Thursday, 18 June 2015.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the level of corruption in the United Kingdom in the light of the recent report of Transparency International UK, Corruption on your Doorstep—How corrupt capital is used to buy property in the UK.
My Lords, I want to seek the Government’s view on the contents of the report entitled, Corruption on your Doorstep—How corrupt capital is being used to buy property in the UK, published by Transparency International UK in mid-March. This quite remarkable report analysed data from the entire corporate holdings of property in England and Wales at the Land Registry and matched them with the files of the Metropolitan Police’s Proceeds of Corruption Unit. It found that 75% of properties under criminal investigation use offshore corporate “secrecy jurisdictions”. This is where the legal system has a deliberate veil of secrecy that obscures the identity of those arranging corporate structures.
More than £180 million-worth of property in the UK has been brought under criminal investigation as the suspected proceeds of crime since 2004. This is believed to be the tip of the iceberg. Some 40,725 London property titles are held by foreign companies, and they occupy, by the way, 70 million square feet, which is two and a half square miles. Moreover, 89.2% of these are incorporated in a secrecy jurisdiction—some 36,342 properties. Of these, 38% were registered in the Virgin Islands and 16% in Jersey. In 2011 alone, £3.8 billion-worth of UK property was bought by British Virgin Islands-registered companies.
It is crystal clear that UK Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories are the preferred option for concealment for those under investigation. Indeed, by cross-checking the files, the report makes it clear that 100% of overseas trusts and companies that hold titles for UK property under investigation for grand corruption are registered in offshore financial jurisdictions, rather than in major economies. In three London boroughs, an astonishing number of properties are owned by companies in an offshore secrecy jurisdiction. In Westminster, the figure is 9.3%; in Kensington and Chelsea it is 7.3%; and in the City of London it is 4.5%.
The Prime Minister, to his credit, has done more than his predecessors in trying to get to grips with international money laundering. His moral compass is working somewhat better than others’ in this respect. He requested in 2014 that all British Overseas Territories make changes so there is public transparency regarding who owns companies and trusts. None has taken up the request to do this. Two considered it and then said no. We therefore need unilateral action to address the risks posed to the UK.
UK property is a safe haven in an unstable world, but it should not be a safe haven for corrupt capital stolen from around the world, much of it from poor countries, helped by laws that allow UK property to be owned by secret offshore companies. For example, it has been estimated that more than $1 trillion has been taken out of developing countries—poor countries—through a web of corrupt activities, adding to global poverty. The Transparency International report made 10 recommendations, four to the Government direct, four to HMRC and two to the Land Registry. I would like a response to all these in due course, but today I will highlight just four. The first is indeed the key recommendation in the report: that, before completing a purchase on a property, overseas companies should be required to submit to the Land Registry the same details that UK-registered companies must submit to Companies House. This will establish transparency regarding who owns the companies that, in turn, own so much property in the UK.
The second recommendation is that estate agents’ anti-money laundering responsibility should be extended to include due diligence checks on the purchaser, not just the seller. At present, the legal responsibility on estate agents is only to check one side of a property transaction. Of course, in theory purchasers should have been checked by their own legal representatives. However, under Section 330 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, such representatives and advisers do not commit an offence if they fail to report suspicious activities that they learned about in “privileged circumstances”. Of course, many court cases have extended the area of privileged activities. In the last decade there has been an 82% fall in suspicious activity reports from solicitors. This just shows the scale of the problem. I understand the reason for Section 330 but let us require the estate agents to vet both sides. That is the easy and practical solution.
Thirdly, there should be greater co-ordination between the 27 anti-money laundering supervisors in the UK. Some of these have responsibility for parties involved in money laundering through property and the suggestion is that the Treasury should regularly convene a property working group for all the anti-money laundering supervisors with responsibility for property transactions.
I had a brief discussion with Transparency International and these are the three top issues from its report to highlight today. There is a fourth. The Government should consider introducing unexplained wealth orders—UWOs—and explore the feasibility of using this mechanism in the UK. It was not in the original report but Transparency International launched a discussion paper on unexplained wealth orders on 10 June and it was extensively covered in, for example, the Financial Times. Suffice to say, there were 354,186 suspicious activity reports filed in 2014 with the National Crime Agency. These led to 14,155 consent requests effectively to cover the backsides of the companies involved so that if they got caught out later they could say they had consent. Of these, 94 went to the Proceeds of Corruption Unit and only seven got refused.
If we had unexplained wealth orders, failure to respond to such an order or an inadequate response could then be used along with the initial grounds of suspicion in a recovery process against the asset by our law enforcement authorities. It is a serious issue because the director general of the National Crime Agency said in January that,
“the scale of money laundering is a strategic threat to the UK”.
It is clear that the prevalence of UK property holding by companies incorporated in secrecy jurisdictions is a major barrier to law enforcement. Of course, the percentage of properties purchased with illicit money is tiny compared to the market, but the values are huge. The £180 million I mentioned earlier referred to just 120 properties. We are talking about prime London property, not the mainstream property bought by those working here from overseas.
Further, our law enforcement agencies are not helped by the fact that the Land Registry does not record the value of all sales. That is a massive loophole that should be closed pdq. According to KPMG, the United Kingdom attracts the highest foreign investment volumes in European markets. In the first half of 2014 it was £24 billion, ahead of Germany at £16 billion. This is big money. Added to this, the UK has 250 foreign banks—more than any other country in the world. International investment into prime London was more than £7 billion in 2012. Savills’ 2013 report stated that 90% of new-build luxury properties were bought by overseas buyers. After the 2013 G8 summit—where the Prime Minister made his commitments, by the way—the UK was the first national jurisdiction to put forward legislation to enable a public registry of beneficial ownership. The Prime Minister was trying to deliver it via the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act—but even that is being got around. While I was searching the files and reading the papers I saw a report in the Financial Times on 6 June headlined “Transparency rules leave loophole, law firm claims”. The first paragraph read:
“A leading law firm has told wealthy clients they can avoid ‘unwanted public scrutiny’ from the new transparency laws, in a sign of widely criticised loopholes in the legislation championed by David Cameron”.
So there is work to be done in this area. I want to know, as do Transparency International and its supporters, what the Government are going to do. They have moved incredibly well, as I have said. I have paid tribute to the work of the Prime Minister, but the Transparency International report quotes extensively from key, named UK law enforcement officers about the problems that they have in this area. It seems to me that accepting their modest, considered recommendations would be giving our own law enforcement people the tools to do the job. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response in due course.
My Lords, I first congratulate my colleague for his initiative in bringing to our attention aspects which I think deserve to be better treated. I ask you to switch your minds to the other end of the spectrum: from talking about houses that have been built deliberately and sell for many millions of pounds to the right-to-buy sector at the other end of the housing market. It was during the period when I was the Member of Parliament for Edmonton—now 40 years ago—that the idea of selling council houses to tenants emerged. I have no objection to that. The argument then was that people had been there for many years, their families were bedded in and they wanted to live there. That coincided with the then Government’s property-owning democracy, which is what they were telling people it was all about.
In my time in Edmonton, by the time things were sorted out you were offered the occupation and ownership of your house for perhaps £5,000 or £6,000. You had to keep it for five years but then you had the right to sell it, and many people did. The nexus that I want the House to record is what happened after that. The right to sell your own house is certainly, in the year of Magna Carta, a right you are entitled to have. But then what happens to the housing situation? People who were proud and grateful to have a house built by direct labour in Edmonton suddenly found that the house they looked forward to leaving to their children was no longer there because it had been sold. When it was sold it was sold and sold again. A house costing less than £10,000 in the early 1980s is now on the market for many hundreds of thousands of pounds, as are flats. You might say this is marvellous, and along the chain, the people who bought and sold made money. My direct question to the Government is: do they have a mechanism to trace what happens to the properties after they are sold?
A couple who operate in the Ashford area own 1,000 homes, which they rent out. The argument is that there are people who need housing and the people that they house, in the main, are immigrants, families who have difficulty getting on to a housing list and so on. They not only have in their portfolio 1,000 units, but they are preparing their portfolio for sale. In an article that I read—a copy of which I am glad to give to the Minister—they say they have already decided to sell their portfolio, and they have had estimates of £100 million for their property.
I simply say to the Minister that he and his colleagues should think very hard about the fact that these houses were built in order to accommodate poor people who were living in dreadful, overcrowded conditions. Twice in my time as the Member of Parliament for Edmonton, I left my surgery, sat in my car and cried because of the conditions—twice in 10 years. A home, a house, which you can call your own is priceless in that situation.
We need to understand that people are ruthless in lining their own pockets. It is now 30 years since I was the Member of Parliament for Edmonton, and in my time evidence was already growing in the Tottenham, Enfield and Southgate area that what I would call villains were at large and causing mayhem among people who were desperate. The Government should at least be able to tell me that they are monitoring the situation. At one time, there might have been one or two people with a portfolio of 10 or 12 houses, which they were entitled to, but the man from the couple I referred to earlier—I will not give a name—says that if tenants have more than two children, if they are on a zero-hours contract, if granny moves in or if they are on housing benefit and at risk of not paying the rent, then they are going to evict them. Here you have a situation where people are evicted, under the law, from their home, for which they paid rent. We are not talking about a few pounds’ rent: some people pay £200 a week and are assisted by all sorts of government agencies.
One end of this is now being looked at very closely thanks to my noble friend Lord Rooker—Jeff—and then there is the other end of it. One can ask what Labour did in the 13 years that we were in a position to do something about it. I am afraid that housing in this country is in a mess and has been for a very long time. If the Minister wants to make a name for himself, he ought to be telling me and other noble Lords that there is a solution. There is no solution, because it is so difficult, but I wanted to put on record the fact that housing is the greatest single cause of unhappiness in our communities. I rest my case.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who brings a wealth of experience from a lifetime trying to better the conditions of disadvantaged people in this country. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for initiating this very worthwhile debate and for introducing it so effectively.
In my view, corruption is one of the most damaging of the many current ills of the world. I come to this from what I know about the other end of events—those events that lead to corrupt money being used to buy luxury homes in London. I am thinking of a country I know where the people are very poor, and where in the winter, when it gets very cold, they have electricity for just five hours a day, if they are lucky. I am thinking of the woman who opens a little shop to sell embroidered products, and she discovers that 25% of what she makes has to go to someone connected to the President’s family, otherwise—although she is not doing anything wrong—her shop will be closed by the tax authorities.
I was very privileged to be at the founding meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption in 2011, when John Githongo from Kenya spoke about his experiences from 2002 to 2005 as the Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics in the Kibaki Government. He explained why he eventually resigned, death threats being one reason; they were presumed to have come from those whose corruption was in danger of being uncovered by his office. Eventually he had to leave his country in a great hurry. He had a very powerful impact on his audience and on me, and subsequently I was privileged to become an officer of that APPG.
This debate provides a very welcome opportunity to thank Transparency International for this excellent report, which was so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. It also provides an opportunity to show appreciation of the excellent organisations that highlight corruption, particularly Global Witness. Last year, the all-party group organised a visit for Members to the City of London Corporation and the City of London Police, and then a tour around the banks in the City led by Stuart McWilliam from Global Witness. We gathered at the entrance of a number of the big banks, one after the other, and he listed for us all the on-the-record actions of each bank that had assisted corruption in other parts of the world. It was an eye-opener.
Central Asia is a part of the world I know quite well, and one sees there all the time the effect of corruption on the people and their everyday lives. That brings me to the core issue of the Transparency International report: houses bought with laundered money, corruptly obtained. Kyrgyzstan became an independent country in 1991. I was very lucky to be there at the second anniversary of that independence, and I remember well the atmosphere of hope and excitement, and the huge enthusiasm for being able to live in a different way. It is therefore very sad to read that their democracy has not had an easy path, and corruption has become a large problem for them.
The case of Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, is an illustration. Maxim Bakiyev came to the UK when his father was ousted from government by a popular uprising against the corruption practised by the Government. According to Global Witness in its report, Blood Red Carpet, Maxim Bakiyev arrived in a private jet in June 2010, and in August he took up residence in a new luxury property in Surrey, bought for £3.5 million by a company registered in Belize called Limium Partners Limited. At that time he was apparently under an Interpol red notice because of his role in the corruption case going through the courts in Kyrgyzstan. Apparently he has been living here ever since. Belize is one of the secrecy jurisdictions referred to in Transparency International’s report, so we do not know for sure who, ultimately, owns the company Limium, but Global Witness claims that the evidence that Bakiyev is the beneficial owner is overwhelming and it is highly probable that the money with which the house was bought is linked to the large amounts that left Kyrgyzstan corruptly during the Bakiyev years.
The case of Maxim Bakiyev’s house in Surrey has been exposed. This happens rarely. We know about the Hampstead home of James Ibori, a former state governor from Nigeria, and about Saif Gaddafi’s property, also in Hampstead, which was recovered by the Libyan Transitional Government. We know that 80% of the 76 homes sold in 1 Hyde Park were bought through anonymous companies registered in tax havens. The director of operations of the Metropolitan Police Proceeds of Corruption Unit has said:
“Properties that are purchased with illicit money, which is often stolen from some of the poorest people in the world, are nearly always layered through offshore structures”.
The UK is 14th in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. That is quite high—although we should note that there are 13 countries better than us—but we have to ask ourselves how far what we do in this country adds to the corruption in other countries. The Prime Minister said at the recent G7 meeting:
“Corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many of the problems we face around the world today. … Our efforts to address global poverty are too often undermined by corrupt governments preventing people getting the revenues and benefits of growth that are rightfully theirs”.
Corruption is also a contributor to the disillusion with politics that we now see; a disillusion that can have dangerous consequences. John Githongo, the Kenyan campaigner, talking recently in South Africa, said that it is decades of corruption in Kenya that has prevented Kenya establishing an effective security sector, thus leaving it vulnerable to terrorist attacks. We in this country should be doing everything we can to prevent corruption. We should be making it much more difficult for London to become the place of choice for those with ill-gotten gains to invest, or to come and live in houses bought with ill-gotten gains. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said, we should therefore look very carefully at the thoughtful and detailed recommendations set out in the Transparency International report. I endorse his welcome for what the Government have already done and I hope we shall hear from the Minister that they will do more.
Finally, it is most welcome that DfID funds the Metropolitan Police Proceeds of Corruption Unit, which is shortly to be incorporated into the National Crime Agency. I understand that there are concerns about that. Can the Minister offer reassurance that the reformed Proceeds of Corruption Unit will have enough investigators to pursue corruption cases adequately?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption. We have two debts today that I would like to refer to. One is to Transparency International UK for compiling the report that is the basis of today’s debate, and the second is to my noble friend Lord Rooker for enabling it to have this airing.
I begin with a quotation:
“Corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many of the problems we face around the world today. … Our efforts to address global poverty are too often undermined by corrupt governments preventing people getting the revenues and benefits of growth that are rightfully theirs. Corruption undermines the wider global economy too. Cutting corruption by just 10% could benefit the global economy by $380 billion every year—substantially more than was estimated for the Doha Trade Round”.
Those words were taken from a blog that appeared in the name of David Cameron in the Huffington Post on 6 June. The Prime Minister, whose record of speaking out on this issue I have praised before and whose determination to make meaningful progress in tackling corruption I do not doubt, followed up by highlighting corruption in his speech to the G7 summit in Germany, calling for world leaders to take corruption more seriously, particularly in the wake of the FIFA scandal.
Corruption is a major contributor to global poverty. The opaque way in which companies are structured is more often than not at the heart of how illicit flows of capital are facilitated, either through tax evasion, money laundering or outright corruption. The cost to developing countries of this behaviour is quite staggering. It has been estimated that they may lose as much as $150 billion annually in tax revenue, a figure greater than the entire global aid budget. A World Bank review of 200 big corruption cases from 1980 to 2010 found that more than 70% relied on anonymous shell entities. Company service providers registered in the UK and its Crown dependencies and overseas territories were, to our shame, second on the list in providing these shell entities. The European Commission estimates a cost to EU member states of around €120 billion each year—that figure has some resonance this week because, as talks continue in Brussels to resolve the Greek debt crisis, it is pretty close to what the Greek Government are seeking in debt write-off in return for an agreement on whether their country remains within the euro.
In the UK, the Financial Services Authority estimated two years ago that more than £50 billion was being laundered within and through the UK every year. This figure, allied to the statistics contained in the TI report, illustrates that the Prime Minister needs to focus some of his attention on tackling corruption closer to home. As we have already heard, there is growing evidence that the UK property market has become a safe haven for corrupt money stolen from around the world, facilitated by laws that allow UK property to be owned by the secret offshore companies to which I referred. The Government need to act quickly to interrupt these flows of money and bring to an end the UK’s growing—and surely unwanted—status as the destination of choice for global corruption.
As mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rooker, some relatively simple measures could be taken, such as the Land Registry requiring transparency over who owns companies that own so much UK property. Estate agents’ anti-money laundering responsibility could be extended to include due diligence checks, ensuring that the purchasing company has declared its beneficial owners and that appropriate checks have been carried out on those individuals. I have no doubt that there would be resource issues should such measures be implemented and that estate agents would be keen to hear what the Government had to say about that, but I believe that the Government should be willing to underwrite any additional costs and see them as an investment for greater long-term gain in terms of the country’s reputation.
Another recommendation also mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rooker that I believe ought to be considered concerns the introduction of unexplained wealth orders. I find it difficult to understand why there is no power in UK law to require owners of unexplained wealth involved in a suspicious transaction to prove that the source is legitimate. Such legislation would require the owner of unexplained wealth to prove its legitimacy when a questionable transaction was identified. Failure either to respond to such an order or to provide an adequate response, together with the initial grounds for suspicion, could then be used to facilitate a civil recovery process against the asset. If the Minister does not believe that this would assist in the Prime Minister’s clear aim of challenging corruption, I would be interested to hear why. The scale of the problem of corruption and the breadth of the deficiencies in the current anti-money laundering system demand serious consideration of alternatives.
Finally, the Government must demand that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies adopt public registers of the true owners of companies registered in their jurisdictions. This needs to be done as a matter of urgency. I was dismayed to read the response of the Minister earlier this week to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on this subject, in which he stated:
“The UK Government continues to engage actively with the OTs to encourage them to make improvements to their AML and CTF regimes in line with the international standards … However, the OTs are separate jurisdictions with their own democratically elected governments and changes to their regimes will ultimately be a decision for the locally elected government of each Territory”.
That is not an adequate response. It is simply not in the economic interests of the overseas territories to comply with the demands made on them. I understand that but it does not mean that they can be allowed simply to carry on as they have done for many years. Noble Lords may have noticed that three of the overseas territories were named in the US Department of Justice FIFA indictment recently: the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos—all tax havens.
