not support today’s Budget?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be well aware that, in the run-up to an election, officials are prepared to give advice, including to members of opposition parties and the Opposition Front Bench, on preparation. This is not, in any sense, out of the ordinary.
Since the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has raised the subject, will my noble friend take the opportunity to deal with something much more important than a particular incident: ending the absurd restrictions that mean Ministers travelling by rail on official visits are expected not to travel first-class? First-class is intended for busy executives with a shortage of time to be able to work. I suggest that these rules do not add one iota to the public’s respect for politicians—probably the reverse.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord’s question. I recall a ministerial meeting in the Foreign Office when we all discussed which was the cheapest cheap airline that we had travelled on. As I recall, David Lidington, who had travelled on Wizz Air, was the winner.
As this is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office, can the Minister update us on what is meant these days by “collective ministerial responsibility”, given that, as my noble friend Lady Hayter said, we hear that there are to be two separate Budget Statements this year? It seems to me and many others that, although there are fundamental irreconcilable differences between the two parties of the coalition, the Lib Dem members will not do the honest and genuine thing, which is to say that they cannot agree with this Government, resign from their portfolios and stop using ministerial cars, red boxes and so on.
My Lords, we are all well aware that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is deeply committed to the idea that a two-party system is the only way to have democratic government. I have just been reading the Spreckley report on the 1974-75 referendum and I simply remind him that the Labour Government suspended ministerial responsibility and collective responsibility because the Cabinet disagreed on it.
My Lords, the whole House will be well aware that a place called Pendle in the north of England is the most wonderful place in Britain. My noble friend the Minister will know that because Saltaire is not very far away. Will the Minister explain why, in recent months, there have been a reported 17 ministerial visits to Pendle? What wonderful gifts are going to come to Pendle as a result of these visits?
My Lords, I am sure that all Members of this House should be travelling from Pendle through Todmorden to Saltaire. I had occasion, early in this Parliament, to upbraid Vince Cable for visiting the headquarters of Pace Electronics in Salts Mill without informing me in advance. He replied, rather lamely, that he had come from Bradford and was not aware that Salts Mill was in Saltaire.
My Lords, the Office for National Statistics estimates that the direct contribution of the tourism sector to the economy in 2013 was £56 billion. Taking account of indirect benefits, Deloitte estimated that the sector was worth £127 billion gross value added to the UK economy in 2013, supporting 3.1 million jobs.
My Lords, it is now virtually certain that tourism, our second largest private sector employer, will feature in the election manifestos of all political parties, unlike last time when it did not feature at all. Currently, visitor numbers to the British Museum and the National Gallery combined exceed visitors to either Barcelona or Venice. More people visit a heritage property each weekend than watch football matches and membership of the National Trust is nine times that of all political parties combined. Does my noble friend agree that an incoming Administration should first bring tourism into the title of the DCMS; and secondly establish a commission to assess the merits of double summer time, which, if implemented, would boost tourism substantially, save energy, prevent road accidents and deliver a healthier nation?
My Lords, my noble friend has a long and distinguished career involved with the tourism industry and, obviously, any suggestion is taken seriously. The department will have heard what he has to say about the title of the DCMS. On the impact of double summer time, daylight saving is an issue on which I think everybody has a view. Successive Governments have proceeded on the basis that we need consensus across all the nations of the United Kingdom before there is any change.
I apologise for my excitement on a subject that I feel passionate about. Can the Minister tell the House what contribution major international sporting events hosted in the UK have made to overall visitor numbers and tourist spend? Does he agree that the success of such big events has been helped enormously by the incredible contribution of volunteers, such as those recruited by Join In for the Tour de France and in preparation for the forthcoming cerebral palsy world games and Rugby World Cup?
My Lords, it is right to say that sports tourism is vital to the United Kingdom. We look forward to the upcoming Rugby World Cup this year, with centres in Wales and England hosting it. The Ryder Cup was of great significance in Newport in 2010 and Gleneagles in 2014, so sports tourism remains central to the Government’s strategy on tourism.
My Lords, the Minister will be well aware of the importance of tourism given his links with Aberystwyth. He will be equally aware of the added value that comes from international tourism over and above domestic tourism. To that extent, if there is any review with regard to the responsibilities of the department, as was sought by the noble Lord asking this Question, will the Minister ensure that there is adequate responsibility for co-ordinating with the Governments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast so that the benefits of tourism are maximised and reach every part of these islands?
The noble Lord is right to accentuate that. He will know that it is already happening: for example, the Tourism Industry Council has representatives as observers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is important that we have a joined-up approach. Of course, that happens through VisitBritain, which represents all parts of the country.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, on the basis of his last visit to one of our excellent museums and galleries in London or elsewhere, they are always almost full of foreign visitors? Long may that continue, but perhaps now is the time for a tweak of the arrangements whereby they get free entry to our galleries and our museums, whereas when we go their countries almost inevitably there is no free entry. Not only does that seem unfair but I am sure that they would not disagree with contributing, which would help these wonderful establishments.
My Lords, one of the great assets of the United Kingdom is precisely that free entry to national galleries and museums, which I think is cherished both by the people of the country and by visitors. It is one way in which we are able to encourage visitors. I personally and the department would be loath to see that go.
My Lords, may I kindly remind the Minister’s colleagues in government that we had an experiment in the 1960s with double summer time and that it was an abject failure? It was hugely unpopular right across Scotland and across the north of England and, after a vote in another place, it was killed stone dead and quite rightly so.
My Lords, as I indicated earlier, and I think that the point has just been made, everybody has a strong view on this. My recollection—I was very young at the time, of course—was that it was not quite so overwhelmingly unpopular as my noble friend has suggested. It raises issues relating to road safety, to the economy and to tourism, but we want to proceed on the basis of consensus in all parts of our country and all four nations.
My Lords, will the Minister agree that one of the significant attractions among the many in this country for tourists is our theatre and other performing arts? Has he or his department made any assessment of the contribution that the arts make to the overall success of tourism? In view of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education’s recent unfortunate remarks on the subject of arts education, can he say how many people are employed in the arts and culture in this country?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. On the purport of the question, the theatre, the opera and all arts—whether within or outside London—are clearly vital to our tourism offer, as it is called. I am grateful for people exaggerating my powers, but I do not have the specific figures to hand. I will ensure that the noble Baroness receives a figure on that.
My Lords, the United States Government have been clear that their position has not changed. United Kingdom Ministers have said repeatedly that Assad has lost legitimacy, is part of the problem in tackling ISIL and cannot play a part in Syria’s future. Our aim remains a political settlement that will involve negotiation between the Syrian parties at the right moment.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former co-chairman of the British Syrian Society. I thank the Minister for her response. Does she recognise that if the Alawite regime were to collapse, terrible though it is, that would lead to the most appalling revenge killings and almost total anarchy? Who would emerge on top? It would probably be the most ruthless and most organised group—ISIL. In the light of Mr Kerry’s remarks—I realise that Washington is rowing back from them—is this not the beginning of an opportunity to review our policy on this tragic situation?
My Lords, we should remember that President Assad as, also, commander-in-chief of the Syrian forces, presided over the deaths of 200,000 of his own people. He has barrel-bombed them and used chemical weapons. Indeed, a recent report of 16 March suggests they have been used in Idlib. Assad is not the person with whom to negotiate for the solution. We are in negotiation with moderates. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green, that it is important that negotiations achieve a peaceful transition in line with the Geneva communiqué. It is that work in which we are engaged.
My Lords, however distasteful, should we not recognise that if a long-term solution is to be found to this tragic conflict, we will have to engage with President Assad in some way? In spite of the barrel bombs, the torture and the enormous loss of life, and with all his faults, Assad is marginally less bad than ISIL.
My Lords, I would not like to say that he is a lesser of two evils. He has shown that he is evil in himself. I will not try to calculate percentages of evil—that would be an affront to those whom he has been responsible for killing in Syria. However, the noble Lord has made a very strong point. With whom does one negotiate? I am aware when I go to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that Assad’s people are there. They are part of the furniture. They are part of those who negotiate on whether a human rights Motion on Syria is passed there and at the United Nations. Negotiation with Assad himself is not part of our proposals.
My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the United Nations report from last week: 210,000 dead, 840,000 injured, one-third of the country displaced and life expectancy down by 20%. Given that, is it not time to say to the Syrian opposition—who my noble friend mentioned she is in negotiation with—that they need to consider an end to this war? It is in its fifth year. The opposition did not attend the Moscow conference. Is it not time to hear the proposals not of Assad but of people who may be able to deliver a transitional government in which the Alawites are in some sense represented, if not by President Assad?
My Lords, my noble friend has a strong point. It is important that all those who are the moderate opposition engage in negotiations for a transition—a transition which cannot see Assad remaining in power. There have certainly been negotiations in Russia which were not attended by some of the opposition. It is important that Russia is able to continue to do responsible work in trying to bring people together. We will continue to talk to the national coalition, the umbrella organisation that represents the aspirations of many Syrians for a more democratic Government who are free from the tyranny of Assad.
My Lords, Stalin killed 5 million of his population, and yet we worked with him to defeat Hitler. Does not the Minister agree that ISIL, Daesh, or whatever we want to call it, is a far greater threat to stability in the region—and, indeed, to our country—than the Assad regime? Militarily, there is a lot to be said for working with him and then to look at dismantling the Assad regime after we have defeated the wolf closest to our sledge.
My Lords, would that Assad would join in slaying the wolf on his doorstep—indeed, within his house. As the Prime Minister has made clear, he is a recruiting agent for ISIL. He is the one who is barrel-bombing the moderates, while ISIL is allowed to flourish within Syria in Raqqa. That is no way for him to proceed.
My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the Blair Government gave their great strength to the demolition of the regime in Iraq and the overthrow there. Now, this Government seem to be intent on overthrowing Assad, following the success of overthrowing the regime in Libya. Who has benefited in Libya or in Iraq from the overthrow of those rather unpleasant Governments and their replacement by something infinitely worse?
My Lords, it is important for all Governments, of whatever party they may be, to try to work for peace across the most troubled areas. Where there is good intent, there is not always an immediate good outcome. There is good intent now, we have agreement across the parties that we should proceed to seek peace, and that is what we shall do.
My Lords, the Minister has already referred to the reports of barrel bombs being dropped recently. Will she confirm that, although it is not illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention to possess chlorine, it is illegal and a breach of that convention to drop barrel bombs containing chlorine? What are the Government doing to lodge an inquiry under the Chemical Weapons Convention organisation against the Syrian Government?
My Lords, it will not surprise the House to learn that the noble Lord is right on the first point; he previously asked a question on this matter. With regard to his second point, I can say that on 6 March, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2209, which the UK co-sponsored. That Chapter 7 resolution condemns the continued use of chemical weapons and states that all those carrying out such attacks must be held to account. It is a matter of ensuring that there is no impunity in these matters.
Legal Services Act 2007 (Warrant) (Approved Regulator) Regulations 2015
Legal Services Act 2007 (Warrant) (Licensing Authority) Regulations 2015
Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Procedure) (Amendment) Rules 2015
Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (Code of Practice) Order 2015
Motions to Approve
Health Care and Associated Professions (Knowledge of English) Order 2015
General Medical Council (Fitness to Practise and Over-arching Objective) and the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (References to Court) Order 2015
Motions to Approve
That the draft orders laid before the House on 23 February be approved.
Relevant documents: 24th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 26th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 17 March.
Control of Horses Bill
My Lords, I thank all those noble Lords from all sides of the House who spoke on Second Reading and, in addition, those who offered support throughout the Bill’s passage here. This Bill, begun as a Private Member’s Bill in another place, was introduced by Mr Julian Sturdy, the honourable Member for York Outer, to whom a special credit and thanks must go. It is the culmination of a campaign by him over some years to bring the issue of fly-grazing of horses and its associated animal welfare and human problems to a wider notice. I hope that today we will be able to say that all his efforts and his persistence have paid off.
The Bill has had cross-party support in both Houses and the unequivocal support of a broad coalition of animal welfare and countryside organisations which worked together to produce two comprehensive reports on fly-grazing, and they have campaigned hard to raise public awareness of the many problems it causes.
I also pay tribute particularly to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for his commitment personally to this Bill and the support which he and his officials have given both to me and to Julian Sturdy. A horseman himself, during his time as Minister he has made a real difference in a number of areas of horse welfare, including this one, and I thank him for it.
With this small but important Bill on the statute book our ability to tackle animal neglect and suffering will be greatly improved. Horse welfare will benefit and so will public safety. I believe that it is right that I should commend this Bill to the House.
Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill
Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill [HL]
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill
My Lords, I beg to raise a matter of which I have given the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, private notice. In the debate on the first amendment to this local government Bill last Friday, the noble Lord said, in col. 855 of the Hansard report, that I had quoted a former Tory councillor without giving his name or that of his authority. Lest there should be any doubt about the authenticity of the quote, notwithstanding the noble Lord’s adding that he himself did not doubt my word, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that I had named the council and that I did not give the name of the councillor for reasons of personal confidentiality.
Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Bill
My Lords, I hope your Lordships will allow me just one minute. I do not intend to oppose this Bill, but in Committee I expressed some concerns about the possible unintended consequences of Clause 1. In fact, I have withdrawn an amendment I had intended to move that would have tried to mitigate some of these consequences by pointing to a rather better way of avoiding harm to patients by proper education, training and supervision within hospitals and care homes which would lead to a continuing, progressive reduction in harm but without stifling innovation. I withdrew my amendment because I was told that I would cause the Bill to fall and I have no intention of doing that. But I do hope, at least, that the noble Earl will be able to offer some reassurances on the points that I have raised.
My Lords, I understand concerns that noble Lords have raised about the Bill potentially stifling innovation and openness. I assure noble Lords that this is in no way the intention of the Bill. Indeed, the Bill does not place any requirements on providers of healthcare and adult social care registered with the Care Quality Commission. This is achieved through regulations and the associated guidance issued by the CQC. My officials have been in contact with the Chief Inspector of Hospitals, who would be very happy to meet noble Lords to discuss the content of the guidance to ensure that the CQC’s approach to inspection supports continuing reductions in avoidable harm, innovation and supervision and training of staff.
House of Commons Commission Bill
Order of Commitment Discharged
Relevant document: 19th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
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. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Affordable Childcare (Select Committee Report)
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it will not have escaped noble Lords’ notice that today is the day of the Budget. Noble Lords who have a speech will doubtless be pleased to know that there will be no jokes about two kitchens and that the financial statistics that I quote will be unambiguous, clear of criticism and contradiction and absolutely pellucidly in the forefront of what we may accept.
I thank the usual channels for making time for this debate so soon after the publication of the report and before the House rises in anticipation of a general election. There is good reason for that, which I will come to in a moment.
I want to begin by changing the mood away from Budgets and from what I regard as a minor key to a major key. It is not often done in this House, but I shall quote a line of poetry to start the consideration of the issues before us. The line comes from our greatest English-language poet of the 20th century, TS Eliot:
“In my beginning is my end”.
That is the opening line of “East Coker” in Four Quartets. I have no doubt that our subject today is not best understood through the angularity of Eliot’s verse, but there is a resonance there that encourages me to steal or adapt a line fashioned in his world for our world today. My only possible justification for such a crime of literary criticism is Robert Crawford’s recent, magnificent book Young Eliot because, as he makes plain, Eliot pillaged and refashioned lines, descriptions and names from his early boyhood for his poetry in later life. Did you know, for example—this is a pub quiz question—that “Macavity” was the name of a schoolboy in his class whom he did not like very much? He had his revenge. There will be none of that in my speech, I promise.