Many of the offshore jurisdictions are theoretically under the influence of the UK Government but no British Overseas Territory has yet accepted the Prime Minister’s call at the G8, two years ago, for public transparency about who owns companies and trusts. Indeed, many have yet to show a genuine attempt to resolve money-laundering risks presented by anonymous owners hiding behind companies registered in their territories. The Labour Party had a commitment in our election manifesto to compel the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to address wider money-laundering risks associated with anonymous companies in the UK. With determination, there are ways in which it can be brought about. I invite the Government to investigate that.
Commitments to take a stronger line on this were certainly given by the Government during debates earlier this year on what became the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act. That legislation requires a public register of the true owners of UK-registered companies and I very much look forward to the register becoming live. It was a welcome and significant step forward for corporate transparency but, as the Transparency International report shows, the UK property market remains vulnerable to the investment of corrupt capital due to the secrecy around the owners of offshore companies.
The Prime Minister has stated that he intends to put corruption at the heart of his agenda at the United Nations in September and at the G20 in Turkey, culminating in a major anti-corruption summit in London next year. The Government have just announced that Sir Eric Pickles will be their new Anti-Corruption Champion. It seems he will have a larger portfolio than his predecessor, especially with that anti-corruption summit in mind. I imagine that he will want to consider the recommendations of the Transparency International UK report in detail. I hope the Minister will confirm that he intends to meet Sir Eric as a matter of priority to consider the report and how he can contribute to the discussions on these crucial matters. The Prime Minister has raised consciousness of the issues surrounding corruption. The Government now need to follow through to bring about meaningful change.
My Lords, this is a timely and useful debate, prompted by my noble friend Lord Rooker, on the very useful work of Transparency International.
The impact on housing of houses being treated as a store of value—as my noble friend Lord Graham identified—is an important effect. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, significantly refers to the source of corrupt funds, and how it can come down to individual lives, often in places far from the UK such as Kyrgyzstan. My noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie spoke eloquently on the scale of global corruption and its impact on the UK’s reputation. We on this side welcome the Prime Minister’s desire to,
“put fighting corruption at the heart of our international dialogue”,
“do more to … support the investigators and prosecutors who can help bring the perpetrators to justice”.
He is correct to build on the Bribery Act 2010, introduced by the previous Labour Government, which brought issues of bribery and corruption to the fore in the boardrooms of UK plc, and set a global standard in the fight against economic crime. Corruption, by its nature, is insidious, frequently leaving its victims unclear why they have suffered its consequences. Since the perpetrators have a direct interest in secrecy, society can be unaware of the extent of corruption in its midst. In the UK we tend to congratulate ourselves on being relatively free of domestic corruption, but we should recognise that this belief is not always justified.
The various reports of Transparency International identify a range of concerns about UK practices in areas such as prisons, politics and the arms trade. These are matters for concern. Over the last few years, a number of major UK companies have come under investigation by the US and Chinese authorities for practices that are—on any view—plainly corrupt. Corruption knows no borders and the international approach that the Prime Minister commends is correct. He doubtless embraces the anti-money laundering regime introduced by the EU directive. The Government’s intention to strengthen, not gold-plate, our regime with a beneficial ownership register for UK companies is welcome.
Our money-laundering regime is subject to review by the Financial Action Task Force next year. The Transparency International report identifies real vulnerabilities in this regime, as I am sure that the Minister must agree. The UK’s own current review has, one trusts, already identified this and no doubt other areas of concern in our system—perhaps the widespread use of companies incorporated in British Overseas Territories. It would be encouraging if the Minister would share with the House what the review has exposed thus far and what action is being considered. I ask him to please do so. Plainly, the review is not yet complete but some indications of where it is going will be welcome. Anti-money laundering law is a central tool in the fight against corruption.
While no society is safe from corruption, no society finds the reduction, let alone the removal, of corruption an easy task. In the past, the UK rooted out corruption in areas such as the Royal Navy, the judiciary and the Civil Service, but only after years of consistent effort. The task, however, is never finished. The principal tools for the task are political will and resources. There is, of course, no government leader who does not speak out against corruption, whether they are the embodiment of corruption themselves or its most stalwart opponent. Words alone do not suppress corruption. Therefore, action backed up by resources is the test of any Government’s resolve.
Some positive indicators are available. The coalition Government’s anti-corruption plan, which was published in December 2014, ambitiously set out 66 action points. Is the Committee to take it that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to executing this plan? Is, for example, the proposed offence of corporate failure to prevent economic crime to be implemented? Transparency International’s innovative recommendation of unexplained wealth orders, as referred to by my noble friends Lord Rooker and Lord Watson, has many attractions. Does Her Majesty’s Government agree on the utility of such orders and will they introduce them?
Other questions are: will offshore companies be required to register the acquisition of at least some types of UK assets and their beneficial ownership? Will persons in the regulated sector conduct due diligence on customers? Will they require transactions to be reported to a central body? A reply in the affirmative to these proposals would encourage one to believe that political will is present. If that will is present, there could be no better signal than a commitment to increase substantially the resources for those investigators and prosecutors identified by the Prime Minister as bringing perpetrators to justice.
The Serious Fraud Office, a central agency in the fight against corruption, has seen a dramatic improvement in its effectiveness under David Green as director-general. But its budget in 2008 was £52 million; in 2015, its budget is £35.2 million, with the necessity of having to obtain ad hoc so-called “blockbuster funding” from Her Majesty’s Treasury. Strong management and direction are to be applauded, but is this the best method of funding a principal agency? The National Crime Agency is also said to be lacking resources. Her Majesty’s Treasury may have a view that contradicts this; perhaps the House may hear what it is. Has the notion of combining the Serious Fraud Office with the National Crime Agency been put to sleep or will the uncertainty of reorganisation, with its concomitant and inevitable disruption, continue to hang over these organisations?
In his international dialogue, it is significant that the Prime Minister can put the UK in the vanguard in the fight against corruption. While the UK’s record is by no means spotless, its stance on the rule of law, both historically and to date, has international resonance. Leaving aside the Government’s somewhat illogical antipathy to the Human Rights Act, the UK can be recognised as a real force for good in combating corrupt practices. Talk is cheap. To achieve this goal and to be taken seriously internationally, a well-resourced system of enforcement is essential. May the House have the undertaking from the Minister that his Government are truly committed to providing the necessary resources?
I would also welcome a response to inquiries that have been made by my noble friends Lady Smith and Lord Bach, as shadow Attorney-General, as to whether there is any UK investigation into British involvement in the allegations relating to FIFA. Is any response available, perhaps less gnomic than that provided hitherto, claiming awareness of the issue? I look forward to the responses.
My Lords, I am delighted to answer this Question for Short Debate and I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for securing it. I acknowledge the remarks made by him and other noble Lords about the Prime Minister’s efforts in this area of corruption, both in the UK and worldwide.
Corruption, of course, is more than just about property and I would like to make some remarks about the Government’s view on corruption generally. This Government recognise that corruption harms societies, undermines economic development and threatens democracy. As the Prime Minister made clear to the G7 last week, corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many problems we face around the world today, and again the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Watson, mentioned these remarks. The UK has robust anti-corruption structures and legislation in place and we know that the problem of corruption is relatively less serious in the UK than in most other countries, although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, did warn about becoming complacent in this regard. The impact of corruption in this country is disproportionate to the level and frequency at which it occurs, and often has serious ramifications in terms of public confidence across the public and private sectors.
Before I address the more specific issues raised in this report, I want to make it clear that the Government are absolutely committed to tackling corruption in all its forms. Our commitments in the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy to tackle criminal finances and improve our anti-corruption systems demonstrate our determination to make the UK a more hostile environment for those trying to launder their illicit money. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, this Government are doing more than ever before to tackle the blight of corruption here in the UK and around the world, the effects of which were elegantly highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. In December last year, we published a cross-government UK Anti-Corruption Plan. It set out for the first time all the UK’s activity against corruption: from preventing corruption in the first instance to taking effective enforcement action when it does occur, as well as increasing the protection of the public and private sectors. As has been mentioned, the Prime Minister recently appointed Sir Eric Pickles as the UK’s Anti-Corruption Champion to lead and co-ordinate all anti-corruption efforts. He will be working across government to ensure that the commitments set out in our anti-corruption plan are fully implemented—an answer, I think, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson—and to make a real difference on some of the points raised today.
We already have some of the most comprehensive anti-bribery legislation in the world, and were recently judged by the OECD to be one of only four countries globally which actively prevent bribery of foreign public officials. Where we have found gaps in the legislation, such as in relation to police corruption and participation in the activities of an organised crime group, we have brought forward new measures to address them.
As a centre of world trade and investment, we have a particular responsibility and incentive to ensure that our financial systems are not a safe haven for the criminal and the corrupt. In the UK’s 2013 G8 action plan we committed to conducting the UK’s first national assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing risk. This national risk assessment—mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson—will be the first systematic assessment of threats and vulnerabilities in the UK. It will provide an evidence base to help the Government assess the effectiveness and proportionality of the current requirements, and we intend to make the findings available soon. We have already committed to producing an Anti-Money Laundering Action Plan to address the threats and vulnerabilities identified in the national risk assessment. We will carefully consider the evidence in Transparency International’s recent reports as we formulate that action plan.
Turning to the specific issue of money laundering through the purchasing of property, we are also committed to ensuring that we maintain a proportionate and robust anti-money laundering regime. All estate agents must be registered under the Money Laundering Regulations 2007, and HMRC carries out compliance checks to ensure that estate agents are applying customer due diligence processes. HMRC is also working to educate the sector more and bolster businesses’ understanding of their obligations under the Money Laundering Regulations. All banks, lawyers and estate agents are required by law to report suspicious activity to the National Crime Agency. We do have some concerns that the suspicious activity reports—SARs—regime does not work as well as it should, and think that information sharing between the private sector and law enforcement agencies could be improved. That is why the Government are reviewing the SARs regime in order to increase its effectiveness.
In the Serious Crime Act 2015, we have created a new offence of participating in the activities of an organised crime group, which came into force on 3 May 2015. This new offence targets those who help organised criminals with their criminal enterprises, and would include professional enablers such as estate agents, on whom organised criminals rely. From 2016 all UK companies will have to register their beneficial owners at Companies House. Where a property is owned by a UK company, information on that company’s beneficial ownership will be immediately accessible, online and for free, once submitted in the register of people with significant control.
The Government are continuing proactively to lobby other jurisdictions, notably in the context of the G7 and G20 and through the Financial Action Task Force, to take equally ambitious action on transparency of company beneficial ownership. This applies also to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. I will answer specific questions about those in more detail later. Following UK leadership in the G8 and G20, leaders committed in 2013 to implement fully the international standards for beneficial ownership transparency and to submit action plans to this effect. The standard requires that information is available in a timely fashion for competent authorities. Central or public registries are one means of achieving this standard. The Government continue to encourage international partners to meet their commitments so that where UK property is owned by a non-UK company, information on that company’s beneficial owners could also be quickly and easily obtained.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked specifically about overseas territories and Crown dependencies. The point was made that we could do more to make overseas territories and Crown dependencies have beneficial ownership records. We are working closely with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. We believe that they have made significant progress on tax transparency. They have publicly committed to the transparency of company ownership. We believe that more has been achieved in the past year than over the past 10 years.
Perhaps the Minister can elaborate a little. He said that the overseas territories have committed to transparency on ownership of companies. I was not aware of that. I wonder if he could let me know—if not now, in writing—because if it is true, that would be welcome news and I am certainly not aware of it.
I will let the noble Lord know in writing. I am relying on my brief on this—I am sure it is true, in that case. But I certainly will write to the noble Lord.
Bermuda already has a private central registry. Gibraltar will implement a central registry under the EU’s fourth money-laundering directive. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he would like a publicly accessible central register of company beneficial ownership to be the new international standard. We would therefore like the overseas territories to match our policy. However, we respect the fact that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are separate jurisdictions with their own elected governments who are responsible for fiscal matters. We want to continue to work in partnership with overseas territories and Crown dependencies on this important issue.
The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Watson, also mentioned unexplained wealth orders. We are always interested in proposals for new powers that will help law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to tackle money laundering, and will carefully consider Transparency International’s proposals on unexplained wealth orders as part of the national risk assessment.
On the Government’s response to recommendation 3 in Transparency International’s report for a supervisors’ forum, supervisors already attend forums where cross-cutting issues are discussed. The next meeting of the supervisors’ forum is on 5 November. If customer due diligence cannot be completed as far as recommendation 2 is concerned, including identifying the beneficial owner, then the estate agent cannot do business with the prospective client.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, made some interesting points, mainly about housing policy rather than corruption per se. Buying and selling is legal and is registered with the Land Registry but, of course, if the behaviour breaks the law either corruptly or through intimidation then the full force of the law will be applied and the Government support that. Sir Eric Pickles will bear down heavily on any corrupt activity.
I will answer that in writing as I have only three minutes left. The noble Lord also talked about the mechanism to trace properties sold under the right to buy. We have a comprehensive anti-money laundering regime. Money laundering through property has been assessed in the UK’s first national risk assessment, which will be published in due course.
Lastly, corruption in foreign countries was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. As noble Lords will know and as I think they have acknowledged, the Prime Minister has urged world leaders at the G7 meeting to tackle the cancer of corruption.
I hope noble Lords will accept that the Government are doing a lot despite the remaining problems. My time has nearly run out, so I am going to have to write to noble Lords in due course on the questions I have not answered.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, to his first debate in the Moses Room. It is a gruelling ordeal that he faces but I am sure he will come through with flying colours.
This is the first of two debates the House will be holding this week on opinion polls. Part two comes tomorrow on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, providing for the regulation of opinion polling. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be discussing in particular the polls and general election of 2015. That is a very hot topic and I look forward to contributing to the debate, which has attracted some distinguished and knowledgeable speakers. This afternoon I want to concentrate on something much narrower: the increasing problem of polls conducted by pollsters that are designed to achieve only the results that those who commission them require.
Let me say straight away that many polls commissioned by bodies with an interest are scrupulously conducted. I am sure that that was true of everything done by the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, at Populus. As it happens, on the way in I was looking at a YouGov poll on immigration and it was scrupulous, with absolutely balanced questions. However, alas, other companies will stop at nothing to get the results the commissioner wants. I will concentrate today on one example, on which I wrote to all Peers on 27 March. The company concerned is ComRes and the poll was on mitochondrial transfer. It figured largely in the House’s debate on the subject on 24 February. Replying to that debate, the noble Earl, Lord Howe—for whom the adjective “saintly” might have been invented—was uncharacteristically fierce. This is what he said:
“My noble friend also referred to the ComRes poll and suggested that we had somehow unfairly dismissed it. The ComRes poll was commissioned by the CARE organisation—Christian Action Research and Education—which I understand opposes the introduction of mitochondrial donation. An evaluation of the survey was conducted by Pier Logistics and Gene Rowe Evaluations. The evaluators considered the survey to be a deeply flawed piece of work. They criticised the intentional use of what they described as, ‘sensationalist, inflammatory and misleading language to characterize the debate’. There was also considered to be, ‘An unreasonable degree of selectivity within respondents’ informational options’”—
that means what respondents were told—
“‘and the intimation of an exercise focused on the generation of self-ordained results’”—
in other words, what pollsters wanted.
“The evaluation summary commented that the survey was, ‘a good example of poor public consultation’”.—[Official Report, 24/2/15; col. 1621.]
Now, I have some experience of polling. I advised Jim Callaghan on polls. Unfortunately, he did not take my advice to go to the country in 1978—otherwise who knows what might have happened to history since? I commissioned polls for the Sunday Times. I was a member of the advisory committee of NatCen, an academic pollster, and I am co-chair of the All-Party Group on Statistics. I believe in polling. Good polling can contribute to public policy-making in a democracy. But it has to be good polling and this ComRes poll is not good polling. It is polling ruthlessly designed by an organisation driven by faith—that is, CARE—and a polling company driven by greed to get the answers it wanted.
Moreover, ComRes has previous in this field. CARE again asked it to design a poll showing public opposition to the Dignity in Dying campaign and the Bill it was promoting. I remember being involved at the time and, again, twisted questions were shamelessly paraded in a bid to persuade policymakers that the public was opposed to legislative change. This kind of polling is not helpful to anyone. Classically, when I wrote to ComRes to say that I was approaching Peers about its poll, which I have already discussed, its reaction was to threaten me with legal action. That is not how debate should be conducted in a democracy.
So what should we do about this? One thing would be to leave it to the market. ComRes has been well and truly rumbled on this occasion, and its reputation will suffer as a result. I hope that I have had some success in persuading noble Lords not to agree to participate in future ComRes polling—I certainly will not myself after this experience. In any case, any organisation thinking of commissioning the company will think twice, because it will know that, again, it will be a twisted poll and will be the subject of ridicule by Peers, MPs, and even journalists. It is of some consolation to me that the mitochondrial poll, which was much quoted in our debate, received practically no national press publicity. I think that that was because the questions were so blatantly loaded that even without careful study it was obvious that it amounted to nothing. However, I do not think that relying on the market is good enough—not all such crooked polls will be as easily identified, other firms may be tempted down the ComRes route, and propaganda dressed as evidence may become endemic. Therefore, some form of regulation is required.
Unfortunately, existing regulation is inadequate. Faced with the ComRes poll, my first thought was to appeal to the British Polling Council—surely that is what it is for. But it is not. The British Polling Council is a perfectly good organisation—I am thrilled with the inquiry it has set up into the failings of the polls during the general election, so I do not criticise it—but its remit is incredibly tightly restricted. It makes sure that polls publish the questions that they ask—the size of their samples and the techniques they use, which is of course a very good thing—but it does not have any rules that dictate that the questions must be fair and not loaded, and so it is inadequate.
I turn next to the Market Research Society, whose slogan, with which I strongly agree, is “Evidence Matters”. The rules at the MRS are not very specific, but there is a general principle that:
“Researchers shall protect the reputation and integrity of the profession”,
on which I have hung my complaint. However, it must be said that by no means all polling companies are members of the MRS, so I have had to find an individual member within the company I am complaining about, Mr Andrew Hawkins, the chairman—who is a member—and that way I am able to pursue the complaint. I will see how I get on; I do not wish to prejudge that in any way. However, that does not amount to an adequate system of regulation.
One alternative would of course be direct state regulation—it would be easy for people reading the terms of my question to think that I am in favour of that—but despite the wording of the question, I rather hope that the Government are not contemplating statutory regulation, at least for now.
This is about what would be effective. If you put in statutory rules—I know this, having been on the Personal Investment Authority, which has incredible powers; there are papers 12 miles thick—companies then set out to find ways to evade the regulations. Again, as we know, in the area of financial services they have been pretty effective at it. What is needed in the polling industry is a change of culture—or rather the culture that is applied by the best should be applied to the whole industry and not be circumvented by Johnny-come-latelys, those on the make, and so on.
A change of culture is more likely to happen if it is done by self-regulation, where you are judged by a group of your peers, rather than by imposed external regulation. Ideally, therefore, I would like to see a self-regulator modelled on the Advertising Standards Authority, on whose council I was once privileged to sit. I know that my noble friend Lady Hayter has reservations about the ASA; that is because all my complaints are upheld and all hers are turned down, to summarise in shorthand. Seriously, however, it does have the respect of the advertising industry and the public, and I believe that most people have confidence in its rules.
Maybe good will triumph in this, or maybe it will not, with companies such as ComRes willing to stoop low to make a quick buck and continuing to prosper. I do not know why the noble Lord, Lord McColl, says, “disgraceful”. He will get a chance to make his own speech; if he wishes to defend these practices, he can do so then. It would be a sad outcome if companies such as ComRes triumph, and this is where the Minister comes in. As I have said, I do not look to him to promise state regulation—I hope that he will not—but I look to him to express ministerial concern and to urge the industry to consider its own regulation. If the industry had the impression that if it did not act the Government might have to consider doing so, it would be a very good thing and would get the right kind of self-regulation in place.
My Lords, I think it was generally accepted that the 2015 election was not the pollsters’ finest hour, although I have to admit that I, too, got it wrong: I predicted to my friends a Conservative majority of 20, so I was out by eight seats. The vast majority of companies in the industry predicted the vote shares of most of the parties correctly within the margin of error, and several were within the margin of error on all vote shares.
The British Polling Council and the Market Research Society were exceptionally fast in, first, recognising that things had not gone as well as they should have, and, secondly, setting up a comprehensive review under the auspices of Professor Patrick Sturgis at Southampton University. That review has yet to hear evidence—its first session is actually tomorrow—so we should not prejudge its outcome.
That said, the vast majority of polls during the campaign pointed to a much closer result than we eventually saw and it is right to consider the implications of that variance. Establishing a regulatory authority to regularise question wording and sample design, far from increasing the accuracy of polling, has the potential to compound the problem further. All scientific inquiry relies on a cycle of experiment, evaluation and modulation. Polling firms ought to be encouraged to experiment with novel methods and trial their own question wording and sample design, rather than being prevented from doing so. It is also in their commercial interests to try to out-compete their rivals and develop more accurate methods, and we ought to cheer them on as they do so.
With regard to a ban on publication of opinion polls before elections, we should remember that it is voters, not polls, which change election outcomes. A ban would not prevent such polls from being conducted; rather, it would lead to a small number of wealthy individuals and organisations being the only ones with privileged information, leaving the wider public at a disadvantage. Even if we wished to deny voters access to this type of information, in the 21st century it would be impossible to do so. The internet makes a mockery of enforced censorship. We could try to emulate the practice of North Korea and prevent our own citizens having information which is so freely available throughout the rest of the world, but it simply would not work. Political bloggers such as Guido Fawkes use servers in countries such as Ireland and the United States which the Government could not block even if they wished to. British voters would therefore be left open to the unchecked rumours and misinformation that would result from such a ban.
The idea of a voluntary agreement not to publish is interesting, but I suspect that it would ultimately be doomed to fail. The question of who enters into the agreement is fundamental. Even if all the established members of the British Polling Council agreed not to publish polling in the final week before an election, it would not prevent new entrants and overseas pollsters doing so.
The polling industry may be licking its wounds but I do not doubt its integrity in seeking honest answers from the post-election inquiry. We must be able to hear the results of that and understand what went wrong before leaping for the statute book. We are privileged in this country to have a polling profession which, through the good offices of self-regulatory bodies such the British Polling Council, is clearly committed to transparency. That is quite a rarity. In the United States, for example, voters have access to a far poorer quality and quantity of information about individual polls. The industry here ought to be commended for its transparency. Our role should be to recognise and encourage that and to find ways of enabling more and greater competition to encourage greater accuracy.
I am concerned about what has been said about the ComRes polling for the charity CARE in relation to the proposed three-parent, pronuclear and maternal spindle transfer techniques. In addressing this subject I should declare an interest: I have worked closely with CARE over the years. It has provided me with invaluable assistance, especially in relation to my human trafficking Bill. Criticism of this polling seems to hang very much on a report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust—one of the principal advocates for changing the law to permit the controversial procedures—to critique some of the polling in question. That report is deeply flawed in four respects.
First, and most importantly, the report criticises the polling against benchmarks that would be appropriate only if a deliberative public consultation was being discussed, in which lots of background information could be provided. Both more deliberative public consultation exercises and polling have their place and their respective strengths and weaknesses, but to critique one against the standards of the other is to make a very basic blunder. While deliberative public consultations can contain lots of information and nuance, and can in turn receive lots of information and nuance, polls cannot do so. The questions have to be relatively short, and as long as they can provide a range of responses other than simple yes or no answers, the responses are predetermined.
The CARE poll questions were designed very obviously to measure public opinion on pronuclear and maternal spindle transfer as these were defined in common parlance by the media, which spoke almost universally about “three-parent embryos” and “three-parent children”. Far from it being inappropriate to design questions reflecting that terminology, it would have been illogical and poor research practice not to do so. Moreover, as a matter of scientific fact, the designations “three-parent children” or “three-parent embryos”, while disliked by some, were not inaccurate, in that the resulting children will have DNA from three rather than two parents.
The aim of the questions has also been misrepresented. Their aim was first to track basic attitudes in response to the information gleaned by the public through the media, and, secondly, to test responses to a range of arguments both in favour of and against permitting the procedure. This is basic standard practice in any campaign. The purpose of testing arguments in favour of the procedure is to understand which of one’s opponent’s arguments are the strongest and which are the weakest. The purpose of testing arguments against the procedure is to recognise which arguments are the strongest for CARE itself to deploy. Publishing all the results was not an attempt to distort public discourse but rather to ensure that CARE and ComRes were compliant with the British Polling Council requirement for full transparency.
Secondly, the report objected to the polling on the basis that it had been commissioned by an organisation opposed to the introduction of PNT and MST. I found that rather odd. Most polls are commissioned by organisations that want to test public opinion to see whether it fits with their own position. To suggest that this is somehow inappropriate is to misunderstand polling completely. Indeed, the point has been made that the report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust has been commissioned by a body with a very clear agenda. The irony of its position, however, does not seem to have occurred to it. None of us approaches these things from a position of value neutrality. For the record, as a doctor, I am very much opposed to the use of pronuclear transfer but am more open to the use of maternal spindle transfer. Thirdly, the report seeks to criticise the polling on the basis of an assessment of the press coverage secured, which is entirely irrelevant to the efficacy of the polling in question. Fourthly, the report lays great stress on stakeholder interviews but is entirely lacking in transparency. Parliament has looked at these matters and decided what it has to do.
In conclusion, I state that ComRes did not threaten to sue the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, but the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out to it that he intended to have a debate in your Lordships’ House, which would, of course, be privileged.
My Lords, I want to look at opinion poll industry regulation in a general way, rather than focusing on a particular case, as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McColl, have done.
In the spirit of the Motion I am going to offer an opinion. My first point is about opinion itself. Opinion is, by definition, fragile and changeable. It is lite—that is L-I-T-E, for Hansard—and that is very different from attitudes and prejudices, which are firm and more long-standing. We live in a time of opinion, when people just tweet things without much thought—bang, out goes the view. Very few people now are paid-up members of political parties, unions or churches because they want to live in a freer world of opinion, not of attitudes and prejudices. That means that politicians and churches, but also pollsters, have to work a lot harder at trying to capture what is in our minds, because we live in this world of opinion. It means that opinion polls are inherently inadequate in giving an objective view, because they are not dealing with objective elements in people’s minds. We have to be very careful in trying to regulate something that we cannot control or weigh the expectations of very easily.
I want to look at the 2015 election, which seems to have raised a lot of questions about the polling industry. This illustrates my point about the nature of opinion and how fragile and shifting it always is. I invite noble Lords to think about the difference between being asked to answer a set series of questions and going into a particular context—a booth in a polling station—for a private moment of making a decision with a pencil and a piece of paper. They are very different moments of the mind, of engagement, of thoughtfulness. The attempt to correlate them by the opinion poll industry will therefore always be rough and inexact. We have to be careful about comparing and assuming a necessary correlation between the views expressed when there is a set series of questions and voting and acting privately in a particular moment.
Like religion, politics requires an extended conversation that helps opinion find its place in a bigger scenario. That is why good politics, like good religion, works through conversation. In theology, when we try to interpret the word or words, we practise what we call hermeneutics. Some of your Lordships will know that Hermes was the Greek messenger god—the god of travellers, because there is movement, and also the god of thieves, because there is sometimes destruction and disruption. Real meaning and values in human life come from conversation that is extended, set out and developed, and within which people have opinions. We are influenced by forces that are not easily measurable by one set of answers in any one moment, because we are influenced by our intuitions, feelings, hopes and fears. Those things do not fit into a person’s predetermined set of questions captured in a moment, which we have to answer in a way that is measurable alongside the answers of others. The material that the pollsters are dealing with is inherently unstable, developing and very difficult to capture.
Therefore, it was rather inaccurate when one of the commentators said that,
“the 2015 election was a collective failure for the British polling industry”.
It is enormously self-indulgent to think that. The 2015 national election and the difference from the polling industry was not a collective failure of the British polling industry. It was a victory for voters, free speech and free thinking, and for having the opportunity to be free and to make a decision in a moment that counts, and not being held to account by a predetermined set of questions that some pressure group or interested party has asked the voter to engage with—as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McColl, said—for their own advantage and benefit rather than for what the political process is all about. Sometimes we need to wait for freedom to be expressed and to emerge. We cannot capture it when it suits a particular group at a particular moment for a particular set of phone calls.
My opinion is that we should let the polling industry do its best. I would categorise it more in the realm of entertainment than science. It is helpful, people enjoy it and it is useful but we need a sense of proportion. I think it will always be a sideshow to how freedom operates and human beings coming to a mind and collectively expressing that.
My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate, I will keep more to the May election. ComRes has been mentioned quite a lot and I read just after the election that it said that it had had been a,
“difficult few days for pollsters”.
They should have tried being in the Labour Party. The nub of the problem is that the pollsters got it wrong, as in 1992 when I experienced the same 10 o’clock shock. I was sitting alongside the then deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, whose minder I was at the time. I had anticipated him being Home Secretary within a few hours. So I am a bit bitten by this.
While 1992 and 2015 may have been bad for business for the pollsters, it raises bigger issues for the country and for those seeking to run it if the publication of misleading polls alters voting behaviour. Of course, in moments of loss such as I and my noble friend went through that night, we activists feel that blow, and we are reminded of course of Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Lösung”:
“Nach dem Aufstand des 17 Juni”.
Yesterday, therefore, was the anniversary of when the country,
“Had forfeited the confidence of the government”,
making the solution,
“for the government to dissolve the people and elect another”.
The temptation to do that on 7 May was great.
However, the more serious question posed by my noble friend Lord Lipsey is serious, albeit that he has concentrated on a different variety of polling: namely, that commissioned by or for a particular campaign, often with loaded questions. He is, of course, one of the most experienced in the field, having studied, used, commissioned, interpreted and reported on polls since I first worked alongside him in 1970.
The problem we discuss today is an old one: whether our reliance on soothsayers and fortune tellers, or indeed bookies, can affect our actions or policies. Pollsters are not soothsayers, but because of the role that they play in how we as politicians frame our campaigning and even our policies, and in how voters choose to vote, there is a special responsibility on them to raise their game, as there is on the media that report them.
My noble friend brilliantly covered the traps and shortcomings of some polling. While we acknowledge that the polls have often been accurate, today’s debate is about where the sampling, the methodology or the questions failed the industry and the body politic. I would worry about any pre-approving of sampling or other methods, as this could stifle innovation and lead to even more clustering or huddling. I also cannot see that there can be acceptable or, perhaps more importantly, unacceptable questions. However, there is some urgency to improving the industry, especially before we face the first recall ballot for an MP, where, in a single constituency, a vote to trigger a by-election could be heavily influenced by some local—and possibly shoddy or loaded—polling.
However, I wonder whether the industry has the appetite to do more itself. Has enough yet happened in the way of peer reviewing its academic approach in order to raise standards or to guard against the drive for cheap, headline-grabbing polling, undertaken for commercial rather than democratic gain? As my noble friend suggested, I do not perhaps share his faith in the ASA model, but I share with him the desire for improvement and for the industry to take a long, hard look at how it produced its figures.
However, that is only part of the story. As the right reverend Prelate suggested, we also have to look at how polls are reported, not only by newspapers but by radio and TV, which sadly too often take their agenda from the papers and can make the poll a lead story rather than background intelligence. We should also look at how this translates on the doorstep. Part of my own shock at the 10 pm exit poll came from the fact that I had mostly been campaigning in London, where my own experience pretty closely reflected that of the published polls and therefore gave me too much confidence that they were right elsewhere. I would be interested to hear from experienced campaigners outside London whether their feel was different from the published polls and whether voters’ responses appeared influenced by their expectation of the outcome.
The opinion poll inquiry has, I think, been called comprehensive. Sadly, I do not find that. It is very UK-focused, as if we have nothing to learn from elsewhere, and also misses the input of candidates and campaigners; and indeed of journalists, who may have tales to tell of how they were given the data—exactly when, how close to when they had to use them and with what spin. There is also the question of the degree to which news reporting and the polling were so intertwined that there was no independent review between one activity and the other. As the noble Lord, Lord McColl, noted, the inquiry will be holding a public meeting tomorrow afternoon, I think at the Royal Statistical Society. I hope that some of those wider questions can be posed there.
The issues raised today are important—perhaps too important to be left to pollsters. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lipsey on initiating the debate and on sharing his considerable expertise. I look forward to the thoughts of the Minister, who—I told the House this last week but some noble Lords may not have been there to hear it—placed a bet 12 months ago on a Conservative majority of 12. Perhaps we should just replace the pollsters with the Minister.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that introduction. Sadly, no one has come to me asking for my services, although my son keeps asking me to partake in the National Lottery each week, as he is sure I can win. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on securing this debate and am very grateful for the other contributions, which were very interesting. Indeed, this has been a very thoughtful debate, although a short one. I am delighted that we have risen above the sterile argument about regulation, good or bad, although I will touch on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has, as the noble Baroness said, extensive experience of polling and psephology, and I certainly cannot claim to rival that. However, he and I do share the honour—I think I am right on this—and probably the scars of having worked in the back rooms of Downing Street, only to be handed our P45s by the British people. My noble friend Lord McColl and I were there in 1997, so we all know what it is like—this could turn into a bit of a group therapy session—when you are desperately hoping that the polls are wrong but they turn out to be right; or, as in this case, not quite so right.
It strikes me that the noble Lord’s speech in this debate has focused on one particular aspect of opinion polling—the methodology—and in particular those polls that are deliberately designed to get the answers wanted by those who commission them. I do not want to get too much into the details around the ComRes issue; if your Lordships do not mind I would rather rise above that and just talk about broad issues.
Let me start by putting the noble Lord’s mind completely at rest by saying that this Government have indeed no plans to regulate opinion polls. I am delighted that there has been an outbreak of consensus on this point. Many of your Lordships would agree that statutory regulation is not the answer to the issue that we are concerned about: accurate opinion polling. There is widespread agreement that opinion polls lubricate political debate. They help to get that debate moving and to air views, and regulation of any form of opinion polling would put us on a slippery slope towards an unwanted intervention in free debate, benefiting only those with deep pockets who could afford their own polls, as my noble friend Lord McColl so rightly said.
Touching on a few of the points that I think we will discuss in tomorrow’s debate on the same issue, the power that a regulator would yield would be entirely disproportionate. It would end up sanctioning research which could then be portrayed as the official point of view. I have no idea how this would work during a general election. Would it be banned? Would the regulator be asked to adjudicate on which questions were permitted, the methodology and so on? Also, what is the scope of this regulator? While those of us within the bubble of Westminster are fixated on political polls, as I am sure your Lordships are aware the vast majority of pollsters’ business is with commercial entities who want to test what consumers think. Just think about this—you would have a cat food television advertisement that would read, “Nine out of 10 say their cats prefer it, as certified by the Consumer Research Authority, Cracom”, or words to that effect. That would be disastrous and a slippery slope. It would be unwanted regulation of business and bad for democracy. Is this necessary? I think not—but no doubt someone can produce an opinion poll to show whether it is.
As regards innovation, a number of your Lordships picked up on what I think is a key point. Regulation would threaten the debate and innovation on which polling depends. Polling is similar to that most dismal of sciences, economics. It was famously asked of the economics profession why it did not see the crash coming. Yet despite this collective failure, no one has yet called for statutory regulation of economists—not that I want to put ideas in your Lordships’ heads. This is because we understand that the technical problems inherent in economic forecasting cannot simply be regulated away. We know that improvement will only come through intensive research, open debate and rethinking of old assumptions. I would argue that it is just the same with the science of public opinion polling—a point that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby spoke eloquently about.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, well knows, this science is a far more complex business than simply phoning up random members of the public and asking what they think. Samples have to be weighted and there is no consensus about the best way to do this, obviously. Surveys have to take account of cognitive bias, and methodologies are constantly being tinkered with and adjusted. Indeed, there is a certain amount of competitive edge that companies have within that. I was particularly struck by the right reverend Prelate saying that asking someone how will they would vote days before a general election can have some bearing on how they actually behave when they enter the polling booth—picking up that little stubby pencil, their hand hovering over the box and then saying, “Actually, I am going to put my cross here”. To compare those two thoughts and those two reactions to the question is very difficult, and this is exactly what I hope the Sturgis inquiry into the last election is going to get to.
This brings me to the question of conflicting polls—one poll suggesting the public support something and another poll suggesting they oppose it. My response is, as a number of your Lordships have been saying, let us interrogate the methodology and debate the issue further, and then let the public decide. This, I would argue, is what freedom of speech and expression is all about. I strongly believe that the public—aided by a free press and vigorous debate in Parliament and elsewhere—can smell a dodgy poll. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said himself, the poll he is concerned about seemed to receive very scant coverage or mention in your Lordships’ House during the debate.
If people discover that a poll is dodgy, there are means of making complaints, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is now following. However, I would further argue that just as frightening from the pollsters’ perspective is the route that ends by being placed in the stocks of public opinion, and the shame of one’s work being lampooned and castigated by the public. Having read the weighty analysis of the poll on the parent embryo survey and what has been said about it, my strong sense is that this remains perhaps the best route to address the noble Lord’s concerns, despite what he says. It is not for me to say whether the self-regulatory bodies should do more, but if I were in their shoes I am sure that, in light of this debate and others about polling, I would want to take note of what the noble Lord is saying.