“In my beginning is my end”,
has resonance for our subject. I have no doubt that the point will be easily grasped by those who share the enthusiasm of my excellent committee members for early care, education and child development. Simply put, the earliest years of life and what they offer—“my beginning”—resonate and echo throughout all that is to follow in the years thereafter. Some who have a deprived early onset to activity rise none the less phoenix-like from the ashes of early need unmet, but many bear its scars throughout life. Half of the adult male population in England are either illiterate, innumerate or both, and that has its beginnings in what was not done for them very early, before formal education took its course. For most of us, including those least likely to be classified as deprived, how we begin has huge significance for how we continue through life. I will return to that point in a few moments, as doubtless will a number of my fellow committee members.
Early child development and provision for it helps those with great need and those who perhaps are from a less deprived context, but the greatest help inevitably for those who are in need. I have no doubt that successive Governments should be commended for their grasp of this point and response to this correlation. In 1990, in England and Wales 59,000 nursery places were available; there are now 1.8 million. That shows that successive Governments have taken the issue seriously and have put resource, backing and initiative into bringing about high-quality early education.
Clearly, other factors are at play, and I will turn to some of those at the moment, but first I wish to underline in triplicate the impact of all this on children. It is not a matter of teaching nine times tables to three year-olds, although I dare say that a little bit of help with numbers is good. It is rather a matter of helping by laying the very foundations for a whole education and a mature life. Early in life that is what happens—the foundations go down—and it is especially important for those suffering from various forms of deprivation, sometimes personal, sometimes social, sometimes institutional. But there are, as I have stressed, benefits for the many.
The help given in early education and development, just so we are aware of the realities, stretch from changing nappies through learning how to communicate with the help of a good teacher, tutor or assistant, to learning the basics of language, because these are often not available at home. This objective of early child development is clearly at the heart of the policy of all three main political parties, and it is the reason why the Department for Education has such a central role in providing and ensuring that provision is adequate.
There is, however, another main objective, which we picked up in the course of our discussions and in the evidence given to us. This significant additional responsibility lies not with the Department for Education but with the Department for Work and Pensions. The intention is to increase the possibility of joining the workforce for parents—usually mothers, I have to say—with young children. Some family groups need to contemplate this because of poverty, and some wish to do this for the excellent reason that there is a career that has been temporarily laid aside but that will be resumed, and a great contribution will be made to the public through the development of that career. The even greater financial pressure on one-parent households will, I think, be discussed later by one of my colleagues.
Some parents wish to provide a combination of parenthood and developing responsible careers, but it is important to say that some groups gave evidence that not all parents, not all mothers, wished to do this. Some choose deliberately to remain at home, and nothing we say in this report—and, I hope, nothing that is said in this debate—raises questions about the validity of that fair choice.
I have sketched out the two major objectives of government policy: early child development, and the enhancement of careers or the possibility of joining the workforce. If that was all there was to it, we would all say, “Yes, well done”, and we might have gone home to the Back Benches in October, but it is more complicated than that, as noble Lords will assume. We did not pick up the Oliver Twist approach and say, “Thank you very much”, and hold out our begging bowl for more money; rather, we spent our time examining in some detail how effectively and efficiently the huge sums of public resource were being spent in pursuing these objectives.
In examining these twin policies and the difficulties they face, sometimes individually and sometimes because they interact with each other, I pay tribute to my colleagues on the committee, most of whom come from various political parties but who were content to seek common agreement on this issue. I have no doubt that all the political parties will have something about it in their manifestos. However, my colleagues showed the restraint and good common sense characteristic of this place and looked for a common core: namely, what can we all agree on, and what markers should future government policy observe?
The two main areas are early child development and creating additional places in the workforce. Evidence points to the effectiveness of childcare that takes place in a community and a group and is provided, ideally, by professionally qualified people. The life options it opens up to recipients are very wide indeed and very important. As I suggested, this applies to all children, but particularly to those from a needy background. However, the committee stressed that if the relevant policy is to be effective, it will depend on provision by the PVI sector—the private, voluntary and independent sector.
Given that we have a dual economy, it is important that the Government recognise that maintaining the health of this sector is a prerequisite of the policy working and of the places that are created having a realistic option of being filled. I believe that the future of this sector rests on consolidating the quality of what is provided, as we found that the PVI sector gets less money to do the same job. Therefore, the possibility of graduates being employed in this sector is reduced. Graduate employment is the usual external marker of quality and is justified in this case. While that is the case, the PVI sector will not be able to do all that successive Governments have wanted it to do.
A role of government here is to look at how the money goes down the system. We ask for assurances that this will be done and that any incoming Government will have this on their agenda. They should look at how the money goes down the system so that a PVI nursery and a state-maintained one are on a level playing field. It is also clear that PVI provision would be very successful if it were embedded in state schools. There is a sotto voce assumption that this will happen and that somehow schools will increase their intake to include two, three and four year-olds. This would be nice if it were to happen, but there are practical constraints. As we all know, primary schools are under significant pressures of space. Even if they wanted to include these children, they might not have the space to do so. Furthermore, many teachers went into the teaching profession to teach five to 12 year-olds, not necessarily to deal with the rather different problems of very young children. Therefore, these places will not automatically be provided through the state system. Again, I stress the importance of the Government ensuring that there is a healthy market out there so that the PVI sector has reason to expand to meet government targets.
The evidence that we received points to the need to recognise professional links between providers and the homes of young children. Where this is done, the impact is much greater. I could give noble Lords examples of schools and nurseries where this is done very effectively. It means, however, that additional resource is required to meet the additional costs. People will go and talk to parents and ensure that they understand the importance simply, for example, of reading to young children; language lies at the core of this stage of education.
We also looked at what Ofsted does in the inspection system here, and we simply put up a warning signal: if, as is happening now, inspections extend provisionally to two year-olds, perhaps the systems used for five, six, seven and eight year-olds will not transfer down as easily as they do to reception classes, so we would like Ofsted to be encouraged to look at how it assesses what is going on in these classes.
Many more detailed points will be made by my colleagues. In the concluding section of my remarks, I simply want to hang on to the question of creating work spaces. I have to say that there is simply an element of naivety in government in all this. That came out in some of the answers that we got. There is too readily an assumption among some politicians that if we provide the cash and the numbers, and get the headline, all will be well. It is not as straightforward as that. There is, for example, tension between the provision made if one’s focus is the first objective, early child development, as compared with the second objective, creating employment possibilities. The difference is clearly illustrated and there are many aspects to it, but if one wants high-quality child development, all the evidence we have is that the best way of doing this is three hours a day for five days a week. If, however, one is trying to create flexibility of employment, employers will most probably be looking for two eight-hour sessions from the mother in question. These differences can be reconciled, but we did not see sufficient thought being given to the implications, hence my charge of naivety.
I have reservations about how well this is working. Again, it is assumed that places will be created—“We have put the resource in, and there will be places”. That is not inevitably so, and the evidence again is that in rural areas the availability of places does not always match the demand. There may be a long distance to travel between work, home and nursery school. We noticed too—and this is from the IFS—that in the recent round of funding £64 million was spent creating new jobs. That amounted to 12,000 new jobs. That is not a great return for £64 million and is certainly less than might reasonably have been expected by such a creative policy.
I have suggested that there is a potential tension between the two aspects of policy, and this shows up in the way in which the private and voluntary sectors will want to plan provision. They are under severe constraints and, for example, often end up cross-subsidising the so-called free places by charging extra sums for the additional hours to parents who can afford it. All this is part of the background that needs more thorough inspection than we believe the Government have given.
In conclusion, there are two areas of confusion. One is for parents who are trying to use this system. The evidence is that they do not find it clear, simple and available. The evidence is that they, as parents, have decisions to make, and the answers are perhaps not immediately apparent to them. This shows up in a variety of ways, but there is an assumption, usually by accountants who work for the Treasury or the Inland Revenue, that the country out there is full of people who are economically rational men and women. That is not so; nor do they have the skills of an accountant to work out what government process is or how the financial systems work.
We will be told that the new system is in fact such that all will be clear next autumn when it comes in. We will see. The guidance issued for the new way of supplying this says:
“For every 80p you or someone else pays in, the government will top up an extra 20p. This is equivalent of the tax most people pay—20%—which gives the scheme its name, ‘tax-free’”.
When you get government advice telling you what “tax-free” means, look out: I see the hint of someone spinning here. It is not clear.
This is my last point. The other unclarity is at government level, where two main departments deal with this—education and work and pensions. There is also the overriding dark space of the Treasury. As a Select Committee of your House, we could not get to the bottom of how these two government departments interact and discuss how a common set of policies will cohere. For the reasons I have given, there are difficulties. We could not get a picture of whether Ministers meet regularly, whether officials meet regularly, or whether there are minuted meetings. As I said, the Treasury was notable by its darkness and its absence, as I think the House now knows very well.
If this is to continue to be a source of investment—I hope it will—clearly we need to ensure that evidence-based policy has adequate research to back it up. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to have been a member of the Select Committee on Affordable Childcare under the expert chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland. I am delighted, too, that parliamentary time has been found for the committee’s report to be debated in this House. It is a privilege to follow the noble Lord. As ever, he has given a wonderful tour d’horizon, which does not leave an awful lot for the rest of the committee to say. I will be very brief in my remarks, but knowing the other committee members’ enthusiasm and expertise, I do not think that the debate will be truncated.
The committee was conscious in its deliberations that we are in an age of austerity. For that reason, we frequently referred in an admiring way to the fact that this Government and their predecessor managed to make advances in recent years in early years provision. These include the free early education entitlement of 15 hours a week for 38 weeks in the year for all three and four year-olds and for the 40% most disadvantaged two year-olds—to be extended to 60% of that group from September. There is the childcare element in what is now universal credit, and, despite the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, what will soon be the employer-related tax-free childcare scheme. Indeed, one of the most useful, practical things that the Government have agreed is the extension downwards of the eligible age range for use of pupil premium.
In my brief contribution, I would like to emphasise three points. The first is the need for clarity in government objectives for early years provision, and, associated with that, a clear system of evaluation of outcomes. The second is the need to prioritise scarce resources where they can be most effectively used. The third is the need for high-quality provision, because it is only high-quality provision that can be effective in achieving the best outcomes for children, in particular the best outcomes for the most disadvantaged.
First, on clear objectives, the committee found that, even if we were not in an age of austerity, where every pound counts, there is a need for the Government to clarify their objectives in early years provision. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, touched on this point. What is the aim of the provision? Is it to improve children’s life chances or to facilitate parental employment and thereby help alleviate poverty? The Minister who gave evidence to the committee said that both were government objectives, and indeed both are obviously very important. However, if that was so, we felt that there should be much more of the kind of meaningful evaluation of the outcomes of early education provision that one would expect from a total spend in England and Wales of £6.4 billion a year in the next Parliament. It is a big sum and we should know how the policies are working and how they are achieving the objectives.
The clarity of objectives and, indeed, evaluation was not made easier by—as, again, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, touched on—the proliferation of lead departments, not least of course the Treasury, which was so modest about its role that it refused to come and give evidence to the committee. This has been vigorously taken up by the leadership of this House and I think that there may be a change of practice in the next Parliament. That would be a very good achievement for the committee and all its supporters on that issue.
Secondly, I turn to one of the Government’s most important objectives of overall policy in education, which has been to narrow the attainment gap. Given that, one of the committee’s key recommendations, which appears on page 7 of our report, was that the Government should,
“prioritise its spending to ensure best value for its investment. We know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds stand to benefit more from early education, and”—
this is a key point—
“are less likely to be accessing it in the absence of the policy. We therefore recommend that the Government reviews the overall budget for early education and childcare support and considers whether the evidence supports targeting more resources at those children most likely to benefit. A tool for doing so already exists in the Early Years Pupil Premium”.
Last week, research commissioned by the Early Intervention Foundation, the Cabinet Office and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, of which I am deputy chair, confirmed the importance of social and emotional skills in relation to a range of adult outcomes, from jobs to health. The research showed how such skills play a role in accessing top jobs, independent of academic attainment, and how gaps in these skills open up early on—indeed, they are observable from the age of three—between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. By the time children reach the age of 10, social and emotional skills play a discernible role in transmitting access to top jobs between generations. In other words, early years intervention in this area is a major tool in improving attainment and therefore also social mobility.
These aims in themselves are obviously strongly desirable, but the absence of policies—again, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland—aimed at promoting such skills is costly in every way: to individuals, families, society and the Exchequer. A recent report from the Early Intervention Foundation calculated that local and national government in England and Wales are spending nearly £17 billion annually on picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, some of which, the Early Intervention Foundation believes, could be averted with the right kind of intervention through early education.
Thirdly, I say the “right kind” of early years intervention because another important finding from our Select Committee’s work is that the quality of early years education is all-important and that at least a quarter of the disadvantaged two year-olds accessing their free entitlement to early education are doing so in a setting not judged good or outstanding by Ofsted. It is excellent that settings are inspected by Ofsted. It is also excellent that the Government have made an attempt to improve the life chances of disadvantaged two year-olds by entitling 40% of them to 15 hours of free early education. Of course, it is excellent that there is a mixed market in that there are two strands of provision, one of which, in particular, provides a sort of flexibility which is so valued and so essential for many parents. The noble Lord spoke of the difference in quality provided in the different strands at their extremes. I think the committee felt that the next push should be to improve the quality of provision overall, so that resources are not squandered on measures that in the end are not effective enough to do the job.
A key element in the quality of provision is the level of qualification of the staff, and the next Government should look very carefully at what kind of early years education and childcare is being provided, and how effective it is, particularly in the case of disadvantaged children. The empowerment of those children by all the tools society has at its disposal—and that includes early years provision—will make a better society for all of us.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, today. She was such a vital force in this inquiry and I want to reinforce some of her remarks this afternoon. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, not only for securing the debate and introducing it with such vigour, but for his superb, patient chairing of the Select Committee which produced this report. I thank all those involved because being part of the Select Committee was a most enlightening and productive experience—and an enjoyable one.
The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, mentioned that all political parties place great emphasis on high-quality childcare as a contribution to two aims: encouraging women, in particular, back to work; and giving children a good start in their intellectual, social and emotional lives. For me, the second of these, focusing on benefits to children, is the most important thing we should be attending to, and I shall focus today on issues raised in Chapter 3 of the report, on child development.
I was one of those mothers who chose to stay at home to look after children. It was easier in my day and I enjoyed looking after young children. We all know that the lives of parents today are much more complex than many of us experienced as parents, particularly for women. Parents want high-quality childcare and need to be able to afford it. Some parents say that they find the system of delivery overcomplex in seeking both high quality and flexibility. We point this out in our conclusions and recommendations in our report.
As I say, I wish to focus mainly on child development. The committee was aware of much research and emphasis placed on early intervention and its impact. We sought in the inquiry to hear about more research and the evidence base, the impact on policy development, the attainment gap, the home learning environment and the quality of childcare. First, on outcomes and the evidence base, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, we state at the beginning of Chapter 3:
“The overwhelming view of our witnesses was that early education, when it is of high quality, had the potential to have significant and long-lasting effects on outcomes for children”.
The key words, of course, are “high quality”—what constitutes high equality, where it is evident and what impact it has. The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education, which started in 1997, was quoted by many witnesses and the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, referred to it today. It followed 3,000 children in England from the age of three to 16. The survey states that pre-school experience, compared to none, enhanced all-round development in children and was particularly advantageous to those children who were most deprived. Settings with staff with higher qualifications had higher quality scores and their children made better progress. Quality indicators included warm, interactive relationships with children, having a trained teacher as the manager and a good proportion of trained teachers on the staff.