This brings me to self-regulation. I declare that in the private sector I did not just place bets, as the noble Baroness predicted, on what I thought a company might or might not do; I actually commissioned a number of opinion polls from reputable companies on issues that were of relevance to private companies. In my experience, great care was taken by pollsters to ensure that no question was seen to be leading or partial. Any suggestion from me or anyone else in the organisation I was representing that a question was, and it would be rejected and changed.
I endorse the comment of the noble Lord that the vast majority of opinion-polling companies abide by the rules and standards of the Market Research Society and the British Polling Council. One has to ask why these companies do so. It is clear that there is a simple reason: it is in their interests to ensure that their research observes the letter and, crucially, the spirit of the code of practice, and that they are seen to be asking balanced questions and presenting answers in an impartial way. Only then does their research command the respect of politicians, the media and, in turn, the public.
Furthermore, the industry fully understands that transparency and trust go hand in hand. Members of the British Polling Council must already publish their results in full, with the questions exactly as asked, a description of the sampling methodology, the raw unweighted data and, crucially, the name of the client commissioning the survey.
On the specific point the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has been addressing about the assembling of the questionnaires themselves, if he or anyone else who is interested cannot sleep at night they might to turn to the MRS’s guidelines for questionnaire design. It is a nice, weighty document of about 28 pages, which states:
“Members must take reasonable steps to ensure … that participants”—
that is, those who opinion pollsters are polling—
“are not led towards a particular point of view”.
This applies to the objectives of the research, and to structuring and writing questionnaires. I am sure these guidelines will be taken into account in considering the issue the noble Lord raised; as he himself said, let us see what happens.
Moving on, all this shows that like any other business or service, the polling industry’s prosperity is built on trust. If opinion polls are to be taken seriously, people—be they the public, journalists or your Lordships—must trust them. If opinion polls become a laughing stock, pollsters go out of business. Why would anyone commission research if they feel they cannot trust the results? This is why, as my noble friend Lord McColl and other noble Lords have mentioned, the polling industry is undertaking such a thorough investigation of what happened at the general election. It is in not just our interests but its own that it does this. It is just as concerned as everyone else to get to the nub of what went wrong. As has been mentioned, the inquiry’s first evidence session is tomorrow.
To my mind this is the right response to a poll failure—a transparent review of what went wrong, followed by innovation and experimentation. The methodology has to be, and be seen to be, robust so we all await the result of this autopsy with interest. I trust that the noble Lord will make his voice heard in this inquiry, and that it will be heeded. Furthermore, the noble Baroness made a number of interesting points about the inquiry taking on board experience from other countries.
Government regulation certainly would not solve many of the issues relating to methodology that the noble Lord mentioned. Regulating the industry would simply centralise the debate and decision-making process, with no guarantee that the challenges surrounding sample size, questions and so on would be overcome. A statutory regulator would be too slow and unwieldy to respond to the innovation and change brought about by big data, cognitive psychology and the digital revolution. Indeed, it would be an analogue solution in a digital age. Crucially, such regulation could—and in my view definitely would—stifle the very debate that opinion polls seek to inform. That is why government regulation is the wrong answer to the right question—a question about conduct and methodology. It is a question that the noble Lord has every right to highlight, and the existing self-regulatory bodies have every reason to heed. The Government do not plan to regulate the opinion polling industry. As Walter Bagehot wrote, and I am sure the noble Lord will say:
“The place of nearly everybody depends on the opinion of everyone else”.
Whether the decision not to regulate will have an impact on the place of government, I am not sure; I suspect we would need an opinion poll to find that out.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Royal Horticultural Society’s report Why we all need Greening Grey Britain, how they will address the impact of the increase in paving over front gardens, and whether they plan to change the regulations and development rights relating to front gardens.
My Lords, this is one of those problems that individually, or each time it happens, seems almost inconsequential but which, cumulatively, can have the most enormous impact on cities, towns and suburbs. I hope that noble Lords have all read this report by the Royal Horticultural Society, which is—I think quite ungrammatically—entitled Why We All Need Greening Grey Britain. Each front garden that is paved over will increase the potential for disaster when it comes to flooding and various other problems that we already face. We have to ask ourselves whether we can afford the situation where 3 million front gardens in the UK are now paved over, three times more than 10 years ago. The report highlights that trend and explains some ways to put it right.
Yesterday, at mayor’s question time at City Hall, Boris Johnson said that it was a sad phenomenon that so many front gardens are being concreted over. When I asked him to back my call for a comprehensive review of the planning laws relating to front gardens, he said that he was receptive to further discussions. I have no idea what that means but I will try to push it forward. Noble Lords engaged in this debate today will be lobbied, I imagine fairly seriously, by the Royal Horticultural Society, because we should all be concerned about this, particularly as most of us are resident in London at some point in our lives.
The paving over of front gardens has happened because people increasingly want to create a parking space or to cut garden maintenance, as everyone now is short of time and short of energy. However, while they are solving what they perceive to be one set of problems—lack of time or space to park their car—they are creating a multitude of new problems that we, as public servants, have to be aware of and take responsibility for.
It is inadequate planning laws that are allowing this to happen. After the 2007 floods, the Government quite rightly, in 2008, changed planning laws to encourage the use of permeable materials in front gardens to prevent surface water run-off. That was a good idea. However, given that since then half of London’s front gardens have disappeared under paving or tarmac—a 36% increase in 10 years—it is obvious that planning laws are not working. I would argue that they are now increasing the risk of local flooding.
In addition, the general permitted development planning rules for front gardens do not put any value on protecting or supporting wildlife habitats, reducing the urban heat island effect or trapping pollution from roadside vehicles. Plants, particularly trees, hold a lot of the soot—especially that from diesel vehicles—which everyone knows is a real problem in most of our cities and which causes all sorts of concomitant health problems for the general population, particularly for children and adults with any sort of lung problem. This is a missed opportunity. If we do not use plants to improve the quality of our lives or of our urban environments, we are missing opportunities to do that.
We need to tip the balance of legislation to favour front gardens dominated by rain gardens, open deep flower beds, lawns and green open spaces, and to discourage paving of any kind. Any paving we do have ought to be permeable and kept to an absolute minimum, because even permeable paving does not allow for very heavy rainstorms. Having no paving is preferable.
Hard surfaces also contribute to an urban heat island effect. They soak up heat during the day, particularly at this time of year, and release it at night. Increasing the amount of paving means that we are exacerbating that heat island effect. It means that our nights are much warmer and that people do not sleep as well. It also increases heat stress for people and animals. London, for example, is already 10 degrees hotter than the surrounding green belt on summer nights. A lot of the things that I am describing do not seem that bad—we all like warmer temperatures—but it increases problems for people.
Paving over areas is accelerating the loss of wildlife and habitat. It is not only our health and well-being which suffer but animals. Many of us keep domestic pets, but it is also about the insects that we need, the bird life and even the foxes. It is every sort of animal that we care about. As much as 60% of UK wildlife species and natural habitats are already in decline, even before we take into account the impact that we are having. Losing 3 million front gardens to concrete or tarmac means that there are far fewer places for birds to nest and insects to feed. I think that there is a strong case and appetite for change but, until now, the cumulative effects have not been recognised in the way that the report describes.
It is an issue that we can adopt across parties. Every single party could sign up to this, because it is in essence common sense to protect ourselves from future problems. My political party tries to look ahead and solve problems before they happen; that is, not to allow them to happen at all. It is wonderful that an august body such as the Royal Horticultural Society has actually done that. It does not talk about changing the regulations but about practical solutions that people can adopt; for example, using gravel or permeable surfaces. It also suggests some planting ideas. Plants are particularly good at pushing down, so that when the rain hits the earth it can go much deeper.
However, quite honestly, these wonderful ideas for voluntary action are simply not enough, and it is now time the Government of the day took the initiative and simply stopped people using impermeable paving on their gardens.
My Lords, I declare two non-financial interests: first, as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group and, secondly, as a very long-standing member of the Royal Horticultural Society. It has been on this call for about 10 years to my knowledge, but it has stepped up the campaign in light of the increasing worries which have been so ably set out by the noble Baroness. We owe her a debt of gratitude for raising it at this point and bringing it to the attention of everybody who may read this debate but, above all, that of Ministers, from whom we look for some action.
I am all for planning controls, but we have those already. My worry is whether they are enforced and whether there are the staff to carry out all the detailed inspections that would be necessary. I am not sure what offence might be committed and therefore what penalty would be incurred and whether it would be sufficient.
I looked up one or two statistics and was horrified to discover that in London the loss of front gardens is equivalent to 22 Hyde Parks—Hyde Park is enormous. That gives an idea of the scale of what, as the noble Baroness rightly said, seems very small and inconsequential to the individual householder who thinks that he will do a little bit of concreting-over to place his car there. I gather that in the north-east of England, research carried out by the Horticultural Trades Association and the RHS found that nearly a quarter of gardens had been completely paved over, with the inference that many more were largely paved over. So we certainly have a problem.
I will not rehearse the very fine points made by the noble Baroness in her opening speech, save to say that there are some other worries. One of those, particularly in places such as London where there is a lot of clay soil, is that the temperature-enhancing effect she described causes a problem with subsidence. This was pointed out by the manager of Halifax insurance services, a person who should know that this can cause serious problems. It is a very real worry for householders if anything goes wrong with the stability on which their homes are built. That is yet another reason for being concerned about this.
My own feeling, as a very keen gardener, is that we should be encouraging people to take steps to work in another way so that they have room both for their car—that is the predominant reason for this happening—and for a little bit of garden as well. The Royal Horticultural Society has been very good about describing the various ways in which this could happen. It starts, very sensibly, by suggesting that a person who wants to make hardstanding for a car should look at their garden, decide where the car needs to be and work from there in order to put the hardstanding—ideally with a permeable membrane or surface—where the car’s wheels are actually going to go. This is particularly relevant in very small front gardens. Then they can have ground between and beyond the wheels that will take small plants and make it very much more attractive.
There was a wonderful example of what can be done at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, where great attention was given to a delightful front garden, complete with space for the car. It used quite a lot of Welsh slate—which allowed water to sink through, which is so important—but with very attractive plantings put here and there where the car was never going to go. It takes some imagination and some thought but if the Royal Horticultural Society and the Government were to approach it from this angle, we would be far more likely to get results than from a simple crackdown, which people may well resent and which may well not be enforced. I hope that anyone in government listening to this will try to suggest this as a co-operative way forward—I sum it up as more carrot than stick.
It is also true that we need to preserve wildlife, particularly the bee population. Those who are interested in agricultural matters will be aware that there are some real problems with declining bee populations, which has a massive impact on crop growing. Gardens, including back gardens, are a massive resource for bees and other pollinating insects. Again, gardeners could be encouraged, by choosing plants carefully, to grow flowers that will last a long period of time so that insects are able to pollinate over a much longer period. They could also choose plants that are simpler in their structure so that it is easy for bees to pollinate. I am not sure my noble friend sitting next to me would agree, because it is always exciting for breeders to develop more and more exotic flowers that are more complicated in their structure, but we know that very simple flowers make it very much easier for the bees to pollinate.
That would be an added bonus. There is also a bonus for householders. There seems to be plenty of evidence that houses with front as well as back gardens, and that look attractive and are in tree-lined streets, are very much more likely to sell at a good price than those that are completely concreted, grey, dreary and altogether miserable. It would certainly influence me, and I think that it influences a lot of people. So I believe that we can sell this to the general public by saying, “You will, in all probability, enhance the value of your property if it is nicely presented”.
I am sure, too, that local authorities, as well as central government, can be of great assistance in this. I looked up on the internet—via the wonderful Google—and saw that Richmond upon Thames Council has some very good advice on how to enhance properties and on what it would look for, in which it sets out good standards rather than just a series of prohibitions. If more town councils were minded to take that attitude, I am sure that it would be for the better. I agree that Richmond is a very salubrious and attractive area, but if that council sees fit to do it, how much more important it is for perhaps less well-endowed towns and cities to do the same.
Last year I went with the All-Party Gardening and Horticulture Group to see how the City of London is dealing with all sorts of odd spaces, as well as the more major ones. It was quite surprising how it had used all sorts of strange little bits of land to put down trees, shrubs, flowers and so forth, making it much more attractive. It had even made a most attractive little park at the side of St Paul’s Cathedral, where there had been a rather gloomy old car park. So it is possible for local councils and city councils of all kinds to set a good example. People tend to follow suit. Just as we find that where people are allowed to litter, more litter goes down, so it works in reverse: if you have good examples all around you and the neighbour down the road is doing very well, it is far more likely that we will get a far better landscape in which people will be far happier living and working.
There is good medical evidence that people’s health and well-being are greatly improved when they are in happy, green surroundings. If that is not enough to convince people that this campaign is well worth pursuing, I shall be very disappointed.
My Lords, follow that, as they say. I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, on bringing this report from the Royal Horticultural Society, Why We All Need Greening Grey Britain—the website says simply “GGB”—to our attention so quickly, only a month after its publication; would that everything in politics happened so quickly.
First, I should declare a sort of interest. The first and probably the best investment I ever made was to give myself a present on my 21st birthday. I was already well into my horticultural training by then so I spent £120 on a life membership of the Royal Horticultural Society. When I say that today’s annual subscription is £41.25, I think that your Lordships will agree that that was, and still is, enormous value for money. I also admit that my wife was a trustee for 11 years and is still a member of one of its committees.
That said, I have two regrets today. I mean no disrespect to the Minister, but to me the whole foundation of this report is environmental, not the built environment, for which she is probably partly responsible—certainly today she is. Whether my noble friends Lord Lawson and Lord Ridley are right or wrong when they say that global warming is happening much more slowly than we are told by some—probably most—scientists, there is no doubt in my mind that climate change is very much with us. You need to look only at the precipitous rainfall we have had—and the flooding that has resulted—over the past few years. This brings me to my second regret. At least in part, the report is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted in regard to the impermeable paving of front gardens in our towns, cities and, as the noble Baroness said, suburbs to provide off-street parking for thousands of cars. This is increasing every year, as the extensive Library brief shows.
In the past two days I have seen two very different types of these paved areas. Last night I was in a house in Chelsea Harbour, which, although it had no front garden, had a back yard. This was closely paved with cement between the concrete slabs. Mercifully, at the back, there was a three-foot wide bed, marked with what looked very like coal, through which were growing two cyclads and what appeared to be a phormium. At the back of the bed was a fence, beyond which was a line of horse chestnuts—planted some 20 years or so ago, I would guess from their girth—on the edge of a deep ditch running down to the river. I do not think that the developer thought much about all this but, although not ideal, we can hardly complain.
The evening before, I was entertained at Kew Gardens. Having just been in Copenhagen—visiting, among other things, the longest herbaceous border in Europe—I was interested to see the Broad Walk, as it is known, with its borders on either side. I was told that, when completed, it will be two metres longer than the one in Copenhagen—a sort of horticultural one-upmanship, or perhaps today I might say keeping up with the Joneses. The point of this description is that the very wide and long Broad Walk has just been resurfaced, not with concrete or even tarmac, as it would have been in years gone by, but with the kind of bonded gravel that you see around street trees in London. It is a hard-wearing surface—and, most importantly, permeable—so the run-off will be practically non-existent; it will not wash away the light topsoil of the beds on either side.
As both noble Baronesses have pointed out, it can be done. As I have said, the problem is that far too many front gardens have been concreted over. The report indicates that this practice has escalated dramatically over the past few years—would that we had this report 10, or even five, years ago. It is all very well that permeable covering of front gardens does not need planning permission any more, but does anyone ever check? Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will respond to that point.
I am not critical of the whole report. The title is very apt because many of our towns and cities are indeed grey and the RHS is right to say that there are many things homeowners can do to correct this. A plant or a pot containing plants in the corners where cars cannot reach, or a wall shrub climbing up the house or along the fence, would have two effects: it would not only beautify the site—perhaps even making the house more valuable when it comes to be sold, as my noble friend Lady Fookes said—but, more importantly for all of us, it would lock in the carbon dioxide that we are all so afraid of.
The problem is that there is little the Government can now do. They could continue with their policy of making it the norm to have permeable paving by means of sticking to the current planning regulations but, again, it is all very well to be allowed to do these things but does anyone bother to check when the homeowner does not? I am afraid that this would be too little, too late, although not for the thousands of new gardens that I am sure have been concreted over.
Again in the excellent brief from the Library, I saw that the RAC Foundation has pointed out that almost 7 million front gardens have been concreted over. My noble friend the Minister will talk about all sorts of things—not least, perhaps, the conurbation of Bolton, which is included in the criticism that we have made of concreted-over front gardens—but can she tell the Committee how many of the 7 million will have “concretable”, for want of a better expression, front gardens? Will the Government insist on a planning regime which continues to mandate permeable surfaces? For now, though, I am afraid that the horse has bolted.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for the opportunity to debate this important issue. It has brought a focus to a growing problem which, frankly, might otherwise have passed us by. It may well have passed me by without the opportunity to concentrate on it and understand some of the issues. It reminds us of why such issues matter.
The scale of the problem is covered in the report of the Royal Horticultural Society and has been outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and others. We share those concerns. As we have heard, three times as many front gardens are now 100% paved over compared with 10 years ago—a staggering increase; over half the total surface of front gardens is hard surfacing; and one in three front gardens have no plants.
I gently make the point at this juncture that the concept of a decent house with a front and back garden is still not the experience of many in our country. Too many still live in grotty accommodation or languish on waiting lists, with the prospect of a decent home but a dream.
We know that this increase in paving comes with environmental risks, especially increased flash flooding, because there is no grass or soil to soak up the moisture. This means that the moisture and the pollutants it has collected runs off the paving into the drainage system, putting pressure on that system and toxins into the water supply.
We have heard that this is not only an environmental issue but a life issue. Plants and trees not only provide a place for birds to nest and insects to feed but supply oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide. Grass will absorb noise pollution. There is also the aesthetic aspect.
If we put this in context, a publication from the Committee on Climate Change, included in our Library briefing, reminds us that increased flood risk is the greatest threat to the UK from climate change, a point acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. Flooding on the scale experienced recently has become more likely as a result of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This raises macro issues of flood management which are largely beyond the scope of this debate. However, it adds to the urgency to seek to reverse the trend we are considering today. We should be mindful of the fact that the serious flooding in 2007 caused an estimated £3 billion-worth of damage.
Whatever the issues, we know that paving over of front gardens is putting pressure on our drainage systems and contributing to the risk of flooding. It is not only flooding: hard surfaces collect vehicle pollution such as oil, petrol and brake dust, which is washed into the drains and hence into our rivers and streams. We know that this is a particular issue for London because of the flash flooding washing sewage into the Thames and the associated health risks. The Thames Tideway Tunnel project seeks to ameliorate the effects of that.
If we are to change the situation, we need to be cognisant of what is causing this trend. It is not rocket science. The causes include an increase in the number of cars on the road—I think there are now more than 38 million vehicles—with the congruent ensuing pressure on parking; the decline of rural bus services, which means that, for some, ownership of a car is essential; multiple car ownership in households, some in neighbourhoods which were built before there was any realisation of the scale of the growth in car ownership; difficulty in parking close to one’s home; and concerns over safety when walking back home late at night. For disabled people, these problems can be compounded, particularly where there is inadequate on-street parking provision for them.
The problems are further compounded by garages attached to houses being converted to living space as a cheaper alternative to moving or trading up—another manifestation of our housing crisis. Of course, then there are the changes to home ownership and the break-up of council estates where failure to manage gardens could have been a tenancy issue. We also have the rise of “generation rent”, with its short-term horizons, which does not inherently encourage the enlightened tending of what gardens may be available.
It is suggested there are other factors as well, such as TV programmes encouraging patios. Perhaps the Minister will let us have the Government’s view on whether they see this as an issue. We would suggest that the reduction in funding for local authorities is also a factor, leading to fewer resources to maintain the cultivation of roundabouts and pockets of public land, as was mentioned earlier; the loss of floral displays, which brighten and encourage communities; and the demise, certainly in some areas, of the “In Bloom” competitions, which were an encouragement to neighbourhoods to plant their front gardens. Not all, of course, have been replaced by community and voluntary effort.
Lack of resources also impacts on the capacity of planning departments to advise on and enforce the planning regime—in particular, the changes to the 2008 permitted development rights, as discussed, under a Labour government, which were a tightening of the regime. This allows new or replacement driveways of any size if permeable surfacing is used; otherwise, the covering of a surface of more than 5 square metres where there is no run-off to a permeable area requires planning permission. Can the Minister help us with any data about compliance with these regulations and, crucially, say whether there are any data on their enforcement?
At a macro level, we hear concerns about underinvestment in flood prevention and the increased risks of avoidable flood damage, and concerns that financial pressures have led to funding provided by Defra to lead local flood authorities being diverted to other council services. Does the Minister have any information for us on this matter and the extent to which it might be happening?
The report of the Committee on Climate Change reminds us that the Environment Agency has 40% fewer staff than in 2010 to advise local authorities and developers on planning applications. For example, 12,000 minor applications in the flood plain did not receive site-specific advice in 2013. The 2014 progress report reminds us that traditional piped-sewer systems cannot readily be adapted to deal with increased rainfall and that sustainable drainage systems can reduce the quantity or speed of the run-off flowing into the sewer systems. Provisions in the Flood and Water Management Act encouraged sustainable drainage systems to be the default option in new developments and redevelopments, but aspects of the Act, particularly on national SuDS, as they are referred to, and connection to public sewers, have been delayed. Can the Minister tell us whether these have now been implemented, and if not, when this will happen?
The briefing material provided for this debate makes it clear that there is not an inevitable contradiction between getting a parking space into the front garden and keeping some greenery. The report to which the noble Baroness referred sets out the variety of ways in which these requirements can be met, including the types of permeable materials which are least harmful. The planning portal also provides helpful guidance. This does not seem to suggest that the legislation needs to change; instead the current planning and building regulations perhaps need to be followed and enforced. However, we are certainly open to suggestions as to how these things might be amended and improved.
Much of this is a matter of individual responsibility, and it seems to me that there is a need for a public information programme which draws attention to what is happening and what might be done about it. There are some natural channels for this communication. For example, it could be done by local authorities when dealing with applications for dropped kerbs and crossovers. Perhaps more could be done via landlords’ associations to raise the profile of the issue. We know that working with contractors can be difficult, given that they tend to be micro-businesses, which come and go, but there are trade associations that may help. There are things we can do that are not being done at the moment, but the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has provided us with food for thought today and we should thank her for that.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, but particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. As we all know, she is the fully committed Green voice in the House of Lords, and we thank her for it.
I will go through the various questions and points that noble Lords made. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, started off by talking about the cumulative effects of paving over front gardens—not just the odd one here or there. In fact, in bringing forward local plans now, local authorities should work with water and sewerage companies and other infrastructure providers to assess the quality and capacity of the infrastructure in question to meet the forecast demands.
The Environment Agency produces maps of areas susceptible to flooding—certainly I know a few near myself, for example, in Salford. These maps provide the basis for the strategic flood risk assessment, which local authorities should use in preparing their local plans. Even small development applications in flood risk areas should prepare a flood risk assessment and set out how risks will be managed. It is important that new homes are not brought forward where they would be at risk of flooding, unless they can be made safe and resilient—and without increasing flood risk elsewhere, of course.
Most noble Lords mentioned the balance between the off-street parking demand and the impacts it will have on the local environment; the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, concluded by saying that there does not have to be a conflict between the two. However, on-street parking or parking on pavements can cause congestion, and, as the noble Lord also said, can be a hazard to disabled pavement users, pedestrians and other road users. The permitted development rights allow a householder to make use of their front garden, while at the same time ensuring there is a provision for surface water drainage; that is crucial as regards the flash-flooding events that we have seen so many times over the last few years.
The RHS report complements the permitted development right by offering ways in which the householder can maintain some planting while meeting their parking need. Its advice on paving front gardens supports the requirements of the householder’s permitted development rights for hard surfaces. The RHS suggests that hard surfaces should be made of porous material, which many noble Lords mentioned today, and it gives several pieces of advice on what material might be appropriate. I heard the other day about a moss-type substance, which you can put in place of a hard surface on the drive; after you drive out in the morning it springs back to life again and is not affected too badly by reparking your car on it. So there are some very good suggestions; my noble friend mentioned Welsh slate, as well. However, if the surface is not porous, there should be a run-off to a porous or permeable surface in the garden, which could be a flowerbed, grass, or another greened area.
The Government take the issue of flood risk—which as we all know has been an issue over the last few years—and the idea of sustainable drainage, very seriously. There is strong planning policy and guidance on assessing, avoiding and managing flood risk for new development, as I mentioned earlier.
The noble Baroness challenged us on whether we had read the report. We have all read it, I hope. It is a very practical guide that we could all use. These things are applicable not only to government policy but also to the individual and how we all play our part in helping the environment and mitigating flood risk.
On permitted development rights and the permeable hard surface, if an area is more than five metres square, that hard surface is required to be permeable. The noble Baroness also talked about the heat island effect. Planning guidance on climate change advises local planning authorities, when preparing local plans and taking planning decisions, to pay particular attention to integrating adaptation and mitigation approaches that will support sustainable development: for example, maximising summer cooling through the ventilation of buildings and avoiding solar gain, and by providing multifunctional green infrastructure which can reduce urban heat islands.
My noble friends Lady Fookes and Lord Skelmersdale and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, talked about enforcement by local authorities. Local authorities, of course, are responsible for enforcement and can make householders take up paving and replace it with a permeable surface. I think that it was my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale who asked how effective enforcement is. I do not have figures to hand but if I can get them I will and I will place a copy of the response in the Library as well.
My noble friend Lady Fookes talked about the value of tree-lined streets and the idea of green infrastructure. I could not agree more. There is nothing more off-putting than a grey house without any planting at all. Trees really enhance the economic value of property, both domestic and commercial. You only need to look at places such as New York, which I think is one of the finest green cities—
My particular interest is trees but I have found this whole debate fascinating. I was once a Member of Parliament for part of Ipswich and most of it has been covered like this. It is very serious. It needs to be stopped somehow and my suggestion might be that we cannot ask local authorities to do too much. We heard from my noble friend Lady Fookes about the Chelsea exhibit, where you can park a car and have the porous surface and cars. Might it be an idea to encourage local authorities just to do one of these—one or two in specific areas—to show what can be done? People love to copy things and if they think it is all happening, they might well do it. That might just be a way forward.
It is funny, because the next point I was coming on to make was that my noble friend also said that where there are good examples of what people do, others will follow. Certain local authorities see great value in planting trees and keeping the green environment in a fine state. I think local authorities can lead by example. Coming back to New York, it is one of the finest examples of a green city in the world and yet it is very built up as well—so you can do both. I do not think that we will introduce legislation to force councils to plant trees, but there is no doubt that where trees are planted you enhance the environment and people’s well-being in every way. My noble friend Lady Fookes mentioned the health benefits. They are undeniable.
My noble friend Lady Fookes also mentioned clay soil drying and leading to subsidence. Building regulations now ensure that the design of foundations avoids subsidence problems in clay soil areas and building control bodies often have additional local requirements in this regard. But we need to use these permeable surfaces as run-offs in permitted development rights to help minimise those problems.
My noble friend Lady Fookes talked about biodiversity, which is absolutely right. It goes hand in glove with the health benefits and the whole appeal of an area. Our bee population will not survive in concreted areas. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about the housing crisis. In fact, we have exceeded the target of 260,000 affordable homes and there will be £38 billion of public and private investment to help ensure that 275,000 new affordable homes are build during this Parliament.
My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale questioned whether this was an environmental debate or a built environment debate. It is probably more of the latter. I am happy to have responded in this debate and if I have left out any questions asked by noble Lords, I shall answer them in due course. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part.
EU: Asylum Seekers
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this important subject at this particular juncture, notwithstanding the fact that the Interior Ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg yesterday finished without a definitive conclusion about what is to be done about this highly complex matter. I imagine, therefore, that the European Council will be following this up next week and the week after. I am particularly grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Bates—the Minister in charge of this debate today—has come to address us at the end. I welcome anything he can say that will give us guidance on what happened in Luxembourg yesterday and what looks likely to be the position in the future. This is an extremely worrying and very important matter.
I am equally glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is the Opposition spokesman. He is the well-known chairman of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group and very knowledgeable on this subject. It is a very important subject because there is a drastic danger of a lack of a proper humanitarian response now because of the pressures, which are understandable. It is easy for people to dismiss those pressures—the fears of people in recession and austerity in different countries about their own jobs, families and livelihoods when they think that people are going to come into a country too easily without going through the proper immigration process—but they are entirely understandable.
I was very pleased indeed at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday when the Chancellor George Osborne—answering because the Prime Minister was abroad dealing with the other negotiations on Europe—and the right honourable gentleman Hilary Benn exchanged views. Mr Benn said,
“as more and more people gather in Libya to try to cross the Mediterranean, HMS Bulwark is doing an extraordinary job in rescuing frightened people. But we learned yesterday that its deployment is under active review”.
In response, Mr Osborne gave an assurance to Mr Benn that despite the fact that we have withdrawn support from Mare Nostrum—a very controversial and unwelcome decision, in my view—a continuing priority would be given to this. I was particularly glad that he said that,
“I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will continue to play our full part in the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean … Taking people out of the water and rescuing them is essential—we are a humanitarian nation and we need to deal with those issues”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/15; col. 312.]
But it seems worrying that HMS “Bulwark”, which came home only recently and has done a marvellous job rescuing quite a large number of people in a short time, is suddenly now to be taken off for some kind of maintenance. I would like an explanation of that.
Be that as it may, it remains very heartening that in this country a majority of the population questioned in polls and private polls say that they are in favour of us rescuing some of these very unfortunate people, according to a fair share to be worked out in the European Union. It did not help at all that the British Government gave the impression, before and after the election, that they did not want any of these people to come here—any at all. That then made it impossible for the other member states to do anything other than respond to their hard-line, right-wing, anti-immigrant and sometimes racialist parties which were saying that they were also going to be difficult about it.
By the way, I happen to know the Italian ambassador in London, Signor Terracciano—an outstanding ambassador. I deliberately embarrassed him when I met him the week before last by saying that I would very eccentrically be tempted, with other colleagues in this place, to propose that the Italian navy and the Guardia Costiera—the coastguard—should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. I believe that since early 2014 the Italians alone have rescued 190,000 people, which is a fantastic achievement. That needs to be in the background when discussing this miserable matter. If the European Union, one of the wealthiest parts of the world, with 500 million people, cannot take in a relatively small number of genuine refugees—they must be genuine and they are, as far as I can tell, coming out of misery and some dying in the process—that is a very sad state of affairs. There is a danger—which I do not want—of Britain being a bad member of the EU club on this as on other matters. We have far too many opt-outs already, and we should be playing our full part in this and dealing with the other states.
In the mean time, the northern Italian states, bearing in mind their political complexions, are being very difficult about having too many migrants, as they put it. Greece is dealing with its own problem of survival and staying in the eurozone, if it can. If the mighty European Union cannot help a small country such as Greece, that is a matter of shame, in my view. However, that is a different subject. Greece is now having to cope with people arriving on its islands. The numbers are not too large at the moment; none the less, they need help. I pay tribute to the Red Cross for its work both on the Greek islands and in the Italian rescue effort. Since then, there has been an attempt to bring about an agreed European Union solution, but we need to make sure that this is done properly and with great care.
This is a change of subject as it is a reference to immigrants in general. I was very impressed by my good friend Ken Clarke. Before Christmas, when there was a furore about there being too many immigrants and so on in this country, which I think is totally exaggerated and based on fantasy rather than fact, he said, “What’s all this fuss about immigrants? They make British society more exciting”. That is a pretty provocative remark to make when there is so much tension and there are so many reactionary views on this subject, but I entirely agree with him and understand what he means.
Coming back to the refugees, it was very interesting that a German spokesman specifically in charge of the whole crisis said in Berlin the other day, “We actually welcome a lot of the genuine refugees from Syria coming to us because of their skills and qualifications”. Germany’s generosity on numbers, followed by Sweden—a small country and also very generous—makes the numbers that we are proposing to accept a matter of shame for us. Once again, the Government need to apologise for having left the Mare Nostrum set-up, and I ask them to give us a proper answer about what they are going to do in the future to get back on track with the collective European Union effort.
That is the key point. Once member states start taking their own individual lines, refusing to deal with the others and saying, “We’re going to be the bad member of the club. We disagree with this”, the European Union comes under the usual pressures from its members’ own electorates—understandably—and the situation slides down into chaos, with nationalism, chauvinism and all the things that we do not want to see in this country and elsewhere in the European Union. The whole purpose of the European Union is that it is not only humanitarian but inter-national, inter-nation and inter-all the communities of the national, sovereign member states working together. We must get back to that. The United Kingdom has a lot of ground to make up to get back to that position, having trailed behind on so many issues recently, not least the rather bizarre negotiations that are now taking place on changing some of the terms of our membership. It remains to be seen what will be done about that.
The Guardian of 16 June contained the disturbing headline:
“EU states bicker over migrant quotas as thousands keep crossing Mediterranean”.
Of course, it is very difficult for them to get an agreement. Paragraph two of the article says:
“Brussels is struggling to effect a new quota system for sharing refugees, with EU interior ministers due to meet today—
as I said, that was yesterday—
“in Luxembourg … But with tens of thousands pouring across the Mediterranean mainly into Italy, Rome appears outraged at the European infighting and is threatening to retaliate”.
This puts Signor Renzi and his Government in an impossible position. Britain started that process, I am sad to say. It was the first country to say that it did not want to take anybody, and has taken just a small number. That led to the rot setting in regarding the co-operation in this field that is necessary.
The article goes on to say:
“East European states reject the commission proposals, Britain and Denmark are opting out of them, the Germans support them, France and Spain are lukewarm, and Italy is furious that it may be left to deal with the tens of thousands arriving on its southern shores. If no equitable deal is struck to share the refugee burden, warned Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, Rome would start issuing the migrants with temporary visas allowing them to travel elsewhere in Europe and would stop receiving the hundreds of boats arriving from Libya”.
Issuing those visas would be contrary to the Schengen rules and procedures, and that, too, would be a bad mistake for Italy to make. We need to make sure that this is all done in concert, with people working together and restoring the solidarity of the European Union when it deals with crises, and we need to make sure that the United Kingdom reverts to being a good and positive member of the European Union once more.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate.
The key phrase he used was “small number”. That is simply not true: we are not talking about small numbers; we are talking about 3 million or 4 million refugees from the present conflict in the Middle East, and potentially millions more—probably half a million—waiting on the Libyan coast to be removed. The situation is wholly unsustainable as it is. It is not surprising that the members of the EU have rejected the EU quota proposals, because they are pure tokenism, pure gesture politics. If we talk about tens of thousands, or 100,000 or 200,000 in total, we are not beginning to scratch the surface. Let us look a little wider and a little more realistically at what has really happened.
The problem is that we have set up a system—absolutely rightly, as we have a moral and international obligation—to rescue people in peril at sea. People are put into small dinghies with outboard motors and enough petrol to get out to sea, and then, following a mobile phone call, HMS “Bulwark” or somebody rescues them. It would be more logical to send HMS “Bulwark” to Tripoli to transfer them. That is not the solution. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we have to break the link between getting on a boat and getting residence in Europe.
I strongly propose that we set up a new holding area somewhere in north Africa. Various countries have been mentioned, including Tunisia and Egypt. I favour Libya, which is already a failing state. We should not just set up a holding area but think a bit more widely and set up something that could one day itself become a state. I would call it Refugia, for want of a better name. It is not an EU problem; it is a UN problem, a world problem. We would need a UN mandate in the form of a Security Council resolution. The Security Council is the fastest legislature in the world; its resolutions have the force of international law. It would have to be negotiated with the appropriate country in north Africa. We would set it up and then it would need military help for its establishment, protection and guarding. That would probably best be done by NATO, again under UN auspices.
There have been many examples in history of democratic states emerging from temporary arrangements where other countries have a mandate to run some territory. This happened after the First World War with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Syria, Iraq, Palestine and the rest. After the Second World War, Germany and Japan were run by other countries and eventually emerged as fully democratic states.
I suggest, therefore, that we have a holding area which people could be returned to or take refuge in and be properly assessed. Some may well be admitted to countries as economic migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The main challenge, however, is to do it on a scale that meets the problem, which is enormous. The problem is caused largely by the growth of political Islam, a basically fascist organisation that is having a profoundly destabilising effect on the world. We must have a solution that is relative and relevant to the size of the problem.
My Lords, this is a human problem. The huddled masses are desperate individuals striving to escape civil war or to improve their own lives and those of their families. Some camps in north Africa will not solve that aspiration. We should not demonise migrants as if they were like a plague of locusts seeking to reach our shores. There is limited mutual trust and co-operation in the EU as the scale of migration increases, and co-ordination is clearly necessary. The Italian Prime Minister must have told Mr Cameron that it is hardly moral for us to rescue migrants, transfer responsibility for them to Italy and then perhaps in the same breath ask for Italian help on EU reform.
The questions include: can we distinguish those fleeing civil war from those whose sole or main reason is economic? What about those fleeing the environmental pressure of desertification or tyrannical government? How do we deter people setting out in the first place and deal humanely with those within our borders, including unaccompanied minors? It is difficult enough to deal with the symptoms and more difficult to deal with the causes.