The study also states that, for all children, the quality of the home learning environment was more important for intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income.
Other findings of the study include an estimate of the economic value of investing in early education. GCSE scores were used to predict future lifetime earnings and positive benefits to the Exchequer.
As others have said, we are looking at two types of pre-school care and education—the local authority-funded maintained schools and the private, voluntary and independent providers, the PVIs. Research suggests that the quality of early education provided by the state is, on average, better than other education, although improvements are happening. The key factors beneficial to child development identified in the EPPSE study were borne out by witnesses to our inquiry for all settings.
On the attainment gap in children, the view of our witnesses indicated that early education was important but that was, on its own, not sufficient. Barnado’s said that there had been a consistent and large gap in educational attainment in the UK based on income. The Early Childhood Research Centre told us that there was a 19-month vocabulary gap at age five between children of the poorest and most affluent families. The implications are clear. Children in deprived areas need the best quality early years education. The reverse is often true, according to our witnesses. The best quality care is in more affluent neighbourhoods.
Family intervention was discussed by some witnesses. One said that even the best early education could not be a magic bullet and many said that a strong home learning environment was important. Professor Nutbrown advocates the use of home visits by childcare providers to improve parental confidence and support in learning. A good example—I quote from other research, not the evidence we heard—could be the NCB’s family literary intervention project for two to five year-olds, where parents are encouraged to read with and talk to children. The current Ofsted inspection framework for early years settings also places an emphasis on the importance of engaging parents with their child’s development.
Quality of staffing in the early years settings is, of course, crucial. We heard a great deal of evidence about the importance of qualified and trained staff. Staff ratios were also considered important. The National Day Nurseries Association pointed out that the Government’s proposal in More Great Childcare had been largely rejected by professionals because relaxing ratios would risk damaging the quality of childcare.
Several witnesses raised the issue of a lack of available data on which to assess the impact of current free early education, partly because—I was quite surprised at this—there appears to be a lack of baseline data from which to measure progress. Ofsted recognises this, as well as the confusion created by the different assessment frameworks in place for private and maintained settings. I understand that the Department for Education has now commissioned the Study of Early Education and Development—SEED—to assess the impact of the free early education entitlement offer, in particular the impact of funded places for two year-olds from lower income families. Other studies are also now in place. The committee recommended that the Government should seek robust evidence on the impact and value for money of their early education entitlement offer.
I shall summarise the key findings on early years development and offer a few comments. First, the quality of childcare is all-important. It means excellent staffing and a stimulating environment for children. Secondly, the committee recommended that the Government should review the situation and consider whether the evidence suggests that more resources should be targeted at those children who are most likely to benefit. I have no doubt that this is what should happen. The consequences of deprivation are horrendous, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, pointed out. Thirdly, the home environment is vital to developing the social, emotional and intellectual skills of children. Again, I have no doubt that more work with parents and young people before they become parents is needed. Parenting is a tough job and good practice can be learnt. Fourthly, I also have no doubt that better evaluation of the impact of early years education is essential in order to assess what is best for children, parents and professionals.
I hope that note will be taken of this report by politicians, the providers of childcare and by parents. It sets out a wealth of evidence and makes several recommendations. Again, I have been pleased to be part of the Select Committee and I thank my colleagues and the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for their persistent involvement in the important issue of affordable childcare.
My Lords, I thank and congratulate our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, our two special advisers, Professor Kathy Sylva and Dr Gillian Paull, and our excellent clerking team for the way they have helped us to make sense of a very complex situation. Our witnesses stated two main policy objectives for government involvement in the early years. Firstly, fostering child development, and by doing so reducing the attainment gap between rich and poor and improving social mobility. Secondly, increasing parental employment, and by so doing helping families to balance their budgets and reducing child poverty. It soon became clear that there is a tension between these two objectives, since certain funding focuses to support the one might possibly hinder the other.
Part of the Government’s difficulty in using their levers is that we have a mixed economy of early education and childcare provision in this country. The private, voluntary and independent—PVI—sector delivers the majority of places, especially the free entitlement places, but the maintained sector delivers most places for four year-olds and is very important and influential for younger children, too. Each sector has its strengths and weaknesses. The highest-quality early education is found in maintained nurseries and schools, although they often do not provide the flexibility that parents need to enable them to go to work. The PVI sector is very flexible, but although there are some excellent settings, quality overall is patchy and in some places poor. We concluded that if they are to achieve both of their policy objectives, the Government must support and celebrate the strengths and address the weaknesses of both. It is the issue of quality upon which I propose to concentrate today.
It became very clear that the best value for government money comes from providing high-quality early education to children from disadvantaged families because they are the ones who have shown the greatest improvement in outcomes when they experience quality provision. Indeed, we went so far as to say that funding poor-quality places is a waste of government money. The coalition Government have attempted to address the attainment gap for disadvantaged children in two ways. The first is by introducing the offer of 15 hours per week free early education and childcare to the 40% most disadvantaged two year-olds to get them involved in a stimulating environment early. It is early days for this policy, and we still do not have figures for uptake, but we have ascertained that not all of these places are being delivered in high-quality settings. That is why we have recommended that the Government will get best value for their money if they move as soon as possible to funding these places only in good or outstanding settings.
What do we mean by quality? The evidence showed us that the best outcomes are where there are qualified staff, outreach into communities and homes, and integrated services, as well as a nurturing, stimulating and safe environment for the children. So where do we find the best quality? The answer is clear. It is in schools, particularly maintained nursery schools, where 57% were found to be outstanding by Ofsted and 39% good. This compares to 12% outstanding across the whole sector and 65% good. Fortunately, because this is where they are most needed, two-thirds of maintained nursery schools are to be found in disadvantaged areas—indeed, these schools are unique in providing outcomes which are as good as, if not better than, schools in affluent areas. No other part of the education system does this, so it is well worth scrutinising them to find out how they do it.
These 410 nurseries, currently providing about 38,000 places, are maintained schools, funded by local authorities, and therefore they have to employ a qualified head teacher, qualified early years teachers and nursery nurses. They have particular expertise in helping children with special needs and have a higher than average concentration of such children. Their role is also to reach out to disadvantaged families, to whom they offer other services such as health and social care because of their multidisciplinary ethos. They help parents improve the home learning environment and they play a vital role in research, leadership and training for the whole sector, since many of them are now teaching schools.
Clearly, we need to foster these schools and, if we want to help PVI settings to improve their quality, we must help them to become more like maintained nursery schools. The problem is that teachers do not come cheap; nor should they. In an attempt to be fair, the previous Government introduced a “level playing field” as regards funding—which is actually anything but level. As a result, settings that are prepared to employ teachers—or must employ them, in the case of maintained nurseries—are not funded appropriately to do so. The PVI sector cannot afford to employ teachers in any numbers, partly because the free entitlement on which they rely is funded below the cost of delivery, which causes them to top up their income elsewhere in order to break even. We said that this must be addressed.
We also need to increase the supply of qualified early years teachers, perhaps by reintroducing the leadership fund, and to fund the free entitlement properly to ensure that, where settings are employing teachers, they get the money to do so. The Government have used bursaries to pay the tuition fees of students studying to become teachers in other shortage subjects, such as sciences and modern languages. I see no reason why the same cannot be done in order to increase the supply of well qualified people in the early years sector. However, at the same time, something must be done to ensure that there are jobs for them to go to when they qualify. Professor Cathy Nutbrown had a lot to say in her report about this, and the committee regretted that the Government have not yet felt themselves able to implement all her recommendations.
If there is no additional money, improvements in outcomes must be achieved by prioritising certain groups of children. Fortunately, thanks to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, the Government have already developed a tool by which this can be done—this is the second way in which the Government are seeking to address the attainment gap. As has been mentioned, it is called the early years pupil premium. It starts next month and I am convinced that it is going to be as successful as the school age pupil premium has been. Indeed, we have committed to working in government towards tripling the current level of EYPP in order to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor children even further.
Now, something has happened since our Select Committee published its report, and I really wish we had had this evidence before we did so. The organisation Early Education has published an audit of maintained nursery schools which makes for worrying reading. It shows that, due to a series of cuts in funding from local authorities, many of these schools are faced with closure. They are certainly not able to expand their available places in the way that excellent schools further up the age range have been able to do under this Government. This is a long-term trend—about one in three has closed over the past 30 years—but if we are looking for models of best practice to assist us in bringing up the quality of the whole sector, we need to stop this trend in its tracks. I hope that the early years pupil premium will help because it will go to those settings working with the most disadvantaged children: that is, the maintained nurseries.
However, one other solution has been proposed by the sector since we published our report, which is that maintained nurseries are given greater freedom to innovate to avoid closure. A few are federating with primary schools already, but they are asking to be allowed to become academies or co-operative trusts. They are doing so reluctantly, because most of them value their relationship with local authorities and would prefer to be adequately funded by them. However, hard decisions have to be made, and if it is academise or close, most of them would prefer the former. I am aware that this situation has been brought to my attention since we published our report, but it is reassuring that a great deal of what Early Education recommends in the audit to which I have referred is exactly the same as the recommendations in our report. There is considerable synergy there. I ask my noble friend the Minister: are the Government aware of the dangers facing these centres of the excellence that the Select Committee is seeking, and will they consider the sector’s request to allow academy freedoms further down the age range?
My Lords, it was a privilege to be a member of the Select Committee on Affordable Childcare under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Sutherland of Houndwood and in the company of so many knowledgeable and sometimes very lively other members—they were certainly highly knowledgeable.
Today I will focus on childcare support and its effect on maternal employment, and the effects of demand-side subsidy on parents with low income. One of the three aims of the Government’s investment in childcare is to allow parents to work. The committee felt that there is another aim of childcare support: poverty reduction. I will briefly speak on both these issues.
Although childcare costs are a concern of both parents, it is usually the woman’s employment that is most affected. In the evidence submitted in response to the question, “Did childcare support improve the mother’s ability to work?”, there were fewer responses, but the majority commented that the key aim of returning to work was poverty reduction. The evidence from the Family and Childcare Trust and the Child Poverty Action Group was that both felt that by making the return to work possible, childcare support helped reduce child poverty, particularly for lone parents.
Has state support for childcare resulted in more women working? The initial introduction of childcare policies in the 1970s saw a dramatic rise in maternal employment rates, which reached 65% in 1998, but the current rate is only slightly higher at 68%—in contrast to the rate of employment of single parents, which has risen from 46% in 1998 to 64% in 2014. Both those figures suggest that there are other forces and policies that may have contributed to maternal employment rates apart from childcare policies. There has been no evidence-based evaluation of the impact of childcare subsidies on maternal employment—a view shared by Professor Brewer from Essex University.
Further, the Department for Work and Pensions has accepted that no estimates of the impact of either working tax credit or universal credit on the maternal employment rate has been carried out. HM Treasury, while believing that higher childcare costs act as a disincentive to work, admitted that there was a lack of evidence to link working tax credit to employment rates. The committee further looked at evidence on the impact of free early education on maternal employment rates. While the policy clearly increased the number of children who could access free early education, there was minimal effect on increasing employment rates for women. The assumption was that reducing childcare costs to the parents would inevitably result in gains to the Exchequer from more working parents and, to this end, the Department for Education and the Treasury provided impressive sums that they had assumed in terms of possible financial gains. However, there was a lack of evidence to support links between demand-side support and the maternal employment rate.
It is undoubtedly true that the government policies in relation to childcare have made a difference to meeting the objective of child development, as was referred to by others, and, to a lesser degree, the objective of reducing child poverty. However, there is insufficient evidence to judge whether they have made an impact on maternal employment rates. There is an urgent need to bridge the evidence-base gap on parental employment and childcare costs. Therefore, I say this to the Minister that I hope that this Government, and hopefully the future Government, will gather evidence to establish the link between parental employment choices and childcare costs, which is one of the recommendations of the report.
I turn briefly to the other issue and will comment on some aspects of the demand-side subsidy of childcare support and its effects, particularly on the less well off and single parents. I believe that there is a real concern here. Most of the evidence received tended to focus on the childcare element of working tax credit, possibly reflecting on the poverty reduction issues that were a concern for most who submitted evidence. Those who submitted evidence also commented on the complexity of the funding streams and the confusion that that causes.
My comments concentrate on the effect that childcare support has on the lives of single parents, a concern highlighted by the charity Gingerbread and others. Single parents rely on childcare to work, study and help reduce poverty. The Government’s commitment to make work pay and the general acceptance that it is the best way out of poverty have to be commended. However, increasing childcare costs, well above inflation, flat wages and the fact that single parents often are in insecure employment with lower wages mean that, for them, the reality is different. In 2011, the cut in state support from 80% to 70% of childcare support undermined the government policy of making work pay.
The government proposal to help low-income families by increasing state support to 85% of childcare support is welcome, but limiting it to new universal credit claimants and only from April 2016 has its drawbacks. While it will help single parents, those living in areas with higher childcare costs and lower wages will see little benefit. Added to that, single parents have different childcare needs, often have to work longer hours using different childcare providers and are faced with other costs, such as meals and upfront funding, which they find difficult to meet. For those and other reasons, for single parents and parents with disabled children there is a need for improved support for childcare.
We need a childcare support system that is less complex and works better for poorer families on lower wages. That may mean more targeted childcare support, removing any disparities resulting from the welfare system, and may mean revisiting the childcare cap. I hope that the Minister can say that this Government, and any Government who follow, will look at these issues and bring forward ways to implement a childcare system that works better for the poor and the disadvantaged. At least, I hope that the Minister can commit to review by autumn 2016 how the childcare reforms are working, whether the commitment to make work pay has been realised, and how universal credit and the new tax-free childcare support pathways are working. I hope that she will be able today to comment on those proposals.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, on chairing the committee, on introducing this debate and on enabling us to have TS Eliot as a frame alongside the pragmatism that we need in looking at this important issue. I rise with some trepidation, because I am perhaps the first speaker who was not a member of the committee, so I speak without that expertise behind me.
It is important that we commend successive Governments on putting early education and childcare, and return to work for parents, high up the agenda in terms of investment. We need to think about how that investment is best directed and what its priorities should be.
As we have heard, the report raises important issues about the private, voluntary and independent sectors—PVI. A concern is expressed, which we have heard from other noble Lords, about the level and quality of the staffing in the PVI sector. It employs fewer graduates and, because of its budgetary constraints, it has lower pay levels. So there is a concern about a sector that the report recognises will continue to be the majority provider of childcare and early education. How this sector is nurtured and given the right opportunities to come up to standard are important issues, as is how what it brings can be recognised even if it is not shown forth in terms of graduate entry and qualified professional staff.
I want to look two aspects of the PVI: one is the role of local authorities and the other is the role of the sector itself. The report recommends that the Government review how local authorities discharge their duties in respect of funding free early education places in the PVI sector. It recognises that many local authorities pay less to PVI settings than they do to the maintained settings—so the setting that is taking the bulk of the strain, especially in needy areas, is underinvested. The report points that out very clearly.
The Childcare Act 2006 requires local authorities in England and Wales to provide sufficient childcare for working parents. This year, only 43% of councils in England have provided enough childcare. Last year, the figure was 54%, so that is quite a dramatic fall in the past year and it represents a trend that is going away from the aspiration of the report and of this debate.
Let me give your Lordships an example from my own background in Derby, where I serve. On Monday, the Derby Telegraph, our local paper, had an article about this issue. The headline was that parents have to pay for childcare that they should be getting free—a nice emotional pitch to get people interested. It showed that the Government give £4.51 per hour for three and four year-olds and £5.09 for two year-olds to local authorities, so the average per hour is £4.47. That is the average of what the Government are investing in local authorities. According to the report, in Derby this year, the city council is giving to school nurseries £3.64, which is well below the average. It is giving to pre-school and private nurseries £3.68 per hour, which again is dramatically below the average. By contrast, to council nurseries, the grant is £5.60 per hour, which is well above the national average. I would be interested if the Minister wanted to comment on that kind of pattern of distribution.
The report in the paper says that the local council will not comment on how the amount that it gives to providers is decided. So I want to flag up some questions for the Minister. Should there not be transparency for government, who are putting in the money, and for electors about the criteria and the policy priorities of local authorities?
Secondly, should local authorities consider childcare provision as part of a wider strategy for local economic development and child poverty reduction? Should it be a main theme of a public strategy? Finally under this heading, is there another way? Should the money go direct to parents and not via local authorities? I would be interested if the Minister had any comment on that route if there is such uneven distribution that seems to penalise the very sector that carries the bulk of the weight of this project and that suffers from underinvestment.
I have a brief comment on the fact that maternal employment, it was found, contributes positively to child development and parental health and well-being. There is a problem of a gap that I am not sure the report highlighted. If we take seriously the point of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, about how in our beginnings are our endings, we need to recognise that gap. I have a daughter, Lizzie, and she now has a daughter, Lila. When Lila was born, my daughter wanted to go back to work. Of course, there is little provision for very small children. Also, obviously, the staffing ratios for very small children are quite high because of the degree of care needed, so it is very expensive. My daughter tells me she paid £1,000 a month for that kind of childcare. She had the kind of job where she could pay that—I do not think it was a hint to me to pay it; she was happy to pay it. However, that clearly disadvantages people who do not earn that kind of money and so will not take an early advantage of continuing their career. We saw amazingly positive benefits in such a small child as Lila being socialised in a nursery environment from a very early age. It seems that if our beginnings are our endings, we have to look at the very beginning—those early stages—and how that can be properly invested in. There are comments in the various manifestos about bringing down the age in which we invest in childcare and early education but it would be interesting if the Minister could comment on what I perceive as a gap in our beginnings.
I will say a little about the wider learning environment in the private, voluntary and independent sector that is so crucial to child development, early education and parental well-being. We probably realise in this House that 60% of Church of England churches offer parent and toddler groups. Those are very important spaces in communities for parents—especially new parents—and small children. They are largely free, run by volunteers and based on commitment from local people and local networking. The one that my granddaughter Lila goes to is actually the hub of the community and all kinds of networking, producing what we would call social capital: goodness and grace in the community. That is a very important investment alongside the individual benefits that young children get in their own learning plans and development. There is a social element to education that feeds and grows community. We need to look at how we invest in that and how it can be encouraged.
Some 76% of Church of England churches run activities in local schools. In quite a needy part of the diocese where I work, in the former mining district of Shirland, we have a thing called the Shine After School Club. Again, that creates a new learning opportunity for parents, children and members of the community which adds enormous value to the state provision. When we look at the PVI sector, we must look at what it offers through not just graduate-level formal learning opportunities that Ofsted can monitor but also those soft things about socialisation, support, play skills, community networking and being out of home for children, mothers and parents in a different environment. Those things are very important for our community well-being as well as the well-being of individual families and people. Home and community are important sites of learning alongside the formal places with a syllabus that can be measured.
I finish with two more questions for the Minister. How can the strategy of the Government and the helpful questions asked by this report encourage local authorities to engage with the PVI sector creatively and to invest in it fairly? How can there be better integration between the measurable benefits of individual progress, early education and childcare and parents getting back into work, and the softer benefits that are so important for the health of society in terms of the work that mother and toddler groups, after-school and all such activities do? That is not the Government’s responsibility, but how can they encourage that to be recognised as a valuable part of the mix for the future?
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for introducing this debate on affordable childcare. I should like to refer to a few aspects of the current arrangements. There are the so-called trade-offs: how children’s early learning and their parents’ employment prospects may or may not be jointly promoted. Then there is the scope for simplified presentations and procedures to achieve greater take-up. There is also the need to enhance quality and narrow the gap between public and private delivery. Not least, there is the importance of proper assessments and evidence.
As several noble Lords have reminded us, the Select Committee’s report acknowledges that government policy implies trade-offs even if it does not stipulate them: on the one hand to promote child development while at the same time to facilitate parental employment. For example, cheap, low-quality childcare might help parents to work but it would fall short of the Government’s child development objectives. Does my noble friend agree that there is an inherent tension between those two objectives? Will the Government clarify how the competing aims of the policy are prioritised and what mechanisms exist between government departments to address necessary trade-offs?
As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, implied, it appears that take-up of the schemes might rise significantly as a result of better procedures and presentations. We are told that measures are planned for this autumn to simplify childcare accounts. However, their envisaged scope may not advantage all income groups of parents. Perhaps my noble friend would, therefore, adjust and extend the proposed arrangements so that all parents benefit.
Then there is the quality gap in delivery between the public and private sectors, where the latter produces less good results. Regarding PVIs, the Select Committee recommends that they ought to be more fully reimbursed than they are. As my noble friends Lady Shephard and Lady Walmsley have already observed, staff qualifications should be more thoroughly scrutinised in the first place. Does my noble friend concur that those two expedients alone, if adopted, would help to narrow the current quality delivery gap between the public and private sectors?
Early learning offers for two and three-year olds began here in the late 1990s. Since then, however, there have been no systematic assessments. As result, there is still insufficient evidence of efficacy. Does my noble friend agree? What plans are there to put that right?
We should certainly begin with analysis of our own performance, but it is also very useful to know how other states may have built up good practice. The United States, not least, has a good record in this field. Should not the Government thus also study results from there and elsewhere?
Apart from comparisons with other states, does my noble friend accept that there are a number of well evidenced and creative interventions of which we should also take proper note? Such include the teaching of music, which has proved to be of inestimable value when introduced in the right way to early learners.
For encouraging confidence and ability at the start of life, this subject is clearly of key importance; and one in which the United Kingdom is well placed to succeed. However, we may all believe that a number of adjustments suggested by your Lordships today are urgently called for. Meanwhile, we are very fortunate to be guided by the excellent report of the Select Committee.
My Lords, it was a great pleasure and privilege to serve as a member of the Select Committee on Affordable Childcare under the sterling leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland. I am proud that we have produced a report that prioritises the needs of the most disadvantaged children. That is going to be the main thrust of my comments this afternoon.
Childcare policy has always had to grapple with multiple aims: improving child development, narrowing the gap between the most and least disadvantaged, allowing parents to work, and possibly others as well. As someone who has long advocated early intervention as a way of improving social mobility, I am pleased that the report highlights so clearly the objective of narrowing the attainment gap. This recognises the tremendous potential of early education to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential and to break the cycle of inter- generational poverty and disadvantage.
Although I am sure it will not have failed to grab noble Lords’ attention that the title of the report is Affordable Childcare, the committee rightly took the view that childcare can be said to be truly affordable only if it gives both parents and the state value for money. The evidence we received suggests that existing spending on early education is not as effective as it could be in narrowing the attainment gap. The Nuffield Foundation’s recent Early Years Education and Childcare report finds that the effects of the 15 hours of free early education provided to three and four year-olds and the most disadvantaged children has been relatively modest so far. The free entitlement provision currently provided has very welcome but short-term effects on disadvantaged children’s cognitive development, but these effects largely disappear by the time the child starts primary school.
As so many noble Lords have already said in today’s debate, this is a long way from the potential of high-quality early education. Large-scale studies in the UK and abroad have demonstrated that early education has a dramatic and positive effect on everything from GCSE attainment, likelihood of attending university and lifetime earnings to the likelihood of having a criminal conviction. Moreover, they show that these effects are larger for disadvantaged children. By age three, disadvantaged children are nearly a year behind in intellectual development compared with their more advantaged peers. Early education offers precisely the chance for us to rectify these inequalities before they grow larger still.
It is true, as we have already heard this afternoon, that if it is not combined with a good home-learning environment, the effects of early education can be limited. As Professor Cathy Nutbrown, author of the Nutbrown review on childcare qualifications, memorably said: “The 15 hours”—of free entitlement—
“cannot make up for all the other hours in the week”.
Although the committee recognised that early education alone cannot remedy the many forms of disadvantage that children from low-income families face, good-quality early education can have an impact far beyond the classroom. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, the committee heard that the best childcare centres not only provided quality sessions in the classroom but acted as a resource for parents. These childcare providers worked closely with parents, sometimes making home visits and building partnerships, to ensure that the beneficial aspects of early education could be sustained in the home.
However, as the report makes clear, this is not the sort of childcare that most children are currently receiving. Childcare in the UK is provided through a mixed model that we have already heard about this afternoon and which can sound rather complicated and jargony. In what is called “maintained settings”—that is, nursery classes in primary schools, nursery schools and some children’s centres—childcare is provided directly by the state, while others are provided through the private, voluntary, and informal sector, which other noble Lords have already referred to as the PVI sector.
Some 60% of three year-olds and 96% of disadvantaged two year-olds accessing free early years entitlement do so through the PVI sector. Although the maintained settings in disadvantaged areas were found to be equal or better in quality than their counterparts in more advantaged areas—a point already made by my noble friend Lady Walmsley—the obverse is true in the PVI settings, where those serving disadvantaged areas were of markedly lower quality compared with PVI settings in advantaged areas. The committee was rightly at pains to emphasise that there is good provision in the PVI sector. However, the evidence also showed that they were less effective at providing precisely the aspects of childcare that we know to be most important to a child’s development, which are high-quality interactions with staff and support for the child’s language and learning.
This is in part a matter of qualifications. Although the PVI sector is steadily improving, its lower quality reflects the remnants of a time when childcare focused primarily on quantity rather than quality. As a consequence, PVI settings have more lenient qualification requirements, and staff in PVI settings serving disadvantaged areas have particularly low levels of qualifications. For example, just 5% of paid staff in PVI daycare settings hold qualified teacher status. Echoing the recommendations of the Select Committee report, I urge the Government—both this Government and the next—once again to consider implementing the recommendations of the Nutbrown review to help support the sector in raising qualifications over time. Can the Minister give us any hope on this point?
At the same time, it is clear from the evidence that local authorities have not been able to ensure that PVI settings providing the early education entitlement are sufficiently funded, which clearly places them at a disadvantage compared to the maintained setting. My noble friend Lady Walmsley has already made the point that the playing field is certainly not level in the early years. The Select Committee heard numerous stories of PVI settings operating at a loss or cross-subsidising free hours with paid hours in order to make ends meet. Underfunding early education settings is a false economy; the data have demonstrated that early education rectifies social inequalities only if it is of sufficiently high quality. I strongly support the report’s call to end the underfunding of free entitlement hours and to tie funding to indicators of quality. The Government must ensure that the PVI sector has the resources it needs to improve if early education is to be an instrument of social mobility, as I wish.
There is good news, as the report makes clear. My noble friend Lady Shephard has already alluded to the fact that we have a ready-made tool to hand. I have previously strongly welcomed the extension of the pupil premium to early education. Starting next month, the early years pupil premium will give additional funding to settings that care for disadvantaged children so that they have the resources they need to provide high-quality care. This is an excellent development for which the Government deserve real credit.
The flipside of how the two sectors operate is that while the maintained sector tends to be of higher quality than the PVI sector, it also tends to lack flexibility. This is a point in which the committee was very interested. It is problematic, as for early education to have the impact I have described, it must be accessible for disadvantaged families. Lower-income parents are more likely to work anti-social or odd hours, and single-parent families, which are more likely to be impoverished, are particularly in need of flexibility. Though take-up of the early education offer has been very high, the minority who fail to take up the offer are some of the most disadvantaged families, and this lack of flexibility in maintained settings is part of the explanation.
For single parents, lack of flexible childcare can be a major obstacle to work. The charity Gingerbread found that childcare was an obstacle to working for all but 11% of single parents surveyed. In fact, more than a third of single parents had to use care from three or more providers. Too often, the complicated patchwork of childcare that single parents had to navigate meant that they had to trade down, as they put it, to less lucrative jobs or reduce the hours that they worked. As the committee found, the steep taper on subsidies for childcare means that even if single parents were able to work more hours, all or most of their additional income would go towards meeting childcare costs.
The situation need not be so bleak. The Select Committee was heartened to hear of instances where schools and PVI providers formed collaborative arrangements or partnerships to provide parents with flexible and high-quality childcare. Children receive high-quality early education in a school setting and wraparound care in the PVI setting. Even if schools do not have the capacity to expand the number of early education places they offer, they can still make sure the places that they offer are accessible to parents working anti-social or odd hours. I hope that such instances of collaboration can be replicated throughout the country. What steps do the Government plan to take to encourage this?
Finally, too often childcare is entirely inaccessible to disabled children. According to a survey by the recent parliamentary inquiry into childcare for disabled children, 41% of parents reported that their children did not access the full 15 hours of free entitlement, meaning that the early education offer is failing to reach some of the children who most need it. Just 11% of local authorities report having sufficient provision for disabled children. Even when childcare is available for disabled children, it can often be exorbitantly expensive. As we have already heard, an alliance of childcare and disability organisations reported that families of disabled children pay eight times more in childcare costs than do other families. Given this, it is clear that the current cap on costs that can be claimed back is set too low. What steps are the Government considering taking to help those families?
I end by repeating my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, to other committee members for such stimulating and at times vigorous discussions, to our professional advisers, and to the excellent committee staff.
My Lords, to follow up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, I have spoken with parents who have been looking for childcare for their disabled child, and they can look through many providers before they eventually find someone who can. These providers are not exceptional, in that they are not that different from any other provider; it is just that they are prepared to go the extra mile to accept the family with disability and have the professional confidence to do so. I hope that that question will be answered.
I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Sutherland of Houndwood for calling and securing this debate. He said,
“In my beginning is my end”,
quoting TS Eliot. Some of your Lordships may have seen the headlines in both the Times and the Telegraph today that say that prolonged breast-feeding in childhood results in higher income as an adult. It points out that a longitudinal study from Brazil says that not only is IQ several points higher as an adult if one has prolonged experience of breast-feeding as an infant, but one’s income is increased as an adult. The study looks across all social classes, so it eliminates that particular factor. So truly it is true that in my beginning is my end. That is why I am so grateful to the chairman of the committee and the members of the Select Committee for producing the report that we are discussing today.
I would like to concentrate on the question of raising the status of childminders, nursery workers and nursery managers and all those early years professionals working in this area. I agree with all that has been said—that it is vital to provide high-quality provision for children and families. I would like to ask the Government to think about doing what they have done so successfully for teaching and social work and spreading that to the early years workforce. I know that important steps have already been made in that workforce. I praise this Government and the previous one for what they have done for teachers, in raising salaries and introducing Teach First, recruiting the best graduates, attracting them into the profession and finding very often that they stay there. In social work in recent years, they have introduced newly qualified status so that newly qualified practitioners get additional support, they have introduced the College of Social Work so that there is an institution that champions the profession and they have introduced a Chief Social Worker for Children and Families and a Chief Social Worker for Adults to be expert, powerful advocates who are involved closely in forming policy in the area of social care. So there is a good example in both those cases, which I hope might be applied to early years professions.
I first worked with children in the 1980s. However, my childcare work did not comprise early years provision. In the late 1980s, I worked with 10, 11 and 12 year-olds. I turned up, said I wanted to do the job and I was given a gaggle of children to look after. Their parents gave me some money and I took them ice-skating, swimming or whatever. There was no supervision or training. That situation has changed over time to some degree, but even now insufficient training and support is given to people working in that area of childcare. That was my first experience of childcare work, and it struck me as a very laissez-faire, low-status profession.