On the causes, we can consider what can we do by aid or capacity-building or even, dare I say, by providing markets in Europe for agricultural products, but a comprehensive solution can never be found, as the US has found on its border with Mexico with the aspirations of those who see the good life in el Norte. Many wealth disparities will remain. Poverty will remain. The population explosion, particularly in the Sahel, will drive more migrants, and the Syrian tragedy will be with us for some time.
So far as the symptoms are concerned, dealing with downstream symptoms is marginally less difficult. We can hit the traffickers and their networks in source and transit countries and in the EU, but the trade is lucrative and there are many vested interests in north Africa. We can identify, capture and destroy vehicles, but there are formidable legal problems, and Russia will veto any Security Council resolution. Tackling piracy in the Gulf of Aden shows the versatility of traffickers. We can seek to deter migrants and perhaps establish camps, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said, but who can deliver? Libya is now in total chaos, with key parts of the coast in the hands of ISIL. Will we have to provide military personnel to guard the camps? Will permission be given?
I make my final reflection with some hesitation as it can easily be misused. There is a security dimension. At a NATO conference in Rome in April, a new concept was discussed: a new form of hybrid warfare labelled “refugee warfare”. An example is the tactic of infiltration into target cities in Iraq and Syria practised by ISIL. Nine French people have been suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq and that phenomenon could be imported, so I shall ask three questions. Is this new risk factor taken seriously by the European Union? If so, what steps is the European Union taking to co-ordinate a response? What liaison is there with NATO on the subject? We must remember that these are people in need, but we must also recognise that the endeavours of the European Union are likely to lead at best only to a partial reduction in the number of migrants.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes for this debate. A commentator at Carnegie Europe recently said:
“The refugee crisis is just a part of a complex and massive public policy failure by the EU and its member states in the field of migration”.
It is hard to disagree. The symptoms are highly visible. The most obvious are the tragic deaths at sea, Hungary’s plan to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Serbia and migrants breaking into lorries at Calais. On that point, will the Minister say why those lorries are still not in secure lorry parks? We also see that the so-called European common asylum system is dysfunctional. It is not working. Can the record be improved in the short term through ideas such as the hot-spot approach of having EASO—the European Asylum Support Office—FRONTEX and Europol working on the ground with front-line states, or any other ideas for increasing reception-processing capacity?
In any case, the problem needs to be tackled much farther back in the chain. I am glad that efforts, not least in this House, to keep the UK a participant in Europol, Eurojust and a range of policing and criminal justice measures, succeeded. Will the Minister tell us what EU action is being taken, and what law enforcement action the UK is involved in against criminal gangs and smuggling networks? I think we all agree that action needs to be taken at source on the root causes. In the long term, tackling the sources of conflict, poverty and war will bear fruit. The UNHCR has today said that 60 million people are currently displaced by war. I am very glad that Parliament committed to a 0.7% target for international aid. That is not only altruistic, it is also self-interest. But this is a longer-term strategy and does not deal with the immediate crisis.
I believe that we cannot see trapping people in Libya as a viable plan. They would be subject to all sorts of human rights abuses. We need safe and legal alternative routes for displaced and vulnerable people in need of protection to reach Europe. The UNHCR target is to ask the EU to have 20,000 people a year settled through resettlement by 2020. The alternative is to issue humanitarian or asylum visas in the home country. The UK is resettling only 750 refugees a year through the gateway protection programme and has resettled only 187 Syrian refugees. I cannot believe that the public would object to these people being directly resettled. Will the Government give more support to an EU resettlement scheme than they are able or willing to give to an EU relocation scheme for people who have already arrived in the EU? Will they at least give intellectual support, even as a non-participant, to the development of a rational, coherent EU policy on legal migration, given that the EU as a whole—if not this country—is in demographic decline?
My Lords, like other noble Lords I shall speak briefly about the long-term and the short-term questions. Surely, the gravity of the situation is underlined by the speeches we have already heard during the debate, but by the statistics as well. Some 3,500 people have already been fished from the sea dead, with 1,800 corpses reclaimed in this year alone.
On Monday, I raised the situation in Eritrea. Last year, Eritrea and Syria accounted for 46% of all those fleeing over the Mediterranean. As the noble Baroness said, we have to tackle this problem at source but that is a long-term issue. What do we do in the mean time? I find it impossible to justify the 187 places for resettlement in the UK, as was just referred to, against Germany’s 30,000, the Lebanon’s 1.2 million, Turkey’s 1.8 million and Jordan’s 600,000. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will respond to the comments made by Sir Peter Sutherland, the United Nations special representative of the Secretary-General, who at the weekend rebuked us for not taking our “fair share” of refugees. I hope he will say whether he has considered the requests of the Refugee Council to consider legal avenues for refugees, such as humanitarian or asylum visas, and to look at ways to reunite families. I also wonder whether we have consulted with other Commonwealth countries about a more coherent international response. So yes, the European Union should be involved but the Commonwealth and the international community of the United Nations clearly should be involved as well.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 3 June, the Government said that “the vast majority” of Mediterranean migrants “are not asylum seekers” to give some justification for our not taking part in the EU quota system, but that is simply not so. Are we seriously saying that the UNHCR is wrong in insisting that those escaping from Eritrea or Syria are not internationally recognised refugees? Those escaping from Eritrea are leaving a country which was designated by a United Nations commission of inquiry only a week ago as a country likely to be susceptible to crimes against humanity. Let us contemplate the fate of the Yazidis, the Assyrian Christians and those who have been abducted by ISIS in Libya as they have tried to escape and were beheaded, with another group having been abducted in the last few days alone.
In April, along with 12 other Peers drawn from across the divide, I signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph. We argued that creating internationally policed safe havens—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in north Africa and the Middle East—would reduce dangerous sailings. Asylum applications could be assessed and repatriation organised where appropriate. We said that it was an urgent priority. It still is. The Government said that such safe havens would create magnets to encourage more people to flee from war, persecution or grinding poverty. But what is the alternative strategy? What exactly is our policy? Should we tell them to stay and be killed, raped, or persecuted; tell them that they can illegally board boats that will be blown out of the sea; tell them that if they reach Italy or Greece we will then slam our doors on them; or tell them we have no internationally agreed strategy for dealing with the immediate crisis or for resolving the conflicts which have driven them from their homes in the first place? That is not moral or legal and it is not worthy of our nation.
My Lords, let me move on from what people have said. I do not think that it matters very much whether we call them refugees, asylum seekers, or whatever. A lot of people want to migrate from where they are to where the economic prosperity is. That is not just a problem of Europe, where people are coming across from Africa or the Middle East; it is a global problem. There is the Rohingya problem; they are leaving Myanmar and ending up in Indonesia and Malaysia without any guarantee that they will be settled. If this is a global problem, it needs a global solution. It has to be tackled by the UN Security Council and the G20, because this flow of migrants will not cease. Even if we now share them equally and fairly, there will be the next share of a next wave of migrants because the world is very unstable, in both Africa and the Middle East, and people want to better their lives. They want to go where the prosperity is. The European Union should use its powers, especially the UK and France as Security Council members, to ask the United Nations to help us reach a global solution. There are countries that are sparsely populated—for example, Mongolia has only 2 million people. It could take 8 million and go up to 10 million. We should give them an economic incentive to accept refugees, because they are relatively less crowded countries. We have the problem that many people want to come here. It is a global and long-term problem that needs a global and long-term solution. The way we should do it is to make arrangements for people to be safely moved to countries that have agreed to accept them, and the countries that have agreed to accept them will get suitable aid. We can work on the short-term problems of adjustment, because these people are going to cost us a lot of money anyway, so we may as well transfer that money to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, Outer Mongolia and Mongolia and so on. We can look at the map of horrendously sparsely populated regions. Even Australia has only about 20 million people—less than Mumbai—so you can imagine how sparsely populated Australia is. I know that Australia makes a lot of trouble about this issue. But we need to sit down and think of solutions in which the entire world takes part in solving this problem. It is not just a European problem, although it happens to be European because Europe is nearer to North Africa. But that is no reason why Europe should bear the burden of all these problems. I suggest that the Minister goes off and proposes this scheme, and maybe the Prime Minister can take a lead and we can get a global solution.
My Lords, Britain generally has a very good record on helping asylum seekers. I suddenly realised this morning that I am the only survivor of a three-man Cabinet committee which eventually persuaded the Government to accept the entry of Kenyan Asians who were being persecuted under Mr Amin. I must say that it was an extremely successful exercise because they have integrated in an extraordinary way. However, our record is not without some flaws. It was quite late that I discovered that, when war broke out in 1939, not only were Jewish refugees arrested and interned but the Treasury confiscated any assets that they had. It was decades later before I managed to persuade Margaret Beckett, who was very good on this, to get the Treasury to do something to try to repay the heirs and successors of those who had suffered in this way.
It is very important indeed that we maintain our good record on asylum seekers, but we have to face the fact that we now have an enormous problem compared with any previous situation that one can recall. It is not simply individual asylum seekers who are being persecuted, or identifiable groups, but a whole tranche of people who are being persecuted because war is taking place on their territory, and they are nowadays better able to move than they were before.
I am a little puzzled as to why this is a Home Office matter and why my noble friend is replying, since many aspects of it are clearly international. I am sure that he can assure us that there is adequate co-operation between departments. Essentially, the Home Secretary sought to set out a programme. The question I have is: are we making any progress whatsoever on the various proposals that she made? She said first that,
“separating the current essential search and rescue work from the process of gaining permission to stay”,
in the UK is essential. We should then seek to establish a safe landing area where we can separate economic migrants from genuine refugees. Have we made any progress in international negotiations in getting that done?
The crucial problem that we face is that the more we do to try to help the desperate people in danger in the Mediterranean, the more we are likely to encourage them to come. We have to face this crucial problem. If they thought that, although they would be rescued, that does not mean that they then have free access to achieve the travel that they were trying to carry out; that is another matter. The two things are very much linked. It has to be: what do we do with those who are not genuine refugees and what do we do as far as that is concerned?
I have to say to my noble friend that I am not the least bit clear, given the Home Office’s policy, what orders are given to our naval ships and so on as to where they should disembark the people who they rescue. There seems to be some contradiction as far as that is concerned.
Overall, the policy that the Government are putting forward is right. We must try to support it. There are a number of other ways that we can help. In particular, we need to take stronger action against traffickers. Have we managed to arrest any traffickers? Have any of them been prosecuted? What penalties have been imposed on them? One’s impression is that that this has been a totally futile exercise and that there does not seem to have been any attempt whatever, when traffickers accompany or begin to accompany and then desert those who seek to travel, to segregate traffickers from the remaining people in the boats.
These are immensely difficult problems. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating the debate, but it is clearly so important that we ought to have a debate on the Floor of the House at a very early date.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for giving us the opportunity to debate this vital subject, I join with him unreservedly in saying that the Italians should have the widest possible and most strongly expressed tribute from us all for the magnificent part that they have played on behalf of Europe and us all in the situation that confronts us.
Similarly—I say this with some joy, as a former Navy Minister—the Navy has behaved with outstanding sensitivity. In watching the interviews the humanity of the people doing the rescuing shines through; it just cannot be suppressed. That is Britain at its best. However, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was right to remind us to have a global perspective on the response to refugee problems. When we look at the burden being carried by Jordan and by Lebanon and see what this is doing to the economy and the pressure that this is putting on local people in their situation, our record, which we love to talk about in terms of our humanity and outward-looking attitude in our past towards refugees, is in danger of being totally eclipsed by the generosity of countries such as those. We had better remind ourselves that we have to live up to our traditions if we are not to be eclipsed by those countries.
What do we do about it? The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was absolutely right: this is just a symptom of an accumulating global problem. What we are faced with now is likely to become child’s play by comparison with what is going to develop. So far as I recollect, we have not yet mentioned this afternoon that climate change is going to accentuate the movement of people. We will have not just conflict and economic pressures but climatic pressures leading to same thing. All this makes it obvious that we have to find international global solutions; we cannot find solutions on our own. By constantly trying to put a finger in the dyke, we are just destroying our chance for influence and leadership in finding international solutions. We are increasingly seen—I do not like saying this, but it is true for any of us who are involved in international affairs—as a mean, defensive, neurotic little country that is concerned only with keeping people out and is not positively engaged and playing a part in finding the solutions that are necessary. That is a tremendous challenge to us all.
I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, allowed himself to digress, as he put it, because whenever we debate subjects such as this we should always have a refrain which we repeat: that if we look at our medicine, our science, our literature, our technology, our industry, our public services and our cultural life, we see that refugees have been a rich investment in the quality, the character and the standing of Britain in our history.
I agree with virtually everything said in this debate. The one thing that worries me is the argument that a pull factor could, undesirably, encourage further people to cross the sea. It seems to me that the overriding responsibility is to pull out of the sea the people who are out there. I do not believe that more people go out because they think there is a chance of being rescued.
This debate does the House great credit, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for introducing it. When the Minister comes to respond to it, I would like him to reflect on Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the Somerset case of 1772, where it was established in the law of this country that a runaway slave facing persecution or death was free the moment he was on board a British ship. It is wonderful that “Bulwark” is there and I am sure that it is doing wonderful work. Although I am worried to read in the press that it may be about to be withdrawn, I am sure that it will be replaced. But if it is the case that we would not replace “Bulwark” unless the Italians agreed to take entire responsibility for anybody whom the Royal Navy rescued from the sea, it would be completely inconsistent with the spirit of the Mansfield judgment, which is the spirit of this country.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on his debate—we always say that such debates are timely; this time, we really mean it—and I thank all others who have spoken in this too short discussion. It is an extremely difficult issue for the world and in particular for EU countries. It is then made more difficult, as any answer to it is bound up with developments in the Middle East and Africa that we have at present little or no control over.
The Opposition want to support Her Majesty’s Government, working with the EU, to find solutions that both are practical and do not result in more deaths but which are also in line with the British traditions that have been talked about in this debate of generosity and humanity. However, it has to be said, and I am afraid said clearly, that along with the other EU countries the then British coalition Government share the blame for what we, among many others, said in the autumn of last year was the appalling decision to replace the Italian Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation with the EU Triton operation, with vessels no longer searching the wider Mediterranean but confined to 30 miles off the Italian shore. Has there ever been a more catastrophic odyssey, based on the totally mistaken proposition that making rescue much less likely and drowning much more likely would lessen the pull factor as far as desperate people are concerned? Only the terrible losses and deaths in an incident in April made Europe and the United Kingdom Government think again. Now, of course, with HMS “Bulwark” and other vessels and helicopters doing brilliant work as always, and the Triton operation abandoned, thank goodness, more lives are being saved.
Triton spent one-third of the amount that the Italians, who I agree deserve praise, spent on Mare Nostrum. The International Organization for Migration estimates that deaths at sea have risen ninefold since the end of Mare Nostrum. It was a tragic error by us and the EU, and as a Government we should not have supported it. It is deeply ironic to read the language of the Minister in another place, repeated in this House by the Minister on 30 October last, in respect of Mare Nostrum:
“It is of course vital that this phasing out is well managed and well publicised to mitigate the risk of further deaths”.
Those further deaths were well foreseen by noble Lords in this House. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon said:
“Leaving them to drown instead is shocking and inhumane. It is not the British way of doing things. Does the Minister really believe that this needless loss of life will ever act as a deterrent to criminals and desperate people? How many will drown before the Government reconsider this policy?”.—[Official Report, 30/10/14; cols. 1310-11.]
To his credit, the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, asked why the Government’s policy seemed to support measures that could have only one result, which would be that more refugees would drown in the Mediterranean, rather than a policy whose aim was to lock up more people traffickers. Can we have an assurance from the Minister today that we will not make that mistake again?
The situation today is very grave. We believe that the Government are to some extent selling our country’s humanitarian tradition and spirit of generosity short by not taking in more Syrian refugees. The figure of 187 is disgracefully small on its own, let alone when compared to our European partners. What are Her Majesty’s Government’s intentions? We appreciate just how sensitive and difficult this issue is and as the Opposition we will support the Government in their new stance whenever we can, but not—I repeat, not—if they sign up to the naive and unthinking proposals that they did last year.
My Lords, this has been a powerful debate and a difficult one to listen to for any Minister with a degree of responsibility for the situation that we find ourselves in. In response to the point made by my noble friend Lord Higgins about why the Home Office is responding to the debate, essentially three departments look after the area. Had the Question been phrased in a slightly different way so that it talked about just the crisis itself, clearly my noble friend Lady Anelay would have responded on behalf of the Foreign Office. Had it been about the situations in the countries which are driving the refugees, my noble friend Lady Verma would have responded on behalf of the Department for International Development. However, it refers to the proposals on asylum currently before the EU, which is a matter that rests with the Home Office. It is also one that the Prime Minister is taking a deep personal interest in as he prepares for the European Council next week.
I undertake to meet with my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lady Verma to share with them the contributions which have been made to this debate, so that we can discuss what more can be done and how we can best serve the House in ensuring that colleagues are kept up to date. The best thing I can probably do with my contribution now, given that time is limited, is to update the Committee on the current situation as we see it and on what is happening. As I go through, I will seek to address some of the points made by noble Lords, although obviously, I may not be able to address all of them.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, said that when you hear your words repeated back to you, it is a real challenge to reflect on what we were saying then and what we are saying now. Clearly, the position has changed. However, the UK Government have a proud record, which we have to build upon. We have resettled more refugees since 2008 than any other EU member state other than Sweden. We contribute more in overseas aid than any of the other major economies of the EU, certainly to Syria in particular, as I will come to later. Of course, the decision that was taken last year to stop Mare Nostrum was taken by EU member states as a whole. We were not the ones pushing or calling for it—it was taken through EU Council meetings and was a unanimous decision.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that this situation is highly complex. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to it as “grave”, and they are both correct. First, we want to continue to do all that we can to save lives. Everything that Britain can do as a moral and upstanding nation to save lives, we will do, and we should be proud of what we are doing.
The Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS “Bulwark”, has directly saved over 3,000 lives since deployment in early May. It is correct that HMS “Bulwark” is being withdrawn for essential maintenance, which I understand is quite normal in a naval context. However, I reiterate what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said yesterday, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, did at the beginning: we will continue to play our full part in search and rescue operations. I also underscore the words of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who talked about sensitivity. When the captain of HMS “Bulwark” was being interviewed, I thought his sensitivity, along with the compassion displayed by naval officers deployed there, was quite outstanding and in the best traditions of our country.
Three Merlin helicopters and two Border Force cutters are also contributing to our efforts, and a number of specialist police officers are at work with their EU counterparts. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to some figures. The latest figures we have are from January this year. There are two crossing areas: the central Mediterranean—
It will be for the Navy to decide the precise vessel and how it will be deployed, and I understand that that decision has not yet been taken. However, the commitment Her Majesty’s Government have made will continue. The mission will continue and will not be disrupted. We will deliver on it. Announcements on that will come forward shortly.