By contrast, one of the jobs undertaken by staff at a children’s centre I visited recently was to help three young women communicate effectively. They were native English women but their English was so difficult to understand that they had to be taught how to speak English in a way that most people would understand. I do not wish to be unkind and I am very grateful for the work that early years professionals do in early years settings, but I think it is recognised that it is generally a low-paid, low-status profession and that those entering it often have very low educational qualifications. I do not think that is right given the importance that this report places on high-quality childcare.
Over a number of years I have looked at services provided for vulnerable young people. I have visited the continent and met practitioners there. I was struck by the key cultural difference between them and us—namely, the higher status of social workers, teachers and foster carers on the continent. I visited Denmark a while ago to look at the children’s homes there. On the flight back, I, and the group of parliamentarians I was with, fell into discussion with my neighbour, a young woman of 21, who told us that she was an early years worker. She was a Danish social pedagogue who spoke fluent English. She had an interesting, thick novel beside her and was not at all fazed by speaking to a group of parliamentarians. Her father and mother were both early years professionals and social pedagogues. She was visiting England with a group of fellow students to do some postgraduate studies—of a kind that we do not have in this country—visiting archaeological sites around York that relate to Denmark. I was struck by this young woman’s high level of education, her confidence and by the cultural difference between the Danish approach to this area and what I have experienced in England.
An English practitioner in this field, whom I have known for some time and who was educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, practised for several years as an accountant and eventually became the manager of a private nursery. It has been a delight to speak to her about her practice over the years and a pleasure to observe the thought that she puts into her work. I know that many other managers give that depth of thought to their work, but we need to raise the status of early years work and attract more people with the very best education and life experience into the profession so that we can deliver the high-quality provision that our children need.
A very important point, which I do not think has not been mentioned today, concerns that of having a key person in the nursery. My understanding of the most important principle underpinning early years care is that whoever is providing the care is providing a bridge relationship for children while the parents are absent. So when the parent hands the child over to the key person in the nursery or the childminder, the parent communicates to that person what has happened at home that night and how the child is feeling. Then, during the course of the day, the key person in the nursery or childminder watches the child and hands them back to the parent, saying, “This is how your child is today; this is what he has been eating”, and will relate any particular issues. They keep the child in mind and the relationship with the child is maintained. What is most worrisome and needs to be thought about is that that kind of relationship must not be undermined. I am not sure that this has been highlighted.
When we are thinking about settings, particularly group settings such as nurseries, we should therefore think closely about staff turnover. I was pleased to hear all that has been said about the value of maintained nursery provision. What struck me when considering turnover of staff and the various types of provision was that, on average, maintained nursery provision had low staff turnover of 3% or 4%. However, in some other types of provision, such as PVI provision, turnover increases to 14% or 15%. The higher the level of staff turnover, the more difficult it is to foster and maintain those important relationships, and we are becoming increasingly aware of how important those relationships are.
On another matter, I was concerned to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said about a third of provision for two year-olds not being classified as good. That issue definitely needs to be addressed and many of us have been speaking about that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, talked about the importance of engaging parents. At a recent meeting to talk about working with parents, particular concern was expressed about fathers becoming disengaged from their families. According to the OECD, we are going to overtake the United States fairly shortly in terms of the number of boys and girls growing up without a father in the home and probably with no relationship with their father. It is important that we do all we can in this country to try and keep fathers involved with their families. It was therefore disappointing to hear from a practitioner from a children’s centre that Ofsted has stopped looking at how effective children’s centres are at engaging with fathers. She said, “All the work we do in terms of, for example, writing letters to attract fathers is not regarded by Ofsted because it is no longer measured or considered to be important”. That was only one practitioner, but I should be grateful to hear from the Minister whether that is indeed the case. Perhaps she can write to me. Has Ofsted stopped looking at how effective children’s centres are at engaging with fathers? If that is the case, I hope that the Government, or the next Government, will do something about it.
Again I am grateful to the chairman and members of the Select Committee for this important report. I am also grateful to the Government for all that they have done to raise the status of teachers and social workers, and I hope that the next Government can apply some of the principles and practices that have been so successful in those areas further to early years provision. I look forward to the noble Baroness the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for introducing his report with such clarity and authority. I am only sorry that I have not been able to bring my own poem along, but I was very impressed with his. Perhaps that is something we should aim to do in future debates; I rather like the idea.
I also thank all members of the committee for contributing to this excellent report, which is a shining example of our new Select Committee system at work. I very much hope that the evidence and arguments in the report can provide a backdrop to many of our debates about childcare in the future, because the report is certainly a useful resource for us.
One of the key lessons underpinning the report, and which has been echoed by a number of noble Lords, was the lack of sufficient independently verified evidence—particularly on the impact of demand-led measures on employment and earnings. I share the committee’s frustration that the Treasury refused to engage with the inquiry, and I was pleased to hear that that is being followed up. This need for evidence-based policies is something that we take very seriously and which would be at the heart of our policy initiatives in government.
We are also very much aware that the core issue of affordability of childcare is central to a wider cost of living crisis, where family budgets are being squeezed, wages have fallen behind prices and many people who want to work full-time cannot get full-time work. Specifically, the evidence shows that working families with children and one-earner families have been the hardest hit by the Government’s tax benefit changes since 2010. For example, by the general election a family where both parents work will be £2,073 worse off; a family with only one person working will be a staggering £3,720 worse off; and a family where no parents work will be £2,114 worse off. If we add that to the spiralling cost of childcare, which has risen by some 31% since 2010, we can see why this remains an area of policy crisis.
In that context, I raise some issues and challenges that more specifically arise from the report. First, I would have liked the report to drill down a little more into why the costs of childcare have risen more than inflation. We need to understand and fix the funding delivery mechanism, so that any future childcare subsidies do not simply fuel additional costs in the sector. As we heard, the report identified that the private, voluntary and independent sectors are running the free early years places at a loss. Indeed, parents are cross-subsidising the free places, either for themselves or for others. Clearly this is unsustainable in the longer term.
If this is as a result of the way the Government allocate money to local authorities via the dedicated school grants, without sufficient levers to ensure that the money is used for the purpose for which it was originally intended, we need to surface that, address it and face up to it. We all know that local authority budgets have been cruelly cut year on year and that they constantly have to juggle priorities, but if there is a national directive from the centre that, for example, 15 hours of childcare should be provided free to all three and four year-olds, sufficient funds should be allocated, nationally and locally, to make sure that that happens. I therefore agree with the committee that the way local authorities discharge their duties under the free childcare funding formula needs to be reviewed, but equally we need to address the Government’s culpabilities in designing a funding system that, at the moment, seems destined to fail.
The other side of this equation is whether there are, or could be, sufficient places available to provide for this new demand. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, referred to places increasing considerably in the past. However, the latest Ofsted report on the number of registered childcare places in England, region by region, shows an overall fall of some 40,000 places between September 2009 and August 2014, and a recent FoI survey found that nearly half of councils—some 44%—said that they would not have enough places to meet the latest offer from the Government of places for disadvantaged two year-olds. This is backed up by the recent report of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, which claimed that there are now 49 local authorities in England without a single maintained nursery school.
Meanwhile, the Government’s plan to expand nursery places on school premises, which I think we would all welcome, is in danger of being scuppered by the upcoming baby boom, which is already putting pressure on primary school accommodation, with increasing numbers of children being taught in overcrowded classrooms and temporary accommodation. We are left to fall back on the poorer-quality provision in the private, voluntary and independent sectors, but as we have seen and heard today, the market has not responded to fill that gap in childcare places as it is not seen as being sufficiently profitable, so that shortfall remains. I ask the Minister where the extra places will come from. I look forward to her response in that regard.
Of course, one area where the Government have shown a considerable lack of concern for early years development is the collapse of the Sure Start network. Not only have 700 children’s centres around the country been allowed to close but an increasing number stand empty for much of the time due to reduced opening hours and cuts to services.
In Swindon, for example, at the end of the month the Conservative council is closing nine out of 14 Sure Start centres, despite calls to delay the decision until after the election. Centres such as these would benefit from our policy to open up children’s centres to offer childcare and would help them fulfil their role as hubs for family services in the community. The charity 4Children estimates that this could lead to at least an extra 50,000 places being delivered into the sector. Perhaps the Minister could remind us why the Sure Start network has been allowed to decline under this Government’s stewardship, and say whether she endorses our policy of using the premises to fill the childcare places gap.
We absolutely endorse the Select Committee’s view that parents face a nightmare of complexity and confusion in navigating the childcare payments systems. As we have heard, it is not immediately clear which route will leave them better off, nor which will make the payments in a timely manner, particularly for those people who do not have permanent and reliable employment. What is worse is that, once again, there is evidence that the parents of children who might benefit most from free childcare are not accessing that payment system. I do not think that anyone can say with confidence that universal credit will be delivered on time and on budget. That is why we believe in simplifying and streamlining the childcare payments entitlement—to ensure that it is accessed by those who need it most.
We are committed to building on the existing 15 hours’ free entitlement for three and four year-olds by offering an extra 10 hours’ free childcare for working parents. This will be supplemented by a primary childcare guarantee of access to childcare through the school from 8 am to 6 pm. We have already spelt out how this will be funded, but the important point is that it will be delivered by investing directly in the extra free childcare places. The value of this extra childcare support is more than £1,500 per child per year. We believe that focusing on supply-side provision—much as we did when we set up the Sure Start system years ago—is the best way of driving up quality and reaching out to the most disadvantaged families who need these facilities the most.
Finally, I should like to say something about quality. The report highlights the need to drive up standards and we absolutely endorse that concern. Of course, the Government demonstrated their complete lack of understanding of child welfare and development when they tried, unsuccessfully, to drive up the ratios between children and staff. Thankfully, those proposals have been put on ice but there remains a suspicion that they might be bought back into play as a short-term fix for the lack of childcare places in the system in the future. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not be the case.
Meanwhile, we are committed to a holistic nought to five year-old strategy that builds on the now substantial evidence that early intervention and quality early years childcare are crucial in determining a child’s successes in life. A number of noble Lords have made that point in different ways. We have already announced our plans to protect the early intervention grant and I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could clarify whether both the coalition partners would do likewise. The next stage has to be to build on Cathy Nutbrown’s excellent work on training and qualifications for early years practitioners. Again, a number of noble Lords have made reference to this, and I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could update us on the Government’s steps in addressing and implementing her proposals.
The report, quite rightly, identifies the difference that high-quality staff can make to child outcomes. We need to work with Ofsted and the FE and HE sectors to provide better professional training packages that provide a well rewarded career for life in a sector sadly blighted by low pay. I agree that we need to find more imaginative ways of attracting people into, and keeping them in, the sector. We also need to find new and innovative ways of attracting those who have had a career break back into the sector, to help boost the availability of professional staff. Perhaps the Minister could share with us the Government’s proposals for improving staff quality, training and attracting new entrants into the sector.
This is an excellent report and we have had a fascinating and forthright debate. I do not feel that I have had time to do justice to all the issues that we have surfaced today. However, as I said at the outset, I think the report will prove to be a handbook and compass for future debates and policy developments, and I am grateful again to all those who made it happen. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for securing this important debate and for his eloquent speech in introducing it, and the touch of poetry which set us all off on the right note. I am grateful also to noble Lords for their contributions. So, I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and the other members of the Select Committee for the report they have produced. It is a timely and comprehensive report, and something that, as noble Lords acknowledge, the next Government will want to consider in full.
As far as the coalition Government are concerned, we end this Parliament with the same commitment we had at its start—to support all parents to access affordable, quality childcare. That is why, by the end of this Parliament, and despite the challenging economic climate, we will have increased our annual spending on childcare by £1 billion. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will acknowledge that progress has been made by the coalition Government. However, of course we are not complacent and, as the Select Committee’s report acknowledges, challenges remain.
We know that good quality early years provision, especially from age two upwards, has positive benefits on children’s all-round attainment and behaviour, particularly for disadvantaged children. We know, too, that these last all the way through to GCSE and future earnings. Evidence strongly supports this. Recognising that early education matters, we have increased the free early education entitlement for all three and four year-olds to 15 hours. This is an increase on the 12.5 hours introduced by the previous Government, which, as well as benefiting children, also helps their parents with the cost of childcare.
My noble friends Lady Shephard, Lady Tyler and Lord Dundee, talked about the evidence of the benefits of early learning for two, three and four year-olds. We are certainly obtaining further evidence from our new study in early education and developments, as acknowledged in the report. The noble Lords, Lord Sutherland and Lord Patel, were among those who also spoke on this subject, and about the cost of childcare. We have increased the child element of tax credits to a maximum of up to £2,780 for families with one child, which is £480 more a year than at the election, and above inflation by £15. The cost of childcare undoubtedly acts as a financial disincentive to work and we know that government support helps to remove or lower those barriers. As my noble friend Lady Tyler pointed out, there is a real need for flexibility in childcare to enable people to access childcare so that they can go back to work and access employment. The other provision is for the benefit of the children themselves.
We are introducing tax-free childcare, which will be accessible to many more families than the current employer-supported childcare scheme. Up to 1.8 million families could benefit by up to £2,000 per child per year, which is also available to self-employed parents. The tax-free childcare extension was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and my noble friend Lord Dundee. The point about extending the scope further is that it is passed to relevant ministerial colleagues. It is important to have cross-departmental dialogue on these matters. The right reverend Prelate mentioned giving money directly to parents. We do this through tax credits and/or the new tax-free childcare scheme, which will put money in the pockets of parents, enabling them to choose the childcare that suits them. The right reverend Prelate also spoke of the church community provision which again plays a valuable part in this area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lady Shephard mentioned the targeting of services in deprived areas. Schools, of course, provide an important part of the solution in more deprived areas, and the department is doing more to make it easier for schools to open and expand their nursery provision. We recognise, however, that our poorest children are less likely to take part and benefit from early years education. We remain concerned that children from poorer backgrounds continue to start school behind their richer peers. That is why we introduced the new entitlement to early education for around the 40% of the most disadvantaged two year-olds which aims to address the gap. Already more than 150,000 children are benefiting from this.
Alongside investing in places for eligible two year-olds we have made £100 million of capital expenditure available to support the introduction of this programme. This has created up to 67,000 new nursery places for two year-olds. As my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lady Tyler alluded to, from April we are extending the pupil premium into the early years, which will provide an additional £50 million to support three and four year-old children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This should help to close the gap between children from such backgrounds and their peers by supporting providers to raise the quality of their provision.
My noble friend Lady Tyler and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned support for children with disabilities. The Government are committed to supporting families with disabled children. Our vision for young children with disabilities is the same as for all children—that they achieve well in their early years, at school and college and lead contented and fulfilled lives. Our special educational needs and disabilities reforms through the local offer and independent advice make it clear that help is available to children with SEND. Local authorities must now offer joined-up help at the earliest possible point without false distinctions between education, health and care. We have also invested £30 million in independent supporters to help families applying for an education, health and care plan.
Children with disabilities aged two, three and four are able to benefit from 15 hours of free childcare through the early years entitlement. Linked with this, local authorities have the flexibility within their direct schools grant funding to provide additional resources and support for those children who need it—for example, to provide a young child with additional one-to-one support. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned the importance of children being handed over from parent to carer through early years care.
Universal credit and tax credits also provide more generous support for children. The disabled child addition in universal credit provides extra support to low-income families with a disabled child. This is worth more than £4,300 per year. We have recently announced that tax-free childcare will allow parents of disabled children to receive a government top-up of £4,000 a year, twice that for other families. This support will be provided until the age of 17.
We are trying to take a number of measures to address the particular difficulties faced by families with disabled children. One of these is to influence the shape of local services at a strategic level and so we have increased funding for parent/carer forums from £10,000 per forum in 2013-14 to £15,000 in 2014-15.
On collaboration and accountability, we are, as I said, encouraging more schools to offer nursery provision, either themselves or in partnership with officers. We expect this to help address the gap in participation and achievement between the poorest and others. We are supporting collaboration through investment of £5 million in teaching schools and by working with 4Children on the development of its childcare hubs. We are increasing accountability through the reception baseline, which schools will be able to use from September this year. This will provide a snapshot of children’s starting point in reception and means the progress that schools make with all children, including those from a lower starting point, will be recognised. The baseline will be the only way used to hold schools to account for progress from reception right through to key stage 2 from September 2016.
Many noble Lords mentioned the importance of high-quality provision. As the Select Committee’s report set out, we recognise the importance of the role of qualified staff in our early years settings. We know that the qualifications of the workforce directly impact on the quality of provision. It is therefore pleasing that the proportion of staff with level 3 qualifications continues to increase, as does the proportion qualified to at least degree level.
However, we continue to do more. That is why we have introduced the new early years teacher status and established more robust criteria for level 3 qualifications, the early years education criteria. We now have more than 14,000 early years specialist graduates who have been trained since 2007, more than 1,500 are currently in training and a further 540 high-quality graduates began training in September 2014. Moreover, we have extended Teach First to the early years.
We heard the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lord Dundee, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, as well as my noble friend Lady Tyler express their concerns about provision by the private, voluntary and independent sector and the maintained provision. We must acknowledge that the employment and deployment of staff of PVI settings is largely a matter for the settings themselves. The legal framework provided by the Early Years Foundation Stage sets the overall parameters in which settings must operate, but they can choose to exercise permitted flexibility to determine the qualifications expected of staff and how they are applied to children in their care. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby talked about transparency in funding and investment. The department publishes data on the rates each local authority pays its providers in a funding benchmarking tool. In terms of local authority investment in PVI settings, local authorities are able to use funding flexibilities to support such settings so as to ensure sufficient and quality childcare places. The EFYS enables settings employing a graduate to operate a higher staff to child ratio, which gives nurseries greater freedom to operate in ways that best meet their needs and the needs of the children in their care. In this way, a nursery can increase its income and investment in its staff, including by helping existing staff to improve their skills and qualifications.
My noble friends Lady Shephard and Lady Walmsley, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised concerns about the quality of early years settings. On recent inspections, in August 2014, 80% of all active early years providers were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, which compares with 69% in August 2010. For two year-old children, 85% attend a setting currently rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the importance of the home learning environment because evidence tells us that a rich home learning environment in the early years has a substantial and measurable effect on a child’s achievement right through to the age of 11. What parents do with a child is more important than who they are; it is more important than, say, parental occupation, education or income. Parents and families continue to be supported by children’s centres in a number of ways, both in relation to universal services and through targeted support for those facing the risk of poor outcomes. Independent data show that record numbers of parents and children are using children’s centres—in fact, more than 1 million. Family learning provision is also supported by the Government as part of community learning. Much of this is targeted towards the early years and takes place in children’s centres and schools. There is consistent evidence of the benefits of family learning for both parents and children. All of this helps to encourage a culture of learning in the family and equips parents to be more active in supporting their children’s intellectual, physical and emotional development. I certainly hope that music, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dundee, would be included.
The issues touched on in the Select Committee report also bring into scope other reforms and interventions being made by this Government, including more places and more provision. Here we have taken action to give more choice to parents, including the creation of childminder agencies and supporting schools to open nurseries and offer 8 am to 6 pm provision. The matter of flexibility was also raised by noble Lords.
The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lord Dundee all made reference to the fact that it can be very difficult for parents to navigate the various schemes available to support them. We are certainly taking action to address this, including by publishing draft guidance for parents on the universal credit scheme online for consultation and feedback with a promise of more comprehensive information to be made available closer to the date of rollout. However, I take the point that some of the ways in which these surveys are framed and how the forms are designed are not the easiest for people to access, and very often it is those who are most in need who find them most difficult to access. I am sure that more work will need to be done, including on the dialogue between the various departments to make sure that the DWP, HMRC and the DfE are talking to each other to make it as straightforward as possible for parents to access the provision that they need.
My noble friend Lady Walmsley mentioned academy freedoms. We are aware of some of the calls that she mentioned to extend academy freedoms down the age range, and it is something that the next Government will want to look at closely. It is currently on the table but has gone no further than that.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked whether Ofsted inspections included looking at the role of fathers. Ofsted and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services will be establishing a joint policy group to agree the revised approach and the timetable for implementation later in the year. I am sure, within that, they will wish to consider the role of fathers.
There have been a number of other contributions to this debate, which I will need to review and follow up in writing. A number of noble Lords mentioned the Nutbrown review, parts of which we have of course implemented and parts of which are under review.
In conclusion, I repeat that the Government are committed to supporting all parents in accessing affordable, quality childcare. We are committed to addressing the particular issues that face children from disadvantaged backgrounds and have introduced the key measures that I outlined—measures of which we can be proud—although we acknowledge there will always be more to be done in this area. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and the committee for such a thorough and insightful report. Its recommendations will be of great value to the next Government, and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed and, in places, reassuring reply and look forward to further comment in due course. I also thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate, not least those who are not members of the committee. We appreciate their interest and their presence, and what they bring to us that we did not find on the committee. I also thank our special advisers, who were both excellent and complementary in how they worked together. Finally, along with committee members, whom I have already mentioned, I thank the officials who guided us through the various pastures and, sometimes, the rapids of process. In fact, they are still doing so. I had a reminder note during the debate to say that, as I spoke initially, I missed out a couple of key words. I referred to half the adult male population being either illiterate or innumerate—I missed out that it was half the adult population “in prison” who are either illiterate and innumerate, which is rather different.
One thing I have learnt in this debate, apart from the continuing care of the officials, is that, if you quote a line of poetry, you certainly get noticed. I commend it to those who introduce debates in future:
“In my beginning is my end”.
Your Lordships will be pleased to know that my end is much shorter than my beginning.
Conflict Zones: Protection of Interpreters and Translators
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, last week’s special service in St Paul’s Cathedral marked the end of the conflict in Afghanistan and rightly paid tribute to the troops who had given service, and in many cases their lives, for this country. I was not there myself and I may be wrong—indeed, I would be delighted if I were—but I doubt whether there was any mention of the service and sacrifice of the Afghan interpreters who worked with our Armed Forces so diligently and at great personal risk. Reports suggest that dozens have been killed, injured, kidnapped or threatened.
I take this opportunity to ask the Minister for an update on the current situation with the Afghan interpreters who have applied for relocation to the UK under the ex gratia scheme and on the intimidation policy, which is a safety net for those whose employment falls outside the terms of the ex gratia scheme but who believe that they are in danger from the Taliban because of their past employment by UK forces. I am aware of only one Afghan interpreter who has so far succeeded in coming to the UK by this route.
The Minister knows that I have pursued my interest in this matter for some time, and I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. I in turn acknowledge and appreciate his regular, helpful correspondence and meetings with me and others to give us as much information as he could. Many other noble Lords from all sides of the House have contacted me to say that they regretted not being able to participate in this debate, given the short notice that we had for it, but I am sure the Minister knows that this issue deeply concerns a great many Members of your Lordships’ House.
A report in the Times on 3 March is a case in point. It was reported that an Afghan interpreter who had worked with British special forces had been shot and injured while out walking with his two year-old son. His child was also injured. He believed his assailants to be members of the Taliban. He spent two months in hospital. He reported the attack to the British investigations unit in Kabul and sought relocation under the intimidation policy. But the report says that he felt he got short shrift and is pessimistic about his chances. I wrote to the MoD about this case but have not heard back yet, so I hope the Minister may be able to tell the House whether the report was accurate and, if so, what will be done. If it is accurate, it seems to be a cast-iron case of intimidation, and I seek reassurance that this interpreter and his family will be relocated.
I acknowledge that our scheme, on paper at least, is more comprehensive and generous than those of almost all our NATO allies, but it has always been a concern of mine that it still did not match up to the targeted assistance scheme that we offered to the Iraqi interpreters after the conflict there. I know that the Government have been legally challenged on behalf of the Afghan interpreters on grounds of nationality discrimination and that there will be a judicial review. I wonder whether the Minister is in a position to say when he expects progress to be made on this and what the Government’s position now is.
The role of interpreters and translators in conflict zones is absolutely vital but is poorly understood and rarely acknowledged. They are unsung heroes. They are often the victims of distrust, discrimination and threats from all sides. Indeed, there is a syndrome known as the translator-traitor mentality: in other words, the assumption that the local civilian translator or interpreter cannot possibly be doing a neutral, professional job but must be working for the other side, whoever that happens to be. Yet their linguistic skills and the cultural knowledge that goes with them are often the very things that enable the uniformed troops to do their job.
I will now focus on what more needs to be done, including by Her Majesty’s Government, to recognise and respect the professionalism and the precariousness of the translators’ position during their service, not just after it. I would like to draw attention to the work of some of the organisations that represent or advocate on behalf of interpreters and translators, particularly those in conflict zones and other high-risk settings. Red T, for example, is an international NGO based in New York which gives a voice to linguists at risk and monitors incidents involving the translator-traitor mentality. In 2012, Red T, together with the International Federation of Translators and the International Association of Conference Interpreters, produced the first ever conflict zone field guide for translators and interpreters and the users of their services, with sections on the rights and responsibilities of both sides.
Clear guidance for the user includes the need: to respect the translator or interpreter; to protect them and their families during and after the assignment; to provide them with protective clothing but not arms; never to release their names, addresses or images without permission; and not to ask them to undertake tasks unrelated to interpreting. Maya Hess, the head of Red T, said:
“You’d be surprised to learn the range of unreasonable and dangerous requests linguists working in conflict zones receive”.
Some of the guidance is about very small detail, but that can make all the difference to how an interpreter may be wrongly perceived. For example, users are asked to be aware of how they position themselves physically, making sure that eye contact is between the two parties and not with the interpreter, which could give rise to suspicions about impartiality. Of course, the user is told not to delegate any responsibility to the interpreters. They should only translate what the user says and never be asked to make a statement or ask a question on the user’s behalf. This guide is distributed routinely to linguists working in conflict zones. Are the UK Government and the Armed Forces also aware of it, and do they distribute it to all those operating in conflict zones? If not, will the Minister undertake to look at this helpful document and promote awareness of it?
In addition to the guide, Red T has also called for a United Nations resolution to confer special legal status on translators and interpreters in conflict zones, similar to Resolution 1738, which protects journalists. Will Her Majesty’s Government support the case for this, too? On a similar note, the international federation, at its conference last August, called on national Governments and the international community to do more, including creating a UN convention or similar international safety document for the protection of translators and interpreters in conflict zones during and after their service. Again, will the Minister say whether the Government will support this call? Will he undertake to raise both these UN-related issues with his opposite number in the FCO with responsibility for the UN, and actively seek progress?
The public may have heard about the Afghan interpreters recently but far less, if anything, about their counterparts in other parts of the world. In Iraq, interpreters had to work with masked faces in fear of retaliation by insurgents. In China and in Turkey, interpreters have been imprisoned on the assumption that they agreed with the content of their words rather than being their impartial conveyers. Post 9/11, there are several cases of interpreters and translators being labelled spies or terrorist agents. Only the other day, I read on the Red T website about an Australian interpreter who worked for British troops in Bosnia from 1995 to 1999 and who is still in dispute with our Government, apparently, over the non-payment of disability benefits. Like some of the Afghans in more recent cases, he feels ignored and abandoned.
I welcome and appreciate all that the Government currently do to recognise their obligations to the brave individuals who work as linguists for our Armed Forces in conflict zones, but I believe that much more can be done and I hope that some of the issues, requests and suggestions that I have made today might trigger a serious review of our policies and practices in this area.
My Lords, we owe a duty of care to those who work for the United Kingdom Government and our armed services around the globe. We should exercise that duty of care with the maximum freedom that we can manage. Sometimes, it is not just a duty of care but a debt of honour that we have to repay to those who help us. It is an old fashioned word, “honour”, but that is what I feel.
I follow everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, has said with great care. She knows a great deal about the subject; far more than me. I agree with what she said and the guidance that she has given the Chamber this evening. I thank her for that.
One of the ways of exercising that duty of care, or maybe repaying that debt of honour, is to allow those at risk in a third country—not just in Afghanistan—to come to this country. I believe that we need a firm, well managed immigration policy in this country, but one exercised with discretion for those in need. Very often, people talk about moral duties. I am no moral philosopher, but sometimes we hear that phrase so often that I think some departments and Ministers might benefit from having a moral philosopher or two about the place to advise them. It would be very useful and would broaden the minds of Ministers and civil servants—sometimes. Neither do I want to appeal purely to some concept of human rights or natural rights that must be adhered to. I am talking much more pragmatically about my feelings of sympathy to those who have put their life on the line in various parts of the globe, particularly Afghanistan, on which the noble Baroness has just spoken so interestingly.
I want to sharpen up what I mean in a brief and pointed intervention with a couple of hypothetical examples of people who come from Afghanistan and want to get into this country. One might be an “economic migrant”, that phrase if not coined at least made popular by my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell as Home Secretary when the great transoceanic movements were beginning back in the 1980s. On the other hand, someone may be left in Afghanistan, Iraq or one of the other territories to which the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred who is in fear of his life—more generally, it is “his” life and more rarely “her” life. They may be in Helmand, perhaps living in a secure zone and being shot at and threatened by the Taliban. These are two very different cases, but they are the sort of cases that Ministers, such as my noble friend or the Home Secretary, Mrs May, or the civil servants who advise them may have on their desks. They are very hard decisions. The economic migrant might come from Afghanistan, travel overland through Turkey, around Syria and perhaps up through the Mediterranean, Lampedusa and Europe. He will get to Calais perhaps in the back of a lorry and eventually reach the United Kingdom to try to better himself—even though it might have been better for him to have stayed where he was and try to help grow that country. That is one sort of case that lands on the desks of Ministers all the time.
Equally, there is the handful of marginal cases, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred so clearly, who are still in Afghanistan, are still under threat and are still trying to get out. Very few of them have thus far been let in even under the various schemes that have been produced because maybe they have not served for 12 months or more, or were not in place in 2012. They finished their service in 2011, but are still at risk because of what went on before 2011. Yet those people are still there—we are talking about a handful; I do not know how large their number is; perhaps the Minister knows all this so much better than me and will be able to adduce the likely numbers. That is another sort of case that goes on Ministers’ desks. If I was a Minister or civil servant, I would hate to have to make the decision if there was a bearing-down on the numbers that could be got in and a distinction had to be made between the economic migrant—who in his way, however misguided, has been so brave getting to the United Kingdom through all those problems—and the translator or interpreter who is under threat in Afghanistan.
As one who believes in managed immigration and if faced with such a difficult choice, I have to say that I would come down, albeit after making sure due process was followed in repatriating the Afghan economic migrant, on the side of letting into the country the person who had served with the worry of IEDs blowing up and people shooting at him as he travelled about Afghanistan or elsewhere. I believe that we have a debt of honour as UK citizens to those people—not a moral duty but a debt of honour—because they have helped us and put themselves in harm’s way. I know how difficult and challenging this is as we exercise a managed immigration policy. I have great sympathy for my noble friend the Minister, but I hope that he will come down on the side of those handfuls of people who are threatened in such a way.