Some 47,000 took the central Mediterranean crossing; of those, 10,000 were from Eritrea, 8,000 from sub-Saharan Africa and 5,000 from Somalia. So far this year, the eastern Mediterranean route was taken by 48,000; 27,000 of those were from Syria, 11,000 from Afghanistan and 3,000 from Pakistan.
We acknowledge that these operations only address the symptoms of a far greater problem. The causes of migration do not start on the Mediterranean; for some it begins when they are forced to leave their home countries because of war or persecution. However, others are economic migrants who have no right to evade the legitimate immigration controls of this country and of the European Union. That is why the Government have always said that the search and rescue operations must only ever be part of a much wider, comprehensive and long-term solution. In recognition of the importance and seriousness of this issue, and the need to address the causes of this extraordinary migration, the Government have been working closely with international partners, both bilaterally and through the EU.
At the G6 meeting on 1 and 2 June, the Home Secretary sought agreement from her European counterparts that we need to tackle the smugglers and traffickers and to address the reasons why people get on boats in the first place. I take on board the reprimand from several noble Lords that so far there seems to be little evidence that we are managing to capture the people who are desperately exploiting these people’s suffering and placing them in such dire harm.
The Home Secretary was also clear that there was an awful lot we agreed on but that the UK cannot support mandatory relocation proposals because these do not, we believe, tackle the underlying issues. We must, instead, break the link between getting on a boat and achieving residence in Europe. That link continues to play into the hands of the criminal gangs which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, referred to, so it is vital that those not requiring protection are stopped at the EU’s external border and returned. They cannot be allowed to continue to enter illegally and then move with impunity across Europe. One area of contention here is that we would like to see that when migrants are landed in Italy they are properly registered, fingerprinted and identified so that they can be properly processed and that information can be shared across the EU. We need Governments in the region who we can work with to intercept illegal economic migrants before they reach the EU and to return them to their country of origin.
The Foreign Affairs Council will meet on Monday next week. Just this week, on Monday and Tuesday at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the Home Secretary continued to press European partners for a sustainable response to the crisis. It was clear that longer-term efforts are essential. We need to do more to help the countries where these people come from to reduce push factors, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said. We need to build stability in the region and enable people to have creative livelihoods so they can live secure and fulfilling lives in their home countries. We must also do more at source and in transit countries to pursue the criminal gangs and shut down the trafficking networks that callously trade in human suffering. This was something that we covered in the Serious Crime Act and the Modern Slavery Act, which we passed in the last Session. Increased intelligence gathering is a critical part of what we need to do to destroy their vessels before they are used.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked what we are doing to work with our European partners. The UK is supporting Europol’s joint operation to tackle these gangs, focusing on vessels and subsequent secondary movements. The UK is a long-term supporter of solidarity across the EU in asylum matters, but we are also clear that solidarity is best demonstrated through practical co-operation with those front-line member states whose borders and asylum systems are under pressure. As the Committee will be aware, the Prime Minister yesterday met the Prime Minister of Italy. To underline our commitment to providing real, practical support to EU countries facing real pressures, the Prime Minister has offered to deploy six British officers from the National Crime Agency to Europol’s intelligence cell which aims to disrupt trafficking.
The UK also fully supports the European Asylum Support Office in co-ordinating practical, operational co-operation to address emerging migration pressures. The EU aims to build longer-term capacity in the member states most affected. To make clear our level of commitment, in the last three years the UK has contributed more resource to EASO than any other member state, contributing more than 1,000 expert working days to missions in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus. My noble friend Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, talked about this being a UN problem. It is. We recognise that and are working with the UNHCR on this and are seeking to address wider concerns. The situation in Syria is particularly concerning.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the words of chastisement from Sir Peter Sutherland. Given that he is such a senior international statesman, we will look very carefully at what he said and reflect on it. The fact is that 187 refugees have been resettled in the UK under the vulnerable persons programme in just over a year, and more arrive each month. In addition, we need to remember that more than 4,200 Syrians have been granted protection in the UK under our normal asylum rules since the crisis began, and that there has been additional foreign aid.
The situation is rapidly changing and our engagement with international partners continues apace. The Foreign Secretary is expected to discuss the crisis at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, and the Prime Minister will continue to push hard for a sustainable solution at the European Council on 24 and 25 June. I will, of course, be glad to write to update colleagues on the latest developments. I will also, as I have said, discuss this with my colleagues.
There are no easy answers to the tragic situation in the Mediterranean, but the Government remain firm in their belief that the only sustainable response to the scale of the situation is to tackle the root causes of these dangerous journeys and the organised criminal gangs behind them. The UK contribution stands comparison, we believe, to any in the world in that regard.
Devolution: Wales and Scotland
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very grateful for being afforded this Question for Short Debate and to the Minister and other colleagues for being here to consider what will surely be a dominating issue in this Parliament: namely, how the powers already promised to Wales and Scotland, together with the further powers being broached, will operate in a balanced governmental structure. That includes powers needed for England to take its own decisions on English matters. We are standing at an important crossroads but with a Government appearing unable to respond to the urgency of the moment or give any meaningful coherent lead. There is an urgent need to decide on the direction of travel, otherwise events—the piecemeal unfolding of legislation in the two Chambers at Westminster; the EU referendum; the outcome of the elections next May to the devolved legislatures; and the fleshing out of the cities Bill—will lead to a situation in which Westminster seems like a boat with no tiller or engine, and whose captain has no charts to see the way forward.
I shall make clear from where I come on these matters. I want to see my native Wales—my nation—have the greatest possible degree of independence but that does not mean absolute independence, as UKIP defines the term. We live as part of a community of nations, in European and British terms. Plaid Cymru does not want Wales to cut itself off from such relationships; rather, it wants Wales to be a full partner in its own right within such structures. We believe that Wales, like Scotland or Northern Ireland—or indeed England—has the right to independence, something which was accepted in the recent Scottish referendum. It was immensely to the UK’s credit that this was recognised. The principle has already been accepted long ago for Northern Ireland, as it underpinned the peace process, and more than one Prime Minister has accepted that Wales, too, has that basic right.
We are de facto living in a confederal union, in which the constituent parts have the right to go their own ways. There is therefore a question as to whether the citizens of each nation wish to exercise that right. My party, Plaid Cymru, fought the recent election on a manifesto calling for home rule for our constitutional objectives in this Parliament. Home rule is not a new term: 130 years ago, the Irish parliamentary party won 85 out of 103 Irish seats on a home rule manifesto. Had that been delivered, we probably would not have witnessed the Easter Rising of 1916, but despite Gladstone’s efforts it was denied and the UK, as then constituted, broke up in acrimony.
Are we any wiser today? Are the parties at Westminster going to respond to the Scottish situation in a positive, inclusive manner or are we going to see intransigence, with all that that implies? Let us remember how we got here. Gordon Brown, apparently speaking on behalf of all three of the then UK party leaders a week before the referendum, launched his famous vow. He referred to it as home rule—a devo-max type settlement which the Scots could secure if they voted no to independence. Scotland voted no and some who would have voted yes to devo-max, had that been on the ballot paper, were undoubtedly influenced to vote no because of that pledge. So what happened?
On 19 September, we had the Prime Minister unwisely trying to jump the gun at 7 am, linking in the same breath the Smith commission and English votes for English laws. Yes, we had the Smith commission, and while many of its proposals were, and are, worthwhile steps forward they certainly did not add up to home rule. The three UK parties fought the general election on implementing Smith. The SNP, accepting that the referendum had ruled out independence in the immediate future, advocated home rule as a practical next step, deliverable in this Parliament. The outcome of the election in Scotland was unmistakable. The three UK parties, placing their trust in the Smith proposals, got three MPs between them; the SNP, advocating home rule, got 56 seats. There is no mistaking an elephant when it sits on your doorstep. It is high time that the three UK parties accepted that it is home rule that the Scots endorsed on 7 May.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, summed it up last week when he said that,
“the Smith commission proposals are clearly not going to meet the aspirations of the Scottish people”.—[Official Report, 8/6/15; col. 626.]
I also draw the Minister’s attention to the words of the Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkin. Speaking at Second Reading of the Scotland Bill, he said:
“I am bound to ask … whether this Bill is really ‘it’ for the future of Scotland. Is this the full and final settlement that will stabilise the Union of the United Kingdom? I hae ma doots”,
if I interpret the accent correctly. He added:
“We need … to start building up a consensus on what a full and final settlement for the whole United Kingdom might look like … we need a new, 21st-century Act of Union”,
“would aim to provide a balanced and equal settlement of powers across the four parts of the United Kingdom … and a mechanism such as a new council for the Union for distributing UK tax resources on the basis of need and unanimous agreement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/6/15; cols. 941-43.]
In the same debate, the SNP leader Angus Robertson MP stated:
“There is no doubt whatever that this Bill does not match the pledges of the campaign or the spirit and letter of the Smith deal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/6/15; col. 946.]
Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary, Ian Murray MP, stated:
“This might be a Scotland Bill, but it has implications for other parts of the UK”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/6/15; col. 938.]
However, he did not commit to home rule all round, which I hoped would be forthcoming.
What do we mean by home rule? Putting it crudely, it means Westminster retaining sovereignty over defence, foreign affairs, the monarch and the pound with the Scottish Parliament having sovereignty over everything else in Scotland, and likewise in Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Of course, it is not that simple. It implies a quasifederal or confederal constitution. It implies some federal taxes and some non-federal taxes, which is a model towards which we are already moving. It implies, one way or another, an English Chamber dealing with non-federal matters.
Here I come to the heart of the matter as far as we in Wales are concerned. The key question for us is whether Scotland is to have a Scotland-only solution, a separatist constitutional settlement separate from the rest of the UK, or whether we are to have a balanced UK-wide settlement in which new constitutional provision is made not just for Scotland but for Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, England. In other words, are we going to get a coherent, thought-out structure of government which has a reasonable chance of standing the test of time or are we going to have a knee-jerk, ad hoc settlement responding to the most recent kicking suffered by the Government, which certainly will not endure?
In my final remarks, I shall put forward some positive ideas by drawing attention to a keynote speech made on 20 May by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood AM, a name, face and voice familiar to many colleagues from the election television debates. She proposed that,
“all responsibilities except for those over defence, foreign affairs, the Crown and the currency, should be transferable to any one or all devolved governments, provided a majority vote in favour of such a transfer in the respective national legislatures”.
“This flexible approach allows for each nation to build a constitutional framework that is in the specific interest of the nation, but guarantees … the consent of the people at all times”.
She also called for a strong council of Ministers at UK level to replace the present joint ministerial committee, a principle which the Smith commission has also endorsed. Those three elements—a council of Ministers, a clear devolution process and a mandate from the national legislatures—would, in her words,
“serve all the nations and peoples in these islands far better than the current web of complexities”.
She described this model as,
“a proposal for a Confederal UK”,
and I strongly endorse this approach. I appeal to the Minister to give an assurance that such a new constitutional model has not been ruled out. Much work would need to be done on the detail, perhaps by a convention, provided that it had a strict 12-month working time limit to deliver its recommendations, which could then be legislated upon within two years and brought into effect prior to the 2020 election. As such, this proposal has the seeds of a way forward which respects the aspirations of all four nations within a framework of co-operation.
The United Kingdom as currently constituted is drinking in its last chance saloon. A new constructive partnership between the nations of these islands is still possible if leadership and vision are forthcoming, but it will not happen unless there is a new realisation in this Chamber and the other place of the urgency of the situation. Will the Minister please ponder on these matters and keep the House informed as ideas progress, giving us every opportunity to debate the unfolding Scottish settlement in the context of a new deal for all the nations of these islands and, in particular, for Wales?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for providing us with the opportunity to debate this important topic. I find myself in agreement with a number of the points that he made, although our political philosophies are very different.
Those of us who are campaigners for constitutional reform have experienced a lifetime of frustration at the glacial pace of change and the fact that it seems to come only grudgingly, with the offer of only the minimum of what is acceptable, and that all too often it is a response to a crisis rather than a logical, well-thought-out programme of reform. This principle has applied to our devolution efforts as well as to cross-constitutional reform in general.
The Labour Party—not the most devolutionary of parties—was brought back to devolution in 1997 by the determination not to be shut out of government again throughout the whole of the UK for another 18 years. Even if the Tories won at Westminster—so the thinking went—the Labour Party was at least assured of Labour Governments in Scotland and Wales. That did not quite work to plan, but the rise of the SNP is one of a series of political changes that was not then foreseen. However, the model of devolution designed for Wales was at that time underpowered and unworkable. It was quite literally the minimum—a minnow—and was designed to leave as much power as possible with Westminster and Whitehall. Of course, as soon as AMs got their feet under the table in Cardiff Bay, they realised this and started asking for more and, grudgingly, more was given. Some noble Lords may remember legislative competence orders, where MPs sort of double-checked the homework of Assembly Members and decided whether it was good enough to go forward as legislation.
We are in a very different world now. The pace of change has quickened considerably. Thanks to the coalition Government, who enabled the referendum in 2011, the Assembly now has primary legislative powers. It has more and wider powers. In fact, the pace of change has become so brisk that Wales Bills have been effectively queueing up on the runway. The Silk 1 report was not finally embedded in legislation before the Silk 2 recommendations were drafted into a new Bill, which, crucially, will deal with the uncertainties of the conferred powers model as well as giving the Assembly more powers, some of which were not even within the remit of the Silk commission to consider when it was established. I was delighted to see that the Wales Bill was mentioned in the gracious Speech. Will the Minister confirm that the scope of the Bill remains much as was envisaged in the St David’s Day agreement, in which I know he was very much involved?
The coalition Government were admirably responsive to pressure for more devolution in both Wales and Scotland, but—this is where I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley—sometimes responsiveness is not enough and rapid responses can be contradictory and inconsistent. There were many differences between the devolution settlements of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and many of these exist for good reasons of history and geography, although there needs to be consistency. However, other differences were included by chance or for reasons of political pragmatism, neither of which is a good basis for constitutional development.
My party has long argued that we need a constitutional convention to take a comprehensive look at the constitution throughout the UK. That does not mean that in the mean time all change must stop and that we should be frozen in time until the constitutional convention reports. However, it does mean that the constitutional convention should look thoroughly at the situation from all angles. The title of the noble Lord’s debate suggests that there needs to be balance in this area, not slavish duplication. One devolved body should not simply be the clone of others. I and my party believe that the sensible answer lies in federalism, which would allow for balanced differences between the constitutional settlements in each country. The noble Lord quoted from a speech made in May by the leader of Plaid Cymru. I will forbear to quote from a speech made by Lloyd George on much the same lines.
Any convention must reflect well beyond the narrow interests of the political classes. It must be a people’s convention, not a politician’s convention. It was suggested in the news today that the Welsh First Minister would be an ideal chair of that convention. That suggestion illustrates that the Labour Party has failed to grasp even the shadow of the dangerous and unstable constitutional position that we are in as a United Kingdom. Any leader of a convention must command confidence across Britain and across political parties.
Our dangerous position is made worse by the highly divisive EU referendum now appearing over the horizon and by the distortions of our electoral system, which have magnified the political differences between the four nations to the point where the political balance is dramatically different from one nation to another. The noble Lord cited the SNP’s success in the election. It is important to remember that the SNP got 95% of the seats on just over 50% of the vote. That is one of the problems with our electoral system.
I now want to return to the title of the noble Lord’s debate and the issue of balance. A crucial factor in that balance is the funding formula—the Barnett formula. Of course, it is not a proper formula; it simply takes what Ministers decide to spend in England and applies it to the other three nations in percentage terms, based on historical spending decisions made way back in the 1970s. I recognise the pledge made to Scotland in the referendum campaign, which means that whatever its limitations the Barnett formula will stay for some time. However, the situation in relation to Wales is quite simply unsustainable. In the early years of devolution—Labour’s high spending years—the formula led to a massive gap developing between funding for Wales and funding for Scotland. The Holtham commission calculated that Wales was underfunded by £300 million a year. Wales was, and remains, the poorest part of the UK. Indeed, figures out today show that 15 years of devolution have not made even a dent on poverty levels in Wales.
One of the foibles of the Barnett formula has been that, as the coalition Government cut back on public spending, the relative underfunding in Wales became much smaller. Indeed, it seems likely that Wales is not actually underfunded relative to the rest of the UK at this time. However, when and if public spending rises again, the problem will return and we need to prepare for it now. I am pleased that the Government have agreed to introduce a funding floor, but we need more than that and we need it very soon. I am disappointed that the Government do not agree to an update to Holtham’s calculations. I refer here to an Answer given by the Secretary of State for Wales yesterday in Welsh Questions, in which he said in relation to the Holtham calculations:
“The work has been done and we need to crack on with introducing the fair funding floor”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/15; col. 303.]
I should like some clarity on what the Secretary of State was referring to. Has Holtham updated his work? If not, how can the funding floor be embedded at a fair level without further calculations? Does the Minister accept that the perceived funding unfairness, which may or may not exist, simply magnifies a sense of grievance? Does he agree that the issue should be prioritised? He will be aware of Plaid Cymru’s call for Wales to be funded at the same level as Scotland. We all know why Scotland’s funding will remain; we are also aware that it is extremely generous. Maybe the Minister would like to comment on the realities of this situation. Is this fantasy economics? If so, I suggest to him that the Government need to get a grip on the funding issue before the sense of grievance in Wales escalates further.
Finally, I recommend to noble Lords an excellent book written about a decade ago by a Conservative Assembly Member, David Melding, now the Deputy Presiding Officer of the Assembly. It posed the question: will Britain survive beyond 2020? It seemed an astonishing question then. Now, it is not astonishing at all. Funding powers, voting patterns and political power—all these are pulling our union apart. England has at last found its voice in this debate and the fear is that it will simply be the loudest. I am sorry to use another metaphor—the noble Lord talked about the last chance saloon, whereas mine concerns a ship. The ship is being steered by a motley crew and if the Government are sensible they will take the helm before it hits the rocks. The Government should establish a convention that will bring order, restore confidence and, I hope, encourage further change.
My Lords, when my noble friend Lady Randerson referred to the glacial pace of reform, I was taken back to an evening at Rhyl Town Hall in 1964, when I addressed for the first time, in my first election, the voters of the West Flintshire constituency. I called for a parliament for Wales, with proportional representation. I also called for the abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, if the noble Earls will forgive me. I was very young then.
I was starting off on a long road towards devolution. I cherished a belief then that, given significant power over the decisions that affect their lives, the people of Wales would make innovative, better-informed and targeted decisions. The question was what structure of devolution would provide that result. I led for my party on the 1998 Bill and on the subsequent Wales Bill. It is quite apparent, however, that the structure is not working. A motley crew is indeed in charge, as my noble friend said.