My Lords, I agree with every single word and syllable of my noble friend Lord Patten. Perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on getting this debate and say what fellow feeling I have for her as a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists myself. I returned from Hong Kong in 1970 as a qualified Chinese interpreter, joined the institute of linguists and was able for a short period to put even those three glorious letters behind name until I let my membership lapse—so I suppose that I should say that I am an ex-member. Nevertheless, I have been on both sides of this experience.
By way of light relief from what is a pretty gloomy and dark subject, one of those who studied Chinese with me was American and ended up as the interpreter to Kissinger when he went to see Chairman Mao in the famous ping-pong diplomacy. He tried to pretend just to be the Secretary of State. Interpreters also get an inside view of things that history does not record. He recalls the following conversation between Kissinger and Chairman Mao. Kissinger, trying to put the exchange on a non-official basis, decided to approach this conversation on the basis not of a Secretary of State and the Chairman of the People’s Republic but of two historians. His opening gambit was, “Mr Chairman, we are both historians and I am fascinated by the what-would-have-happened-ifs of history. What do you think would have happened, Mr Chairman, if the person who was assassinated in 1963 was not John F Kennedy but Nikita S Khrushchev?”. Mao thought for a moment or two, then said, “Do you know, I do not think that that nice, rich Greek ship-owner would have married Mrs Khrushchev”.
Anyway, that is the inside and nicer part of this job. There is a nastier part, too, and I know it from both sides. I was an interpreter—not an active service interpreter—and a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, indeed of Special Forces, where I relied day in, day out on interpreters. I could not have done my job had it not been for them. As my noble friend rightly said, they are at the front line—at the front of the front line. There is no point being an interpreter a mile back; you are there at the front with the person who is taking the bullets. By the way, unlike our troops, who did a magnificent job in Afghanistan, interpreters do not go home after six months. They were at that job 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the whole four years we were there. Nor do they just place themselves at risk, as our soldiers do; their families live in the community, too, and are at risk. This is a job of immense importance and danger, and one without which our troops simply could not have done their own jobs.
My noble friend the Minister is a very decent man. I know he is doing his very best in these circumstances. It is not him I criticise but the Government. I will say nothing that he has not heard from my lips in our private conversations. This is a discreditable policy to a group of people to whom we owe an unquestionable duty of care and an unquestionable national duty of honour. I do not at this moment want to talk about those within the main scheme that the Government have created. You can have your criticisms of that but it seems perfectly adequately administered. I speak about those who fall just outside it because they were a day short or left a day early. These exceptions to the case were supposed to be covered by what is called the Government’s intimidation policy. To answer my noble friend’s question, there are around 200 or so of them in total—that is all. I cannot believe that the Government are taking this ridiculous position that shames our nation on the basis of 200 of them. I think of the Government’s sensitivity on immigration, but do not believe that the most red in tooth and claw, frothing at the mouth member of UKIP would mind letting in those 200 people who served our nation so magnificently. How many have been let in? The answer is one—just one. The Government claim that this policy is enacted on the basis of a benefit of the doubt to the claimant yet just one has been allowed in. That does not speak to the benefit of the doubt on the part of the claimants here.
By the way, on what the Government say, I pick out a sentence from the Minister’s own letter to me recently. He said that every case is thoroughly investigated. Examine this matter and you discover that it is not, the reason being that the investigation unit for the intimidation policy in Kabul cannot even go to the places where these people live because it is too dangerous to do so. What a Catch-22, ludicrous situation. We say that these people do not live under danger, yet they live in areas so dangerous that we cannot go and investigate for ourselves and therefore that investigation must be carried out by the Afghan army or the Afghan police. I do not have to tell noble Lords to what extent both these organisations are thoroughly infiltrated—the police more so than the army—by the Taliban. Do we take their judgment in these matters, or the judgment of other investigators? The writ of the Taliban now extends further and further across Afghanistan so that is simply unacceptable. If it is too dangerous for our investigators to go to those places, surely it is too dangerous for those who have given such magnificent service—and their families—to live in those places. That is not giving the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, I have to say to my noble friend, as I have said to his face, that this is a shameful policy which, if you look into it, collapses in front of you.
We can see that clearly from a number of cases that have been raised. I wrote to my noble friend about the case of Nizamuddin Aftab. He was living separately from his family in a hotel, because he knew what would happen and, in due course, it did. The Taliban turned up at his house and took his family—his wife, his mother, his brothers and his father—searched the house and asked the father where he was. The father refused to say where he was, so they beat him up in front of the family. Then they beat up his brothers. He then tried to get to Kabul to report that. He rang the intimidation unit, but there was no answer, so he made the journey by car, only to be told by the intimidation unit that no appointment had been made and that he should come back later. He was subsequently rung to fix an interview, but no date was given. The investigation started, but no visit was made.
In his most recent letter of 5 February, the Minister said that that matter was under investigation and that he would let me know about it in the very near future. I am sad to have to report that, despite prompts, my point has not been replied to. I do not know what has happened here. I am told that he may have been rejected. By the way, I was also told that he was relocated, so I looked into how far away he had been relocated. Was he relocated out of the country? No, although there was a clear case of intimidation against his family—goodness knows. Can your Lordships imagine how we would feel if that was our family in those circumstances? He was simply put back into the hotel in which he was sheltering when the Taliban attacked his family.
Then there is the case referred to by my noble friend—by the way, his name is Chris and I do know his Afghan name, but I am not prepared to give it for obvious reasons. He was an interpreter for our Special Forces. At some stage, he had to leave the camp to go back to his family and he was provided with a pistol to protect himself. He returned that pistol afterwards. There is some doubt, because of some bureaucratic hiccup—God knows, this is an active service front—about how the pistol was returned, but in consequence he is on the watch-list.
The watch-list, by the way, is constructed by anybody who on a roadblock or in a house search feels in some sense, however heavily or quietly, a worry about a particular person. They put that person on the watch-list; they could be a bureaucrat. That watch-list is a condemnation. Chris’s pistol becomes a pistol that not only saved his life but now endangers it. Because there is a question, he is put on the watch-list. That watch-list is not subject to scrutiny or challenge. No one is allowed to see the information on there, no one is permitted to question it, no one is permitted to check the facts on it. It now seems very likely that Chris will be rejected on the basis that he is on the watch-list, and he can never challenge that. It seems very likely that he is now condemned to stay in Afghanistan. By the way, he was the person who was shot—shot in the leg. When he turned up at the investigation unit to be checked, the man who checked him in said, “I do not believe your story about the bullet; I want to see it”, so he had to unbandage his leg to show the shot in his leg.
I do not know whether that young man who has served us so well has been rejected or not—perhaps the Minister will tell us—but I cannot imagine a more clear-cut case for the intimidation policy, if it is to mean anything, to be applied.
I would also like the Minister to answer this question for me, because I think it is relevant. Have there been any interpreters who finally, on giving up, have made it to Britain and applied for asylum here? If there are, would they be or have they been deported as non-asylum cases? The Minister should provide a very clear answer on that.
I am sorry to speak so roughly but, as your Lordships may imagine, I feel very strongly indeed about this. I say to the Minister that it is only a matter of time—it could happen during the election—before the inevitable will happen and one of those people will finally be killed. When they are and the public demand to know what has gone on, we will strip away this Potemkin front to reveal a policy which is shameful not only in its principle but in its application. Then the Minister will have to account for a policy that may give the Government some comfort in this matter but ought to give us none, because we will see exposed before us the raw bones of a policy that means precisely nothing except danger for those who gave us such wonderful service and dishonour for our country.
My Lords, my noble friend has been indefatigable in defending the human rights of interpreters and translators over many months. She has been aided at times by former Ministers, noble and gallant Lords and others who have seen active service. But she also has a particular knowledge of the importance of language in business, diplomacy and many other fields.
At first sight this is a purely humanitarian issue that concerns the plight of Afghans and other civilians in danger and requires addressing urgently. My noble friend has given examples and it seems obvious that we owe proper and greater protection to anyone who, when directly assisting our Armed Forces, puts themselves in danger and runs a serious risk of being targeted for years after they have served. In this group there will be people who have been on or close to the front line, advising and negotiating on a day-to-day basis. Even if few of us here have been in hand-to-hand combat, we have all read enough to know that one person’s life often depends on another’s, whatever their ethnic origin, rank or educational standard. We owe it to those who help our Armed Forces anywhere in the world to do our utmost to protect them thereafter. This principle is something we can all agree on. Whether it should apply to situations beyond our military services—to those engaged in close protection of diplomats, for example, or to NGOs or others engaged on business and sports overseas—I have my doubts, although there will be special cases even in those categories.
Generally I have been strongly in favour of welcoming refugees from danger and persecution, especially in developing countries where the UK has had a long involvement. I have spoken frequently on immigration Bills to that effect. This is a special case today, as anyone who heard the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, just now must recognise. On the other hand, I can see a number of serious difficulties in offering asylum as a more general policy, which persuades me that these decisions must be made, as they are, on a strictly case-by-case basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Patten, mentioned the use of discretion and the debt of honour that we owe. Today we are concerned only with those helping our Armed Forces. We have to admit that our immigration scene is fairly chaotic and difficult to manage. The noble Lord, Lord West, was not the first or only person to refer to it as a shambles, and he has done so on more than one occasion. Targets are not being met and asylum seekers are still going underground. There may be, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said, Afghan interpreters who arrive completely unexpectedly and unwelcome. I appreciate that this dictates that we have to be very careful in approving any new asylum applications.
Long gone are the days when Winston Churchill was able to hand gold watches to those who had given loyal service. Maybe gone, too, are the days when the UK could offer homes on the scale of the Jewish migrations, the West Indies migrations or the Ugandan Asian crisis. It is an unfortunate fact that the world is now rocked by so many traumatic events that we are just not able to respond on a sufficient scale to all demands. We already rank among the highest in the list of humanitarian assistance providers.
There is also the question of what happens to refugees when they arrive and find that things become more difficult. A friend who travels frequently between Kabul and the UK says that he has seen many Afghans who worked with the US Government in various capacities and who had now been given a visa to reside in the US. He said there were at least 10 of these on one plane that he took from Kabul to Dubai. One of them was now working both in the US and in Afghanistan. He told him that most of these Afghans were jobless in the US and some of them deeply regretted their situation and wished they had not sought asylum.
There is also the constant risk that opening doors to refugees would contribute to the brain drain from post-conflict countries, which are desperately in need of skills and experience. We must not overlook that fact. I remember, when I last visited Kabul, speaking to highly educated Afghans on the plane who were hedging their bets between home and abroad, never quite certain that the situation at home was stable enough for them to return.
Having made all those points, I still contend that the Government must make more effort to bring the Afghan programme up to the level of the Iraqi programme. Will the Minister say how MoD policy compares with that of the United States, in both Iraq and Afghanistan? The High Court challenge last June must be making the MoD rethink both the extent and the quality of relocation. The Minister must agree that the process of the ex gratia redundancy scheme for Afghans is very slow, considering that our Armed Forces have now largely withdrawn. He said in December that only 36 locally employed staff plus 19 family members had arrived during the four previous months, while altogether about 600, mostly interpreters, were eligible. Approximately 390 of these had chosen the relocation option, and we can expect the Minister to update these figures today. Are applications coming in at the same rate or declining?
The Minister has already given an Answer on the Gateway programme managed by UNHCR, an excellent programme by which the UK allows a resettlement quota every year for refugees with specific needs. Perhaps he will confirm that this particular programme is working well, but I understand that it cannot be used for Afghans working in a quasi-military capacity. Will he explain once again why that is so? The Gateway programme applies to vulnerable groups, and it is arguable that some Afghan locally employed staff come into that category. I agree with my noble friend’s suggestion of a special UN status for translators and interpreters.
Finally, I congratulate the Minister on his work on the Front Bench during this Parliament, sometimes under great duress and in difficult times. His work has been rightly admired throughout the House.
I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate and for introducing it so helpfully. It seems to me that interpreters are like priests; they are mediators and help connect cultures and communities. In this case, they helped campaigns unfold properly and as planned. It is a key role. As we have heard, especially from the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, it is a very risky role, on the front line in every sense, and we must be thankful for the courage and commitment of those who sign up for it.
Clearly, every war zone is complex, and therefore it is difficult to have a notion of one-size-fits-all in how we treat these people and their contribution. In this case, as in Iraq, but more powerfully now with the Taliban, the whole way of conducting war is through acts of terrorism picking out publicly identifiable people at particular moments, with violence that other people experience so that it gets into their DNA. These people on the front line are, tragically, tools for terrorist violence to fulfil the Taliban’s aim. Therefore, we have to think about them carefully because they are the Taliban’s prime armoury to make its impact in the war it is trying to fight.
I want to help us recall a number of key principles that are at stake, and then I shall offer a couple of observations. The first key principle was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and it is moral obligation. We cannot suddenly stop caring for people who have played a key role in the war effort and been part of the enterprise, or stop our relationship when it suits us. We have created the relationship, we have worked together, and we have a moral obligation—an honour, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said—to fulfil.
The second principle is about contractual arrangements. I do not know anything about salary or terms and conditions, but it seems to me that we are trying to deal with the matter after the conflict is over, in a sense, whereas we need to have a clearer sense of what people are signing up for, what the deal is, what the provision is and what the partnership is about. The Minister might like to comment on whether we have learnt anything from the process in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, about how we set up these roles, the promises we make and the commitments we undertake—what I call the contractual arrangements.
The third principle that we need to remember, which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned—and I have seen it in some of the literature that I have read—is the concern of the Afghan Government about a brain drain of people who are English-speaking and obviously able, with experience of relating to the West, being drawn out of the country. That is part of the equation; it is a difficult one. When one listens to the stories of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, it is pretty clear that some people need safety, but we must listen to the principle of the indigenous Government trying to preserve their resources of people.
The next principle is that part of the political and military calculation is that, if you remove all the people who have been interpreters, the Taliban would start finding other people to be their targets, to hold up and brutalise in the public ways in which they conduct their warfare. So it is quite a complex calculation about each person, what they stand for, and who else might be drawn into the firing line.
Then there is another principle about the practice of other nations. From my reading around this subject, Australia and the US seem to be offering quite a good deal compared to the one that we seem to have on the table. We need some compatibility for the people who have undertaken this role for the various elements in the allied forces. That needs to be taken into account. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, we have to be realistic. There is an immigration context that we have to wrestle with.
Having named all those principles, I shall make three final brief comments. First, I support the suggestion of a UN convention about the protection of interpreters, and I hope our Government will take a lead in helping to establish a clearer framework. Secondly, I urge the Government to err on the side of being generous. When people risk their lives, the least that we can do is to be generous with the benefit of the doubt when it is a tricky or difficult case. Finally, I suggest a review not just of cases but of the kind of contracts and deals that we offer people when we invite them to step into these roles so that they know at the beginning what the possibilities and safeguards are, and we do not have this unseemly row at the end when, in a sense, we should be honouring and supporting them.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her doughty campaigning on this issue over a considerable time and for having secured the debate this afternoon. I pay tribute too to other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, notably to my noble friend Lord Ashdown, who has also been a powerful campaigner and who made a very powerful speech this evening with some graphic examples of the challenges that we face as a country in dealing with these very brave people. It is a very important subject. As the noble Baroness said, I hope that nobody will think that the relatively small number of speakers today understates the passionate concern that so many of us feel about this. We are talking about very brave people who put their lives and their families’ lives at risk.
I want to make four general points. Everybody has talked, and I think that there is a shared belief, about the moral obligation that we have to these people. The moral obligation contained in the Armed Forces covenant should be the guiding principles that help us to handle and deal with the challenges, threats and dangers of these people. In undertaking these obligations, it would be helpful to have a protocol or more consistent way in which we can express how we want to handle these issues. Then there is a second, practical reason, in that there will always be conflicts in which British forces will rely heavily on recruiting translators and interpreters. These people work very closely with our Armed Forces and we need to give them the practical reassurance that they will be protected when they and their families are at risk, so there is a moral factor and a practical factor involved here.
Thirdly, it is not enough simply to admit these people to this country. They may speak English well but they will be in an alien environment which will pose difficulties for them. We have to ensure that they are looked after and are provided with suitable places to live where they can get the jobs they need or somewhere they can study.
My final point has a rather more general application than just interpreters and translators. We know that people who leave conflict zones are often better educated and have more means than others. As the noble Earl said, there is a brain drain. Therefore, we need to think how we can encourage them to return to their own country to rebuild institutions and war-torn areas where it is appropriate to do so and where there is no danger in so doing. We have to make every effort to encourage people to return to their own country to make such a contribution where they can and where it is safe to do so.
I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on her tenacity and determination in pursuing this issue.
The noble Baroness has not confined the subject today to the position of those who were interpreters and translators in Afghanistan but has extended the debate to the protection of interpreters and translators working around the world in conflict zones, and the steps that we can take to help in this regard. However, it is the protection of those locally employed staff who served us in Afghanistan that has raised the profile of this issue more than any other factor.
After the Iraq war, we gave Iraqi interpreters either one-off financial assistance or exceptional indefinite leave to remain in the UK with help to relocate, or the opportunity to resettle through the UK’s Gateway programme run in partnership with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
In June 2013, the Government announced a support package for interpreters who were serving our Armed Forces in Afghanistan in 2012, but said that no support or resettlement options would be given to interpreters who completed their duties between 2006 and 2011. In the June 2013 Statement, the then Secretary of State said that to be eligible for resettlement in the UK, local staff must have routinely worked in dangerous and challenging roles in Helmand outside protected bases, have been in post working directly for us when we announced the draw-down of UK forces on 19 December 2012 and have served more than 12 months when made redundant. Those whose employment ended before the 2012 date and those whose employment was ended voluntarily or for disciplinary reasons were not eligible. The Government estimated at that time that around 1,200 local staff would qualify for a redundancy package, and that of these up to 600 would be eligible for resettlement if they chose to take it rather than stay in Afghanistan.
The Government went on to say in the June 2013 Statement that there was also the issue of other local staff who faced real threats to their safety or that of their immediate family as a result of their service to our Armed Forces. For people in this category the Government said that the existing intimidation policy would remain in place for all local staff, regardless of their date and duration of employment. The intimidation policy offers relocation within Afghanistan and, to use the Government’s words,
“in the most extreme cases, the possibility of resettlement in the UK”.—[Official Report, 4/6/13; col. WS 90.]
The Government also said that they were currently reviewing the intimidation policy to ensure that it continued to provide a fair and robust system of assessing threats to, and ensuring the protection of, local staff.
We have had debates on this issue on a number of occasions, as well as Oral Questions. It is an issue that is unresolved, and recently the Government’s different approach to Afghan interpreters compared to the package offered to interpreters who had worked for us in Iraq was the subject of legal proceedings by two Afghan interpreters. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked what the current position was on this particular point, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give an update on the matter of these legal proceedings. Our view has been that the Government should offer a resettlement scheme for Afghan interpreters who helped British troops and who feel they face threats to their security and safety as a result, particularly now that our troops have left the country.
In response to an Oral Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, at the beginning of December last year, the Government said that of the 600 locally employed staff, mostly interpreters, who were eligible for relocation under the ex gratia redundancy scheme, approximately 390 had chosen the relocation option. The Government went on to say that it was,
“not possible to give a definite timescale for the relocation process”,
but that in the previous four months, 36 locally employed staff and 19 immediate family had been brought back to the UK. No doubt, the Minister will be giving us the latest figures when he replies to the debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, also asked the Government last December to,
“comment on the plight of the large number of interpreters who do not qualify for the ex gratia scheme but who have appealed for help under the intimidation policy”.
She went on to ask whether,
“the terms of this policy could be made more generous, bearing in mind that some of the interpreters could continue working as much needed linguists in the UK”.
The Minister replied that the Government were aware of no staff killed or seriously injured off duty, and said that they welcomed the noble Baroness’s ideas on interpreter opportunities and were,
“working closely with the Home Office to try to take this forward”.—[Official Report, 2/12/14; col. 1225.]
It would be helpful if the noble Lord could say what progress has been made on this latter point with the Home Office since the beginning of last December.
As far as the Government’s statement last December that they were not aware of any staff killed or seriously injured off duty, perhaps the Minister can say whether that is still the Government’s position. Can he also say whether the Government are aware of any locally employed staff who worked for us being the subject of any threats to their personal safety or security or that of their families, and if so how many? Can he say how many staff have approached us for help under the intimidation policy? Of those, how many have been returned to the UK under that policy, and how many staff are there in total who are potentially eligible to claim help under the intimidation policy if they feel that their safety and that of their families is at risk? Can he also say how many people there are in the team in Kabul that is responsible for delivering our intimidation policy, and whether it is engaged full time in that capacity?
I have asked previously, as has the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, how we can be satisfied that we are aware of any threats made to locally employed staff who worked for our Armed Forces in Afghanistan, and particularly as interpreters. The fact that such a very low number have been returned to the UK under the intimidation policy is surely hardly an encouragement for them to potentially put their heads above the parapet and approach us for help when they may know that the form of help they would most like to receive is almost certainly not going to be offered.
Of the 600 staff who are eligible under the current schemes for relocation to the UK, it appears that some two-thirds have chosen this option. Is it the Government’s contention that in reality none of these staff are living under any significant threat in Afghanistan; they just want to take advantage of the offer to relocate to the UK? Unless that is the Government’s view—and if so, what is the evidence to support it?—how do the Government explain the fact that in respect of those whose service with our Armed Forces in Afghanistan as interpreters had been completed between 2006 and 2011, there has apparently been only one instance in which the Government have agreed under the intimidation policy that relocation to the UK was justified on grounds of threats to personal safety and security?
This is one of the key issues that have emerged during every debate on this subject over the last couple of years. The Government maintain that locally employed staff who worked for our Armed Forces and whose service ended between 2006 and 2011 are in no real danger to justify relocation to the UK, and that there is no need to make the same or similar arrangements in respect of relocation for them that applied to interpreters who served our Armed Forces in Iraq. Many others are not so convinced and do not believe that we should be taking serious potential risks with the safety and security of locally employed staff who served us so well in Afghanistan. The additional concern, if we are not seen to fully protect those who have served our Armed Forces in this way, is that we run a real risk of not being able to find sufficient local staff prepared to carry out roles such as interpreters for our Armed Forces when we need them.
That brings us back to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins: that we ought to be looking at steps that we can take and pursue to protect interpreters and translators working in conflict zones around the world, and the safety and security of their families. If we cannot, or will not, provide effective protection, we could be leaving our Armed Forces, if and when involved in action abroad, facing a significant handicap. The noble Baroness has made helpful and constructive suggestions involving international guidance or guidelines, United Nations resolutions and conventions for addressing the issue of protection of interpreters and translators in conflict zones worldwide, and the translator/traitor mentality with which they have to contend. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the noble Baroness the considered response that the points she has raised deserve, as well as responding now or subsequently to the specific points and questions I and other noble Lords have raised.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this short but very important debate. This is a subject in which she has a particular interest, which is reflected in her taking on the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. We share with her a concern to ensure that the lives and safety of our locally employed civilians, in Afghanistan and more widely, are not put at risk as a result of the service that they have given to this country. I agree with my noble friend Lord Patten that we have a duty of care to them. We have put much effort and resources into trying to meet that responsibility.
I personally take a close interest in this subject, particularly as my former assistant private secretary is now in Kabul supporting LECs with their visa applications.
I recognise that the Minister has limited time, but will he allow me one brief intervention? He lumps interpreters with locally employed staff. Does he not agree that interpreters face significant greater risk and danger than locally employed staff?
I assure my noble friend that I will come on to that point.
I was talking about my former assistant private secretary, who keeps my office well informed on the LECs and their concerns. We share the noble Baroness’s view that the service and sacrifice given by our interpreters deserves proper public recognition and we have sought to ensure this. It was on this basis that we had the pleasure of inviting two of our former interpreters to the commemoration ceremony at St Paul’s on Friday, where they were looked after at all times by Ministry of Defence staff. The two gentlemen have recently relocated from Afghanistan to the UK and were there to represent the local staff contribution to the campaign. They were able to share their experiences with a number of guests at the reception afterwards, including Prince Edward and the noble Lord, Lord West, who I know takes a great personal interest in this subject.
This is only one small aspect of the Government’s programme to meet their responsibility towards former and current locally engaged staff in Afghanistan. This local workforce comprises not only interpreters but a wide range of staff including cooks, guards, storemen and vehicle mechanics. Their lives are all at risk, but I agree with my noble friend that interpreters and translators are at special risk. We have established two schemes to meet this responsibility: a generous ex gratia redundancy scheme and a separate intimidation policy. The two schemes have been carefully designed through a cross-Whitehall process driven by Ministers, led by the Cabinet Office and endorsed by the National Security Council. The schemes take account of a variety of factors, including consideration of the security situation in Afghanistan.
Our concern for the welfare of local staff starts the moment they commence their work for us. Our recruitment and security processes are designed to prevent staff becoming victims of intimidation by those hostile to the coalition forces. We have generally recruited people from areas away from their place of work so as to maintain anonymity, and we advise staff throughout their employment on how they can keep themselves safe.
The ex gratia redundancy scheme recognises the service of those local staff who were employed by us on 19 December 2012—the day we announced our drawdown from Afghanistan—and who have served for a minimum of 12 months. The scheme has been designed bearing in mind the publicly expressed desire of the Afghan Government not to remove the most capable talent from Afghanistan following our departure but, as my noble friend Lord Patten said, to help grow that country. The benefits awarded are in addition to the standard redundancy package to which local staff are entitled.
Some 842 staff are eligible under this scheme, which comprises a generous package of offers: an in-country package of training and financial support lasting up to five years; or a financial payment worth 18 months’ salary; or, for those who fulfil additional eligibility criteria, the opportunity to apply for relocation to the UK. Approximately 60% of all those eligible for the ex gratia scheme are also eligible to relocate to the UK. Of these, some 95% are interpreters.
We have made good progress in implementing the ex gratia scheme. A total of almost 230 visas have been issued to local staff and their families. Of these, 77 local staff members, along with 67 family members, have now been relocated to the UK. A further 29 are due to arrive later this month. They will include an individual who was injured in the course of his service with us. Since January, we have been hitting the target of relocating 30 to 40 Afghans to the UK every month.
We take every care to welcome our local staff and their families, and to ease their arrival and integration into the UK. Prior to departure, we provide staff with an information pack on living in the UK and offer a question and answer session. On arrival, working through local authorities, we provide staff and their families with support for the first four months to help them settle into their new neighbourhood and access the benefits and services to which they are entitled, including schools and healthcare. It is worth noting that not all those offered relocation to the UK have chosen to take it; some local staff have decided to stay in Afghanistan to build a brighter future and have benefited from one of our generous in-country offers.
Let us consider briefly the 96 local staff who have chosen the training offer to date. I am particularly proud of this offer, which contributes directly to development efforts in Afghanistan and is unique among ISAF nations. Of these 96, some 36% have chosen to undertake higher education, with courses ranging from law to medicine to computer studies. Some 40% have chosen to study English. Thirteen staff members have gifted their training offer to a family member, and I am pleased to report that we now have six daughters of local staff members in education, which the families would not otherwise have been able to afford. For all students, the course fees and a living stipend are funded entirely by us. In no case has the safety of these individuals so far been a significant concern. The same is true of those more widely who have eligibility for options under this scheme.
Separate from the ex gratia scheme, we have designed an intimidation policy, which is open to all current or previous local staff, regardless of period or length of employment. The policy addresses the concerns of local staff who are being intimidated as a result of their employment with us, and it fulfils our moral duty to keep them safe. It is an enduring commitment. I cannot comment on the specific claim of intimidation reported in the Times, as the investigation into this incident is ongoing. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that this, like all claims of intimidation, is being investigated thoroughly by experienced, professionally qualified investigators in Afghanistan.
Cases are subject to early initial triage to identify and respond quickly to those where there is an immediate threat. In some cases it is necessary to do this by phone rather than face to face, but face-to-face interviews will follow quickly on those cases judged to be urgent. In cases of immediate, serious threat, we will take steps to make the individual and immediate family safe in the mean time.
Findings are considered on a case-by-case basis by a panel in Afghanistan, which includes both civilian and military personnel. This ensures a fair outcome for each staff member. We are keen to ensure the integrity of our work here, and last year we initiated an independent review of cases to ensure that they had been properly handled. I will ask for further information on the Bosnian case, mentioned by the noble Baroness, which I understand is a dispute about pension entitlement, and will respond to her in writing.
The judicial review hearing for Afghan interpreters challenging our scheme commences on 6 May. The Government’s position has not changed and we are confident that our LEC policies are fair and lawful. The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are very different. There was clear evidence of severe intimidation and risk to those local staff we employed in Iraq and many were killed off duty because of their work for us. The offer of relocation made to them was partly to mitigate this risk. In Afghanistan, there is much less evidence of significant threats to our former local staff, negating the requirement for a large-scale relocation of former staff on the grounds of safety. In addition, unlike in Iraq, we are in a position to investigate the claims of former local staff and provide a range of mitigation measures to reduce any risk and allow the interpreters to remain in their home country. We tailor each scheme to meet the requirements of the location in which the local staff were employed and any risk faced by them.
I will try to answer all the questions but if I do not have time to do so, I undertake to write to noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Ashdown asked about LECs being at risk in areas too dangerous for our investigators to go to. Most LECs are recruited from areas remote from the areas where they serve to protect their identity. Most Afghans can return safely to their homes but when they cannot we will relocate them to a place of safety. My noble friend Lord Ashdown said that we did not reply to his letter. He raised two cases, and the facts he has quoted covered both. We have responded to one; and I understand that the other is taking a great deal of research but we will respond to it very shortly. My noble friend also asked whether any had applied for asylum and been deported. We are not aware of any former UK-employed Afghans who have been deported but we are aware of a small number who have sought and been granted asylum.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked whether applications are coming in at the same rate or declining. They are declining as those eligible complete their moves to the UK. The gateway scheme is working well and has allowed a number of Iraqi LECs to come to the UK. We consider that the bespoke arrangement put in place for Afghan LECs better meets their needs.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby asked whether we have learnt anything from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrangements put in place for Afghanistan reflect lessons we learnt from Iraq. We will carry forward to future operations the lessons learnt about LECs and their safety. He also asked how we are avoiding a brain drain of the best and brightest Afghans. Our offer of in-country training and financial support is designed to encourage former LECs to stay in Afghanistan, and many have. It also builds skills for the country’s future. The right reverend Prelate asked whether the US and Australian schemes are more generous than ours, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also asked about comparisons with the US programme. The US scheme, like ours, requires former local staff to complete 12 months’ service. The Australian scheme provides resettlement only to those who are able to provide a credible and substantive risk of harm. We consider the UK scheme to be generous in comparison to other nations’.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about progress with the offer of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, to help former LECs into interpreter jobs in the UK. Thanks to the noble Baroness’s facilitation, the Home Office has liaised with the Chartered Institute of Linguists. The institute is keen to provide assistance to Afghan interpreters arriving in the UK and is currently considering options as to what support will be most helpful to them. My Lords, I am sorry—I have run out of time.
House adjourned at 6.59 pm.