Today—my noble friend referred to the report out today—the Welsh Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into tackling poverty in Wales has been scathing about the Welsh Labour Government’s ineffective efforts to get to grips with the issue. The committee says that it is,
“deeply concerned by the Welsh Government’s lack of progress in reducing poverty, particularly given its long-term commitment and investment in the issue”.
Poverty rates in Wales have barely changed since the beginning of this century. The number of people who rely on food banks has doubled within a year; 23% of the Welsh population live in poverty, compared to 17% of the United Kingdom population as a whole. The position has remained static despite the fact that the Welsh Government have a Minister specifically responsible for targeting poverty. It happens to be the Assembly Member for my home town of Wrexham. Today she helplessly held up her hands and said that,
“we have to be very honest about what we can achieve. I think that we have to recognise that there are a lot of factors that are outside our control. I do believe that our policies and programmes are making a difference”.
It is very interesting that the excuse is that,
“there are a lot of factors that are outside our control”.
That brings the framework of devolution into question.
It is quite apparent, however, that the policies and programmes are not making a difference. On unemployment, Wales stagnates, with 99,000 people out of work. While the United Kingdom rate of joblessness steadily declines, the Welsh figures remain completely static. There was a year-on-year decline of 0.01% last year, compared to Scotland’s 0.5% and England’s 1.4%, according to the Office for National Statistics.
In the Welsh Government’s annual report, it is claimed that 48 of their 49 commitments relating to education either have been delivered or are on target. That is too much guff. The claim to achievement contrasts sharply with the PISA international rankings and the Estyn annual report, which both point to serious concerns about schools. The Welsh school inspectorate says that standards in our primary schools are slipping; PISA results show that Wales is behind every other part of the United Kingdom; compared with the top-performing countries in the world, we have very few high achievers; and children in every corner of Wales are not being helped to achieve their full potential. The only bright side is the introduction of the pupil deprivation grant—pupil premium—which was achieved by Welsh Liberal Democrats in return for agreeing to allow the Labour Government’s overall Budget through, which is helping to close the attainment gap.
The Wales Audit Office reported earlier this month on the four regional education consortia which are responsible for school improvement. It said:
“The governance of regional consortia is developing but we found progress was hindered by limited capacity, incomplete management structures, inadequate scrutiny of overall consortia arrangements, weaknesses in financial and performance management and insufficient openness and transparency”.
Estyn said that all regional consortia had struggled to fill senior posts, which,
“adversely affected their capacity to direct and manage work and highlights the lack of a national strategic approach to develop senior leaders.”
In my part of the world, many bright pupils, including my own grandson, are voting with their feet and going over the border for their sixth-form studies after they have completed their GCSE examinations.
The record on health is dire. The hospital which serves Wrexham, where I live, is part of the Betsi Cadwaladr group, which last week was put into special measures. I understand that the police are investigating. It has been given Welsh Government cash of £20.6 million to help pay its bills. The chief executive has been suspended. This week, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board is reported to have overspent by £21.4 million and Hywel Dda University Health Board by £7.5 million. On 5 June, the Royal College of Physicians, representing 1,100 doctors in Wales, said that there could be an “unprecedented” funding gap of £2.5 billion within the NHS in Wales by 2025-26. It has launched an action plan calling for more investment, a patient-centred and clinically led approach to change, a national medical workforce and training plan, and leadership on improving public health.
I am still an optimist and do not believe that the principle of devolution has failed, but for the last 15 years we have been landed with a Labour Government of one sort or another—sometimes in coalition but now on their own. In my view, they are by now an exhausted animal, totally devoid of energy and ideas, and utterly incapable of tackling the problems which they are facing.
I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for securing this debate and I am very happy to discuss with him comparisons with Scotland, the extent of powers and funding, the Barnett formula, the d’Hondt system of proportional representation, the ideal number of AMs and scrutiny committees. Indeed, federal constitutions are my bread and butter. As chairman of the Lloyd George Society, I was very disappointed that my noble friend did not read out a quotation from that great man, who demanded home rule all round in the 1910s. I would prefer to join the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, in a movement to sweep the Labour incumbents out of power. We missed our chance with the rainbow coalition. Two of the three are here—the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, is not at the Dispatch Box, unhappily—but we have to get rid of them. Labour lost in Scotland and it is time it lost in Wales.
That is a pretty good challenge. We can always rely on the noble Lord to talk down Wales, but I think that there is a point: we need to do better in Wales. We have to remember that we have a long and difficult tradition of deindustrialisation that we need to compensate for. We start from a very low base, but there are some good news stories in Wales as well. We have to remember that inward investment has improved dramatically in recent years. Export levels have improved. Educational attainment is getting better. There are issues with the health service, but that is at least partly because of the massive cuts that we have had to endure from—if the noble Lord does not mind me saying—the coalition Government, of which his party was a part. He has paid the price for that, but it is important that we understand that there is work to be done. The Welsh Government are getting on with that work.
I now go back to the point that I wanted to make, which is to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for putting this issue on the agenda and to welcome the new Minister to his post. We know that the dust is beginning to settle after the Scottish referendum and the general election, but we have to be in no doubt whatever that the structure of governance in the UK is on the march. This hotchpotch, ad hoc, knee-jerk reaction to the making of a new constitution and to building political systems is no way to plan a country as complicated as ours. That is what is happening at the moment. We should be looking at the devolved organisation of this country as a whole, not responding to crisis after crisis, which, if we are not careful, will lead to the break-up of the union. It is only when we have a settled position that we will have settled people and a settled country.
The Scotland Bill was guaranteed by all parties in the run-up to the referendum. It guaranteed that, no matter the outcome of the referendum, all parties were agreed that a fundamental change had taken place in Scottish society. All parties were committed to bringing forward legislation that reflected that. A no vote was not a vote for no change. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I argue that the Labour Party has always been a party of devolution. There have been shades within the party—that is true—but there has always been a strong contingent of people in the Labour Party who are pro-devolution. We have delivered on that time and time again in recent years. We recognise that devolution is a journey, but that the journey must not lead to disaster and the break-up of Britain.
The Scotland Bill will make the Scottish Parliament one of the strongest devolved Administrations in the world, being able to raise more than 40% of their own tax revenues, while being responsible for more than 60% of spending decisions. It shows the real steps that the Scottish Parliament is taking to be a fully responsible Parliament, so that the debate in Scotland can move on from “who holds power” to “how can Scotland best use that power”. I hope that this will see the Scottish Government take real steps to address the current crisis in schools and hospitals across Scotland.
However, these issues do not affect only Scotland. It is worth making clear that where Scotland leads, Wales will not and should not always follow. It is true that enthusiasm for the devolution project has increased significantly in Wales in recent years, but there is no groundswell of support for nationalism in Wales. There does not seem to be any significant demand in Wales for further powers beyond those recommended by Silk. The First Minister of Wales has talked about the need to follow a path in the UK set out by the Swiss socialist Andreas Gross: a path that enables, “unity while guaranteeing diversity”. That is probably something that we should all take into account.
More needs to be done to strengthen and to raise awareness of the ties that bind us. We need to turn the debate on its head and ask: what is the union for? What are the essential elements that we need to retain at the UK government level, without which the constant nagging attempt by Scottish Nationalists to demand more and more will inevitably lead to the break-up of Britain? That debate has to involve all parts of the UK: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England.
There are some obvious starting points such as defence and foreign affairs, but I would go much further than the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and go beyond them. A lot of these are listed in annexe B of the St David’s Day agreement and whether we agree with them all is something that is worth discussing. We need to discuss how much money needs to be collected at the centre to pay for an NHS free at the point of delivery, and for free schooling for all across the whole of the UK. At what point does the NHS stop being a truly national health service? We should have a hard-headed discussion on these issues and we need to ask what else needs to be added to that list of powers held in the centre.
That exercise to develop the reserved powers model of governance is currently being undertaken by the Welsh Office, but again it is being done in isolation without thinking what else is going on. It is essential that the Governments at both the UK level and the Welsh level are involved in agreeing what should be included in that list of reserved powers. Can the Minister clarify exactly what level of discussion has so far taken place between the UK and Welsh Governments on the proposed list of reserved powers? What will be the criteria on which Whitehall departments will be able to argue that they can retain responsibilities?
I also ask the Minister for a categorical assurance that there will be no attempt to limit the National Assembly’s existing legislative competence. I want to give an example of my concerns here. There are aspects of equality legislation that are currently devolved under the conferred model of government, but others are not. In annexe B of the St David’s Day agreement, civil law and procedure is a subject that has been listed as a reserved matter—but the Human Transplantation Act is a piece of legislation which has amended civil law, so what is being suggested here? Is the suggestion that the Government intend to repeal this Welsh law and take it back to the centre? What is meant by that? Where are these lines going to be drawn? Can we have a categorical assurance that there will no attempt to claw back power from the Assembly on this or other areas already devolved under the conferred model?
The St David’s Day agreement lists several areas that should be reserved at the UK level but we should remember, as the document states, that it is only an illustrative list. So we have got to be very vigilant here. If the reserved powers model were to be based on the example given in annexe C of the agreement, there would be page after page of things that the Assembly could not do. Can the Minister clarify how many issues so far, and covering how many pages, have been suggested as areas that should be retained? Can the Minister also say whether the principle of subsidiarity will be respected when considering what should be retained at the UK level?
The Scottish First Minister has argued for full fiscal autonomy. Let me be clear—this is not a position which is supported by the Labour Party. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has outlined, these plans would leave Scotland with a £7.6 billion black hole in its finances which could only possibly be filled by further spending cuts or tax rises over and above the current Conservative plans. Full fiscal autonomy holds no interest for the Welsh people. We are anxious to share the burden and responsibility across the whole of the UK. We all need to contribute and to restore benefits, ideally in a way that is based on need, in particular in terms of provision of services and benefits. We should be aware of an attempt by an ideologically driven Conservative Party, intent on reducing the size of the state, to devolve responsibility for raising taxes to a devolved level, and with it to devolve blame and wash their hands of the poorest parts of the union.
There is a danger, however, that we will get hung up on these constitutional discussions. It is the bread and butter issues that people are really concerned with. We need not just a rebalancing of powers but economic rebalancing across the UK, and that needs a proper industrial and regional strategy and improvements in productivity. It needs the UK Government to work constructively with the Welsh Government to generate investment and jobs. Devolution should not just lead in one direction; it must be shared outwards across the country and downwards into the hands of local communities.
Let me conclude by coming back to the constitutional issue. The failure of the coalition Government to respond to Carwyn Jones’s long and timely request to establish a constitution convention is one reason why we are in such a mess today. It makes sense for us all to collectively and democratically work out the right balance of powers and responsibilities throughout this United Kingdom—and let us not forget that the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, which has not had much attention in this debate. We need to see a pooling and sharing of resources and the social solidarity that makes this country what it is—a great place to be.
When the Prime Minister in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum linked what was a nationalist battle to the campaign for English votes for English laws he created the potential for serious divisions within our country—where every nation and region would concern itself only with its interest rather than the interests of collective society. We must once again refocus our constitutional agenda on our ability to co-operate as a family of nations, rather than add to the chorus of divisive grudge and grievance policies that we have today.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for bringing this Question to the House. I know that he brings considerable knowledge and experience to this important subject. The debate on how powers promised to Wales and Scotland will operate within new, balanced United Kingdom governmental structures has covered a wide range of issues. Although the Question mentions Wales and Scotland, I cannot help but notice that the speakers list has a distinctly Welsh flavour. I hope that, as a Scotland Office Minister, I can do justice to the Welsh aspects of the Question. I congratulate all noble Lords who have spoken so well and demonstrated their considerable expertise in the issues before us. I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate and will endeavour to respond to as many of the substantive points raised as possible. If there is a specific point to which I am unable to respond, I will happily write to noble Lords.
Since 1998, the devolution of powers and responsibilities to the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly has fundamentally changed the constitutional make-up of the UK. Today’s debate is timely as the Government have made a commitment to implement the St David’s Day agreement for Wales and have introduced the Scotland Bill to implement the Smith commission agreement for Scotland.
The Government have announced a programme founded on the idea of one nation—bringing fairness to all parts of our United Kingdom—where the people and institutions across this country are treated with respect. Governing with respect means recognising that the different nations of our United Kingdom have their own Governments, as well as the United Kingdom Government. Both are important and with our plans, the Parliaments and Governments of these nations will become more powerful, with wider responsibilities. No constitutional settlement could be complete if it did not also offer fairness for England.
The Government’s plans for constitutional reform set out in this Parliament build on the record of the last Government, who delivered one of the most extensive programmes of devolution of any government, including the largest devolution of fiscal powers to Scotland in over 300 years, a referendum to give the Welsh Assembly for the first time primary law-making powers, and legislation to give the Welsh Assembly for the first time tax and borrowing powers. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who played such a distinguished part in helping to deliver that programme.
The Government’s constitutional proposals for this Parliament also build on a substantial body of detailed work undertaken by constitutional experts in a range of forums. The Smith agreement was informed by the significant analysis undertaken by the Calman commission and the individual commissions established by Scotland’s political parties, such as the Strathclyde commission. The St David’s Day agreement takes forward the work of the Silk commission. Similarly, the English proposals are an evolution of the work of the McKay commission, among others.
The Government are taking forward these proposals because it is the right thing to do. There is consistency in our approach. We believe in devolving decision-making closer to the people who are affected by those decisions, and in increasing the responsibility of the devolved Administrations to the people who elect them. One of the weaknesses of the original devolution settlements was that, while the devolved Administrations had significant powers to spend money, they had little or no responsibility for raising it. The Government are rectifying that imbalance.
The Scotland Bill will increase the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament. To respond to one of the points raised earlier, it meets both the spirit and the letter of the Smith agreement. For similar reasons, we look forward to the Welsh Government holding a referendum on devolving income tax powers. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, spoke of the need for Wales to have the greatest degree of independence. However, the Government believe that it is important to strike a balance between giving the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly more control over domestic affairs, and preserving the strengths of being part of the larger UK family. The noble Lord also questioned whether the proposals for Scotland go far enough or are ambitious enough. I think that, as was rightly pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, after these powers are delivered the Scottish Parliament will be one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.
In taking forward this programme, the Government recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned federalism. I can think of no examples of a successful federal state in which one of the constituent parts represents 85% the whole. The individual devolution settlements reflect the distinct histories, circumstances and geographies of the different parts of the United Kingdom. The appetite for devolution in Wales is different from that in Scotland. What the First Minister of Wales said in a recent speech was echoed here today by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. He said:
“I have said in the past that whatever proposals for further devolution to Scotland should be offered also to Wales. But I do not subscribe to the notion that whatever Scotland has, Wales must have too, without properly considering the implications. The devolution of welfare programmes to Wales, for example, is not something that we consider to be in the best interests of Wales”.
The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, suggests that it should be for the legislatures of the UK nations to decide which areas of responsibility they wish to have transferred from Westminster. Let me emphasise that devolution across the UK has been taken forward to suit the particular needs of each nation, and on the basis of cross-party consensus. Both the Smith agreement and the St David’s Day agreement reflect those aspects on which there is cross-party consensus in both Scotland and Wales. This is the foundation on which our legislative proposals are and will be based.
Let me say a little more about Wales. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that the scope of the new Wales Bill will be as envisaged in the St David’s Day agreement. The Wales Bill will provide a robust package that will make the Welsh devolution settlement clear, sustainable and stable for the future. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about the reserved powers model. The Government intend to discuss an early draft of the reserved powers model we are preparing with the Welsh Government in the coming months, and we want to engage the Welsh Government and hear the views of Welsh Ministers before publishing a draft Wales Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the autumn. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions.
The St David’s Day agreement also said that we will consider other non-fiscal elements of the Smith agreement to decide whether they should be implemented in Wales. That is being done right now, although, as I previously noted, what is right for Scotland is not necessarily right for Wales.
The issue of intergovernmental working was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who spoke of his desire to see the joint ministerial committee replaced by a UK council of Ministers. While I recognise that existing joint ministerial committee structures can be improved, it is a forum that has long supported the changing devolution settlements and it would not be appropriate to replace it altogether. A process is in place across the four Administrations to review the memorandum of understanding that establishes the joint ministerial committee. Any changes will need to be agreed between the four Administrations and will consider the interests of the whole of the UK.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Morgan, raised the issue of a constitutional convention to deliberate on the broad shape and nature of the United Kingdom. I respectfully suggest that this should not be our priority. Our priority is to deliver on the constitutional commitments we have made. All our constitutional proposals draw on the values and traditions of our United Kingdom. The British constitution is characterised by pragmatism and an ability to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. Our unique constitutional arrangements enable agility and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of our citizens. Those wishes are surely clear: a desire to be part of a strong and successful union, but one that recognises and values the unique nature of and arrangements in each of our nations.
On the issue of funding, which has already been mentioned, the Government have made it clear that Barnett formula will continue to be used as the basis for calculating the block grant. By moving to greater self-funding, and thus greater accountability, we are delivering mature and enduring settlements that provide strong incentives for economic growth, which will help to address the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. The Barnett formula will therefore become less important as the Scottish Government become responsible for raising more of their own funding following the devolution of further tax powers.
I grant that those changes may happen in Scotland. However, does the Minister accept that unless there is a radical change to the funding in Wales, putting in a floor does not make up for the 15 years of underfunding and the position we are in? What specific proposals will the Government bring forward to put this right, for the sake of whoever is governing in Cardiff?
It is important that any settlement is fair to Wales. The Government are very conscious of the need to address the issue of fair funding for Wales. I note—I think it has already been mentioned—that according to the Holtham criteria Wales is not currently underfunded, and it is also important that the Welsh Government become responsible for raising more of the money they spend. That is why we will introduce a floor in the level of funding provided to the Welsh Government, and the details will be agreed at the next spending review, in the expectation that the Welsh Government will call a referendum on income tax powers in this Parliament.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised the issue of Holtham. It is worth saying that the Secretary of State for Wales has held discussions with Professor Holtham and others with regard to a floor, and the Government consider that the work of the Holtham commission still has resonance today. There are no plans to recommission Professor Holtham to undertake any further analysis.
Before we conclude our deliberations for the day, I thank your Lordships once again for the insight and knowledge demonstrated during today’s debate. We have ranged over a wide area of subject matter, and as I said at the outset, the Government will govern with respect and honour our promises to improve governance for all parts of our United Kingdom. We have begun to bring forward legislation to secure a strong, fair and enduring constitutional settlement. Bringing together the four nations of our United Kingdom is an important task and a chief priority of this Government, and I know that your Lordships will play a full part in that task.
Committee adjourned at 5.56 pm.